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Feminism and the art of burlesque have traditionally had a complex relationship. It is empowering? Degrading? Subversive? Creative? Clichéd? Pandering to the male gaze? Subverting that gaze? Here feminist and burlesque fan and performer Ciara O’Connor gives her view.

The word “burlesque” has cropped up in polite conversation quite a lot recently. Christina and Cher’s affront to the word notwithstanding, every so often someone brings it up when out for drinks if I say I’ve just been to a show… and often there is a reductive remark about strippers. Take for example Maeve Higgins’ recent comment on the Tweeter : “Burlesque is so shit. Stupid middle class women stripping.” I’m not sure if Maeve has ever been to a show, but I know her comment was a reflection (if a slightly more abrasive reflection) of some peoples ideas and conceptions of what Burlesque is and is not. There are always people who are indifferent towards any medium, the decriers declaring Burlesque is dead, those who say it is anti-women, and those who couldn’t care less.

Feminist burlesque performer Blackbird, aka Emily

Because I’m a fan of the art form, and I occasionally perform at cabaret shows and see a lot of different types of burlesque, I thought I’d throw my two cents into the ring.

Burlesque’s etymology denotes a send up, it is a derisive imitation, grotesque parody. Burlesque is close in meaning with caricature, pastiche, parody and travesty, and, in its theatrical sense, with extravaganza, as presented during the Victorian era (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_burlesque). From the Wikipedia entry on Burlesque we see that it isn’t just all 1950s pin-up wither, its been around a long time: “”Burlesque” has been used in English in this literary and theatrical sense since the late 17th century. It has been applied retrospectively to works of Chaucer and Shakespeare and to the Graeco-Roman classics.“

Later forms of burlesque came in the popular variety show format. These were common from the 1860s to the 1940s, often in cabarets and clubs, as well as theatres, and featured bawdy comedy and striptease as part of the show. Burlesque has historically been seen as a cheeky, low-brow and very bold form of adult-only theatre.  Performers draw from theatre, mime, improvisation, movement to music, as well as all forms of dance. They are also usually loaded with cultural reference and spoof.

There has been a resurgence of interest in classical Burlesque in the 1990s which quickly became popular in the US, the UK and the rest of Europe. This resurgence also birthed what is referred to as Neo-burlesque (see Hot Press this month for a very interesting round-up of Neo-Burlesque in Ireland). Neo-burlesque often removes the nostalgic aspect of burlesque and uses contemporary music and themes, so you may find yourself watching Jessica Fletcher do a striptease to Gothrock. The beauty of burlesque is that it can be anything and everything, as creative as your imagination and the boundaries you put on yourself as a performer.

A friend writing a blog on fashion and feminism recently described me as “someone who I imagine came into the world screaming ‘I am a feminist!’.” As a feminist-from-the-womb – or at least a young age, I was needless to say not immune to the impressions the media give out about burlesque, and my inner feminist was in twitch-overdrive when I went to my first ever burlesque show. My twitching quickly subsided – and not only was I completely hooked: I was fascinated, enthralled and excited, brimming over with ideas after it – I was convinced that in my eyes, burlesque was decidedly feminist.

As I wrote recently in a guest blog for Dr Sketchy’s,  decontextualised women’s bodies are everywhere in society.  Disembodied perfectly round arses in Reebok trainers, floating breasts selling car insurance…. our world is saturated with nudity, implied nudity and women’s body parts, exposed, scrutinised, made grotesque and vilified… or portrayed as perfection and symmetry and the ideal we should all strive for/compare ourselves to. Burlesque shows are one place where you get to see real women’s bodies… not on display for the sexualised gaze, nor for “auntie Gok” to truss up like some Christmas ham and stuff into magic knickers to try to fit into normative beauty standards, but just – celebrated.  Cheered.  Whooped at and hollered for.  Breasts, bellies, smiles of all ages and types, none of them detached from the woman they belong to.  In fact, firmly in context as the performer is not only showing off her body but her creativity… her body can be tattooed, pierced, decorated with body paint, breasts all different shapes and sizes adorned with nipple tassels; they have meaning, they have context.  These are real bodies, (ab)normal, individual, all appendix scars and jiggly bits.  In a society where nudity has become so… meaningless… here it is loaded with meaning.

Also, the burlesque scene in Ireland is decidedly radical. The performers are smart, creative and quite amazing men and women who do fantastical things with the medium. A great example is my friend and fellow fabulous feminist Emily. She is a stunning performer – she creates acts that are thought provoking, political, visually stunning, sometimes hyperfeminine, sometimes very masculine, always impeccably costumed and gripping from beginning to end. She tells a story and makes a statement in a way that is firmly tongue in cheek and yet quick off the mark and very intelligent.

Lilly DeValle's barbershop act gradually turns from cute to creepy

Another burlesque performer, Lilly DeValle, cuts a striking figure on stage, playing a cheesecake cutesy character who has a dark and evil side – for example her cute barber shop act which quickly transforms into a bloodbath as she hacks up the poor unsuspecting customer in her barbershop chair. She is a true storyteller and has impeccable comedic timing. One of Dublin’s queen’s of the burlesque scene Miss Bella A Go Go is one of the most creative people I know, sewing and handmaking all her costumes, her  incredible mind is full of fantasy which she expertly brings to life on stage with incredibly intricate themed shows, such as her recent Steampunk Cabaret.

So for those who may reduce burlesque to “stupid, middle class women stripping” – I’d like to extend an invitation to come and see a show. The scene here is vibrant and bristling with life and energy. The performers (male and female) are dedicated to making you smile, cringe, cower and giggle like a kid. I asked my friends when writing this why they attend these shows, and the consensus was strong – the striptease element is the last thing on the list. They come to find something different, something entertaining, to find like minded people and to have fun. The nudity in the shows is a great leveller. It’s an opportunity to dress up, to drink cocktails and smoke cigars, to travel to another world for one night only. And who among us doesn’t enjoy some escapism now and then?

If you think you’d like to give a show a go, then I would highly recommend any of the following nights:

The League of Decadent Bastards

This will be the show of the summer – an all male cast and an amazing line up including some of my favourite cabaret artists, a proper treat for the senses!

Burlesque and Cabaret Social Club

The mainstay of the Dublin scene, mostly classical and vintage burlesque and music, monthly, at the Sugar Club

The Love Cats Burlesque

Fabulous troupe of burlesque artists, comedians and musicians in Dublin

Dr Sketchy’s anti-art school – for the artists among us – where life drawing meets cabaret

AND watch out for shows from: Sedition Industries, AWOL tattoo studio Galway, The Pony Girls, Midnight Burlectro, Sideshow Cabaret and many more over 2011.

Ciara O’Connor is an avid amateur cook and veggie. She has been working in women’s health and education for many years. In her spare time she likes to read, cook, drink wine, and is a student homeopath, sometimes cabaret performer and occasional yogi.
Her twitter is ciara_oc

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Andrea Corr & Stephen Brennan as Jane and Rochester

I have to admit I was sceptical when I heard singer Andrea Corr was to play Jane in The Gate’s dramatisation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, adapted by Alan Stanford. Jane is the original Plain Jane and Andrea, as we know, is far from plain. However, I’m glad to say that she does a good job of the role in a very enjoyable production of the play. Corr’s superstar looks can’t be completely played down, obviously, but her petite frame, austere hairstyle and simple, grey dress make her physically credible as the orphan governess Jane. Corr has a slightly heightened style of acting – giddy almost – whereas Jane was a more self-contained, serious character. Having said that, Corr excels when raw emotion is called for in the role – she is genuinely moving in the scene, for example, where she and Rochester are forced to part.

Stephen Brennan is a solid and convincing Rochester, if a tad too old to pass as merely ‘over forty’. His skill as an actor though soon lures you in and you forget that he is meant to be younger. He’s a big man (as Rochester was) and together with Corr’s slightness they certainly look the part together. Brennan delivers all aspects of his role well: Rochester can be gruff but he is also warm and funny.

Deirdre Donnelly is excellent as the older Jane, she narrates the story onstage and she is a deep and emotional actress who brings gravitas to the whole production. Other stand-out cast members include Donna Anita Nikolaisen as Bertha Mason, Rochester’s secret, disturbed wife who is locked in the attic and escapes to do mischief. We are introduced first to Bertha’s eerie laugh and elegant, dance-like movements and, later, to her rage, which Nikolaisen manages to make very frightening. My one quibble would be that the lighting is always dim when Bertha is onstage making it a little difficult to make out exactly what she is up to.

Bruno Schengl’s bare set – with everything painted silver – leaves the actors free to be the main event, and Léonore McDonagh’s costumes are of the period and often beautiful – particularly Jane’s white chemise and lace veil, which point to her innocence and purity. Thankfully some of the book’s sub-plots were left out – Jane’s is a long story – as they play lasts a hefty two and a half hours (with a short interval).

The Gate is an intimate theatre – it has a cosiness that our other Dublin theatres lack and there is always a great atmosphere and buzz there. The audience the night I was at Jane Eyre was very responsive, laughing at all the humorous bits and staying attentive when that was needed. The anticipation for the famous line – ‘Reader, I married him!’ – was like a breath being held and huge applause broke out when Deirdre Donnelly delivered it, with an enigmatic smile.

The play runs until the 15th of January, though the run may be extended, and it makes a lovely seasonal night out when you’re finally sick of all the alcohol and pudding. Tickets can be bought here: The Gate

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Last night, I was listening to Arena on RTE Radio and caught an interview with Nic Green, the director and writer of Trilogy which opens tonight as part of Absolut Fringe. Much has been made of the appearance of 50 naked women dancers (all volunteers) in the play, but it’s within the context of looking at femininity, representations of the female body and what it means to be a woman.

In the interview Nic spoke about her work with 8 – 11-year-old girls where she started to hear the beginnings of body dysmorphia; of girls fretting over their weight. She also discussed the feminists who inspired her and said that they were “women in my own life, rather than celebrities” and that a lot of writers had also impacted on her. Another  project she is involved in is www.makeyourownherstory.org and according to the site:

“The Make Your Own Herstory Project argues the case for placing creativity and reflection at the heart of political and personal development. For us, this is not a question, but a necessity.”

There are various chapters on the site about making your own “womanifesto” or female Family Tree to making your own anthem. I like the idea of ‘Make Your Own Statue’ which might involve – in Green’s words – “adding a pair of tinfoil ear-rings”.

“Choose your favourite female icon – the chances are, shes underrated! Why not dress a local patriarchal statue as the woman you admire?  Dont forget to stick a sign over the existing name stating who she is, when she was born and died (if applicable) and what she did.”

She was a fascinating interviewee, who spoke in an inspiring way about womanhood and feminism. Trilogy opens tonight at the Project Arts Centre and runs until Saturday. The performance starts at 7pm and runs for three hours.

Arena interview with Nic Green here:

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Eileen Walsh is currently playing the lead role in Medea by Siren Productions, at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Trinity College, Dublin (ABSOLUT Fringe, until 25th September). Her theatre work includes Macbeth, Terminus (Abbey Theatre); The Gigli Concert (Druid); Disco Pigs (Corcadorca/Bush/Arts Theatre); Crave (Royal Court), The Drowned World (Traverse Theatre) and Mary Stuart (National Theatre of Scotland).  Film and television credits include Eden (Best Actress Award, Tribeca Film Festival), Pure Mule, The Magdalene Sisters, When Brendan Met Trudy, Miss Julie, The Last Bus Home, The Van and 33 x Around the Sun.

What’s the first record you ever bought?

Cliff Richard/The Young Ones – Living Doll.

What’s your favourite smell?

Molecule 01.

Have you ever had a nickname?

Smallie.

What is your favourite room in your house?

The coalhole (under the stairs).

What are your guilty pleasures?

E!

What would people be surprised to know about you?

Not much.

Who is your closest female friend?

My sisters.

Do you have any tattoos or piercings?

Birthmark on my arm known as my teatoo (hot tea burn when I was 3).

Where would you most like to live?

In a 70s’ build, flat roof, sunken living room and I’d be happy.

Who was your first kiss and where did it happen?

A very nice boy who said he’d like to teach me.

What’s the most unusual question you’ve ever been asked?

Did you have to work out for the role? (Medea!) Obviously an American.

What’s the best present you’ve ever received?

A Kinder egg that had been tampered with so that when you put the toy jigsaw together it read I Love You.

What is your favourite word?

Wait.

Who was your first love?

I married him.

If you weren’t doing what you do, what might you have become?

Apparently a dog groomer was pretty high on my list when I was 10.

Is there a book you’ve bought several times as a gift for someone?

I bought several sisters the same book (as a student) and told them pass it on to each other… 100 Years of Solitude …no less!

What happens after we die?

We answer questions.

What female historical figure do you admire most?

Right now I’m smothered in Medea.

Sum yourself up in three words:

G.S.O.H./N.S./O.T.

And finally… What are you anti? What are you pro?

Anti-abortion

Pro- hunting…only joking.

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The word ‘fat’ has numerous connotations – and one group that’s performing at this year’s Absolut Fringe Festival is aiming to explore all things corpulent.

FAT is a show brought to us by the members of Talking Shop Ensemble, Oonagh Murphy, Aisling Byrne and Lisa Walsh. The trio came together while studying Drama and Theatre in Trinity College, Dublin. “There were two reasons that we worked well together: the first was our preference for working in a very collaborative sense – rather than traditional structures of playwright – director – actor – and so on; the second was, I suppose what you’d call, our ideological leanings,” explains Oonagh.

The group soon realised that they were very influenced by the feminist performance art of the 70s, 80s and 90s.  “While everyone else was emulating Declan Donnellan or staging Harold Pinter or Enda Walsh, we were trying to recreate the leftist, angry, messy performances of Karen Finley, Marina Abromiv and Carolee Schneeman,” recalls Oonagh. “We loved how these females interrogated body politics in a very visceral and theatrical way. And that’s why we started to look at where that sort of performance would fit in an Irish context and, different from the gender discourse that framed their work, what are the issues that mark female identity today.”

Oonagh admits this “all sounds very intense”. “We do like our work to pack a punch and carry an intelligent message but one thing about the way we work is that the finished piece is full of humour, parody, music and dance,” she assures. “It’s spliced with pop culture references and multi-media. It’s theatre for people who are only happy when they have four tabs open at once.”
So what is FAT about? FAT, says Oonagh, “is to do with body image and visual culture”.
It was born out of a frustration with consistently having images of how we should look shoved down our throats. It was feeling despair even at the growing popularity of schmucksters like Gok Wan – who peddle out a philosophy of body confidence but still inherently buy into (make money from) a crudely homogenized image of femininity, of corporeality. It is to do with the pornographisation of popular culture and the paradox of post-feminism. And yet, it is also about a struggle to articulate on these issues – as theatre-makers, as women, as skinny women, etc.
So FAT is about a struggle and in essence it is a middle-finger to that force that makes you wonder how you look onstage wearing only a pair of control pants.
Talking Shop Ensemble will premiere FAT as part of the Absolut Fringe, from September 13th-18th, at 7 pm in the Players Theatre, Dublin 2. FAT, say the group, deals in satire and irony, dissecting such modern phenomena as celebrity culture, make-over tv shows and social networking. The show is an hour-long trip complete with music and dance.
FAT is about skinny bitches, skinny lattes and skinny jeans. FAT is about the leftover pizza you had for breakfast. FAT is learning HOW TO LOOK GOOD NAKED. FAT is video chat. Channel hopping.

wots ur name sxy?

FAT is looking at photos of strangers on Facebook, and LOL-ing. FAT is skinny, ugg-mug, butter-face and junk-in-the-trunk.

FAT is about being trapped in the television. And not sure of the way out.

Talking Shop are trying to see whether we can even make theatre about FAT.

And we want you to watch us while we try.”
This is Talking Shop Ensemble’s second production to be shown at the fringe – their debut, Ann and Barry: What Kind of Time Do You Call This? sold out two weeks prior to the Absolut Fringe Festival 2009.

For more information, log onto www.fringefest.com/event/fat. Tickets are priced from €10.

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Actress Ruth Negga was born in Ethiopia and grew up between Limerick and London.  Having trained at the Samuel Beckett Centre in Trinity College, she got her first major break in 2005, when she was cast in Neil Jordan’s Breakfast On Pluto. Since then, she has maintained a steady career in theatre, film and television – already, in 2010, she has starred in the BBC series Five Daughters and the Irish film Trafficked. From September, she will be appearing in the role of Ophelia in the National Theatre’s production of Hamlet.  She recently starred in RTE’s four-part drama Love/Hate.

What was the first record you ever bought?
Nirvana, Heart-Shaped box (with the Marigold b-side where Dave Grohl sings).

What’s your favourite smell?
The smell of summer rain on its way and the smell of the person I’m in love with. Preferably a mix of the two.

Have you ever had a nickname?
Tooters, Roo… all my “weak” passwords, which I’ll now have to change.

What is your favourite room in your house?
My bedroom at around 5pm last Saturday when the evening light hit.

What are your guilty pleasures?
Real pleasures shouldn’t be guilty. I read that somewhere. Wish I could get it into my head. I’m always feeling guilty about something or other. OK, ALL of Paul Rudd’s films.

What would people be surprised to know about you?
I know for a fact that people are sick of bloody actors banging on about being shy, but it is true for a lot of us. I am obsessed with the idea that the most important thing about someone is that which you don’t know. I read that somewhere too. I’m looking forward to having an idea or thought of my own.

Who is your closest female friend?
I have three and strangely enough they don’t really know one another: Pippa, Lou and Nadia.

Do you have any tattoos or piercings?
Neither. For now.

Where would you most like to live?
Kilshannig, Co. Kerry

Who was your first kiss?
When I was 6 or 7, with a lovely boy called Aaron. Think I could be totally making that up, though. I do that quite a lot with memories.

What’s the most unusual question you’ve ever been asked?
Haven’t yet. Quite interested to see what’s ahead.

What’s the best present you’ve ever received?
An early edition of The Third Policeman. It was from my mother.

What is your favourite word?
Too many to mention, although I’m a natural Mrs. Malaprop so I probably wouldn’t know what it meant anyway.

Who was your first love?
I had an almighty crush on a boy with initials D.C. when I was 8. Makes me get butterflies even now. He had absolutely no interest whatsoever.

If you weren’t doing what you do, what might you have become?
An artist, I think. Or mad. Or less mad, probably. Who knows?

Is there a book you’ve bought several times as a gift for someone?
Yes: The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories by Tim Burton. Whom I keep mentioning in interviews in the vain hope of getting a job off him.

What happens after we die?
“The Undiscover’d Country”. Where there’s lots of sleep and beautiful dreaming.

What female historical figure do you admire most?
The courageous, good ones who never make it into the books.

Sum yourself up in three words:
Bewildered. Headstrong. Loquacious.

And finally… What are you anti? What are you pro?
This is a school essay question that I have nightmares about where I’m wearing my pyjamas – if I’m lucky! I’ll be brief: anti mean people; pro the nice ones.

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Megan’s post about bygone Hollywood fashion reminded me of an upcoming theatre project called My Life in Dresses. Created by Sorcha Kenny (winner of Dubline Fringe Festival’s 2008 Spirit of the Fringe Award for The Woman Who Left Herself) who is both playwright and vintage  zealot, MLID is about clothes and the potential stories they have to tell through memory and association.  Elements of the play will involve input from anyone who owns a piece of clothing with a history.  Some of the narratives Sorcha has collected will be incorporated into the play, which premieres at the Fringe Festival in September. I interviewed her about it recently and the people she had spoken so far had fascinating stories to tell . One man, a widower still grieving for his late wife, had kept her entire wardrobe, including the going-away outfit she wore on their wedding day. There was also the fateful story of three unmarried sisters, all in their late 30s, who lived in 1930s New York. Their family deemed them spinsters who had collectively failed to “snag” a husband, only for all three women to get married in the same year, in the same venue and wearing the same dress. My Life in Dresses is not just confined to vintage clothes –  Sorcha spoke to a 30-year-old friend who had had a daughter when she was very young. Her story focuses on a simple night-dress, which has a huge resonance, because she wore it the night she gave birth.  Yvonne Nolan also contributed a wonderful tale about her grandmother’s wedding dress.

If you, or anyone you know, has a piece of clothing with a story to tell, get in touch with Sorcha at mylifeindressesATgmailCOM.

Link: My Life in Dresses

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fairersexRambling around town the other day, I picked up a brochure for a new initiative by The Abbey Theatre. Next month, they’re running a series of six 20 minute plays by women. Ask most people to name an Irish female playwright and if you’re lucky, they’ll say Marina Carr, so this is a brilliant idea and one to be applauded. It highlights new voices and gives a space to Irish women dramatists – something which is seriously needed – so fair play to the Abbey. But does it really have to be called The Fairer Sex? The title seems to take away from the empowering impetus provided by running these plays. According to the free dictionary The Fair Sex is defined as “attractively feminine”, which seems to link physicality with worth, so in the context of promoting female playwrights, does this not undermine the message a little? To my mind, the phrase has always had connotations of weakness and/or of being somewhat lesser than the testicle-owners on the planet.

Name aside, it’s still a very admirable idea and you can support it by going along. Public readings of the plays will take place in the Peacock Theatre over two evenings next month. Wednesday June 10th will feature Ribbons by Elaine Murphy, Salad Day by Deirdre Kinahan and Nineteen Ninety Two by Lisa McGee. On June 17th, the featured plays/writers are Meeting Miss Ireland by Rosemary Jenkinson, Blue Light Flashes by Claire Kilroy and Birdsong by Ursula Rani Sarma.

Link:
The Fairer Sex at The Abbey Theatre

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