Xena Zeit-Geist’s Top 5 Miyazaki films, in advance of “Howl’s Twirling Tassels”



(Photo by Jerome Gacula)

“Howl’s Twirling Tassels: A Burlesque Revue Celebrating Hayao Miyazaki,” featuring Xena Zeit-Gest, Grand Mafun, Sarah Duprix, Remy Dee, Dane Baxter, Loretta Dean and Miss Margery
WHEN: Fri. (Aug. 12), 9 p.m. & midnight
WHERE: Eiffel Society (2040 St. Charles Ave.)
TICKETS: $10 general admission, $20 VIP
MORE: Visit Facebook event page

The Society of Sin long has trafficked in pop-culture homage that taps into such familiar territory as comic books (“Arkham ASSylum: A Batman Burlesque Play”) and TV game shows (“The Vice Is Right”). But with “Howl’s Twirling Tassels,” this nerdlesque troupe explores pop culture in a very different, and potentially more vivid, way in its tribute to Hayao Miyazaki. The legendary Japanese anime director and his Studio Ghibli crafted critically acclaimed movies for decades before stunning American audiences with the 2001 release of “Spirited Away” — which won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and helped audiences take a second look at previous releases such as “Princess Mononoke” and preceded the 2004 Academy Award-nominated “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

Miyazaki’s films work against many of the narrative and visual styles to which American audiences are generally accustomed to, unafraid to explore dark, even adult themes with fluid, sometimes languid rhythms and pulsating images. They often feature strong female protagonists, one of many reasons they are a fitting inspiration for The Society of Sin. On the eve of Friday’s performance, producer-performer Xena Zeit-Geist offers her five favorite Miyazaki films.

“Princess Mononoke” (1997) — “Princess Mononoke” was the first of Hayao Miyazaki’s films that I ever saw, so it will always hold the most special place in my heart. I remember picking it out from the video rental store during a weekend with my dad because of the wolf on the cover (I was obsessed with dogs and wolves as a child) and immediately being hooked. Rewatching the movie as an adult, the moral ambiguity of the film continues to fascinate me. I love stories where there’s a clear conflict but it’s not cut-and-dry good vs. evil, like the San vs. Eboshi conflict in “Princess Mononoke.” Lady Eboshi is the antagonist of the story, but she’s an incredibly strong, inspirational leader who does what she feels is best for mankind, no matter the stakes, and Ashitaka clearly has a lot of respect for her. She’s the first female character that I remember seeing portrayed as a benevolent, competent ruler in a children’s movie and one of the first “villains” who wasn’t straight-up evil. From the first time that I saw the film, I admired Lady Eboshi, even though I ultimately sided with San. At the time that I first watched “Princess Mononoke,” I strongly preferred the company of animals to the company of humans and was really banking on finding out I was an Anamorph (or at least realizing my ability to converse with animals like Eliza Thornberry) before I got too old so that I could go live in the wild and not deal with people anymore. I may have related to San’s anti-human self-loathing on a deeper level than most of my peers at the time. (Side note: I’m still secretly sort of upset that I still have no idea what my cat is saying the majority of the time.)

“Howl’s Moving Castle” (2004) — I read an interview of Hayao Miyazaki where he actually named Howl’s Moving Castle as his favorite of his creations, and I think that this is where his passion for filmmaking really shines. Miyazaki was open about his rage over the war in Iraq, which partially inspired the pacifist themes of “Howl’s Moving Castle,” but his strong opinions never come off as heavy-handed or preachy; it’s even easy to get swept up in the sweet, whimsical side of the plot. However, the film still manages to tackle a plethora of complex issues — depicting the atrocities of war, championing the message that life is worth living at any age, and, once again, illustrating that sometimes conflicts are more complex than good vs. evil and that even those who might be considered villains are capable of positive change, introspection and personal growth. Plus, there just really aren’t enough movies with badass little old ladies as lead characters, and Miyazaki’s portrayal of Sophie makes getting old seem pretty awesome.

“My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) — “My Neighbor Totoro” is one of the strangest, most imaginative stories I know of, and therefore one of my favorites. From the soot sprites, to the cat bus, to Totoro himself, Miyazaki creates a cast of fantastical, yet somehow oddly believable, characters in this heartwarming adventure. The cat bus is probably my favorite thing about the movie. I just rewatched this one with my roommates, who’d never seen it before, and it was getting to the part where Mei and Satsuki are waiting at the bus stop with Totoro, and then it’s Cat Bus that rolls up — such a strange and pleasantly unexpected creature. We all just laughed and marveled at the strange way that she moves with her little caterpillar legs. (I always imagine that the cat bus is a lady, even though I don’t think that cat buses actually abide by the gender binary.) When Loretta Dean mentioned wanting to do a Cat Bus-themed burlesque act, I was over the moon with anticipation! I believe the soot sprites will make an appearance, as well, and am told that her act will contain some audience interaction.

“Spirited Away” (2001) — As a kid who obsessed over books and movies like “Alice In Wonderland” and “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” I was absolutely smitten the first time I saw “Spirited Away.” Another masterpiece in imaginative storytelling, “Spirited Away” immediately swept me up in its dazzling and dark fairytale world. Like the strange, fantastical creatures in “My Neighbor Totoro,” the inhabitants of the film’s spirit world fascinated me to the point that I’d find myself my own versions of No-Face monsters and pig people and thinking of little backstories for them. It’s also an excellent examination of the effects of capitalism and consumerism; once again, Studio Ghibli manages to explore extremely complex, grown-up themes in a film made to appeal to young people without sacrificing story or watering anything down.

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989) — While some might argue that “Kiki’s Delivery Service” in some ways lacks the complex conflict and fantastical drama the makes so many of Miyazaki’s other films remarkable, it’s an endearing film with a lot of heart and one of my favorites. The film centers on a 13-year-old witch-in-training who’s transitioning into adulthood and getting her bearings as a practitioner of magic. Unlike so many Studio Ghibli films, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” does not delve into a morally ambiguous conflict between external forces but instead makes an antagonist out of the title character’s own self-doubt. In the film, Miyazaki does an expert job telling the story of a compassionate, resilient young woman who learns the value and power of her own vulnerability. This will always be one of my favorite movies to re-watch as someone who regularly battles villains such as “Imposter Syndrome” and fear of failure (as so many artists do). Kiki teaches one of the most important lessons someone interested in harnessing the magic inside them can learn: To be the best witch you can be, you have to find a reason to get right back on your broom, even after a big fall, even when no one understands (not even your cat), even when you’re not totally sure that you can fly. This is the only way to experience true triumph.

New Orleans’ own Josh Levin’s moving commentary for Slate’s “Hang Up and Listen” is the sum of all athlete essays


Slate’s “Hang Up and Listen” is one of and possibly the best sports podcasts on a good day. But (to borrow a sports cliché) the team took their game to the next level with last week’s episode titled “The Kevin Durant Just Broke the NBA Edition” — due in no small part to New Orleans’ own Josh Levin.

Levin, a 1998 graduate of Ben Franklin High School, more recently has spent several years as the executive editor for Slate, which includes hosting “Hang Up and Listen” — a weekly roundtable discussion of sports and culture that frequently includes contributors Stefan Fatsis and Mike Pesca. (Pesca, a frequent NPR contributor, also has his own Slate podcast, “The Gist.”)

As the “Hang Up and Listen” host, Levin often serves as the steady anchor and moderator to the more colorful Fatsis and Pesca, but it’s in the “Afterballs” — a lagniappe section at the episode’s end filled with commentary — that his dry wit takes flight. In his essay, Levin satirized Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant’s decision to jump to the 2015 NBA champion Golden State Warriors as announced on the sports-athlete website The Players’ Tribune. (The site often is used by athletes to post major career announces like these.)

Levin’s piece is a compendium of essays by pro athletes, including Durant, and taps into the sometimes self-important tone that borders on the pretentious. (Kobe Bryant comes to mind.) Hence passages such as this:

The primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a podcaster — as that has always steered me in the right direction. I’m at a point in my life where my ad reads need to be crisper, and my bonus segments need to be smarter. But it’s of equal importance for me to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man.”

Levin stresses that his “decision” is pure fiction — spoiler alert: he’s not switching places with Slate movie critic Dana Stevens — but with his words you have appreciate his “growth” as a podcaster.

“It’s the place where athletes go to make a big announcement, whether it’s Kevin Durant changing teams teams or someone leaving the sport so I kind of blended both,” Levin said by phone. “I don’t want to mock some for their sincerity, but there are some clichés of the form that have developed. It’s is such a new thing and it so quickly become ubiquitous, so there was an opportunity to have some fun with it and point out some of the ways that all of these announce sort of sound the same.” (I will have more from Levin later on. Stay tuned.)

You can read the essay in its text version (Levin cautions he might have reworked the wording on the air), or you can listen to the podcast embedded below; Levin’s commentary begins one hour and nine minutes into the podcast (or 1:09).


New Orleans readers might be more familiar with Levin’s “dispatches” from the Crescent City in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — just a couple years after he’d started working at Slate. (You can check out those stories here.)


“This has been by far the most challenging few weeks in my professional life. I understood cognitively that I was facing a crossroads in my evolution as a podcaster and as a man, and that it came with exceptionally difficult choices. What I didn’t truly understand, however, was the range of emotions I would feel during this process. A wise man once said you should trust the process, or maybe he didn’t say it and other people attributed it to him, but regardless he resigned and then the Sixers got Ben Simmons, so I wasn’t sure whether that meant I should trust the process or not. As I said, it’s been a challenging few weeks.

“The primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a podcaster — as that has always steered me in the right direction. I’m at a point in my life where my ad reads need to be crisper, and my bonus segments need to be smarter. But it’s of equal importance for me to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man.

“I’m from New Orleans originally, but Washington, D.C., truly raised me. I’ve been in this city for almost 14 years, at Slate for nearly 13, and recording episodes of this podcast since 2009. When I started at Slate in 2003, we were still four months away from the Guardian using the term podcasting in an article. What I’m trying to say is that, along with Mike Pesca and Stefan Fatsis but mostly by myself, afterball after afterball, one SquareSpace ad at a time, I invented podcasting and got Zelmo Beaty into the Hall of Fame. But at the same time, I was learning about family as well as what it means to be a man.


Mike Pesca, Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis and Billy Cundiff recording live onstage

“Podcasting brought me opportunities that I never thought possible: building a new medium, being a part of history. It has helped me build my community, build families and build young women.

“Sure, it wasn’t all fun and games. I popped my share of p’s, read the wrong promo code during a MeUndies spot, and didn’t prepare well enough for that interview with the guy whose name I never learned. But I honestly believe that all of those experiences helped make me who I am, and who I will become.

I podcasted through the sweat and hurt
Not because challenge called me
But because YOU called me.
I did everything for YOU
Because that’s what you do
When someone makes you feel as
Alive as you’ve made me feel.

“There are no words to express what the Slate and Panoply organizations mean to me, and what they will represent in my life and in my heart forever. The memories and friendships and afterballs are something that go far beyond all the awards we haven’t won. Those invaluable relationships, with people like Mike and Stefan and Panoply chief content officer Andy Bowers and trivia champion emeritus Carman Tse, are what made this deliberation so challenging.

“With this in mind, I have decided that I am going to stay at Slate, but I’m going to switch spots with Dana Stevens. Trust me, you’ll come to love her low center of gravity. That’s my final decision, although if Stefan cuts short his Caribbean vacation and plays spades with me and Paul Pierce and JJ Redick and Blake Griffin, then maybe I’ll change my mind and sign a four-year, $88 million max deal.

“Signed Josh Levin, executive editor. Copyright 2016, The Podcasters’ Tribune.”

(Listen to this week’s episode, “The Fleek Five Edition)

(Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes)

(You can follow Josh Levin here on Twitter.)

With “The Innocents,” feminism, and a faith compromised

Les Innocentes

Lou de Laage and Agata Buzek in “The Innocents”

“The Innocents” (“Les Innocentes”)
WHEN: Monday (July 11), 12 p.m.
WHERE: Prytania Theatre, 5339 Prytania St.
MORE INFO: Visit Prytania website

In powerful moment in the 2016 French film “Les Innocentes,” Sister Maria, a Polish nun, is explaining her crisis of faith to a Mathilde, a French doctor whom she’s convinced to help her convent sisters:

At first you’re like a child holding your father’s hand, feeling safe. Then a time comes — and I think it always comes — when your father lets go. You’re lost, alone in the dark. You cry out, but no one answers. Even if you prepare for it, you’re caught unawares. It hits you right in the heart.”

It says something about the power of “Les Innocentes” (or “The Innocents”) — which will receive an encore screening by the French Film Festival at noon Monday (July 11) at the Prytania — that the most sharply observed scenes occur among women. Indeed, there are long stretches where men are absent, a rarity for a movie set in the aftermath of World War II. The film, directed by Anne Fontaine, was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival, and the critical response has been favorable; it garnered a healthy 88 percent on the film-critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.

It’s a well-deserved response; Fontaine uses a somber, meditative approach to tell a story of survival and compromised faith. She works with a history that’s been well covered in cinema, especially if you include its references to the Holocaust, and avoids familiar by bringing a fresh feminist perspective to a time and place dominated by patriarchy.

The heroine, Mathilde (Lou de Laâge), is based on the real-life Madeleine Pauliac, a French doctor who works with other French Red Cross medical personnel in a Polish hospital still tending to the wounded months after the official close of World War II but in the early days of the Soviet occupation. While making her rounds, she meets Maria, a Polish nun who pleads for her to come with her to the nearby convent. After she arrives, Mathilde learns that Soviet soldiers have raped many of the sisters, with several in the final trimester of pregnancy.

Mathilde ignores orders to focus strictly on French soldiers and overcomes opposition from the convent’s leader to help guide the nuns through the delivery, one after another, setting up a series of conflicts. It’s within those sometimes-muddled conflicts that “The Innocents” finds its female empowerment. Part of that is because the most dominant male character, Samuel, her superior and casual lover, knows she’s up to something but seems almost powerless to stop her. Maybe it’s because he has stronger feelings for her than he’s willing to admit, or maybe he trusts her instincts more than someone in his position otherwise might.

But as “The Innocents” unfolds, this clearly becomes a World War II movie about women who fight to be survivors and not victims of man’s inhumanity toward man. For the nuns, that means grappling with their faith, which has been compromised by the brutality suffered at the hands of their supposed liberators. They also have an unlikely foe in their mother superior, Ida (Agata Kulesza), whose unwavering allegiance to church doctrine includes keeping the convent free from scandal by any means necessary. She initially resists the help available from Mathilde, even excoriating Maria for summoning the doctor.


While she’s also defending an ancient patriarchy, it’s interesting that we never see any male presence at the convent. This isn’t historically inaccurate, but it’s clear that Fontaine wants this battle over whether the nuns should receive outside medical attention (with its potential risk of exposure) to play out among women only.

Even when discussing sex and religion, “The Innocents” offers a modern take, and again, through the women’s eyes. While all of the nuns have taken a vow of celibacy, not all of them were virgins when they entered the convent. One of them even had fallen in love with one of the Soviet solders, and noted how he’d tried to protect the women from his comrades’ repeated assaults. Despite those attacks, the women who’d had some kind of sexual life before the convent reflect fondly of those pre-convent days. Even Mathilde notes she’d had lovers before her arrival, and at no point are we led to suspect that she’s falling in love with Samuel. She sees their relationship for what it is, and not much more.

Indeed, Mathilde seems a bit of a closed book emotionally, and it’s only when she develops a bond with Sister Maria that we start to see her vulnerability. It’s Maria, not Samuel, who successfully draws Mathilde out in their quiet moments together, suggesting an intimacy far stronger than two lovers sharing pillow talk in their off-work hours.

Religion plays a part in this; Samuel is a French Jew who seems indifferent to everyone, including the Poles he believe let themselves be dominated by the Germans and then the Russians. Mathilde is a Communist, which is code for atheist, and it takes personal, reflective discussions with Maria to understand the concept of faith that has become so compromised by the nuns’ circumstances.

Mathilde slowly becomes more involved in helping tend to the nuns as their due dates start to arrive, and she only turns to Samuel when she realizes she can’t handle multiple deliveries. After a harrowing visit to the convent, Samuel finally sees how emotionally invested she’s become, and seeks to console her.


“The Innocents” was a group effort but with a strong female presence; Fontaine recruited Caroline Champetier for the cinematography, which is a study in gray sobriety. While Lou de Laâge might be considered one of France’s rising stars, and an attractive one at that, there’s a resistance to exploit her beauty. Fontaine collaborated with filmmaker Pascal Bonitzer on the adaptation, with writing contributions from Sabrina B. Karine and Alice Vial. This shows in the storyline, which gets a little bogged down in the middle section and creates some inconsistent character motivations.

It’s also curious that the real-life figure, Madeleine Pauliac, was actually the chief doctor at the hospital in Warsaw; perhaps the screenwriters believed it would seem more dramatic to have her rise from a more subordinate position at the hospital to help the nuns. At least one review criticized the ending — which I won’t give away here, but one that fits nicely into the feminist, even maternal instincts of the filmmaker.

No matter what challenges the convent will face — whether they be literal or spiritual — it will be the women and not the men who will find a way to face them. At least in spiritual matters, Fontaine refuses to play it safe. She refuses to turn “The Innocents” into an indictment of the Catholic church in particular or organized religion in general, but more to show how women can, when given the opportunity, put their faith into action.

(Note: When I started thinking about writing about the film from a more feminist, I’d Googled around to see what if any female film critics (or any, really) had shared this feeling, or least on a slightly deeper level — and came up pretty dry. Then after I’d started writing, I found this great essay by Teo Bugbee on MTV.com. Enjoy.)

Trixie Minx at Jazz Ascona: Time tripping with the Treme Brass Band (Field Trip)

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As part of our “Field Trip” series, New Orleans burlesque producer and performer Trixie Minx continues her travelogue at Switzerland’s Jazz Ascona, which features a celebration of New Orleans music that includes the Treme Brass Band, Tom McDermott, Aurora Nealand, Glen David Andrews, Shamarr Allen, Topsy Chapman, Anais St. John, Lillian Boutté and Shannon Powell. Here she checks in at the midway point.

The other day I realized I had been in Switzerland for exactly one week, marking the mid-point of the Jazz Ascona Festival. It was a strange realization, because ever since I got to the festival time hasn’t been used as a unit of measurement so much as a pleasant reminder to see or work with another musician. It is difficult to describe but so clear to everyone that is here that Jazz Ascona is not merely a music festival but a music experience.

My days and nights have blurred together into a single thread of artistic and very human consciousness. When I first arrived I had a very grand plan of waking up early, working on projects with my friends, seeing the sights and then performing all night. I love the calm of a scheduled routine, but the environment of the festival led me to relax my “plan” and truly live the experience I am so lucky to be in. So my typical yet not scheduled day starts by waking up early to the sound of church bells (which are on every corner; seriously, it’s like Starbucks) since they hate the idea of me sleeping in. In a zombie-like state, I leave my room in search of coffee. This is where my adventures begin… .

I’m half a block from the piazza, which is the main street on the lake and the location of most of the stages for the festival. I’ve taken dozens of pictures of the piazza, but photos don’t seem to capture the unimaginable beauty of this view. The street is lined with little cafes dotted with brightly colored, umbrella-covered tables looking out on to a lake swirled with crystal clear blue and green water. Swans gently glide by, and in the distance the snow-tipped Alps are as far as the eye can see. I joke that it is like “The Truman Show” because it truly looks to heavenly to be real.

On this beautiful street, I run into different musicians each day. They are either drinking coffee at a cafe, smoking under the shade of a tree, playing music on their balcony or even stumbling home from the night before. I’m very fortunate to have worked with most of these artists for years in New Orleans, but we very rarely get to hang outside of a gig; however in Ascona we have this unique bubble where we can both work and hang. Of course we go see shows, castles, waterfalls and mountains, but my favorite part continues to be the conversations we have with one another.

My evening starts around 8 p.m. parading with the Treme Brass Band. As the only burlesque lady dancing through the streets in sparkly drawers amongst a festival that is primarily made up of musicians and people who love jazz, I bring a little extra NOLA magic to the mix in my role as an ambassador. The crowds truly love music and New Orleans, so marching down the cobblestone streets each night with Treme is more than just a “gig” but truly an honor to be sharing what we do locally on an international level. Afterwards the guys and I get drinks, eat dinner and see more music. After all the stage shows, everyone meets up at the late-night jam session.

These jam sessions are perhaps one of the strongest defining points of Jazz Ascona. While each artist is amazing at their craft and kills it on their individual stage sets, at the jam session you have an incredible mix of all the artists playing together. It’s a very interesting game of musical chairs where people are continuously jumping on/off the stage to play the next song. I even got to get in the mix on bass for a couple tunes and did a pop-up burlesque performance as well.

With music in the air, booze in most everyone and an electric energy of happiness, the night fades into morning, and the process is all repeated again.

As I said earlier, time has not been a unit of measurement but a pleasant reminder of music each day. So while I am halfway through my “time” at Jazz Ascona, I’m not counting the minutes but loving all the moments, a concept I hope to bring back with me.


Bunny Love’s top 5 (or so) influences to prep for “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie”

Killing of a Lesbian Bookie

Bunny Love as Triple Lexxx. (Photo by Edward Simon)

WHAT: “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” written and directed by Jim Fitzmorris and starring Bunny Love, Justin Welborn and Kimberly Kaye
WHEN: Thursday-Saturday (June 30-July 2), 8 p.m.; Sunday (July 3), 6 p.m.
WHERE: The Theatre at St. Claude, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
MORE INFO: Click here

To say that Bunny Love is a woman under the influence in Jim Fitzmorris’ “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” which concludes its two-weekend run starting Thursday (July 30) at The Theatre at St. Claude, would be a massive understatement. Like the playwright himself, Bunny Love brings myriad influences to a story whose title is lifted from director John Cassavetes’ arthouse noir classic. (I noted as much in my review of the playI noted as much in my review of the play.) To get a sense of this, and how Bunny Love tapped into her own vast background as a burlesque performer, I asked her to share those influences.

“Dracula” was the first play I had done in a while and my introduction to the New Orleans theater scene after moving back here from New York City in 2014. We performed the last two weekends in October — perfect for Halloween. It was a short, intense rehearsal, as I have now learned, the only kind of (Jim) Fitmorris rehearsal. I was thrilled to be doing a play and even more thrilled to be working with Matthew Mickal, Joel Derby, Kimberly Kaye, Trey Lagan and Jim Fitzmorris. I fell madly in love with everyone involved! I’d been hit by a car on Oct. 8 while riding my bike in Audubon Park and broke my left wrist in three pieces. I could have felt sorry for myself and gotten depressed, but this show, with these people, saved me from that. At the end of our run, Jim had a light-bulb moment and realized Kimberly Kaye and I were the two actresses he’d been seeking for his play “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” a play he’d written in early 2013. He’d always had his college buddy, L.A.-based actor Justin Welborn, in mind to play Irish, but couldn’t find the right fit for the two female characters: Triple Lexxx, the burlesque star about to open her own club, and Bookie, her wise-rackin’ “Fake-O tough guy” girlfriend. When I took Jim’s script home and read it, it was like he’d written it for me! I was a little freaked out. Justin and Kimberly (who was living in New York City, but recently moved here) were able to come to New Orleans in November for a reading. Sparks were flying from that first table work. We were titillated with excitement. We decided we would do the show in June. Justin arrived on the night of the 13th, and we went to work. Long, intense, eight-to-nine-hour rehearsals with people I love and admire is pure joy for me! We opened the show on the 23rd. It all came together with “hard work and hustle,” and a lot of theatrical magic. The show is a blast — three damaged human beings looking for redemption, spitfire dialogue, and a twisting plot that will literally keep you on the edge of your seat. I did some very specific work to prepare for this play. Here are some of my inspirations.

John Cassavetes — Filmmaker, actor and just my type of man, intensely sexy and infinitely cool. Like my character, Triple Lexxx, I “love all Cassavetes.” After our initial table work, I had a Cassavetes move marathon. I spent days watching everything: “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” “Shadows,” “Faces,” “Husbands,” “Minnie and Moskowitz, “A Woman Under the Influence,” “Gloria,” and “Big Trouble.” I think I missed one or two. Falling in love again with the man and his movies, his “gritty American realism,” and how it related to “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie.” Cassavetes presented difficult, flawed characters in disturbing situations delivering clever dialogue one might hear at a cocktail party gone wrong. It was helpful to steep myself in that world. There is a particular feeling in all of Cassavetes’ work, and that feeling is there in “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie.” Irish, Lexxx and Bookie, all with their faults and dark secrets in a frightfully tense situation with crisp dialogue that sometimes erupts into shouting. I never met Cassavetes, but I did have a “next best thing” moment when I met Ben Gazzara at a film festival in New York City and had a mini-makeout session as I was putting him into a cab at the end of the night. Yum!

All the movies mentioned in “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie” (in addition to Cassavetes) — “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” “The Town,” “Frankenstein,” “The Godfather,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Chinatown” and “The Count of Monte Cristo.” I needed to understand the references to these movies, but I also found a love and appreciation for these beautifully constructed films, most of which I would have thought aren’t really my thing, but found myself riveted. Like Irish and Lexxx, I also love movies, and it was just great to be reminded of that. These films are also full of characters, situations and dialogue that related to life and informs “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie.”

Barbara Stanwick (specifically in “Baby Face”) — this is a wonderful character study of a woman who knows how to use what her momma and daddy gave her to get what she wants. It’s super racy for 1933! She is always in control of herself and her situation — well, until the tragic end. I tried to take on that strength and control. I even stole a few facial expressions and gestures. She’s a woman on her way to the top. She knows what she wants and she will do whatever it takes to get it. She’s scrappy and comes from the wrong side of the tracks, but has groomed herself to hide all that. Triple Lexxx is also all of those things.

Lauren Bacall (specifically in “The Big Sleep”) — She is know for her cool demeanor and unflappable poise. I think Lexxx made a study of her and wanted to be that cool. I studied her posture and her stillness; she hardly ever moves her shoulders. It’s incredible and so powerful, and her hands, her beautiful hands! Another piece of candy from this movie was the way she and Bogart flirted, the cat and mouse, the wordplay. They are the best. We strive for something like that in our play. Finally, it was the love between Bogart and Bacall. You could feel her love for him. I wanted that for Lexxx: a true love. I want the audience to see that in my eyes.

My own life and various burlesque performers, strippers and sex workers I am friends with or have known — One of the first things you do as an actor is look for the connective tissue between yourself and the character. Luckily, I had so much to draw on, not that it’s the same, but that it’s relatable or easily substituted. Of course, there’s my long career in burlesque, but I had also fantasized about opening a burlesque club here, before I moved back, so I already knew what it looked like. I also used pieces of women I know, their lives, their personalities. So many influences, both good and bad, but I don’t want to incriminate anyone so I’ll just give you a few examples: From my BFF, my wife, Bambi the Mermaid, I used her incredible ability to manifest exactly what she wants in life. From Julie Atlas Muz, I got her Detroit toughness. Julie is a lovely, sweet person, but definitely the lady who can take care of herself. From Dirty Martini, I borrowed her undying passion and pure love for burlesque, performing and entertaining.

Snake Oil Festival closes out with the “Unholy Roller Revival” Sunday (photos)

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A crowd of about 200 enjoyed the third and final night of the second annual Snake Oil Festival on Sunday (June 26) with the “Unholy Roller Revival” hosted by co-producer the Rev. Ben Wisdom, with Dr. Sick and the Asylum Chorus providing a mesmerizing soundtrack for New Orleans and visiting national and international performers.

I’ll have more fleshed-out thoughts on the evening once I nail down some details, but wanted to share this photo gallery (with a quick video) to give you an idea of how much fun the night was — a hellfire-and-brimstone celebration of dance, music and flight. And while the local performers showcased New Orleans’ burlesque and sideshow talent, arguably the most intriguing performance came from an out-of-towner — sort of. Lune Noirr, an Asheville, N.C.-based performer who reportedly will soon set up shot in New Orleans, gave a brilliant dance performance in a costume as kinetic (and timely) as one could see at the show.

Other performers: New Orleans’ Ember Blaize, Tsarina Hellfire and Queenie O’Hart, as well as Kitson Sass (Minnesota), Mariposa Bop (London), Mena Domina (Santa Fe, N.M.) and Miranda Tempest (Toronto).

The Snake Oil Festival was produced by the Rev. Ben Wisdom and Little Luna and featured about 70 performers over three nights showcasing burlesque, circus arts and circus sideshow acts, with workshops held during the day. Check out my preview in the New Orleans Advocate, as well as a mini-review from 2015.

Again, more to come soon.

With “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” Jim Fitzmorris plays all of his angles


Photo by Edward Simon

WHAT: “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” written and directed by Jim Fitzmorris and starring Bunny Love, Justin Welborn and Kimberly Kaye
WHEN: 6 p.m. Sunday (June 26); Thursday-Sunday (June 30-July 3)
WHERE: The Theatre at St. Claude, 2240 St. Claude Ave.
MORE INFO: Click here

Jim Fitzmorris wears his influences on his sleeve. Or, in the case of “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie,” on his plays’ title, and on the spare stage of his latest work that opened this weekend at his Theatre at St. Claude. Movie posters of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and rows of DVDs from The Criterion Collection fill the stage and prompt snippets of dialogue from the characters, but clearly they’re laid bare as if transported from Fitzmorris’ home, or brain.

So when smooth-talking and wise-cracking beverage vendor (Justin Welborn) shows up on the soft opening of a nightclub venture and starts flirting with the co-owner and featured performer (Bunny Love), their shared of love of ’70s crime films by Cassavetes, Polanski and Coppola, the audience immediately knows that this is Fitzmorris at his most reverential and referential. But almost as immediately, as a flirtation turns to threats and then into terror and then into intrigue and possibly back again, the audience also recognizes another Fitzmorris passion: complexity. It’s the complexity of motivations, of desire and even of language that often motors Fitzmorris’s works, and while they’re often challenging to follow, they’re always worth the ride.

“The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie” is an uptempo and bumpy ride in which allegiances switch with every “reveal,” a popular word in a show and with burlesque undertones. (Fitzmorris, also a frequent chronicler of New Orleans’ burlesque scene, knows this as well as he does movies.) As the co-owner of the Triple Lexxx club, Bunny Love can practically live the role, having performed for several years in New York City’s gritty neo-burlesque scene. She returned to New Orleans a couple years ago, bringing her New York sensibilities to shows such as Bella Blue’s “Dirty Dime Peepshow” while increasingly elevating her theater profile. So when she recounts a seedy story of life as a stripper, as with Fitzmorris you almost want to believe it comes from her own experiences. But you can’t dwindle on the thought for very long in this 70-minute one-act play. The action’s too fast.

The play starts off with Lexxxi ready to open her nightclub, for which she’s scrimped and saved to open and make her meal ticket after years in the business, with the help of her lover (played by a twitching Kimberly Kaye). Those plans are compromised by the appearance of Irish, who presents himself as the beverage supplier for the club, and the two strike up a conversation that goes beyond business.

It’s just when Irish senses Lexxxi’s loyalty to her partner has its own motivations that he reveals (at least one of) his own after a frantic phone call from her partner, a part-time bookie who warns Lexxxi that Irish has come to kill her. Hanging up the phone, Lexxxi can only keep her poker face for so long before Irish explains his presence:“Bookie” owes debtors for huge gambling losses built on Lexxxi’s money. But he tries to calm her down with the slightly reassuring thought: “I’m the second-to-the-last person you want to see. … In politics and crime, there’s always a second-to-the-last-guy.” Lexxxi, twisting around their previous flirting, responds, “You watch too many movies … so you’re Tom Hagen (of ‘The Godfather’ fame)?”

Irish offers a proposal — more a less-worse option — in which Lexxxi signs the club over to him so he can gain control of it (and Lexxxi) to help pay off the debt as long as Bookie disappears.

A tight cast makes great work of a tight though sometimes dense script, with Justin Welborn (FX’s “Justified”) bringing a pitch-perfect mix of cynicism, swagger and a sliver of vulnerability to his role. He could either try to dominate the stage as the lone male character or get lost in a lover’s quarrel, but he does neither, and it’s a neat trick. It is only fitting that his character once was an aspiring movie mogul, playing on Welborn’s own movie experience. And Kaye’s nervous intensity crackles throughout the show, even at times drawing in the audience’s sympathy with her own vulnerability. Through her desperation we still see another soul trying hard, like the others, not to be lost. If they all need a few moments in the early going to get their footing with the script, they all hit their stride quickly enough.

They do this just in time for a cleverly conceived passage in which exposition is revealed in a three-way dialogue between them, told partly in present time and also in flashback, with each character alternating in filling in the holes. It’s all wordplay as gunplay, of which there’s plenty already.

So much about “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie” is about control, which makes it that much more interesting when Lexxxi explains why she favors burlesque over stripping: “Because it gives the illusion that the audience is in control … the only decisions are mine.” Once every character has explained their angle in this love triangle, it’s Lexxxi’s call.

Jim Fitzmorris bills the play as his first full-length piece since “A Truckload of Ink,” which he followed up with such works as his brilliant manifesto-monologue, “Be a New Orleanian.” He’s found a home for his works at The Theatre at St. Claude, with an intimate space that David Raphel makes great use of in his set design. Su Gonzcy works the lighting deftly in what amounts to two adjoining rooms, and Dana Marie Embree’s costumes blur the lines between the ’70s and the present day.

And yet, watching this compressed treat, I can’t help but wonder if “The Killing of a Lesbian Bookie” could be something a little grander — like, say, a burlesque musical where Lexxxi’s dreams of a fabulous nightclub come to life, with music and dance numbers as eloquent as Fitzmorris’ rapid-fire dialogues and monologues. That’s not so much a criticism as a wish. This work is already more fully realized in narrative structure and prose than its casual inspiration, John Cassavetes’ 1976 arthouse noir, “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.” As good as this play is, you sense the possibilities of something even grander.

I guess that’s the point of burlesque: Always leave the audience wanting more.

Trixie Minx returns to Ascona, Switzerland (Field Trip)

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When I learned New Orleans burlesque producer and performer Trixie Minx (Fleur de Tease) was returning with Piper Marie to Atlantic City for their seasonal performances with “The Burlesque Show,” it made sense to approach Trixie about participating in our “Field Trip” series. But when she mentioned that she would be returning to Ascona, Switzerland, for the Ascona Jazz Festival, a change in plans was in order. We will have more on the Atlantic City gig later this summer, but for now, here is the first installment of her European trip, starting with a look back to 2011.

The first time I ever heard about the Ascona Jazz Festival was through drummer Gerald French. In a nutshell, this festival celebrates New Orleans Jazz over a two-week period in Ascona, Switzerland, every year. The festival organizer, Nico, was visiting New Orleans when Gerald had invited him to see my “Burlesque Ballroom” show at the Royal Sonesta (Gerald was playing drums in the band). Nico quietly stood by the bar and watched the whole show with a big smile on his face. Afterwards, Gerald introduced us and we all hit it off. Nico asked if we could bring a burlesque show to the Ascona Festival, and of course we said yes.

The idea of combining jazz music and burlesque is not new, but one that has been lost over the years, most notably since the heyday of 1950s burlesque on Bourbon Street. Nico recognized the importance of the relationship between music and dance leading him to theme the 2011 Jazz Ascona Festival as “Body and Soul.” He told us that this was the first time they had ever brought burlesque into what was an all-music festival. While it was sort of a risky gamble to try something new, he truly believed in us and the artistic merit of the marriage between jazz music and burlesque.

With excitement and our first gig already booked, Gerald, myself and Jayna Morgan (who was the “Burlesque Ballroom” bandleader at the time) teamed up to create “Creole Sweet Tease” specifically for this event. We put together an all-star cast featuring dancers: Kitty Twist, Nona Narcisse, Bella Blue and myself. This included a killer band that featured Kerry Lewis, Steve Pistorius, Tom Fischer and, of course, Gerald and Jayna. With Magic Mike as our host we had the dream team that made up the first cast of the new show.

I wanted the show to be more than just talented ladies in sparkling costumes dancing to great music. Performing at this festival was an incredible opportunity, so it was super-important for me that the show had a story arc that touched on the history of New Orleans. With home and history as a start, Jayna, Gerald and I picked songs from the late 1800s to the 1920s. We assigned each dancer a character that each had a different story of how they came to work in Storyville for the first act. The second act then continued the story of their lives after the fall of Storyville and through the roaring Twenties.

When we arrived in Ascona, it truly was heaven on Earth. A small town on a lake in the south of Switzerland surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it looked like a scene from a Hollywood movie. Several outside stages were set up along the Piazza (all with the Alps as a backdrop) and a couple of smaller stages in cafes not directly on the lake.

While the beauty of our surroundings had us is awe, it was the New Orleans people that truly brought the town to life. Musicians from all over the world, but primarily New Orleans, played day and night for two weeks. Brass bands parading down cobblestone streets turned the pleasant quiet town into one of hearty celebration. Creole Sweet Tease performed our full show four times, and our band/dancers did several smaller sets throughout the week.

While I could write a book about all the crazy stuff that happened here is a short list of my favorite experiences:

1) Seeing giant posters of Gerald and myself plastered all over town. We were the image for the 2011 festival, and it was a surreal experience to see our image blown up with foreign text in the headline.
2) Second lining and getting to better know the late Uncle Lionel Lionel Batiste, but most of all …
3) Showcasing New Orleans burlesque with a cast of fiercely talented performers to a brand new audience, and seeing that audience smile.

New Orleans actress Kerry Cahill on her own loss, following Pulse Orlando shooting

Editor’s Note: New Orleanian Kerry Cahill is an educator and professional actress whose life in public was completely transformed when her father, 62-year-old physician’s assistant Michael Cahill, was the only civilian among the 13 murdered in the Fort Hood mass shooting back in 2009. Cahill, whose screen credits include such films as “Now You See Me,” “Oldboy,” TV’s “Common Law” and the upcoming “Free State of Jones,” was featured in Greg Barker’s documentary “Homegrown: The Counter-Terror Dilemma” — which began airing on HBO this past February. In the aftermath of the Pulse Orlando shooting, I asked Cahill if she would reflect on her experiences and how if at all these recent shooting resonates with her.

I will introduce myself. My name is Kerry Cahill, I’m an actress and a teacher and a 16-year resident of New Orleans. My father was murdered at Fort Hood Army Base on Nov. 5, 2009. It was a domestic terrorist attack. “Domestic terrorism” means activities that A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended — to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion. Also: It means it’s at home, and the attack comes from home; meaning the terrorist is from your country. It also means the attack may not always be violent.

So this definition includes the Westboro Baptist Church, the Charleston, S.C. shooter, the Oak Creek shooter, the Orlando shooter, and the Lafayette shooter. I make sure we realize this because I’m pointing out that we have a very large problem in America that is beyond Islamic extremism. Domestic terrorism doesn’t discriminate; domestic terrorists will target any group they don’t like: soldiers, homosexuals, women, religious groups and African Americans.

Now that the definition of domestic terrorism is clear, let’s move on. We are a country in grief and we have been in grief for a very long time. I don’t know anyone that has not been affected by gun violence, and I know quite a few people all across the nation. I travel a lot, and I moved a lot as a child. I’m willing to bet you, the reader, know at least five people affected by gun violence. So it is safe to say that we have a violence problem in America and people are using guns most of the time to enact this violence.

I’m not sure how to say this next part without it sounding mean, but it’s important that you realize this. You are probably not going to be a hero if this ever happens to you. I say this because I think the human condition requires us to have a sense of certainty and control over our lives to feel safe. Mass shootings and gun violence are obviously uncertain. No one I have ever met runs faster than a bullet. There is no negotiating. So if you are in a movie theater, club or a well-lit mall, and you have a gun and you are not a special forces or SWAT-team-trained individual, the first thing you will do when the shooting starts is freeze for about three seconds. Three short seconds. About five bullets. It’s not on purpose, it’s not because you don’t care; it’s because your body is in shock. If you have not already been shot now you are catching up and there is chaos, people are running, screaming, the gunman is still shooting, and you are shaking. Now pick that gun up and miss all the other people and make a kill shot in three seconds while the shooter is moving around. Do it! Come on! What’s wrong with you?

(Learn more: Read CNN article on Michael Cahill)

At the Soldier Readiness Processing Center on Fort Hood Army Base, there were more than 60 soldiers in that room, and only four people charged the shooter. Four! My father was one of them. Let’s explain him a bit: 62 years old, more than 20 years in the Army, and grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Spokane, Wash.. He was also in a cubicle when it started, so frankly that gave him two or three split seconds to start running. He was a hero everyday, too. He stood up for people all the time, fought for his patients, and never backed down. It was a habit with him to fight; to charge the bad guy was an extension of that. I urge you to look at your daily habits, because that’s what comes out when a trauma happens.

I still miss my dad, I fight for veterans to further his mission, I tell stories about him, I emulate him, and I …. I cry, more often than I will admit. I cry when something great happens, when something bad happens, I pick up my phone and call his voicemail; we still have his phone on. I’m missing a piece of me. I’m never getting it back, and I am just one of the thousands upon thousands affected. I can tell you there are wounded from the Fort Hood shooting still getting treatment from their wounds, bullets lodged in their bodies, severed nerves, brain surgery after brain surgery, and more.

Brody's 1st Christmas

Michael Cahill with family

I can tell you that the phrase “That must have been hard.” is haunting. Why is it past tense? Do people think that mass shootings, trauma, terrorist attacks suddenly go away? I’m getting better at moving through life with this suitcase of trauma, but movie theaters make me nervous, as do buildings with one exit, and lone men who look a little too quiet or angry because 99 percent of mass shooters are lone men who are a little too quiet or angry.

I say all this because you might think about this when a mass shooting is near your home or your city, but for me it’s a computer tab in my brain that is always open. I am not saying I never laugh or smile or feel joy. I do. I just need you, the reader, to understand that I’m laughing through some pretty thick scar tissue, and, unfortunately, there are more and more people like me every day. That is the bigger problem. I wish I was unique. I don’t want you or my future children to feel this way.

Thank you for reading this. I know this isn’t easy. This does not mean I don’t think you should have a gun. I know people who evacuated to safety during Katrina because they had guns to keep them safe. I own a gun, as do most of my friends, and guns are what eventually took down my father’s shooter. Let me be clear: I do not think all guns should be banned. I’m just pointing out that in a couple weeks before the next shooting, we will sit back down and forget that we still need to fix this problem. We will sit back down into our “It would be different for me” world. Because we have to. We have to so we can leave the house and smile.

So here is what I’m asking you to do: Acknowledge some facts, be honest with yourself, be honest about our current politicians and continue to argue, debate and struggle through to find some solutions. I for one tend to wonder why we don’t treat guns like cars. The bigger the car the more you have to do to get a license. I don’t see this as a major issue. Terrorists and future mass shooters are buying the same guns you are, training with the same people. (My father’s shooter trained with good old-fashioned Texas gun lovers.)

Nader and Kerry Waiting to speak

Nader Hasan and Kerry Cahill prepare to speak at event

But my real point here is that we can’t stop in two weeks; we have to focus on multiple policies at a time as well. If you think one sweeping policy will fix this — like banning immigration or banning assault rifles — you’re wrong. There are more guns in America than people, and almost all the mass shooters over the past 20 years were born and raised in the USA. These are facts. I don’t like them either, but they are true. Google them. Most mass shootings are domestic violence, as well. So we, including our congressional members and U.S. senators, have to now use the same tactic the founding forefathers used when they wrote the Constitution. We have to sit in rooms and argue, debate, listen, yell, state facts and believe the facts, and come up with policies for background checks that can help, as well as access to mental health, domestic-violence policy changes, funding for metal detectors possibly, hotlines for people worried that they know someone who needs a mental-health assessment, more training required if you want to own a certain type of gun that can kill 50 people in a short amount of time, etc., etc. … I put the “etcetera” there on purpose because I don’t know the answer, either.

I do know that I will probably not make it out of a mass shooting alive. I won’t win against an AR-15 or a Glock 45. I won’t, and that’s OK. I never want to have to fight one again, I already got lucky once: I was robbed at gunpoint and made it out alive. And if you think you’re tired of the violence, imagine how the 13-year-old in my school who lost her 3-year-old sister to a drive-by shooting feels. Imagine how I feel, imagine how a 9/11 survivor feels, imagine how a president who has had to hug more than 100 victims’ family members feels. So don’t get tired — get mad, get energetic, and don’t stop because I’m never moving out of the USA. I will stay and make it better. I hope you do, too.


Fleur de Tease’s Chris Lane on life as a burlesque emcee: “My job is to get off the stage”

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Fleur de Tease “Prince Tribute Revue,” with backing band the White Beach
WHEN: Saturday (June 11), 8 p.m. and 1030 p.m., followed by dance party
WHERE: One Eyed Jacks, 615 Toulouse St.
MORE INFO: www.fleurdetease.com

“Comic Strip,” hosted by Chris Lane
Siberia, 2227 St. Claude Ave.

While many of the attendees of this past weekend’s Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender in Las Vegas were excited about the crowning of Miss Poison Ivory as Miss Exotic World, a lot of the action that drew attention centered around controversial comments from two male emcees at different events. (Check out 21st Century Burlesque posts on Dusty Limits and Armitage Shanks; the latter emcee is familiar to New Orleans audiences notably for “Storyville Rising” and the Snake Oil Festival.) In light of the controversy, we asked Fleur de Tease emcee Chris Lane to reflect on the challenges of and opportunities for a male emcee who presides over an increasingly diverse range of the bump and grind. Lane, a veteran New Orleans stand-up comic, also hosts and produces “Comic Strip,” an open-mic comedy show with burlesque “interludes” Mondays at Siberia. He has toured with the Pretty Things Peep Show and has hosted shows in Austin and Chicago. Fleur de Tease concludes its 10th season with a return of its ever-evolving “Prince Tribute Revue” Saturday (June 11) at One Eyed Jacks.

Fleur de Tease, New Orleans’ now firmly ensconced burlesque troupe founded and directed by Trixie Minx, had, in its first season, experimented with a few emcees before I was brought in as a host. Unbeknownst to me, a producer of the show told Trixie Minx that, if she didn’t try me out as a host, the show would fold. So, I came into our first meeting not knowing this was a coerced partnership. (I didn’t find out till the next season.) Luckily, Trixie and I appreciated each other’s work ethic and were able to hash out a strong friendship that has lasted 10 seasons and brought me around, and out of the country.

Having a monthly show that, because of the variables posed by a live, rowdy audience, has a looser format, gives me the chance to strengthen my chops in terms of working a crowd — riffing and improvising more time than what a more traditionally brief open-mic comedy set allows. Also, the themes and characters the dancers present onstage gives me ideas to work with, providing me with additional inspiration and material to mine when I’m onstage between acts.

(Learn more: Read about the “Prince Tribute Revue” on Saturday night)

Ultimately, my job as an emcee is to get off the stage; until my graceful exit, I set the tone for the show, pump up and engage the audience — ensuring the performers are stepping in front of a safe and receptive crowd. It’s fun, frivolous, and I look damn good while doing it. But like anything else, serious topics come up. I’ve been asked to address some intersections of ribaldry, glitter and social issues especially my place as a male emcee, gender, empowerment and the language around these topics. I won’t be delving in with half-assed interpretations of Michel Foucault or bell hooks, but speaking anecdotally, and with the hope that further chitchat on the topic is engendered (no pun).

It’s a sticky wicket to address, as a male host, sexuality and female empowerment in burlesque; I’m not a woman onstage disrobing for strangers, I don’t have to deal with real life and online stalking, or body shaming. There have been a lot of great essays and discussions about empowerment and the Male Gaze, presented by much greater intellects; but at the end of the day burlesque is still a mediated experience, people are still paying to see someone onstage, there are still voyeuristic and exhibitionistic elements, so issues of sex, power and commodification collide alongside boas, pasties and glove peels. To navigate that minefield as a host, I personally do lots of crowd control and make sure the audience is getting their money’s worth, but without indulging in “the customer is always right” philosophy or throwing performers under the bus.

The one thing I am conscious of is that, at most shows, I am the sole body onstage talking, a male with the only speaking role, and an amplified voice at that. I have to check myself and make sure I am giving the ladies their propers; I do this by explicitly praising the dancers performances, and when I encourage the audience to respectfully interact by catcalling and hollering, a staple of burlesque crowd work, I suggest they think of it as “subjectifying” instead of “objectifying” the performers. In doing so, I remind the audience that these are strong, sexy, creative performers onstage, that they are putting the work in, and that work should be respected.

Back at the turn of the century, I used to go see the Shim Shamettes, and I distinctly remember this one host who threw out the word “bitch” while telling a hacky street joke during his set. It was met with silence, and rightfully so. He wasn’t serving the performers or the audience, and he was using the word in a misogynistic way at a show that celebrates women. That always stuck with me and served as a cautionary tale as an emcee.

One way I have personally addressed the empowerment/disempowerment argument was by staging a burlesque benefit, “Rights of Spring”, for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast back in 2012. Trixie Minx was my co-producer, our thinking being to have women use their bodies onstage to support women’s bodies offstage. We had a wide range of performers, erotic readings of Roe vs. Wade between acts, emcee Anne Howe, and the New Orleans Ladies Arm Wrestling League, who set up a wrestling table where woman in the audience could challenge NOLAW wrestlers for a donation fee. I produced a similar benefit for Planned Parenthood this past year: “Stand Up, Get Down” with local comic Mary Devon Dupuy. At both of those benefits, I was an organizer, but we had women as emcees/hosts. This was done for a variety of reasons. No. 1, reproductive health issues, especially abortion access, usually are presented in the public sphere by men, and nine times out of 10, they are spiteful attacks on freedom that put women on defensive footing. As a man I could help provide a venue and platform for pro-choice voices, but my getting out of the way and not being the authoritative voice on stage was integral to the show and the overarching, pro-choice message.

Speaking of tone and language, the phrases “PC” or “un-PC” gets bandied about too much without really being examined. A lot of comedians and burlesque emcees pride themselves on bawdy and shocking language and burlesque is supposed to have a satiric and parodying component, which can include working “blue,” but what do you satirize and parody, and how? If you are punching down and making fun of people who have already been disempowered and maligned, you’re taking the easy way out, not risking anything and being a borderline bully.

I work out of New Orleans, arguably the wellspring of American burlesque and the burlesque revival. It’s also a town with a horrifying racial history, that was incredibly mobbed up, especially in the nightclub scene, where burlesque flourished mid-century. I like to satirize and parody these historical blind spots of burlesque and New Orleans. I also like to satirize the self-important, self-aggrandizing elements of burlesque, the “shock the bourgeois” acts that are really just “Hot Topic” posing, canned music, online burlesque polls/contests and pay-to-play festivals. Some of these jokes have pissed off some people, but, if you think your medium is above reproach, then you’re taking yourself too seriously, and that’s fertile ground for satire.

But again, with satire, are you punching down or punching up? And how well do you craft a joke to serve the latter? One time I did a joke about black voters being disenfranchised, which continues today, and a woman in the audience spoke to me afterwards, saying it’s placement in the show was jarring and killed the vibe for her for a few minutes. But we talked at length about the joke and where it was coming from and how it landed. I can honor her feelings and reaction, but still think of it as a valid joke, because I was indicting the state of Florida, not black voters — the takeaway being, to really craft a joke (which means writing and rewriting), see who the target is but be able to check yourself and listen to other people.

Listening to other people, serving the audience and the performers are in the forefront of burlesque this week because of two incidents at BHOF; the first was Dusty Limits’ using a “rape joke” to try and quell a rowdy audience, the second was Armitage Shanks making an analogy about Life and Art that, whatever the intent, invoked a trope of rape culture, drunk fucking implies consent.

A couple of thoughts. Limits’ comment wasn’t a joke. It doesn’t have a joke structure, if one thinks of a joke as a syllogism* — there is no “A + B therefore C.” It was just a shock line meant to insult — bush-league Howard Stern with a Brit accent. But, if we really strain to apply the algebra of comedy to what he said, it would look like this:

“The audience is rude, ergo, they were raped by their grandfathers”

It doesn’t make sense, and it’s cruel, it’s punching down. If anything good came out of the incident, it’s that people called him on it immediately and directly, and he issued a very succinct, sincere apology without any rationalization or attempt to explain away the situation. He fucked up and then he stepped up, and I think other people could learn from him when they screw up.

Social media amplified information about these incidents, and this amplification helped it to be addressed and not lost in the ether. Social media can be catty, misogynist and divisive, creating a digital Tower of Babel where conversation turns into blood sport with emojis. Or it can be used to call people in, call people out, reflect on what works, what hurts, what has overstayed its welcome and what new ideas should be welcomed in. I hope the latter is favored in burlesque. Twitter and Facebook can bring out the mob mentality and the pitchforks when a slight or injustice is perceived, sides quickly established and defended with outrage, accusations and rationalizations.

I like a good argument, but not a brawl. I am of “the more dialogue the better” school, that freedom of speech informs and creates more freedom of speech; with social media used in the service of social justice and the overlap of art and politics we see an expansion of the dialogue, especially in burlesque. I hope that this very brief article provides a glimpse of how I have dealt with just a few of these issues, and that it may add a rhinestone facet to the discussion.

*  If any performer wants to use syllogism as the basis for a boylesque/ drag name (Cyl O’Jism, a naughty Irish mathematician etc. have at it).

**  Though I am glad Limits stepped up, and Shanks issued a kinda/sorta apology, and continue their work as hosts, I am still the most handsome and humble host I know, and throw out haymakers every time I trod the boards, come check out “Comic Strip” at Siberia in New Orleans when you are in town.