Burlesque emcees are curiously cagey about their dark art. And…there’s something to that. Not least that emcees are often saving their voice, their persona, their best lines, for when they perform. For one post, I am drawing back the veil. Join me on a performance day and night!
6:00 AM – It’s a Friday, and a show day. I’m up and at ‘em this early to redye my hair. While the dye sets, I spend some time with the run sheets for the show, reviewing performer introductions. Then, I read a bit of Clive James‘ autobiography, The North Face of Soho. This has some great tips for both performers and writers in it, and I recommend it highly.
7:30 – I tuck the run sheet into my show bag, which is already packed. A new pair of glorious sequined heels, from two friends who just visited the USA, will be on trial. The show team is also planning a new in-between act that required some props, so I was busy with the glue gun last night.
8:30 – Guess who’s got a full work day followed by a show tonight? This gal. Ah, the glamor of being involved in burlesque in a medium-sized city!
Behind the cut: makeup, costuming, and the show itself…
5:30 PM – After work and a light dinner, I have an hour for hair and makeup. First comes my hair, normally an installment of “Torturing My Hair Based On The Internet.” Should I use my powerful hot rollers? Not enough time, and they fried my hair badly last week. I try this method for a retro look using a curling iron and, surprisingly, it’s OK. Not for the first time, I think about investing in some wigs.
Next is stage makeup. My emcee persona is, as the comedian Heather Gold says, bigger than I am, and stage makeup brings that out. I use primer and foundation to make myself as featureless as a peeled potato. Then, I paint the face of a beautiful woman on top. (I hope she doesn’t mind me borrowing it.) The finishing touch, inevitably, is false lashes.
In a budget mood, I picked up some false lashes from the Japanese dollar store. They looked pretty enough. What could possibly go wrong? The lash bases are a bit delicate, but that means they slot into my eye liner more neatly. I open the glue from the packet and…ew. This glue smells like fish. Fish that’s been dead for a very long time. I’ve broken the laws of burlesque by not investing in separate eyelash glue and now I am to be punished for it. Holding my breath, I stick the lashes on using the fishy glue. Surprisingly, they take the first time and stay in place without irritating me.
6:45 – Now I’m driving to the show venue 1/2 hour away. It’s midwinter, but I’m not heating the car so that my makeup stays on. And so that the stink of the lash glue can subside.
7:15 – On time at the venue, S&M’s Bar, I whisk to the sumptuous downstairs lounge where we have the show. I secure the door babe’s corset for her and she zips me into my dress. A little bit of powder, and I’m pretty ready. I review the run sheet.7:20 -The dancers arrive, ready for their debut burlesque performances. OH MY GOD THEY ARE SO GORGEOUS. I feel like that peeled potato earlier, in comparison. Firmly, I remind myself that it’s their job to be The Prettiest. Mine is to be from another dimension, a place of otherness, of cabaret and mystery outside the zones of everyday life, and to make the girls look good. Which they certainly do, all they need to do is stand next to me.
Lots of burlesque emcees are male, with a default outfit of tuxedo or quirked-up formalwear with a hat. Male emcees can and do wear makeup or costume themselves elaborately, but they have one advantage over female emcees: that of not being compared to the female burlesque performers. When the performers come out, they need to be a delightful surprise, with every inch of their delicious exposed flesh as taunting as it can be, so that the audience wants to see more. For contrast, I’m either more covered up or absurdly costumed (I did a recent show as Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, gray wig and all). Long gowns do this while providing mild authority and a sense of retro-sexy occasion. Tonight, I’m trying a new-to-me dress that’s a bit less blingy than usual, not satin or sequins. Partly because the venue is intimate, very close to the audience, and I want to fit well with the space. And partly because I want to wear the sequined shoes!
7:30 – Time to check in with everyone: the stage manager, the show organizer, the stage kitten, and the sound person. I put my “emcee bundle” at my offstage station. This has a run sheet on a clipboard, a pen for recording last-minute changes, lipstick, and powder. I am complimented on my shoes and my “Farrah Fawcett” hair. I was going more for Rita Hayworth, but nobody is saying I look like Margaret Thatcher, so I’m happy. Somehow, after my check-ins are complete, people start remembering stuff. I’m asked four separate times if I can “stretch” the break between two particular dancers for a staging reason. Each time, I say of course.
7:35 – Reviewing the run sheet, yet again.
7:45 – The doors open and I get acquainted with the crowd. Sometimes this yields comedy gold for crowd interaction during the show. Tonight, it’s calm well-dressed Kiwis who are out to support their friends. This is a Student Showcase show – the quintessential “hobbyist” burlesque evening. But being a hobbyist isn’t what it used to be. The show is popular enough that it runs for two nights. Several of the performers have channeled their dance backgrounds into their performances. The sound person is a qualified sound engineer. The door babe is, when she’s not filling out a corset, a polished radio and PR professional. There’s a stage manager, the stage kitten was a featured performer at two shows recently, and both the stage kitten and Miss La Belle are performing, along with the students. So the show around the debut performers is at a professional level – and a good thing, too. My quick round of the audience reveals that for many of them, it’s their first burlesque show ever. What they see and hear tonight will influence how they see burlesque. I smile, chat, purr, and ask questions.
8:00 – My partner arrives, looking agreeably dapper. We say hello, but I’m not much fun at this juncture. I can’t kiss him with stage makeup, I can’t pay attention to him with stage brain, and I’m not drinking anything but water until after the show. I give him air kisses and squeeze his winter coat next to my bags backstage.
8:30 – Show time! Getting the show successfully launched is a barrage of introductions, show rules, and interaction to get the audience fired up for the performers, all while setting the tone for the night. Some of the elements of Emceeing 101 are: get the performers’ names right; keep the crowd amused; promote sponsors and upcoming events, but don’t be annoying about it.
8:35 – The show launches with the first act, a group with all the debut performers and Miss La Belle, followed by Miss La Belle’s fan dance solo. The stage kitten and I are pleased that, in this venue, we can be stationed offstage but still see the show.
8:45 – What is the emcee doing out there between burlesque acts? Backstage we call it “filler.” It introduces and frames the performers, and keeps the show rolling while the stage kitten clears and resets the stage. And a “filler” bit I’ve just tried about blue jeans has fallen flat. This happens, and the thing to do is to move along quickly.
9:00 – After all the preparation, four burlesque acts don’t take long, and it’s already intermission. I dart backstage and use a straw to drink some water. The debut performers are exultant. I’m not entirely pleased – all of the acts were great but the audience was a bit lukewarm. Plus, blue jeans.
9:15 – Post-intermission we try a new in-between act to warm the audience back up, involving an extended interaction with a man from the audience. My bait – “I need the manliest man in this bar!” – reels in a saucy extrovert, one of the owners of the bar, even, and it’s a hoot. Props are deployed. I recalibrate the shtick on the fly, moment to moment, because, owner of the bar. Everybody enjoys it, and afterwards, the audience is lively and primed for the performers.
9:30 – The second round of performers is also great, and everything that’s coming out of my mouth is going far better than Blue Jeans did. The audience stays engaged and gives the performers enthusiastic hollers and applause, and nobody present will ever hear the word “coochie” in the same way again.
9:37 – Before the final performance, we have another crowd pleaser, interviewing the burlesque teacher and show mastermind, Miss LaBelle. Along with her shayne punim and her ravishing red pin-up dress, she’s got an adorably retro voice. The audience hangs on her every word as she describes life as a burlesque girl, and doing her own costuming, including “…making my own fans.” “Are you? That’s fan-tastic!” I say. Then we both moan at the awful pun. I wave and say, “I’m here all week! Try the veal!”
9:45 – The finale – Miss La Belle’s new performers come out for a graduation ceremony and a round of applause. Aw, those smiles. I’m in the “avoid cue cards” school, but I bring them out when it’s time for thank-yous at the end. It’s always a long list, and It Matters.
9:50 – Backstage, we discuss changes for tomorrow’s show. We rearrange some acts and exchange feedback. Changes for me include ditching Blue Jeans, changing the “make some noise” warm-up sounds for easier noises (wolf whistles were too hard), and emphasizing at the end of the show that it is, at last, photo time.
10:00 – Now it’s awkward and frantic. All ten of us must pack up and leave the changing area, immediately. The bar’s night DJ plonks his gear down just as I sweep away my emceeing bundle. Performers have their clusters of fans and friends. I’m not up for afterpartying tonight – my feet hurt, my voice is tired, and I’ve used up my day’s ration of extroversion. I slide into my flat shoes and slip away.
10:10 – Oooo, it’s cold outside. My partner and I repair to a cafe for a hot drink and a snack. What can you say about a burlesque show when it’s over? It eddies away like sequins down a storm drain; one more glittering moment in time, gone away but for our memory banks, and those of our cameras. Even at the bar, their industrial vacuum cleaners will eradicate the glitter. We talk about where “try the veal!” comes from – the old Jewish comedians at Catskills resorts. My partner, a New Zealander, is unfamiliar with this. My mind reels.
11:00 PM – At last, it’s smooching time. After a moment, I sense something is not right, and apologize for my breath. “No, your mouth is fine!” It hits us both at the same moment. It’s the fish glue on the eyelashes, forgotten but woken from its olfactory slumber by body heat. AUGH!