Once a newcomer, Chicago burlesque troupe comes into its own
The lights and music spark alive and the Lincoln Park theater is electric as a woman starts to take off her clothes.
But she isn’t in a strip club – she’s a member of Kiss Kiss Cabaret performing the art form known as burlesque.
Burlesque is a form of entertainment and art in which performers remove their clothing to a choreographed routine highlighting self-expression. Burlesque is often one component of vaudeville acts, which include comedy and music. Chicago has been a hot spot for burlesque for decades, featuring nearly 10 troupes that perform either weekly or monthly. Kiss Kiss Cabaret, one of Chicago’s newer weekly troupes, is in its second year.
Chris Biddle, Kiss Kiss Cabaret’s director and host emcee, has noticed the transition from being a breakout troupe to being more secure in the show they produce.
“In the first year there was still a lot of figuring out what we want the show to be like and feel like,” he said.
Biddle says in the first year overbooking shows was regular, getting people to fill the seats was a struggle and balancing the comedy and burlesque portions was challenging. Biddle and the company aren’t quite as anxious anymore.
“We’ve settled into a really efficient way of producing our burlesque show and it’s now starting to pay off in both media attention and audience size,” he said.
Kiss Kiss Cabaret held its first performance in January 2011, renting a space in the Greenhouse Theater Center. The troupe holds weekly performances every Friday at 11 p.m. in Lincoln Park. When I first profiled the group two years ago, some of the performers were very new to burlesque. Now they have 10 coquettes who perform burlesque solos and group numbers, two cigarette girls who are training to be coquettes and clear the stage after performances, as well as a “contractually obligated” comedian (as he likes to put it), tech crew, emcee, choreographer and band.
The audience has leveled out with a slow night being 60 to 80 and an average night being 100 to 120 people. Jenn Kincaid, producer and managing director, noted that last week when she checked in a half hour before the show, it looked like it would be a slow night with around 50 audience members. When she showed up for the show, the audience had doubled in size.
According to Biddle, the show is more stable and they don’t have to worry about the same issues they did two years ago.
“Now we are daydreaming and finding the interesting diversions that we want to pursue artistically that enhance the whole production and make it that much more interesting,” he said.
Biddle says recently the company pursued a fundraiser for the Burlesque Hall of Fame. The troupe took on a challenge by having only 21 days to plan and execute a show. The group volunteered their time and in the end had 35 performers for the two-and-a-half-hour-long show which raised $5,000.
However, even with the troupe’s newfound success, some members feel there is still a stigma surrounding burlesque. Audience members don’t always appreciate the art form and show up because the performers “have boobies,” as one man put it at a recent show. Kiss Kiss Cabaret was contacted by DePaul to see if they wanted to participate and provide a discount service for DePaul students. According to Biddle, the day before the launch the head of the department cancelled the deal, saying he or she didn’t approve of the content of their show. A spokesperson from DePaul could not be reached for comment.
Before the show, the audience gathers to order drinks at the bar, enjoy music and tarot card readings by the claptrap family orchestra members, Velma and Werner. Chris Biddle’s character, Max Flattery, starts the show a few minutes after the hour and relies heavily on audience participation and, well, flattery. The 90-minute show has a brief intermission for the audience “to empty what is full and to full what is empty.” The audience has another chance to order alcohol because as Flattery puts it, “It’s a good show, but it’s great if you’re drunk.”
At a recent Friday night performance, one of the guest performers of the night, Miss Ammunition, takes the stage as the final soloist of the night. She struts onto stage with a sexy confidence and the stance of a Viking. Her performance begins as she suddenly grabs a power tool and grinds it against a metal square on her belt which shoots off white sparks toward a wild audience. The unconventional routines and acts of femininity keep the audience on the edge of their seats the entire night.
Biddle attributes the show’s success so far to the hardworking and passionate cast and crew of the show and also the flexibility of the art form. He notes that burlesque has survived disco, porno, movies, iTunes, iPads, reality television and 3D movies all because of its flexibility. Biddle is confident burlesque will continue to survive because people still want to be a part of the experience and go out and have a good time.
“They come for the boobs,” he says, “and they end up sticking around because they have a great time.”
- written by cimmel on October 8th, 2012
- posted in Writing for the Web