For years, the standard burlesque picture has been a fully clothed man in a suit surrounded by women who are nearly nude. But as the industry evolves and new voices take charge, that image is now in flux. “You start to see with the changing role of men is that the main people who produce festivals are female,” says New Orleans-based performer Ben Wisdom. “With the revival and Neo-Burlesque, it’s a ladies’ game. Women control the majority.”
Such is the case for the Americana Burlesque & Sideshow festival — aka ABSfest — now in its ninth year of celebrating Asheville’s vaudeville revival. The festival runs Friday, May 22, through Sunday, May 24, hopping between The Grey Eagle and The Orange Peel and challenging industry stereotypes in the process.
“I wanted to flip the usual burlesque show dynamic of the powerful male speaking emcee role and sexy nonspeaking female headliner this year,” says festival producer Madame Onça O’Leary. This year’s emcees, the Philadelphia-based comedy troupe Sidetracked, “upend that gender trope even further by doing traditionally ‘masculine’ Abbott and Costello style, nonstripping comedy bits,” says O’Leary.
Performers Shoshanna Green and Kimberlie Cruse consider Sidetracked a vaudeville act rather than a burlesque one but say that the two go together well. Both women have a strong theater background and in 2004 launched Sidetracked as a street act in the small town of Phoenixville, Pa. After performing for about a year, they learned that Sunday Revival Burlesque was looking for a host. “We did one show with them and we knew we had found our home,” Green says. “There we were, introducing beautiful people doing amazing acts — it was like being in ‘The Muppet Show.'”
Regulars at ABSfest since 2009, Sidetracked hosts the Saturday Spectacular Show on May 23 at The Orange Peel, during which the scantily clad Mr. Gorgeous will serve as the evening’s main attraction. No strangers to emceeing big shows, the duo stress the importance of women and men switching roles and having their voices heard, noting that the reversal can make for some amazing art.
“The best thing about burlesque is that there is really nothing typical about any roles. Burlesque is a place where you create your own character and your own reality — it’s a place you can be whoever you want [to be],” Cruse says. “For women, this is incredibly liberating. It’s often difficult to find creative and interesting roles for women in film and theater, but in burlesque we’re creating the reality.”
Wisdom’s burlesque preacher character, the Reverend Pastor Father Brother Ben Wisdom, will also make an appearance on Saturday night, a prelude to his own hosting duties at the Burlesque Brunch Cabaret at The Grey Eagle. Fond of improvisation, Wisdom has been known to give prophecies handed down to him by the Spirit of Burlesque, read from the fictional Burlesque Bible and lay hands on attendees to heal them of their fake afflictions.
A former radio DJ and art department coordinator and set dresser in the New Orleans film industry, Wisdom started going to burlesque shows with his cousin in the late 2000s and soon reconnected with a college friend who’d become a performer. When that friend and a few colleagues decided to form a new group, she asked Wisdom to be their emcee. Six years later he can’t imagine being away from the rush of the stage. “There is no drug, alcohol, cigarette — nothing that equals or re-creates the feeling of having a kick-ass show,” says Wisdom, who primarily does stand-up comedy around New Orleans as himself, not as his preacher character.
In addition to the thrill of performing, the industry’s all-inclusive attitude speaks to Wisdom and keeps him firmly invested in making burlesque the best it can be. “I think burlesque takes it to the next level of accepting people and understanding different sexualities and genders,” he says. “It helped me to know more about feminine issues and feminist issues and changed my whole paradigm on my thoughts on male/female relationships and how women are treated in society.”
An ABSfest fixture since 2012, Wisdom is impressed by Madame Onça’s bravery in playing with emcee/headliner conventions, especially on a festival’s showcase night when tickets are likely to sell out. “I think nobody else has taken their big night and rolled the dice like that to give people something different,” he says. “It takes a lot of balls — or, in her case, ovaries — to accomplish that. I think she can pull it off, too.”
WHAT: Americana Burlesque & Sideshow festival
WHERE: The Grey Eagle and The Orange Peel, absfest.com
WHEN: Friday, May 22-Sunday, May 24. See website for complete schedule and ticket options