The most difficult part of stripping in front of an audience isn’t necessarily the disrobing. “I rarely see people who are afraid to get naked onstage,” says local burlesque performer and emcee Queen April. The anxiety, instead, is because “people are afraid of being judged on their art.”
Nudity “is my brand, and that’s how I advertise in a society that says you shouldn’t look at women’s bodies, even though [everyone] wants to,” she says. “It’s a tricky thing to navigate nowadays. … People want to look. People want to support and encourage. But people can also still be that guy who’s shaming a sex worker.”
In the age of anti-harassment movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, the role of the burlesque performer — one already complex due to the juxtaposition of political material and sexuality intrinsic to the art form — has become more complicated. Consent is both a buzzword and, increasingly, a modus operandi. Performers are empowered to draw clear boundaries but also need audience buy-in to the bawdy shows. This is an age of reckoning with past and present harm (not only to women but also to men, children and nonbinary people). Trauma is sometimes exacerbated by sexual topics. This is also a time for the collective navigation of how to move forward without doing more harm — while, at the same time, not losing our senses of humor or appreciation of fringe art.
“All boats are rising as the audience has become more consent-conscious,” says performer and producer Lauren “Madame Onça” O’Leary. The former Ashevillean creates the annual Americana, Burlesque & Sideshow Fest held at The Orange Peel and other local venues. Artists she’s spoken to (including belly dancers, who often work in restaurants around a clientele likely less familiar with theater conduct) say that because showgoers are being schooled culturally on what consent is, performers feel more respected.
At the same time, viewers are afraid of crossing lines, says April. “Now you really have to hammer it home with people: ‘You have my consent to catcall me.’” Her role as an emcee affords her a platform to inform the audience that it’s OK to “do whatever needs to be done at a burlesque show,” but crossing certain lines — such as touching an artist — always requires permission from that performer.
The idea of consent goes both ways, Onça explains. “Many years ago, when ABSFest was probably in its third year, vaudeville and old-timey circuit performance was very handsy. To go into the audience and sit in someone’s lap while you sing a song was considered great showmanship. Now … you can imagine the cultural conversation — the audience assuming they also have the right to decide.”
By years four or five of ABSFest (the May 22-24 shows will mark the festival’s 14th iteration), Onça says there was a palpable shift in the audience “where you don’t ever make anybody do anything just because it would make the show better. To get them to do the thing they didn’t want to do would be worse for the message of the show.”
Onça’s longtime focus as a producer has been “putting work that’s fringe onstage … work with a story to tell.” And, while the current social and political climate may affect the telling, it’s also opened up the dialogue. Along with people’s individual stories of victimization, overcoming adversity and the reestablishment of self-esteem, “We’re seeing artists onstage working out issues of the difference between cultural appreciation and appropriation … a painful conversation we need to have on every level of society. [And also] issues of gender identity — something you would not have seen in the same way 15 years ago.”
Local performer Seraphina Syren adds, “The form grows more and more toward open-mindedness because you do have all the forms of portraying yourself.” Along with increased visibility for nonbinary entertainers, she mentions genres such as boylesque (burlesque performed by male-identifying artists), nerdlesque and horror burlesque. But, despite the array of possibilities for self-expression, “There are people, even in the feminist movement, who will judge you because you’re showing your body and owning your sexuality. They will always see that as something we’re doing for male gratification or anybody’s gratification rather than our own.”
Seraphina, who considers herself a nontraditional performer (she grew up dancing but didn’t take burlesque classes), formed her troupe, Black Garter Revue, a little more than a year ago. She says the craft is inherently body-positive. “It’s not just a form of art for the male gaze,” she explains. “Here, in [Asheville], we have positive reception. … We’ve done a little bit of traveling, and as long as you stay to metro areas, it’s fine.” Seraphina adds that the bar scene brings its own set of potential hassles, but the often all-women-identified troupes are able to create safety in numbers for each other.
Some venues, too, are rethinking their approach to entertainment in the wake of #MeToo. Some performers report challenges with booking burlesque shows that spotlight issues of boundaries, sexuality and what insurance policies are willing to cover.
But most of the challenge still lies in the space where the personal meets both the public and the political. In Seraphina’s experience, there’s a process of compartmentalizing emotional issues and self-doubts in order to get into performer mode. “You’re telling a story with almost every performance,” she says. But, “you don’t always feel sexy just because you’re onstage. Sometimes you’re balancing the reclaiming of ‘Yes, my body is sexy,’ with [using] your body as a canvas for the story. [A performer] isn’t necessarily up there to be sexual, even if they are naked.”
She adds, “A lot of us are using this as therapy.”
Onça — who underscores the point that #MeToo and #TimesUp also address abuses suffered by male-identifying people — says that in this new paradigm, “we’re having to embrace the discomfort of figuring out how we can be better humans, given the systems we’ve inherited.”
Addressing that shift, in all its awkwardness, sadness, rage and potential transformation, is important to Onça as a producer. “I’ve always felt like it’s important to use this platform for good,” she says. “This is social justice wrapped up as a party. … Asheville is ready to hear that. No ever complains and says, ‘There was too much message.’”
She adds that in the wake of #MeToo, “We’re all uncertain what the new rules are and will be because they’ll continue to shift. [But] more is gained than is lost.”
Learn more about the performers in this story at queen-april.com, facebook.com/blackgarterrevue and absfest.com.