Many burlesquers ask me how to get started in their burlesque careers, and I tell them it depends on their goals. For many of them, the first goal after preparing their first numbers is to get stage time for them. Even knowing that, however, in order to give advice I need to know more about what kinds of shows they have in mind.
If you have developed a few numbers that you think will shine, go for it -- start looking for producers who want what you have! There is no show so settled and established that they can resist a performer who makes the audience happy.
This article describes a few kinds of shows that are common (depending on the pandemic situation) in New York City, and some ways that they get booked. This is not a definitive list, either of types of shows of ways each show gets booked, but I hope it will offer helpful perspectives for new and ambitious performers looking to get the stage time they dream of -- and stage time that will always lead to them becoming better, more polished performers.
Please correct me or let me know where I've left out important information! If you're a student or fan, what kinds of shows have you seen? If you're a professional, what kinds of shows do you produce or perform in? If you'd like to add to this article, please give your insights in the comments! These articles go out to students, and you can influence them by contributing here, and even share your contact or website for them. On Facebook your comments will just get lost in the feed eventually, and on your own social media they might never see it if they don't know to follow you; but here, you can reach new performers every month, and help contribute to those performers becoming the kind of professionals you want in your community.
1) Friends producing with friends. This is pretty much how the neo-burlesque movement got started in New York City. People with a shared interest in burlesque got together and produced shows, often just for fun but sometimes with specific professional goals.
If a show is made up mostly of friends, it may or may not be open to additional performers. If it remains a neighborhoody show, one that tends to serve a crowd of other friends or venue regulars, this is usually not an issue. Often audience members may end up performing in the show occasionally. However, if people in the audience or in the community begin to assign status to the show, it may come to be seen as exclusive and problematic. At that time the show may have to examine the effects of its presence on a larger community than it originally had in mind, and start looking to diversify and open up in order to be accountable to the community in which the show is occurring.
2) Troupes. These can be the structural equivalent of rock bands, and as such may not be looking for new members. A group of performers may create a troupe and produce shows together. They may audition occasionally for new troupemates, or invite performers with whom they are acquainted, or who are touring, as guest performers in some shows.
3) Festivals. These come in so many forms that it is hard to describe them. Generally speaking, they are annual events given by a set of producers to network and showcase performers and instructors. Festivals tend to be have clear information on their websites and social media about how they are booking their shows. They may be application-based or they may be invitation-only. Some pay, some don't; there are various ethical iterations of professionalism at this level. Performing at a festival is fun, and it's also an investment -- it's a networking opportunity and a chance to show your work to new people. They may also have a competition element. It is up to you to decide if you like to compete -- many people do, and every art form has competitions. However, some find it too stressful, and too painful if they don't live up to their own standards, so approach competitions with care.
4) Dedicated Burlesque Venues. These are actually pretty rare. For instance, in New York there are a lot of venues that have burlesque nights, and some that have them regularly, but very few venues whose primary jam is burlesque. Duane Park and The Slipper Room are the most established, if not the only, ones. These may have some features of a troupe, or they may have a pool of performers; it is pretty rare for them to reach out or announce auditions for new performers, but they usually are open to meeting potential stage helpers or guest performers. Just be aware that it can be a difficult fit, since these venues may have an established audience. Make sure the venue's style, aesthetic, professionalism, and social structure really work for you, and don't be fooled by status or pay--if it's not a good fit, you'll have major problems eventually.
5) Corporate Gigs. I once gave a presentation to a packed house of over 200 performers at BurlyCon, and I asked how many of them had done more than two corporate gigs in the past year. One person raised their hand.
The reality is that many corporate gigs do not want strippers; many brands are courting a family audience, even at events where alcohol is served, and don't want adult entertainment. ( check out this article to see the kind of response they're trying to avoid ) Many corporate event producers who say they want burlesque simply want wandering performers in fancy costumes, with whom the attendees can take selfies, rather than performers on a stage. While they occasionally pay ever so much money, they do not often pay ever so much money.
However, if you have a gut feeling that corporate gigs are your jam, go for it. Look for others that do corporate gigs -- follow them -- support them, and eventually ask them if they can mentor you, and offer to give them professional services or money to do it. There is a performer in New York, Abby Hertz, who was giving courses in getting high-paying gigs at corporate a big media events. Look her up and offer to pay for a consultation!
Not all shows are open to additional performers. They may simply have an existing cast. This applies to many kinds of shows. However, if they are open to adding performers, they will make casting calls. Most of the ones who are open to developing performers will make casting calls on social media. If you want to find those casting calls, you will have to do some leg work. Search for shows online or in your physical locale and follow them on social media. There is no equivalent to Variety for burlesque (although occasionally you'll see ads for burlesque performers there.) Also look for information on their websites to see if they have an audition process.
Lots of shows will make announcements on their social media that they are interested in newer performers. Others will make it clear they prefer developed or established performers.
Make sure you see their shows to see if what you want to do is what they hire. If what they want is not what you do, don't sweat it -- why should you create art you don't feel passionate about for an audience that isn't passionate about the art you like to do? In addition, they may require specific themes, acrobatic ability, or high-end costuming, and it is up to you to watch their shows and figure out not only if you're for them, but if they're for you.
One thing to keep in mind is that producing is difficult and expensive. Producers have a tendency to work with people they know are reliable, ethical, and pleasant to have backstage. This may be perceived as cliquey, and occasionally it is cliquey -- but often it's purely for the survival of the show and the producer's sanity. You want to become a person who is great to work with so that once you've gotten the gig you can get asked back to shows rather than continuously have to hustle for new gigs.
Coming soon: my article on the discussions about performance fees and rates in the burlesque community.