Addressing the Elephant in the room

This week two online articles relating to burlesque struck my attention. The first was an interview with Holli-Mae Johnson, creator of 21st Century Burlesque magazine, in which she talked about the importance of critique. The second was an article by Dangrrr Doll on Burlesque Beat about Fostering Professionalism in Burlesque particularly around point 5 “MobRule is a Bad Rule”. While I’m in agreement with absolutely everything that Dangrrr Doll said, these two subjects did bring to the forefront some questions for me that I have been considering writing about for some time – “It’s all good fostering professionalism, but what happens when we witness unprofessionalism in our community, and we want to protect others from it? Why aren’t we providing critique on the unprofessional behaviours we see within the industry? Should we be talking about unprofessional behaviours and unprofessional people publically?” It is certainly a sticky subject, one that Dangrrr Doll certainly touched on. As I started to ask myself what happens when these avenues don’t work, it became a subject that raised more questions for me than answers!

Now we all know everyone talks. Deny it all you want… I don’t care. We all know we all do it, whether it is to vent our own frustrations, warn others, just to be petty and everything in between, it happens. The best advice even given to me was from someone whom I consider a very influential person on my burlesque life. She told me “a lady only bitches behind closed doors”. Ever since, I have tried to breathe this philosophy. For me, it has meant I’ve kept many of my opinions largely to myself or shared them with only a trusted few. But should we be openly discussing issues that occur within our industry, our community, especially where there are repeat displays of unprofessionalism or if the action from an individual is so bad you wish to protect others from that experience? Are we too polite to address the behaviours in general, and  too optimistic that the individals displaying those behaviours will change?

Please don’t get me wrong, I am all for second chances, sometimes even third or fourth chances. People need time to improve, time to make right and then time to maintain it. At times, if people are unaware there is an issue, they can’t improve. When you have an issue with someone, I am a believer in talking to the person direct, rather than publically because:

1) the person involved may not realise they have done something to wrong you (at least in your eyes… perspective is everything); and

2) it gives them an opportunity to analyse themselves and improve much like when being critiqued on a performance.

But sometimes, just sometimes, it may appear they simply don’t care and continue on regardless, failing to take responsibility for their own actions and the affect they have had on others. At this point, should we continue to talk behind closed doors? Should we silently boycott, in our own professional/personal protest? Or do we address it further by taking the dreaded action of “naming and shaming” – a principal that I don’t personally favour. It’s a fine line between trying to protect the community around you, or coming across as unprofessional or petty, or just plain outright being a bitch.

Naming and shaming is not my preferred option because I have previously felt it showed a lack of professionalism on the person doing the naming, rather than the person being named. With a few of the things I have experienced and witnessed as a producer and performer, I am now starting to wonder whether this is something we should be doing to encourage some sort of open discussion about poor practices and maybe even (I dare say) repeat offenders in our industry? If we don’t get critiqued, how can we get better and stronger as a community?

We are ridiculously polite within the burlesque community. We offer “certificates for participation”, compliment the mediocre act, and often focus our comments only on the good, rather than offering constructive feedback and then, we get offended when someone does make a constructive comment. Holli-Mae Johnson in her interview with Pin Curl Magazine said “I talk to so many performers who get frustrated by relentlessly glowing feedback, even for acts which they know require more development. There seems to be a pressure to be enthusiastic and supportive and preserve self-esteem, rather than provide honest evaluation. Some people admit that they feel they can’t be honest with their friends about what they really think, fearing backlash and screams of ‘Who the hell does she think she is?!’”

Holli-Mae couldn’t be more right, and not only in terms of performance. Critique is necessary to improve regardless of our role in the industry. So why aren’t we critiquing/addressing the unprofessional and sometimes downright nasty behaviour/individuals we see in our scene? I wonder if at times it’s because of the largely female industry in which there’s an unwritten philosophy that “we should be building each other up and not ripping each other down”. I wonder if this would this happen in a male dominated industry? Would this be allowed to happen in, say a parental-child situation? If a child were to exhibit terrible behaviour, would you not bring it to their attention and tell them it is unacceptable? In order for the child to grow into someone to be proud of, who treated others with respect, of course you would tell them their behaviour was unacceptable. And you would explain to them why, so they understood and didn’t behave the same way next time. Why should we not apply that same growth principal to our industry, and therefore as a community decide to no longer accept levels of unprofessionalism in burlesque? I mean as a general society we are encouraged to stand up against bullies, and sometimes unprofessionalism can amount to just that.

I’ll tell you why I believe we don’t though and it matches Holli-Mae’s sentiments. It’s because it is not considered to be objective when we are discussing our personal experience and sharing only our side of the story (because as we know there are always 3 sides to the story at least), and we are often scared of the repercussions, the backlash… same as many of those who don’t stand up for others being bullied. I am guilty of this myself as I often say “Who am I to make that judgement of what is or isn’t professional and is my opinion of the situation really that valid?”. And so I end up saying nothing unless asked.

Now here’s my personal disclaimer: I am certainly not infallible and don’t claim to be, especially having made significant professional mistakes as a producer, a teacher, and as a performer. I would like to think that I have grown from my mistakes, whether they have been pointed out to me by others or I have realised them myself. I hope I will never repeat them and for the most part I haven’t… sometimes I’ve even made new ones!. My mantra when I have made errors though is to admit it then “Make Right then Do Right”. A personal example (of which I will always be ashamed of and will remain in my memory to help me to strive to do better) is when another performer called me out for taking what I thought was a joke too far and edging into the realm of bullying. I’ve also made mistakes throughout my journey as a producer and the perils that it brings, including the eventual mental breakdown and the resulting lack of communication from not addressing my mistakes. As a result of these learnings, I am now conscious of how I talk to people, how my comments and tone may affect them, and am forever trying to improve my producing methods, aiming to reduce the risk of being back in that position where people are left high and dry, wondering what is happening. I admit I still don’t always get it right, but at least I’m concious of it and striving to improve my behaviour. Neither of these times was I called out publically, it was addressed directly with me and I dealt with it, although I did chose to publically admit the wrong I had committed as part of my growth. However, I expect had I not improved, had I not done anything to change my unprofessionalism, I might have been “named and shamed”, and rightly so.

In my relatively brief, yet wide-ranging experience within the burlesque scene, I have seen producers who have failed to meet their commitments time and time again, who have breached contracts, discussed confidential matters at inappropriate times, verbally abused performers in front of others, taken advantage of, blackmailed, manipulated and bullied them (some even into deep depressions), committed fraud and created a storm of negativity. I have also seen performers go beyond the usual performance stress and the occasional “Diva” behaviour, dealing with support teams, other performers, audience, venue staff and even producers in a way that I would not consider even remotely acceptable under the most stressful of situations. When these occasions occur, I have tried talking to the people directly, being logical, unemotional and reasonable with them, in an attempt to get them to see how their behaviour is affecting others. In other instances, I have walked away, separated myself from them and choosen to no longer deal with them in professional or personal capacities. But when I see those behaviours continuing towards others, where do you draw the line and speak out about your experiences publically, essentially naming and shaming? And how do we deliver it so it becomes constructive, informative, unbiased, and not returning it back as destructive bullying?

Even if the intention is good, when we are not asking others to completely write someone off based on our one and only bad experience, just simply asking others to proceed with caution so they don’t have to experience the same lesson, there will always going to be someone who thinks that the publically addressing of unprofessional behaviours and/or people is coming from a negative place. But does that mean we should not be discussing it publically at all? Or is this creating and adding to the mob-mentality that Dangrrr Doll advises against in her article in fostering professionalism in our community?

When encouraging professionalism in others does no longer work, how do we protect and nurture the community we have worked so hard to create?

Authors note: Please note these are the ramblings of my thought processes and I recognise these are the exceptions not the rule. I hope my ramblings encourage public discussion about how we address unprofessional behaviours, not neccesarily what the behaviours are themselves, or especially, not the people who may display them.