Backstage at a burlesque show …
Have you ever attended a burlesque show? All the ticks for you if you have – you’ll no doubt have loved the glamour, the glitter, the sparkles and the full-on “sass” that goes into a burlesque revue.
Burlesque performers are showgirls in the extreme; they put their heart and soul (and a large portion of their wallets too!) into their performances and onstage they are glittering, sexy, sensational starlets. But have you ever wondered what goes on backstage? You have? Great … ‘cos I just happen to know and with the approval of some of my gorgeous showgirl friends, I’m sharing their secrets with you – well, some of them anyway! BEWARE … kinda long, picture-heavy post ahead … enjoy!
My burlesque roles tend to swing between stage kittying – which essentially involves the placement of props and the collection of items of clothing that have been discarded during a routine, and stage managing – which involves a lot of organising, running around, making sure performers are backstage on time for their routine, ensuring performers are happy; soothing nerves, assisting with costumes and and just generally ensuring everything runs smoothly for showtime. Sometimes it’s necessary to do both stage kittying and stage managing, and when that happens, I’m a very busy girl indeed!
Recently I was stage manager for the Bombshells & Cocktails Burlesque Revue; Glamilton’s annual burlesque show produced by Michelle at Bombshell Burlesque; starring the incredible Miss Bonita Danger Doll and featuring many of my fabulous Glamilton friends and other sensational performers from around New Zealand. I had a brilliant assistant too – big thanks to Amy Lever!
Performers normally arrive around two and a half to three hours before the show starts as there’s a LOT of preparation that goes into hair, makeup, costuming, props etc – that level of glamour does not just happen! Performers are pretty adept at getting the look they want in the shortest possible time though, but even so … it’s a process!
Hair is generally done or at least in progress when the girls arrive – it’s often in rollers or pincurls and littered around the room will be curling irons, straighteners, hair dryers, hair spray, rollers, setting spray, hair flowers, ornate headdresses and fascinators – the works! Makeup is normally done after the girls have settled in and they don’t arrive in costume either, but more about that later.
Normally performers will want to have a look backstage and at the performance area so they can check out “the lay of the land”; where the lights will be (so they can avoid “dead areas” of the stage); how much room they have to dance in; if there are obstacles to avoid; if their props will fit etc – they often have to adjust their routines accordingly. Sometimes they’ll be performing on a massive stage and other times they’ll be performing at audience-level in a tiny corner of a bar – venues often don’t make things easy for performers, so they are necessarily very adaptable!
Obviously, makeup is a BIGGIE for a burlesque performer and the “less is more” maxim simply DOES NOT apply! Essentially, in order to be visible, look effective and be fabulous on stage everything has to be big, dramatic and sparkly, so hair too is generally pretty OTT! Lots of attention is paid to the eyes and it’s not uncommon to see very bright colours, accented with glitter and highlighted with the crazy-biggest eyelashes you ever did see! Lips generally get the glitter treatment too. Performers mostly do their own hair and makeup, although if they’re lucky, there might be an H&MUA backstage who can help out and that is a real luxury for them!
Actually, I’m often totally blown away by the transformation between the girl that arrives at the venue and the showgirl that eventually saunters onto the stage. It’s not that the original girl is plain in any way, it’s just that her “stage version” can only be described as TO THE MAX!
You know how I said earlier that a performer puts her all into an act … including her wallet? Well it’s true – although performers are paid for their performances, it’s not nearly enough to cover their costuming and props, let alone their time for choreographing, practicing, travelling or anything else! Being a showgirl – in NZ at least – is definitely done for love and not money.
A burlesque revue, backstage, is an absolute riot of colour, glitter, feathers, lycra, rhinestones, gloves, heels, wings, masks – you name it, it will likely be there! Performers often require assistance getting into their outfits – these outfits, as you’d expect, have multiple layers and each layer is removed on the way to the “big reveal.” Their costumes are never just standard either; that long, slinky dress will often have a special attachment added to the zipper pull so she can just reach behind and unzip it easily; that rhinestone-encrusted chiffon panel skirt may be secured with velcro so she can dramatically rip it off and fling it to the audience!
There is also a fabulous amount of “bedazzling” that goes on with costuming … rhinestones are added; fringing is added; in fact any and every form of embellishment can and will be added! Performers literally spend HOURS gluing embellishments on to their costumes and props … it’s part of the deal. In fact, Bonita Danger Doll told me she has a martini glass for one of her routines and – get this – she has glued 19,000 rhinestones to it BY HAND! Now that, my friends, is dedication!
Nerves … these too are a big part of a performer’s life. Surprised? I know – me too!
Honestly though, I have worked with quite a few performers now and almost all of them get nervous before they go on. In fact, it’s part of the stage manager’s job to work out how best to support a nervous performer; some of them just like to be left alone so they can go through their music in their heads and settle themselves; some like to be distracted and others just like to talk quietly before they go on. Sometimes you can almost see their heart pounding as they wait to take the stage, but once they’re on, you’d never know it – you would swear that’s where they were born to be!
Just an aside … a performer needs feedback! It is SOOOO hard performing for a quiet and non-responsive audience. So scream, yell, whistle, whoop and encourage them in any way you can (without calling out anything crass of course); performers will play up to it and you’ll get an even better routine!
Before a performer goes onstage we normally encourage them to “pop a pastie” which is the burlesque version of “break a leg” – of course popping a pastie is not ideal, but it does happen!
So if you’ve never been to a burlesque revue before – get yourself along to one! And while you’re there … take a moment to appreciate the dedication these girls show to their craft – it’s their passion and they put their all into it.
Sorry for the not-great quality of the pictures in this post – they were all taken on my iPhone backstage. Our show photographer, the talented David Rowe from David Rowe Photography took the professional shots – check them out here!