I have loved elaborate costumes as long as I can remember. The beautiful swan gowns with their layers of floaty tulle in Swan Lake were an early favorite. At 17 I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism pretty much just to have an excuse to make and wear elaborate Italian Renaissance gowns. I hand sewed and embroidered a replica of the gown Eleanora da Toledo was buried in. (The conserved remains of the gown are on display at the Pitti Palace in Florence if you are ever in the area.)
So, it’s no surprise that I have a habit of going BIG on my burlesque costumes. 15 foot purple Erte inspired cape? Check. 14 items to remove in just over 3 minutes? Check. Quick change from a secretary to a feathered showgirl? Check. Three entire costume changes in one number? Check.
I’ve been described as “Extra” a few times.
Sometimes that penchant for Extra can bite me in the ass. My behind got thoroughly bitten this past weekend at the Isle of Tease Festival. I was so excited to have my updated Mae West tribute number accepted into the festival. It’s not a “festival” number in my mind. It’s very glitzy, but it’s a classic number up against many other classic numbers when festivals are looking for innovation, comedy, and out of the ordinary. I was particularly excited because I had performed the original iteration of this tribute ten years ago in Victoria with the Cheesecakes, so it was thrilling to bring the update to Victoria’s first festival.
The costume is a beast. The choreography involves a costume change on stage with three assistants. Yes three. It could be done with two, but having someone hand you a glass of champagne while someone else is putting an elaborate robe on you is just that much more Extra. …and anyone who knows anything about Mae West knows that she was the definition of Extra. Gotta do her proud.
I’ve done the number a few times in the past year, but this was the first time performing it with the addition of a costume item I dreamed up just for this – a ten foot feather trimmed train that attaches to an elaborate feather trimmed robe. The train is designed to look like part of the robe, but is detachable to allow for conventional robe choreo. It wasn’t completed for several months after I received the robe, so this was the first opportunity to use it.
Any time you debut a new costume piece with unusual engineering there’s the chance something will go wrong. You practice a lot, but the adrenaline and stage lights of live performance is hard to replicate in rehearsal. As Judith Stein said to me afterwards: Shit happens.
I expected potential problems with the train – and yes, one side came off, the other didn’t. I rolled with that. I also rolled with having inadvertently undone the sash of the robe instead of getting that side of the train. What I wasn’t expecting was that one of my tearaway bra cups would almost entirely come off, or that the tassel of one of my pasties would fall off when I pulled the other cup.
I kept going. There’s nothing else you can do. (well, I suppose you could run off stage in hysterics, but that’s not really a viable option) Lots of people came up to me afterwards and told me how impressed they were at how I handled the malfunctions. I absolutely appreciated the comfort intended, but any seasoned performer should be able to soldier on through mishaps. It’s just a part of being a performer.
I felt like a failure walking off that stage. This number, which has so much meaning to me, fell apart in front of a huge audience at a festival produced by people dear to me. I let them down. We talk about imposter syndrome in Burlesque frequently. I embodied it at that moment.
I’m grateful for Judith’s no-nonsense pep talk after the show. She hugged me and said “shit happens and you just pick up and keep going”. Yes Mama Beav, that’s what you need to do.
Doing it is another thing. How do you move forward?
Practicalities first, how can I better engineer the train so that I can feel the difference between the belt and the pull on the train? (I’m thinking adding contrasting rhinestones. That way it’s both visible, and has a specific texture I can feel for) As for the bra – either add rare earth magnets or more snaps. It’s a shame that you can’t get hard nickel snaps any more. Modern pot metal ones weaken over time. The pastie can be fixed.
Forgiving yourself can take longer. I know that’s what needs to happen. I’m going to try to manifest another opportunity to perform this number on a large stage, and knock the socks off of the audience. I’ll remind myself that shit happens. It’s just going to take time to not be really disappointed. That festival was incredible – seriously, way to knock it out of the park on your first year Isle of Tease producers! – and I hope to be considered again next year.
Will I stop making overly elaborate costumes? Heck no!