The 2012 Capital Fringe Festival will be upon us from July 12-29th. We begin our previews of Fringe shows with Cupcake Cabaret. Peter Sullivan and Pamela Nash tells us about this very exotic and erotic cabaret.
The word “burlesque” brings to mind Old West dance halls and campy salaciousness. But the craft dates back to Elizabethan days, when it was an early feminist attack on a male-dominated theater where Shakespeare was writing about shrews. In the past decade, this old style has been revived in very modern ways, by very modern women.
At Capital Fringe this summer, the rebirth of burlesque will be explored in Cupcake Cabaret: A Brief History of Bad Women, directed by D.C. theater, film, and improv veteran Pamela Nash.
There is new interest in burlesque because of performers like Dita von Teese and shows like L.A. Ink, Nash says, but if this is all anyone knows about burlesque, they are “looking at it in a vacuum. We think of burlesque as really fancy stripping, but it’s really the social avant garde.”
In Shakespeare’s days, when women were forbidden to act in plays, they created burlesque as if to say, “Screw you, Shakespeare, we’re going to do our own thing, and it’s going to be scandalous,” Nash said. The style emerged in the United States around the middle of the 19th century as “social commentary” in the earliest days of the women’s rights movement.
In Cupcake Cabaret, a modern middle-aged woman in the midst of a major life change finds herself involved with group of confident younger burlesque performers. Like most of the audience, she knows little about the form at first, and has the usual misconceptions about it. In a twist on the hoary old tale of a fresh young ingénue learning from a jaded veteran, this time, it’s the young women who have the lesson to share.
“There’s a preconceived notion, ‘They’re just highly stylized strippers,’” Nash says. “But they’re doing a lot of things – they’re exploring artwork, they’re exploring creativity, they’re playing dress-up – they’re doing a million things other than just ‘shaking it’ for guys.”
Drawing on her background as a director of improv and improvised films, Nash cast Cupcake Cabaret by holding open auditions for dancers – and let the audience make the cut. She worked with Jennifer Crawford of The Soundry, a Northern Virginia arts and performance space that has hosted burlesque shows in the past, to find her contestant-auditioners.
“The audience told me who I was going to have in my show, which I’ve never done before,” Nash says. “And they’re all gems. The audience did us a favor with who they selected.”
Lola Rose is a college writing and literature professor and classically trained ballet dancer who has been doing burlesque for seven years. She auditioned because she loves “making and creating” – and because it sounded like fun. “I love being part of the creative process, and Cupcake Cabaret is presenting burlesque in a unique way.”
Cwen L’Queer, an artist and model, was drawn to the show because of her interest in experimental costume design and for the chance to expand her range of dance styles. She has been doing burlesque for about two years, as has Pati L. Cake, who works for nonprofits and also does aerial dance and trapeze. (“I wish I could rig her up and have her floating around in the air, but I can’t,” Nash says.)
Pati came out for the audition because she thinks working on improv will help her grow as a performer, and the show will give her that chance. Though the three dancers and two other female actors will have a script, “we’ll be using a lot of improv to develop the characters and the relationships,” Nash says.
“I don’t know what I thought burlesque dancers would be like,” Nash says, “but these are all well-educated, extremely smart women, and that’s part of what the show is about, to say, ‘We put these women up there and they’re pin-up girls, but they are also very substantive individuals.’”
And what about those audience members who do show up just to see the women “shaking it”? “Maybe they’ll learn something,” says Nash. “If you want to come to our show to see boobs, you can. But you’re going to have to listen to them talk.”
Note: The banner artwork is by Chris Calletta.