Tag Archives: burlesque

OH YES IT IS ! – Matt Roper + the first pantomime in New York for 100 years

(L-R) Jenni Gil as Jack, Michael Lynch as Dame Delancey, and Matt Roper as Silly Simon. (Photograph by Don Spiro)

“So,” I said to British performer Matt Roper in New York, “Have you ever done a pantomime before?”

We were speaking via FaceTime, obviously.

“Years ago,” he told me, “as a 20-year-old I was in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal, St Helens, with ‘Olive’ from On The Buses. Anna Karen. She was great! What a woman! She was a Soho stripper in the 1960s in London. She was deported from South Africa in the Apartheid years. She was a puppeteer at a theatre in Johannesburg and gave a private puppet show to a bunch of black kids and she was deported.”

“And now,” I said, you’re in Jack and The Beanstalk – New York’s first panto for 100 years,”

“Yes. The first major panto for over a century.”

“How did you get involved?” I asked. “You were just an Englishman in New York?”

Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser (Photograph: Laura Vogel)

Mat Fraser lives in New York now and he wrote it with his wife Julie Atlas Muz. She’s a Ukrainian American. Mat’s English, as you know, and his parents were performers, so he grew up watching a lot of pantos.”

“Julie Atlas Muz,” I said, “is a ‘feminist burlesque star’?”

“Yes,” said Matt.

“OK,” I said.

“Matt and Julie have a long relationship with this theatre – the Abrons Arts Centre,” said Matt. “The last thing they presented here was an adults-only version of Beauty & The Beast – she was Beauty and he was The Beast. Very explicit. Very adults-only. But this time, with the panto, it’s completely 100% family-friendly.”

“The whole concept of panto,” I suggested, “must be next-to-impossible to understand if you haven’t grown up with it.”

“Someone is going to go out right at the top of the show,” explained Matt, “doing a whole warm-up routine, explaining the rules to the kids.”

“Someone?” I asked.

Dirty Martini plays the Good Fairy and Hawthorn Albatross III is – Boo! – villainous Dastardly Dick. (Photo by Don Spiro)

“Me,” said Matt. “I think it will work, because New York audiences are not very quiet audiences. I imagine it will be like an audience full of Scousers – you can’t keep ‘em quiet. There is a villain in the show – Dastardly Dick – so I will tell the kids: Every time you see him, you have to hiss and boo!

“And,” I said, “of course, you have to explain things like Behind you! Panto is just weird. The whole format – Things like the principal boy is played by a girl and the motherly dame is a middle-aged man. Who are you?”

“I’m the comic. I am Jack’s brother, Silly Simon. And Jack is an actress called Jenni Gil. She’s from the Lower East Side, from the projects. It has been adapted for a New York audience. So I think that will help. It’s set in the Lower East Side – in a lost village called StoneyBroke.”

“What about the accent differences? Or are you playing with an American accent?”

“It is set up that we had different fathers. In the story, both my brother – Jack – and my mother are people of colour – African American. It’s a really diverse cast; very New York. Our ‘mother’ is Michael Johnnie Lynch, a big, black, brassy drag queen from the Bronx. Honestly, we couldn’t have wished for a better dame.”

“Surely,” I said, “the dame has to be a male-looking man in a dress as opposed to a drag queen?”

“Michael just nails it in some way,” said Matt. “He’s brilliant.”

“Is he a feminine drag queen, though?” I asked. “You can’t be too feminine as the dame. You have to be knowingly masculine.”

(L-R): Julie Atlas Muz, Jenni Gil, Matt Roper, Michael Lynch in rehearsal in New York (Photograph by Dirty Martini)

“He’s feminine but not in a Danny La Rue type of way,” Matt explained. Occasionally he goes into a deep, husky voice… And we have Dirty Martini as the Good Fairy – a plus-size burlesque legend. She’s done great things for body positivity.”

“Any Trump parallels in the script?” I asked.

“The giant is Giant Rump and he lives up in the clouds.”

“Is the Giant a large actor or do you just have giant feet in the background?”

“All the puppets… there are quite a lot of animals in the show… There is Daisy the Cow, obviously, because Jack has to sell the cow to get the magic beans. There’s the goose and there’s the giant. And they’ve all been designed by a guy called Basil Twist, who has been nominated for Tony Awards on Broadway shows.”

“You don’t have a pantomime cow with two men inside?”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course. There’s actors inside the cow. Of course.”

“You have,” I told him, “done very well over there. How long have you been in New York now? Two years?”

“Just over. It’s tough. Health insurance and all that stuff. No-one gives a shit what you’ve done in the UK; you have to start at the bottom.”

“Certainly if you are the cow,” I said. “But you landed on your feet off-Broadway, playing Chico in the ‘lost’ Marx Brothers revue I’ll Say She Is.”

Top Marx (L-R) Seth Sheldon, Matt Roper, Noah Diamond.

“Yes,” Matt agreed. “The New Yorker said: Matt Roper catches Chico Marx’s unearned belligerence.”

“A Brit pretending to be an Italian-American…” I said.

“Well,” Matt reminded me, “of course, he wasn’t. He was a Jewish guy from the Upper East Side in New York. As a kid, because there were lots of Italian gangs and he was Jewish, he pretended to be Italian to protect himself from getting beaten up.”

“And then,” I said, “you went into that early American play.”

“We just closed it last month,” said Matt. “Androboros: Villain of the State. The earliest-known play published in what is now the US. Based on an investment scandal that happened in the 1700s in the British colony of New York.”

“And you were…”

Matt as Androboros: Villain of the State

“Androboros.”

“What was the appeal to a 2017 audience?”

“They put it on because there were many parallels between Androboros and Trump.”

“So you are surviving,” I said.

Yes,” said Matt. “And I write a column each week for Gorilla Art House, it’s a subsidiary of Lush UK, the ethical cosmetics company. And I have a voice-over agent here in New York.”

“And a residency at The Slipper Room,” I said. “What is the Slipper Room?”

“It’s a burlesque house. They market it as ‘a house of varieties’ – It’s like a new vaudeville.”

“Is it the whole caboodle?” I asked. “Singers, dancers, comedy…”

“And we have sideshows and a little bit of magic and it’s all rigged-up so we can have aerial acts.”

“What does ‘sideshow’ mean in this context?” I asked.

Wondrous Wilfredo performs at The Slipper Room

“People who stick piercings through their eyes and stuff like that. Stuff that makes your stomach turn.”

“And you…?” I asked.

“I open the show sometimes as my character Wilfredo… Wilfredo is more-or-less confined to the Slipper Room, which pleases me.”

“Are you ever ‘Matt Roper’ in the Slipper Room?”

“Yeah. We have in-house shows and some out-of-house guest shows who hire the theatre and I’ve done comedy sketches and stuff like that.”

“There is a man in a gimp mask on your Facebook page…”

Matt Roper (left) and Peaches, who lives underneath the stage

“That’s Peaches, the Slipper Room gimp.”

“The Slipper Room has a resident gimp?”

“He lives underneath the stage and, now-and-then, comes out and performs.”

“Nothing surprises me,” I said.

Jack and The Beanstalk opens at the Abrons Arts Center in New York on Sunday. Previews started yesterday.

“Break a leg on Sunday,” I said to Matt, when we had finished chatting.

“Don’t say that,” he told me. “On the opening night of the Marx Brothers musical, the guy playing the dowager’s butler actually broke his leg. So no broken legs. Especially with the cost of healthcare in this country.”

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Between the Sheets with Polly Rae, Entrepreneuress of Burlesque…

Polly Rae, entrepreneuress of burlesque

Tomorrow night, burlesque entrepreneur (entrepreneuress?) Polly Rae is fronting the first of seven summer shows called Between The Sheets at the Underbelly’s Spiegeltent on London’s South Bank. It is her fourth year there.

“Why that title?” I asked her.

“Because it’s a show about sex. I am the host and invite everyone into my boudoir to share my fantasies and sensualities.”

“Not a one-woman show?” I asked.

“No. There are eight of us. It’s a variety-cabaret-burlesque show. We perform as an ensemble but they also have individual acts. We have circus performers, male dancers, a clown-comedienne. We’ve been refining this show with various different casts for 4 or 5 years. This is our fourth season here at the Underbelly. The core cast has remained the same.

“The main headliner is an artist called Kitty Bang Bang, a burlesque fire-breather. We call her The bad ass of burlesque, the wild child, the rocker, the whisky drinker, the whip cracker. Lilly SnatchDragon is our hilarious, glamorous clown-comedienne. And we have Beau Rocks. In her act, she explores the more erotic and sensual side of burlesque – a contemporary act with UV lighting and UV paint. Quite a saucy, futuristic act.”

“Burlesque is stripping,” I said.

“Yes,” agreed Polly. “It is absolutely stripping, pioneered in 1940s and 1950s America and, obviously, Dita Von Teese has popularised it for this generation. I’ve been doing it for about 12 years.”

“Do your parents have a problem with stripping?”

“If you define the physical act then, yes, of course, it’s stripping. But the context is different from stripping in a gentleman’s club. Burlesque is very much about theatre and old-school Variety. It has the combinations of dance, comedy, singing, dancing and the various skills we use.

“So my parents don’t mind at all; they’re very encouraging and they love it. They come to see my shows… My mum brought me up on Madonna… Madonna in the 1980s!… What kind of influence was that?

Ensemble assemble Between The Sheets

“I like to think this show is quite titillating. I like to think it is quite hot under the collar. But it’s not explicit. If there are any moments that are explicit, we soften it with humour. I think it’s very important to have humour in my shows. You’ve got to balance sexiness with wit.”

“Parents in show business?” I asked.

“Not at all. Really, my influence came from my mother bringing me up on Madonna. My dad was an architect. Being an architect was his profession but, as a hobby, he worked on Gerry Anderson TV programmes as a model maker. He worked on Stingray. One of his main shows was Terrahawks… There was a big spaceship; he designed and made that.”

“But not a performer…” I said.

“I grew up loving performance,” Polly told me, “but I didn’t go to stage school. I originally wanted to be a special effects make-up artist. That was my original dream. My dad and I used to watch horror movies – science fiction alien movies and Freddie Krueger and so on. My dad actually worked on the movie Alien.

“When I was born, he moved back up North to Preston and his movie career was over. He was supposed to go and do the second movie – Aliens – but then my mum got pregnant with me and he chose not to carry on, which I feel a bit guilty about: he might have been in Hollywood now.

“I was a beauty therapist out of school. Then I moved from Preston to London and met lots of performers and that changed my life. At 19 years old, I flew to New Orleans and worked on the cruise ships for a few years, in the Caribbean.”

“As a beautician?” I asked.

Polly Rae – “a culture-building exposure” – reddy for anything

“Yes. But what was great was I got to see performers’ lives. It was such a culture-building exposure, meeting people from all parts of the world. I made friends with a lot of the dancers and singers and started to think: Ah! This is quite interesting!

“I decided I wanted to be a Social Host – like MCs who run the games, host the karaoke or whatever – but I couldn’t get that job because I had no experience. So, long story short, I started training in dance and singing and, around 2005, I met Jo King who runs the London Academy of Burlesque.”

“2005,” I suggested, “is around the time burlesque became respectable? Stripping was seen as sleazy but burlesque was acceptable showbiz.”

“I didn’t know what burlesque was,” replied Polly. “That was in 2005. My first performance as a burlesque artist was 2006.”

“Which was,” I said, “roughly when it started to get profile in the UK.”

“Yes,” said Polly. “Dita Von Teese had started slowly, slowly chipping away at the mainstream in the 1990s but, come the early 2000s, that’s when London cabaret clubs started. Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club had a show called The Whoopee Club. Then there was a show at Cafe de Paris called The Flash Monkey and a show Lady Luck and a venue called Volupté opened.

“I started working at Volupté and at the Soho Revue Bar – formerly the Raymond Revue Bar. I jumped on the bandwagon at the perfect time. I was in there just BEFORE everyone wanted to go and see a burlesque show and I formulated a troupe of girls called The Hurly Burly Girlies.

Polly Rae and her Hurly Burly Girlies troupe went West End

“Being a burlesque artist, you have to have a gimmick and my thing was singing and I had my troupe of girls with me. There were no troupes at that time.”

“What sort of singing?” I asked. “Ethel Merman?”

“More of a pop ’80s route…”

“Madonna…?”

“Exactly! Exactly! And it worked a treat, John! I wanted to try to be different and to appeal to a wider audience. I figured: If my audience knows the music, I’m gonna get a wider crowd. We worked on musical arrangements of modern songs. We made modern songs sound old. And we did pop songs but we dressed vintage.”

“Post Busby Berkeley?”

If you got it, flaunt it!

“Yes, post Busby Berkeley, for sure. I took a lot of inspiration from Dita Von Teese in the beginning and I think her styling is late-1940s/early 1950s. I also did the whole 1950s bump ’n’ grind thing to classic music like Benny Goodman. We just sort-of mixed it all up, really.”

“So,” I said, “You developed this over time.”

“Yes. I met a gentleman called William Baker, who was Kylie Minogue’s artistic director/visual stylist for the last 25 years. I told him I wanted to make the biggest burlesque show the world – or maybe the UK and Europe – had ever seen. I wanted to create the Cirque du Soleil of burlesque shows.

“I thought at the time I just wanted a stylist: someone to help me on my way a little bit and help me improve the production values. But William said: If I’m going to come and work with you, I want to direct it and bring in my entire creative team.

“And so we created The Hurly Burly Show. It started in 2010 at the Leicester Square Theatre, then we did a season the following year at the Garrick Theatre and, the following year, a season at the Duchess Theatre. After that, we did it in Australia and South Africa. We had a good 3 or 4 years of wonderful madness.”

“Cabaret and burlesque,” I said, “are colourful, kitsch, camp and…”

“Exactly,” said Polly. “It’s diverse, it’s innovative, it’s creative and it’s so unbelievably individual. That’s what I especially love about it.”

“So where can you go now?” I asked. “You have peaked.”

“Being on a West End stage was amazing,” said Polly, “and I won’t stop saying it was the most incredible experience of my life. However, as a burlesque/cabaret artist, when you’re in the Garrick Theatre, there are two balconies and you can’t see anything because the spotlight is blinding you and I can’t connect with the audience in the same way.

Between The Sheets – summer shows

“The intimacy in the Spiegeltent is amazing. You can connect with the audience. In Between The Sheets, we are walking in the aisles, physically sitting on people, stealing their drinks. It’s almost immersive. You can see everybody’s face. I can connect.

“It’s not a West End theatre, but I’m much happier in the Spiegeltent. I feel much more at home and stronger as an artist. My goal is I want to see people react, whether I make them laugh, cry, feel turned-on. The satisfaction of seeing that achieved is amazing.”

“If you have the house lights full up, though,” I suggested, “the audience can feel threatened.”

“Yes, you have to get the balance right. It’s not about having lights up; it’s the proximity. And choosing the right people in the audience.”

“So,” I said, “upcoming, you have…?”

Between the Sheets is my summer project and I like to think we might get picked up and do other little tours here and there. But I also have a residency at The Hippodrome every Saturday night. I also manage the dancers there and do some MCing for corporate parties. And I’m getting married next year.”

“Is he is showbusiness?”

“He’s in hospitality. His name is Eric; he’s from the United States; he’s been here for five years.”

“He’s a lucky man,” I told her.

Polly and Eric

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Advice if you are a stripper or burlesque dancer: DO NOT GET ON THE FLOOR

John! There’s a new psychedelic from Brazil, but it’s not a plant! She’s an enormous naked fat lady – well she wears only tiny silver pasties and a matching tiny G-string so she seems naked – and she dances tango solo while delicately removing invisible clothing to rapturous applause which was – when I saw it – interspersed with moments of awed silence. All this concluded with a standing ovation.

(That was the start of another missive from Anna Smith, this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent. She continued…)

I saw her – Delirious Fenix – yesterday at the Burlesque Festival in Vancouver Playhouse, the municipal theater, which used to show plays and employ actors. I was very sad when the municipal theater company was disbanded a few years ago. I thought it was a sign of the end of the world, but I had not foreseen that Delirious Fenix would perform there.

There is a clip on YouTube of her appearance on the Ferdinando TV show in Brazil.

Babe Camille 2000’s earlier ‘ass dress’

Delirious Fenix and the Emperor of Fabulous were very good, And I stood up and yelled for Camille 2000… She deserves it just for being alive, for having played a dominatrix to Iggy Pop in Miami Vice and also for wearing the costume that displayed her ass so hilariously when she was a babe!

Then there were many beautiful solo lady dancers… But WHY did almost all of them rip their gloves off in the first two seconds and end their acts humping the floor? I always used to leave my gloves on as long as possible. Otherwise you just look like an ordinary naked girl in no time.

Each act at Vancouver Playhouse had four assistants to pick up their clothing which was strewn all over the huge stage. I could tell the more professional ones because their clothes landed in the same general area…

A tables-and-tassles intermission

During the intermission, there were tables selling pasties, hair ornaments and hand-made panties. At one table, volunteers were selling courses on how to do burlesque. A young volunteer lady told me I should take an introductory course in burlesque.

“You would like it,” she told me. “It’s  for all ages.” She brandished a brochure outlining the classes available at The Vancouver Burlesque Center. The classes had titles like Discovering the Sexy You and How to Own The Stage.

I glanced at the brochure. The room was full of excited people wearing bright silly costumes and talking loudly.

“You really should try it,” the young lady said perkily. “It’s more fun than you might think.”

Camille treats Anna like Iggy (Photograph by Bazuka Joe)

I wasn’t in the mood to say that I used to be a headline act or to start explaining that I had spent fifteen solid years dancing on four continents so I didn’t really need an introduction to Stripping For Fun classes.

She looked hopelessly fresh-faced and anxious to convert me to this fun new hobby and smiled hopefully. I found myself having to shout over the surrounding conversations which were punctuated with the squealing sounds of friends admiring each other’s outfits.

“Its ALRIGHT,” I shouted. “THANK YOU BUT I DON’T NEED a brochure. I CAN’T HEAR YOU! I’M SORRY! I HAVE DIFFICULTY HEARING!”

I tried to smile kindly, waving my arms around and escaped.

The poor young girl. She had been so nice. I hope she didn’t feel too badly that she couldn’t convince the poor old deaf lady to try out a strip class.

Did I tell you that Camille 2000’s pet peeve about young strippers is when they do a ‘floor act’. She tells them in her workshops: “Do NOT get on the FLOOR!!! Get a chair. Get a prop. Get ANYTHING. But DO NOT GET ON THE FLOOR!… A STAR does not get on the floor!”

Camille 2000 is from Alabama. The way she says “on” has two syllables and sounds very pretty to me.

Oh, great… A conveyor belt broke at the airport and my flight will be delayed.

I am going to Montreal for six days. I wish it was for longer. Montreal is probably the most culturally ‘happening’ city in Canada… possibly because the rent is cheaper than any of the other major cities here – plus the immigrant mixture, good food and being a major port.

Anna Smith (left) and her group have written a book

I am going for the annual Canadian HIV/AIDS research conference. We (Dr.Dan Allman from the University of Toronto’s Della Lana School of Public Health and the Triple X Workers Solidarity Society – represented by my friends Andrew Sorfleet, Will Pritchard and me) are holding an ancillary event to premiere the short film about our ‘groundbreaking consultation’ with 50 diverse sex worker organisations from across Canada about PrEP and our various concerns about its promotion and use.

It is the project we did for the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

The sponsors of the conference are mainly big drug companies like Gilead but I noticed that one of the sponsors bears the hipster-sounding name ‘Tweed’. I wondered what Tweed does so I looked it up and it is one if Canada’s largest marijuana facilities. I don’t suppose they will be giving out samples.

Seattle’s Emperor of Fabulous

I did meet the Emperor of Fabulous last night. He is from Seattle and he is a very nice man.

He took my email address and gave me his business card and said we could take a photo together but then he scampered off because the lady ushers at the municipal theater are very fierce. I imagine most of them worked as prison guards before they were drafted into the theater.

I looked up the Emperor of Fabulous on Facebook later and saw that he did a benefit for the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP).

In the United States many sex workers, mostly women, are serving long prison sentences. Conditions are very harsh.

In Arizona a woman was left for four hours in a cage in the sun and she died of dehydration, ignored by 14 guards while she begged for water. A documentary about this incident was made, with the help of SWOP Behind Bars instigated by sex worker activists Carol Leigh and Christina Sardinia. The documentary is called No Human Involved and it was released in July 2016. It has won several awards.

The incident that prompted the film was back in 2009 but I think, if anything, the situation is now worse in the United States.

There is a trailer for the documentary online.

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The golden age of exotic dancers remembered in a new documentary

The legendary Judith Stein

The legendary Judith Stein in the Golden Age

Two weekends ago, I came down with a very nasty flu.

When I eventually got better, I opened an email from this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith. She was raving in glowing terms about a documentary she had seen called League of Exotique Dancers.

It was a documentary about burlesque dancers in what is described as ‘the Golden Age’.

“The film,” Anna told me, “includes much never-before-seen footage of exotic dancers (much of it from a private collection of over 300 rare early black and white films of exotic dancers), photos from the private collections of the dancers themselves and interviews with the dancers today.

“And Kitten Natividad is in the movie!!!” she added. “She is hilarious! AND Russ Meyer!”

“Ah,” I replied. “The beloved Russ…”

“Russ, Russ…” agreed Anna. “Very funny indeed. He is wearing a snazzy jacket. Maybe it could inspire David McGillivray to make a jacket film. I wasn’t cultured enough to appreciate Russ Meyer movies when I was young. I preferred porn films with exotic locales and bad translations.”

Anna is not someone without knowledge of the world of exotic dancing. She told me:

“When Beneath The Valley of The Ultravixens (starring Kitten) was released, I was dancing at The Metro Cinema in Toronto. We did shows between the films. It was a vast, echoey, run-down place, but the owner was a nice foreign man who paid us really well.

“He hired me to do voice recordings on the answering machine to announce the coming attractions. I would make up exciting announcements: Chesty Morgan has just arrived from New York and will be here until Friday, four shows a day, starting at noon! Next week, Nurse Annie is flying in from Argentina to attend to your needs….

Anna as her alter ego ‘Nurse Annie'

Anna’s alter ego ‘Nurse Annie’ caused problems

“That one didn’t work out so well because a reporter from the local Spanish paper showed up wanting to interview Nurse Annie (who was me).

“The cashier was an old lady who was practically blind and often she would accidentally let small groups of twelve year old boys into the cinema. I would get out on stage and the twelve year olds would be sitting in the front row like idiots and I would storm off the stage and call the projectionist on the intercom to get them out of there.

“The League of Exotique Dancers also depicts how the dancers coped with the dramatic industry changes over the years, the hardships they overcame and then how they reacted when they were asked to return to the stage… after absences of thirty years!

“It also showed how we used to dance to live bands. And there were comedians too ! And funny strippers…

Camille in 2000 from the League of Exotique Dancers

Camille 2000 from the League of Exotique Dancers

“I was laughing through most of the movie, and crying… The film was BRILLIANT… Plus I was at a writers’ workshop for hookers all afternoon…There were eleven of us…

“On opening night in Vancouver, 66 year old Judith Stein performed a comic striptease before the movie started…

“After seeing the film (and making myself known to all in the following Q&A session) I went out with a group of directors and editors including Exotique‘s amazingly intelligent (some might say wily) young female director Rama Rau,  producer Ed Barreveld and Judith Stein.

Judith Stein (left) with Anna Smith at the documentary's Vancouver premiere

Judith Stein (left) with Anna Smith at the documentary’s Vancouver premiere

“When I asked Judith how to get into The Burlesque Hall of Fame show in Las Vegas, she asked me how old I was. I told her my age and she said: “You’re too young. You’re not allowed in until you’re sixty.“

“Don’t quote me on this, unless you can’t help it, but I have never seen a contemporary burlesque stripper move as well as the older ex-professional ones, (such as myself haha). One of the dancers in the movie noted that although she admires the efforts of contemporary burlesque dancers the fact is that, for most of them it is a hobby rather than a profession. She also admired the working strippers of today, lap dancers and pole dancers who make a lot of money and see glamorous, travel, etc. She said they work really hard for it though..

“When I see contemporary burlesque I find it usually looks a bit too contrived. Obviously, when we did the shows six and seven days a week for years on end, that experience became part of our stage presence and we became good at adapting and improvising according to the club and audience.

Anna Smith lives a quiet life near Vancouver

Anna Smith lives quietly in Canada

“Since I didn’t know anyone, but had been kindly invited along by Ed and Judith, I didn’t speak much, but sat there fascinated, listening to their astonishing and articulate discussion about film making,

Editors are fuckers…they have to be… etc.

“Somehow, toward the end of the night, I found myself hearing two men (I have no idea who they were) talking very seriously about Mr Methane.

Mr Methane?” I cried out. “I know Mr Methane!

“The two men looked at me with surprise. One of them was Irish and he said in disbelief:

You know Mr. Methane?

Well,” I said. “I mean I know who he IS… We appear in the same blog, sometimes even on the same page… Sometimes it is a bit embarrassing.

Mr Methane

Mr Methane – not a known exotic dancer

“I asked the Irishman who had shown an interest: “How do you know Mr Methane?

Oh,” he told me, a bit exhaustedly, “I have been trying to make a film about him for years… about eight years… What blog?

John Fleming’s blog,” I said.

“The man scrambled for a pen. After all, he was Irish.

Just look for TheJohnFleming,” I said.

Is he on Facebook?

He is on Facebook. He is on Twitter. He is on everything.

“I promise to Skype you when I get a phone again. I keep hoping my old (lost) phone will appear and been trying to revive several old ones without success.

“My sister on Vancouver Island has a WordPress blog about dolls… “

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UK comedy performer Matt Roper aka ‘Wilfredo’ in criminal court in New York

Matt Roper with his Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

Matt Roper with his Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award

Yesterday, Malcolm Hardee Award winning performer Matt Roper (aka character act Wilfredo) was in court in New York City.

“Run me through how it happened,” I told him today. “It started about a month ago, didn’t it?”

“I was performing at The Slipper Room,” he said.

“You have a regular slot there?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he told me. “A couple of times a week; I host on a weekend. It’s a variety theatre – a burlesque joint as well. Often I don’t get offstage until 2.00am and then, to get up to 137th Street in Harlem where I’m living, it’s bit of a schlep at night: I have to catch two subway trains.

“I had been up since 7.00am the previous day and it was now 3.30am. I knew my train terminated at 96th Street and the carriage was more-or-less empty, so I thought I would just swing my legs across the seats, put my head against the window and get a little bit of shut-eye. so that’s what I did. When I woke up, two police officers were looking over me, saying: Get off the train please, sir!

“So I got off the train onto the platform. ID, they said. So I gave them my passport. Do you know it’s a crime what you’re doing? It’s outstretching. It’s a crime.

“I said: I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.

Matt did not know it was a crime

Matt did not know it was a crime amid the pools of whatever

“That was the annoying thing: I didn’t know. There are no signs saying it’s a crime. Feet on the seats we know is not cool, but these were just plastic seats, the carriage was empty and it was filthy because it was 3.30am in the morning – There were beer cans and pools of whatever. What was it Kenneth Williams said? I’m sick and tired of offending everybody. My crimes are nothing compared to Mussolini.

“I would have thought,” I said, “you would get off for being a foreigner and, by definition, ignorant.”

“They either wanted to make a bit of an example of me,” said Matt, “or there was some sort of incentive: I really don’t know. But they said: You’re going to have to come back to the station with us while we take your details and, as they said it, one of the officers was putting my hands behind my back and putting handcuffs on me. I just couldn’t believe it. I asked: Are you serious? – I was told: Yes, sir. They were quite sweet; they were charming. They took me back to the police station. I was fingerprinted and they photographed me, then put me in a cell for three or four hours. They locked me up and then released me. It was an interesting experience because I had never been arrested before – I’ve been all the way around the world without being arrested – so part of me was quite enjoying the experience but then, after the first hour passes and you’re still in a cell, locked up, the novelty wears off.”

“And, unusually,” I said, “you were not in a cell with prostitutes and gangsters?”

“No. which says a lot about Harlem these days. It was an empty cell and, if my crime was as bad as it gets at 4.00am in West Harlem, then I think its reputation is a little unjust.”

“Why,” I asked, “did they lock you up for three or four hours? What were they waiting for?”

Matt Roper last week, as Wilfredo (Photograph by Garry Platt)

Wilfredo did not know outstretching was illegal (Photograph by Garry Platt)

“I really don’t know,” said Matt. “When I researched it later that day… I spoke to you that day, I came back, had a sleep and then got up and Googled this ‘outstretching’ charge and it seems some people are just given a fine; one African guy was deported.”

“He was?” I asked. “Just for putting his feet on the seats in the subway?”

“I don’t know if he was an illegal or not,” said Matt.

“So,” I said, “there are police photos of you?”

“Well,” said Matt. “I wanted to get a copy of my photograph. They say it doesn’t exist, but I saw the form with my photograph on it. I said to them: Can I get a copy of this? Because I’d quite like it framed, really. They said: You can get it when you go to court.

“But, when I got to court, they said: No, no, we don’t have copies of that; you have to go up to the sixth floor. So I went up to the sixth floor and they said: No, no. Because we decided not to prosecute you, it doesn’t exist. But I don’t quite believe that.”

“Why did they say they were not going to prosecute you?” I asked.

“I think because they were having a busy day.”

“What was the court like?”

The doors of New York Criminal Court

“I was one of the few white people in there.”

“It was a proper high court. You go in through these huge doors and there’s the flag, there’s the eagle, there’s In God We Trust. all sorts of people making notes beside the judge. All these people on pews and all of them were on desk appearance tickets like me. They’d been speeding or busted with marijuana. They were mainly kids – mainly Latin-Americans and African-Americans. I was one of the few white people in there. I guess it shows the police go for a certain type of person.”

I said to Matt: “You playing comedy in a burlesque club is a bit like… Well, I think your father (comedian George Roper) was too young to do it, but like British comedians playing at The Windmill in London.”

“I think it’s exactly like that,” said Matt. “You know my dad was up in court with six striptease performers… You blogged about it…”

“Did I?” I asked.

“My dad was tried for obscenity in the 1960s…”

“Did I actually blog about this?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“I really must read my own blogs,” I said.

“It would have been in December 2012,” said Matt. “In the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, women were allowed to be nude on stage in England but, if they moved, it was considered obscene.”

“Were the girls dressed and your father was naked?”

“No.”

Wilfredo handed out roses to his last fans last night

Wilfredo in his now stolen costume

“Anyway,” I said, trying to change the subject away from this blog I had forgotten. “Your act got stolen in New York.”

“Yes, about three weeks after the arrest,” said Matt, “I was in a bar having a wonderful time, I put my bag down by my feet and it got stolen. I’m rather amused by the thought of whoever took it – hoping for a laptop or an iPhone – unzipping it and finding Wilfredo’s costume inside… The trousers were just… and the wig and the teeth and the shoes. They must be the most disappointed thieves. Though it was a pain in the arse because I had a gig a couple of nights later and Wilfredo is quite difficult to replace.”

“But you had a spare set of teeth?” I asked.

“Yeah. He’s all back to normal, though the hair is a little bit longer.”

“Did you go to a wig shop in New York?”

“Yeah. One of the burlesque dancers said she would cut the wig for me. And now he has been cast in a feature film which we’ll be shooting this winter.”

“Made by?” I asked.

Movies beckon for Matt Roper

Movies beckon for Matt Roper and Wilfredo

James Habacker, who runs The Slipper Room, is now making films. He’s just made his first film called The Cruel Case of The Medicine Man, which won Best Feature at the Coney Island Film Festival.

“But his second film is an out-and-out comedy: The Mel and Fanny Movie – James and his wife are Mel and Fanny Frye – he plays this character from the Borscht Belt. Wilfredo has been cast as Mel and Fanny’s personal chauffeur.”

“That’s something to look forward to,” I said. “Wilfredo’s teeth in the movies.”

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Cabaret performer Lili La Scala gets emotional over Nick Cave & a dead cat

Lilli with Rafferty Basil Danger Wills

Lili La Scala + Rafferty Basil Danger Wills

I talked to cabaret performer Lili La Scala at a famous members club in London this week. It seemed suitably suave and sophisticated. (She is a member. They not unreasonably rejected me several years ago.)

Lili is married to performer Sam Wills aka The Boy With Tape On His Face. They had a son last year They named him Rafferty Basil Danger Wills.

“Why those names?” I asked.

“Rafferty because we just liked it,” explained Lili. “And Basil was my grandfather’s name.”

“And Danger?” I asked.

“Because I just love the idea he can truthfully say: Danger is my middle name.

“And you named yourself after the Italian word for staircase?” I asked.

“I trained as an opera singer,” explained Lili, “so I named myself after La Scala opera house in Milan – or the picture house in Glasgow, whichever you prefer.”

“Why are you not an opera singer now?” I asked.

“Because I fell into the dark, dirty world of burlesque and cabaret. Well, actually, I fell into street performing first.”

“As what?” I asked.

“As an opera singer on the street. They called me The Songbird of Trafalgar Square.

“Who did?”

The Songbird of Trafalgar Square on Flickr

Songbird of Trafalgar Square attracted a following on Flickr

“One day on Flickr, I stumbled on a group dedicated to me… it was a compliment but also slightly freaky. There were about 200 pictures of me – I looked a bit unusual, with dark hair and a Fifties dress singing opera. They didn’t know what my name was, so they just put Songbird of Trafalgar Square.”

“Didn’t your voice get lost in the vast open space of Trafalgar Square?” I asked.

“The low notes did,” said Lili, “but the high notes carried because they were a higher frequency than the traffic: it was when Trafalgar Square was still a roundabout. I sang with my back to the National Gallery. I was a Swing dancer for a long time, too. My mother trained as a ballet dancer but now she’s a physio who works with performers.”

“Did you dance in Trafalgar Square?”

“No,” replied Lili. “You get sent home for dancing in Trafalgar Square.”

“And singing?” I asked.

“Yes. That too. They sent two policemen and a police car. But they just told me to go away. It would have looked ridiculous for them to arrest a girl who was much smaller than them and wearing a 1950s-looking dress.”

“Why do you dress in 1950s costumes?” I asked.

“When I was about 21,” explained Lili, “I decided if I wanted to dress like a 1950s film star I should because you only have one life and it’s important to dress like you want to.”

if I wanted to dress like a 1950s film star I should because you only have one life and it’s important to dress like you want to.

“I decided if I wanted to dress like a 1950s film star I should.”

“But then,” I said, “you went into burlesque. Why?”

“A friend of mine said one day: Have you ever thought of putting together opera and burlesque? Don’t you think it would go really well? And I thought Ooh! So I tried it and it was really good. I have a huge soft spot for the burlesque world anyway.”

“You are saying Burlesque not Cabaret,” I pointed out. “Isn’t cabaret more respectable?”

“I think burlesque is pretty respectable at the moment,” said Lili.

“I would have said you were cabaret,” I told her. “You’re Monte Carlo 1963. What’s the difference between burlesque and cabaret anyway?”

“Burlesque has more tits,” said Lili. “There was more stripping originally. American burlesque evolved into what is now big sparkly showgirl stuff whereas the English Music Hall style was much more of a send-up, making it funny, taking the piss out of stuff. Don’t get me wrong. I adore the showgirl stuff, but I just couldn’t do it. I’m too kookie and too clumsy.”

“The last couple of years at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I said, “a lot of the funniest stuff has not been in the Comedy section but the Cabaret section. I loved your show last year Another Fucking Variety Show. You’re a very good compere.”

There are, inevitably, clips on YouTube.

“It’s really funny,” said Lili. “Everyone thinks I’m this cool, in-command person.”

“Well,” I said, “Lili La Scala couldn’t do a really emotional show, could she?”

Lilli La Scala created emotional War Notes

Lili La Scala created emotional War Notes

“Rubbish!” said Lili. “When I decided I wanted to stop doing street performing, the first solo show I created was about my first love: vintage songs, because I grew up watching movie musicals. So I created a show called War Notes – songs from World War One and Two, but I wanted to make them more relevant. So I found letters from servicemen in current conflicts. This was 2010, so the wars were Afghanistan and Iraq. The letters were the ones that said: If you are reading this, I’ve been killed.

“I found them on Google and wrote to a member of the family of the service personnel. It was fairly gut-wrenching researching them but I found a lot of the sentiment in the letters was really similar to the sentiment in the songs, even though they were sometimes separated by almost a full century in time.

“I had friends and knew boyfriends of friends who were serving in Afghanistan. I performed the whole month of Edinburgh and it was a really emotional show – to listen to those letters every night.”

“What did you do immediately after the show?” I asked.

“I went out and got very drunk.”

“And the next show after that?” I asked.

“After that, I created Songs To Make You Smile which was just an hour of comedy songs from 1920-1950, real British variety. That has toured ever since – Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and all over the place.”

Lilli’s new show - not in Edinburgh until 2015

The new show – not in Edinburgh until 2015

“My new solo show Siren is on 21st June at the London Wonderground – the closest thing London has to a cabaret festival. I just did it in Adelaide and it was very well-received there. I attempt to sing stuff I’ve never sung before, which is wonderfully challenging for me.”

“But you’ve sung 1930s standards and opera and music hall songs,” I said. “there’s nothing much left.”

“Well, there’s some Tom Waits,” said Lili. “All the songs in the show are about the sea and journeys and travelling and some are really emotional for me.

“There’s one – Nick Cave’s Ship Song…

“I got very emotional when I sang it, because it reminded me a lot about a love affair I had when I was very young which went horrifically wrong and it had left me utterly broken-hearted. He said I could be his girl in London but he wanted to have an open relationship and I’m not really an open relationship kind of girl. I attempted it because I really, really loved him, but I ended up giving him an ultimatum saying: Look, we have heaps of fun together, but I can’t do this. We can either be together – just us – or not… And he chose Not.

“I thought I’d dealt with it back then but it turned out I’d just buried it under the patio. To find out it was still festering was an emotional shock for me.

“Then he turned up in town and we bumped into each other because – of course – we have the same circle of friends. We hadn’t spoken for eight years, so it was awkward. He said he was having an open relationship with his girlfriend. He said: If I could have been with just one someone, it would have been you… or maybe the girl I dated the year after you… He said he couldn’t even own a refrigerator. Too much commitment.”

“It’s alright for a spoken word performer to well-up emotionally,” I said, “but, if you’re singing and genuinely well-up, your voice won’t recover from that for – what? – 10 seconds?”

“Really,” explained Lili, “what you’re aiming for is several glistening tears rolling down your cheek. I was genuinely very tearful when I sang it. Then he came to the show and it gave me that moment to say all the stuff I wanted to say to him without him having any way of going But… but… but… By the end of it, I was Oh. I’m done now. It’s over. That’s fine. we’re done.”

“So what happened the next time you sang the song?” I asked.

“I then had to find some other way of creating that emotion in me that affects the audience because, obviously, I like the way it emotionally affects the audience.”

This bemused creature has a dog’s life

This beloved bemused creature has a dog’s life

“So how did you find that?”

“I thought about my dead cat.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

“How many cats do you have?”

“Five cats and two dogs. The dogs are utterly cowed, though the dachshund is like a little dictator, perhaps because he’s German.”

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Edinburgh Fringe comedy performer Juliette Burton explains why she will be stripping at an erotic night in London

Juliette in Melbourne this weekend

Juliette this weekend, preparing for her shows in Melbourne

Last time British performer Juliette Burton appeared in this blog, she was heading from Adelaide to Melbourne. Now she has arrived. I talked to her via Skype this morning in an English-themed bar with Frankie Lowe, her composer-sound technician-cameraman.

“When we arrived in Melbourne,” Juliette told me, “we went to a restaurant and someone working there was from Edinburgh. He’s going back in May, so I told him Oh! You’ve got to come and see my new Edinburgh Fringe show in August; I’m writing it with Janey Godley! So I’ve started promoting it already!”

Juliette is preparing her new Look At Me show for the Edinburgh Fringe in August while still performing her When I Grow Up shows in Australia.

Juliette Burton, both below and on top of Kevin Bridges

Juliette on top of Kevin Bridges down under

“I’m performing When I Grow Up at the Trade Hall in Melbourne from Thursday onwards,” she told me, “and there’s a huge poster on the side of the building. My name is listed just above Kevin Bridges. So I’m currently ‘on top of Kevin Bridges’ and I’m very happy about that position. I’m wearing a tartan skirt.”

There was a piece in The Scotsman today,” I said, “which reckons a 5% swing would mean a Yes vote for Scottish independence in September. The Fringe in August is going to be full of references to the Scottish independence vote in September.”

“Well, Look At Me is not going to have much about Scottish independence!” laughed Juliet. “Just independence from the voices in my head, maybe. We arrived in Melbourne last Thursday and I’m not performing When I Grow Up until this coming Thursday so, every single day, I’ve been able to get up and think about the new show.”

“And Look At Me is about…” I prompted.

“It’s about whether who we appear to be is who we actually are – and whether we can change who we are on the inside by changing who we appear to be on the outside.”

I usually hate video clips dropped into live stage shows but, in When I Grow Up, Juliette managed to integrate and interact with them flawlessly. She is also using extensive video clips in Look At Me.

“All the ones I’m going to use in the Look At Me,” she told me, “I shot before I left for Australia. Frankie is sitting here in this bar transcribing the video interviews and I’ve been highlighting them, trying to get ready for the edit.

“And then, as soon as I get back to the UK in May, I’m going to be working with the prosthetic make-up artist to film all the days when I’ll be transformed into different guises. There will be a Lady Gaga-esque day; a day when I will be transformed into a man; there will be an ‘old’ day, an ‘obese’ day, the hijab day and the ‘nude’ day.”

“Ah!” I said. “the nude day.”

Gypsy Wood will be giving Juliette advice

Burlesque performer Gypsy Wood will give Juliette advice

“This Wednesday in Melbourne,” Juliette told me, “I’m going to be meeting Gypsy Wood, who is an amazing burlesque performer out here. She is going to talk to me about my nude performance for Mat Fraser at Sleaze, the erotica night he runs in London. I’m going to be performing there on 4th June. That’s exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time.

“It’s not really going to be a burlesque performance. I don’t know what to call it. Mat Fraser has kind-of erotica pieces. It’s not quite that; it’s not quite theatre. It’s been quite a difficult thing to start doing. That bit of Look At Me is definitely not comedy.

“Frankie’s going to be composing a soundtrack for this 2-3 minute sequence of me stripping in defiance of The Voices in My Head – Society’s voice, my eating disorder voices, my body dysmorphic disorder voices – all the voices that tell me I’m wrong and bad and disgusting and my body’s not nice and not good enough. I’m going to be stripping to defy them and to spite them. So it’s not stripping for sex’s sake; it’s stripping for equality and… and… for independence,” Juliette laughed, “…for Scottish independence!”

“At the Edinburgh Fringe, you’re going to be performing at the Gilded Balloon,” I said.

“Yes. I had to decide if I was going to tick a box that said This Show Contains Nudity. I ticked the box that said it contains swearing, but not the one that said it contains nudity even though, in effect, it will do.”

“Defining nudity is an odd thing,” I said. “I watched Cliff Richard’s 1959 film Expresso Bongo the other night and it’s set in Soho with strippers involved. This is 1959, a fairly mainstream British film and full breasts were visible – only tassels on the nipples. It looked like some French sex film of the 1950s, but it was acceptable in suburban British cinemas in 1959. I guess back then you could see breasts provided the nipples were covered. Maybe if you saw a bit of nipple it was ‘nude’; but if you saw a naked breast with no nipple visible it was not ‘nude’.”

Juliette Burton (Photo by Helena G Anderson)

Juliette Burton prepares for Look At Me
(Photo by Helena G Anderson)

“Yes,” said Juliette, “if you have nipple tassels on it’s not really nude and if you have a c-string – the gusset of a g-string – then I don’t think that’s counted as fully-nude either. I’m going to have to do a lot of research to make sure I really am above-board. I guess it’s the tone, the intention that matters, like a lot of the things being discussed recently about comedy in the UK. It’s the intention of the words that are used. Whether it’s about rape or race. In any of those ‘taboo’ subjects, you have to be accountable. If you say something intelligently with the right intention, then I think anyone can surely artistically be allowed to do anything.

“It’s really important for me to take Look At Me to a crowd that’s under 18 years old – I want the message of the show to be about body confidence and celebrating body diversity in a way that will make people laugh and feel included and happy – I want to make sure the nudity that is included is not sexual or grotesque. It will be part of the over-all story of body celebration… That doesn’t sound very funny, but it’s going to be hilarious!… But I’m still terrified about the idea of me being nude… It’s going to be difficult.”

“I’ll post this blog today,” I told Juliette

“Me on top of Kevin Bridges is the most important thing,” she said.

“Ah,” I replied, “that’s your BBC News training coming out.”

(Juliette used to be a BBC broadcast journalist.)

“I do love a Reithian Lecture,” said Juliette.

“A Reithian lecher?” I asked.

“A Reithian Lecture,” Juliette said. “The Reithian ideals of the BBC are very important to me. I would love all my shows to adhere to them – to educate, inform and entertain all at the same time. That would be the ultimate goal.”

On YouTube, there is an 8-minute mini-documentary about one day in the shooting schedule for the Look At Me video interviews.

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