Illustration by Joelle McKenna
Dec 8, 2020
Burlesque in the year of Covid
On a typical Saturday night in New York City, you might catch William Loew at La Poisson Rouge, at a table with six of his friends, enjoying drag performer Linda Simpson’s live Bingo show. But this fall and winter—smack in the middle of a pandemic that has shuttered New York’s nightlife scene—has been anything but typical. You’re more likely to find him in his Manhattan Village apartment, the soft glow of his laptop reflected in a sequined jacket, waiting for Linda Simpson to call his number from somewhere in the Zoomiverse.
“When I go to the live event, it’s a room full of people in New York having a great time,” says Loew, a corporate training manager. Now though, he might spend an hour playing bingo on screen with his sister in California, a socially-distanced birthday party in Ohio, or regular attendee ‘Chain Smoking Patti,’ of unknown locale. “We’re not all directly communicating, but we’re all in the same chat room and that’s a unique thing you would not get at a live event in New York.”
Looking for a silver lining in the pandemic has become a lifeline for quarantine-weary New Yorkers, and the summer months provided some respite. But as the colder months approach, we may again be looking for comfort on our computer screens.
Burlesque performers are happy to oblige.
House of maybe
Live entertainment as a whole has shimmied from the main stage to smaller screens this year with mixed results. Staged readings performed from actors’ homes have provided an intimate, low-fi look behind the curtain at people who seem untouchable. But variety performers in particular rely on artifice, elaborate makeup for drag performers, choreography and costumes for burlesque, sleight of hand for magicians, and more. Burlesque is already exceedingly intimate—and nearly naked—and if you have a few bills to tuck into a garter belt, well all the better.
Recreating that experience has been rocky, particularly for venues accustomed to controlling their environment. Brooklyn’s own The House of Yes, which experimented with online events during the spring, discontinued those productions due in part to varying production values, internet connections and audio quality, marketing, and cultural director Jacqui Rabkin wrote in an email. But for independent performers, early experimentation yielded gratifying results, nurtured new skills, and opened up new audiences.
“I’m a Zoom optimist,” says Simpson, who has been performing in drag since the 1980s and declined to give her real name. In addition to her residence at La Poisson Rouge in the Village and regular performances at Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club in Gowanus and elsewhere, she’s accustomed to doing private events. Moving online presents some technical challenges, like communicating live with her co-host and DJ, both in their respective apartments. But overall it’s been a boon for Simpson, who regularly sells between 100 to 300 tickets to her online event, Linda Loves Virtual Bingo.
“I get new players just from being on Eventbright,” says Simpson. Her established social network and mailing list also helps. “One nice thing is I’m getting a lot of regulars, and they’ve formed a little community on their own. When we play, the chat section is very active. I kind of equate that with applause.”
Smells like quarantine spirit
Brooklyn-based Burlesque performer Lil’ Miss Lixx used to perform live one to four nights a week. She’s had a tough pivot to Zoom, but has found creative reward in her new platform. “I went from performing sometimes three times in one night to my four walls in my Brooklyn apartment,” says Lixx, who also declined to provide her government name. When New York City’s roaring burlesque scene came to a screeching halt on March 16, mainstays like The Slipper Room on the Lower East Side and the House of Yes in Bushwick went dark. “My whole world came crashing down.”
She, like other performers, was forced to innovate in real time. Her act needed an overhaul. “I thought, I have all these costumes and a hell of a lot of time,” says Lixx. “I wanted to use the opportunity to do stuff that was more difficult. “I have a bubble machine that was usually a pain in the ass to carry on the subway, or the coral reef set that I have for my mermaid act.”
She took the opportunity to learn a bit about video production, bought an iPad, and learned how to use editing software. Soon, she was designing mailers for her marquis event, “Lil’ Miss Lixx presents Scratch n’ Sniff, an hour-long act inspired by the Odorama theater in the John Waters’ film “Polyester.” Her pinkest, fluffiest costume prompted viewers to scratch the cotton candy sticker, she said. “Some of the smells were good, some of the smells were bad.”
It’s a burlesque breaking of the third wall: “You’re not in clubs anymore so it’s just one more sense to titillate, so to speak,” says Lixx. “I pitched it as, if you send me a donation of any amount, I’ll mail you a sniff card, a ‘Lixx-o-rama. I was totally floored.”
She mailed out 50 cards for her first show. The audience for the second doubled. Next up is her December 24 “X-mas Holiday Snifftacular.”
Like a rabbit out of a hat
Magician Greg Dubin, who bills himself as The Great Dubini, quit his graphic design day job a month before the pandemic hit. Bad timing, perhaps. But he has magically found himself afloat on corporate dollars once again. His free Instagram Live shows drew only 15 to 20 people a night, but it turned out to be great marketing for a new business: Zoom shows for corporate teams.
“Guys that are in marketing or sales at Google or something, they’ll drop a thousand bucks on drinks for their team and no one will blink an eye.” By hiring Dubin during the pandemic instead, companies found a way to break the monotony for their employees while supporting the arts and helping small businesses. “These companies really want to help.”
Of course, the experience isn’t exactly the same—for audiences or performers. “Half the joy of burlesque in New York City is being smushed backstage with a gaggle of girls and a bottle of tequila,” says Lixx.
But there are some advantages, says Simpson.
“I don’t have the pain of wearing heels.”
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