Riding the Walrus – Cultivating Wider Audiences with The Libertinis
~ by Crystal Tassels, BSP Contributing Writer
We at BSP, naturally, love burlesque. We go out of our way to see as much of it as we can. We write stripteases in our heads in the shower, drool over photos of glitzy costumes when we should be working, and in cold weather, catch ourselves practicing glove removals in inappropriate places (usually on public transit). We love burlesque because it is expressive, gorgeous, artful, and evocative.
But not everyone knows this. In some places, burlesque is still a dirty word: a “low” art that is more about the bodies of those who perform it than the performance itself. For this reason, even some art and performance enthusiasts are reluctant to extend their appreciation to the BurlyQ.
One of the greatest challenges we face as a community is increasing our reach. How do we expose ourselves (pun intended) to the uninitiated? How do we broaden our audiences and show them the depth and thoughtfulness of our art?
Here in Seattle, boundary-pushing arts collective The Libertinis have a strategy that seeks to address these quandaries. The group’s ridiculous, sincere, and highly physical works of art combine burlesque with theater, clowning and storytelling, making for a comfortable first foray into the world of striptease. Their work is produced by both the Annex and Pocket theaters, which allows them to tap into the talent and support of Seattle’s thriving theater scene. By accessing communities of theater-goers that are already patrons of the arts, The Libertinis hope to introduce burlesque to larger, more diverse and dedicated audiences.
In light of the group’s upcoming spectacle, Gone WILD: A Savage Romp Through the Animal Kingdom, I caught up with The Libertinis’ Hattie Hellkat and Tootsie Spangles to get a better idea of how they are bridging the gap between theater and burlesque. Produced by Annex Theater, their new show is a hysterical amalgam of clowning, theater, and striptease that unfolds in the form of a nature documentary.
The Libertinis started on their genre-melding quest by approaching theaters. Once they had a show proposal together, they sat down with local fringe-favorite Annex Theater. “We said, ‘Listen, you guys already rent out [your stage] to burlesque producers’,” said Tootsie Spangles. “’You’re burlesque friendly. Let’s capitalize on that relationship…and hopefully we can share audiences.’” The second theater they approached, Pocket Theater, had been missing burlesque from their repertoire entirely and was excited to inject some sparkle into their company.
In addition to the draw of glamming up their offering, the concept of audience sharing was enticing to the theaters that the group approached. Not only would the burlesque shows potentially be seen by the venues’ theater-going regulars, but the theater companies’ other productions could draw on audience members that initially came for the burlesque; a sparkly symbiosis of reciprocal crowd mustering.
Casting for the show pushes this artistic cross-pollination even further by incorporating the talents of not only Seattle burlesque stars, but also a cast of thespians with little prior exposure to the ecdysiast world. When asked what they thought about burlesque during the audition, many of the theater people described “fancy ladies taking off fancy clothes.” One actor described their understanding of burlesque by half stating, half asking, “I see…fancy feathers?” The producers were excited by the lack of experience and the opportunities it presented for dialog and exploration.
“I think there was a little bit of titillation with our people who are primarily from theater backgrounds,” said Hattie Hellkat. “[They were asking,] ’Are we going to have to do burlesque?’” Of course, disrobing was not compulsory, but for those cast members who were curious about the art of the peel, Gone WILD was a safe space to learn more and explore. The producers gave everyone plenty of space to play, experiment and clown around; something that Libertini Woody Shticks calls “riding the walrus.” “Which means, essentially, trust the process and hang on,” Tootsie explained. Hattie added, “It’s a brilliant way of saying, ‘You’re loved and supported, it’s going to be fine, even if you’re going to be uncomfortable for a while.’”
Finding themselves serving as unofficial glitter tribe ambassadors, The Libertinis wanted to showcase the glitzy gamut of burlesque within Gone WILD by incorporating nerdlesque and neo-burlesque as well as classic striptease. “We have a huge diverse scene here…I think that people would be staggered by just the sheer volume and diversity [of Seattle burlesque].”
Gone WILD: A Savage Romp Through the Animal Kingdom debuts at Annex Theater on April 25 and runs through May 10. Pocket Theater will be producing The Libertinis’ bimonthly show P(ART)Y, which incorporates burlesque and visual artists and debuts on July 11.