Peeling the Layers and Playing the Creative God – Act Development in Burlesque

We all have our unique ways of gaining inspiration and crafting our acts. When we first enter burlesque sometimes it was a matter of just rolling with what takes our interest and putting it together in some sort of way that we give birth to something worthy of the stage. As we get further into our careers, I’ve personally found that there’s more of a structured science to it. Developing an act is like an onion… it can sting your eyes, make you cry and importantly, it has many layers. It’s not so important in what order you build the layers so much also knowing what layers you should include. So how do you become a creative god to the onion for your act development?

Themes can be subtle or blatantly obvious depending on what you are crafting. Sometimes there may appear to not be one in an act, but I tell you that stripping for stripping’s sake is still a theme. Sometimes the difficulty is in identifying or choosing what “theme” to go for. Whether you are deciding on an era, a subject or object, a personification, to tell a story, to share a message, to be sensual or sexual, go for something neo or classic styled, or just to get your kit off for the fun of it while rolling around in chocolate sauce, it’s important to make sure that this theme is consistent through your act and each layer of it. If it’s not, you’re likely to confuse and loose the attention of your audience.

Are you going to have props? Do they work with your theme? How are they going to get on and off the stage? Are they going to be helpful or a hindrance to putting your act together and getting your audience engaged? These are the things to think of. If you don’t have props, then throw this layer out.

Often, we hear a piece of music that we absolutely fall in love with and want to create an act to match. Sometimes this happens before we even have a general theme idea in place, giving us further inspiration for an act, or sometimes the music comes later after lots of research and tirelessly sifting through back catalogues to find that right track. However you come across your track though, make sure you listen to it over and over and over and over and over and over again. Because if you hate it after the 20th/30th/50th time, you’re going to hate it by the time you’ve finished developing the base of your act. You should research your music well, find variations of it and also check out who else is using that track, particularly in your regular performance locations, as sometimes music tracks can become a signature for some performers. It’s also important to listen to the nuances of the music, each instrument and the timings so you can identify where your reveals, hits and punchlines might be within your act as well as where you may need to make cuts to edit the music for your act if required. Your music should suit your theme as well… after all there is no point doing a racy sexy almost perverted floor work number to Johnny Cash’s sad and soulful version of Hurt now is there (unless that’s what you’re going for you sick fuck – in that case call me to watch haha).

Ahhh costume. It’s the bane of our bank accounts. Like music, it can offer us the initial inspiration for our acts and everything else comes later, or we create a costume to meet the needs of the act we already have in development. Whatever way it happens though this should interlink with your theme/props/music etc. You should also be adaptable as sometimes the costume may have too many pieces for your music length, be of material that will catch on your props (e.g. boas and loose sequins don’t mix well) or possibly be too fiddly to release or not secure enough for what you want to do with your act (have you tried contemporary dancing in a mermaid style stretch velvet skirt yet?). Costuming also includes your hair, makeup and accessories, so think about how this fits with your act and again if this could help or hinder the other elements of your act.

Choreography of the Body
Yes this is the actual movement and dance section. I’m certainly not a natural choreographer and my knowledge of dance technique is probably limited to that of the Carlton most of the times. But of course, this is what we do so choreography is a must. Whether we are simply parading or bumping, grinding, prancing or humping on stage, it is all part of choreography. When putting your movements together you should be thinking about how you are going to get out of your costume and looking for those “reveal” points. You should build some fluidity into your choreography, be it building longer than needed times in, or even leaving some gaps in places. This should be for two reasons. 1) in case shit goes wrong so you’ve got some time to fix It, like for example the dreaded costume failure and 2) so you can work the stage and the crowd. Often, we don’t know if our stage is the size of a table top or the size of a swimming pool so you need to be able to adjust your choreography so you can fill the stage and not make it look too spread out, hauling arse across stage or too cramped like you’re in an elevator. This is necessary so you can engage your audience right across the room.

Choreography of the face
Engagement is in the face. Always give good face. Eye-fuck them. Screw your nose up. Give them a wink. Have “fuck-off” written on your forehead (metaphorically of course – sort of 😊). Face is where it is happening. Like your body movement, you should have choreography of your face, so that way it becomes semi-automatic when you perform and you know what to do even when you are not feeling it the night of a performance. Use your vowels to shape the mouth. Make your face match the energy of your movement and work the tease like your audience is a priest on the edge. If you stood there for three and half minutes giving me the most intense and convincing facial choreography, I would be engaged. The face is where it is at.

Energy of Emotion
Build energy into your performance by thinking about the intention of what you are doing and creating that tension and weight required to properly express it. The energy that comes off you and the emotion you portray can really take an act to the next level and really engage an audience to join you on the journey you want to take them on. Like chorography, energy and emotion can be planned for in your act to suit the theme/music/intention etc. If you build this layer up in rehearsal and then your dog ran away and your goldfish died right before a performance, you’ll be able to fake your way through the act. It also means that you don’t have to rely on the audience giving you energy to feed off while your own stage to pull off a superior performance.

That Technical Stuff
Yeah you gotta think about that technical shit. Are you going to be on stage in position or offstage when you start your act and is your act going to lose the initial impact if there is no curtain? Also lighting… now this is a broad subject alone, one that few have mastered. But you should at the very least thing about the colour of your costume and what lighting colours NOT to use. As a basic light structure, think about front (lights on you or at your feet), back (lights behind you so won’t reflect on costume) and side wash colours (can help creates atmosphere) for your act. You can also get into the full on technical second by second lighting requirements you need to create this visual spectacular that will be your act, but remember most shows can only provide a basic option and even with larger productions, the tech time is limited and the lighting tech team may not be paid enough to concentrate that hard on creating your Pink Floyd vision.

Last but not least. Polish. Once you have your layers, refine each one, get into micro movements, work out which way clasps go, learn to feel the music, play with that facial choreography, build more complex emotion in it that the person at the back of the crowd can see. Polish the act so that you are prepared for when things go wrong, and that the chances of that are fewer and further in between. Never stop polishing it. When you take an act to stage for the first time, it doesn’t mean it’s a fully developed act. If you perform the same act 100 times even then it still may need fine tuning. Continuously improve your act by rehearsing and polishing, even if it’s things an audience won’t notice. Because this is what will continue to make it interesting for you and make it better every time it hits the stage.

TLDR Summary: It could be any of these layers that inspire you to create an act… music may come first sometimes like my Mae’s Muff act. Or it might be prop inspired like my Rise from the Ashes act. It could be costume inspired like Big Red or it could be theme inspired (strip for strip sake), like Lilac Dream. It sometimes could even just be a colour that set you off to create an act. Whatever it is that inspires you or what order you put your act together, just make sure you put all your layers on. Whether you do it step by step, or work on each layer simultaneously, make sure your act is fully dressed. Just like forgetting piece of your costume, it can have an effect if you leave a piece behind.

Wanna learn more on this subject? Book me for a one-on-one session (skype or in person), or check out my workshops and classes.

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