Reflection in my personal professional practice was not initially something that was immediately obvious to me, however after studying Reflective Practice I was able to reconsider. I believe I take a 'reflection-in-action' approach to my performance style, however while researching learning and reflection I realised that I do more 'reflection-on-action' than I initially believed:
I specialise in Cabaret, which, by its nature is very spontaneous and occasionally haphazard. Venues rarely have the same layout or audience, and I have to be aware from show to show of how to tailor or adapt my acts to appeal to the clientèle I am presented with: this can be something as obvious as changing the music or the costume, or something as subtle as a facial expression – bawdy humour may not be appropriate in certain settings where a more refined demeanour is suitable. I realise now that this could be considered an example of 'Reflection in Action', in line with Schon's theories on reflective practise.
I have, for several years, written a blog of my cabaret goings-on. Usually this is more of a diary, detailing things I have done, people I have performed with, and the odd musing that arises from this. I occasionally write more detailed blogs dealing with questions or issues that I either have myself or have been raised by those I work and spend my time with. These have included: 'Combating Burlesque Bullying' to 'A History Of Burlesque'. I realise now that these are reflective pieces, questioning and establishing my professional practice as I see it: an example of 'Reflection on Action'.
Reflection: Simon Turner Photography
What questions do you have?
Regarding my personal professional practice I have been mulling certain aspects of my industry over in my head, or occasionally writing them down in a folder I diplomatically call 'essays' but are really more like extended arguments with myself.
The main questions that have arisen for me in the past are still those that I can talk about or reflect upon for hours. These include: 'What makes a good performer?', 'Why Burlesque?', 'What is the future of Cabaret as an industry and art form?', 'Can a Cabaret show be a coherent performance, linked in any way, or is it, by its nature, disparate?', 'If Cabaret becomes mainstream does it necessarily lose the aspects of Variety and Taboo that underpin it?', 'To what extent is it the performers responsibility to incite audience reaction?', 'Is there such a thing as an “original” act any more?', 'What, if anything, does the word “professional” mean in the Cabaret industry?', 'How does Burlesque Striptease performance affect ideas and ideals of feminism?'...
So you can see I have lots of thoughts and questions already: some of these I have attempted to answer in the past, with varying degrees of success, as I don't know if there is a definitive answer either way. The arts world is constantly in a state of growth, flux and re imagining – without this ephemeral quality entire industries would stagnate.
Definition of Cabaret from the Oxford English Dictionary
Do you see practice that makes you question your ethical code of practice or your personal sense of relatively appropriate behaviour?Always: however in many instances I am forced to question my own ethics. In the context of a performance I often see acts or routines that are challenging: the fact that I am off-put or even offended by these performances, rather than being a reflection on the performer themselves, is an indictment of my personal taste.
Some performers deliberately set out to shock: there are events and venues that specialise in showcasing the extreme end of the variety spectrum with acts including bondage, self-harm and sadomasochism in their routines. These are obviously meant to incite an audience response but also to make us question the limits of our personal ideas of what is or isn't acceptable.
However, the instances that make me question my sense of appropriate behaviour usually take place off-stage. In an industry founded on self-employed artists, the competition for slots at shows can be fierce and obviously this can lead to behaviour between artists, and artists and promoters that could be termed inappropriate: there is one venue promoter in particular who is known for hiring female performers who flirt (rumour says more) with him; accusations of nepotism and favouritism are levelled at most long-running shows or venues, and I have witnessed scenes at times of networking that I would definitely deem inappropriate behaviour in a professional context. Alcohol is always on offer at cabaret venues and this can obviously lead to behaviour that would be out of place in any other working environment: however, again, maybe my reaction to these situations is more to do with my own code of ethics and behaviour rather than an indictment against a particular performer, promoter or standards of conduct.
In the context of Web 2.0 I have made a conscientious effort recently to hold myself to a higher code of ethics. I have never particularly exposed myself emotionally on Social Media as I feel if it is a platform you are using to promote yourself in a professional light it should only be used for work-related business and not personal business – I have several separate Social Media accounts for my performance persona and my real life! I have also never subscribed to the 'Name and Shame' culture: I had an experience recently with a performer criticising an employers attitude on Facebook which quickly spiralled (as these things do thanks to the brevity and anonymity of the internet, into the employer in question receiving threats against themselves, their family and their business, and the performer themselves receiving a police warning for inciting violence! Fortunately none of my personal experiences have been so bitter, however I am acutely aware of the need to remain professional at all times.
Internet Troll: image from ComicVine
I am enthusiastic about the entire Cabaret industry! I adore the idea that a variety of performers can come together for one night or one show, create a memorable experience for the audience, then go their separate ways: someone could visit the same venue on two consecutive nights and witness a completely different show.
I have been wondering whether it is possible to create this same sense of spontaneity using a fixed cast of variety performers: several attempts have been made on a small and large scale to recreate this and unfortunately they have, if not failed in their entirety, failed to capture audiences imaginations. A West-End Burlesque production last year hired a couple of variety performers from the London circuit, and auditioned for professional dancers to fill out the cast, and the run closed early. I admire the performers involved for their willingness to experiment with the boundaries of the art-form (even though the show itself was produced and funded by a large, faceless corporation. However it seems to me to answer the question: Cabaret nights are abundant across the country and there are a plethora in London – maybe it is the sense of a passing moment, that the show you are watching will never really be repeated, that truly encapsulates Cabaret?
On the other hand, there are several smaller groups attempting a similar sort of thing: a regular cast of performers working together without the hand of an overriding producer or production company. These smaller groups, because of their nature, are able to experiment more with style and location: despite the cast being fixed for each show they can capture the 'one-night-only' effect of a cabaret show with a rotating cast, yet can still build a strong working relationship between group members. I have a lot of admiration for these groups as they tend to take Cabaret shows to venues and audiences that may not have witnessed such a show previously.
The Spiegeltent at The London Wonderground, which played host to several Cabaret shows over the Summer season: image from bbc.co.uk
As cabaret and burlesque become more mainstream I have found that there is a lean towards a more 'commercially acceptable' body-type. I have personally experienced this on several occasions: one promoter telling me explicitly, that while they felt I was one of their best performers, I had to loose weight if I wished to continue working at the venue (naturally I told them, very politely, what they could do with their job!). On another occasion the issue was skirted around somewhat with the booker replacing me as lead performer at corporate events, but keeping me on for the open events.
I get very angry when I see mediocre performers (in my opinion) able to earn a comfortable living from Cabaret purely because they fit a particular aesthetic, when better performers (again, in my opinion) are working another job or two in order to support themselves and their performance career, simply due to the fact they do not look a certain way.
A performer I particularly admire for this is an American burlesque dancer who has been outspoken about her difficult upbringing and has a history involving alcoholism and domestic abuse: she is also over six-foot tall with an Amazonian physique. She created a routine using voice-overs: over the music disembodied voices shouted hurtful things, the names she had been called, the things she had been told and the abuse she had received. The routine itself is spectacular, culminating in near nudity as she celebrates her triumph over the bullies and the restrictions she had placed on herself as a result of the abuse.
What do you love about what you do? Who do you admire who also seems to love this or is an example of what you love?As previously mentioned I love most aspects of the industry! I love that a group of otherwise unrelated performers can come together to create an incredible experience for an audience.
Personally I love the feeling of being on-stage. It is a very selfish sort of experience as the audience are clapping and cheering for something I have created: Cabaret and variety performers usually create their own routines, costumes and choreography. When I know I have performed a routine well to an appreciative audience then the feeling as I leave the stage is unmatched. Occasionally, after shows, audience members may tentatively (or not, depending on the amount of alcohol imbibed during their evening!) approach to say how much they enjoyed the show, or a particular routine, which is wonderful.
However the performers I admire the most for this are the hosts or emcee's of the evening: they are the ones responsible for whipping the audiences into a frenzy before the performer sets foot on stage, and they set the tone for the night. They have to remain in character throughout a two or three act show, deal with drunken hecklers, remember the running order, perform several songs, and keep the energy high and audience 'on-side'! There are a couple in particular who have this down to a fine art and are therefore in demand across the world for their skills.
Having said that, a couple of the top performers on the UK circuit come from a non-performance background: several studied costume and fashion design, and therefore have an understanding of materials, fabrics and shapes that look good on stage. One performer in particular is renowned for her gorgeous costumes, beautiful props and visually stunning routines – she trained in Theatre Design and makes all of her own props and costumes herself. Another performer took up Cabaret performance as a hobby, then realised her limitations and set out to train herself: since starting Burlesque around five or six years ago she has re-trained in Circus, taken classes and workshops in Clowning, Ballet, Pole-Dance, and Acting, and been invited to master-classes in elements of Cabaret performance. Prior to taking up her place at Circus school she held a perfectly respectable accounting job, which fell by the wayside as she found her true passion!
I Don't Understand....: image from nativemobile.com
How do you decide the appropriate ethical response in a given situation? To what extent are disciplinary responses different to that you might expect more generally in society?This was an interesting question for me from a couple of different points.
Backstage: most cabaret shows will have at least one or two burlesque striptease dancers on the bill. Because, as previously mentioned, the expectation of this sort of act is to end with partial nudity, there are often a lot of naked people backstage; I have seen people sitting doing admin while nearly naked, we chat on the phone, do our make-up, eat, drink and greet other arriving performers in a state of near or total nudity. This has become completely normal for me (although it's interesting to see the reaction of newer performers or those who have come to cabaret from other disciplines such as circus!) The correct ethical response is to not even react. The naked body is a natural, common, human thing, and therefore does not even need to be commented on. However, if I was in a communal changing room in a clothes shop I would not strip down and parade around in my panties! Performers often have to be helped into their costumes which obviously deems necessary a level of physical contact that would have people reaching for their pepper spray if it happened in public. However, backstage, everyone accepts that it is a so-called 'safe space' and therefore are much more intimate, even with relative strangers, than they would be elsewhere.
On Stage: I posted above the OED's definition of 'Cabaret': I have also heard it defined similarly with the additional: “Entertainment that breaks down the 'fourth wall'.”
Cabaret performers are 'characters'. The character may be a complete opposite to the performers natural persona, or simply a heightened version of themselves. This gives a cabaret artist license to do things that would otherwise be deemed inappropriate: for example, I have seen performers who sit on members of the audience, steal drinks or food from their tables, drag them out of their seats and make them complicit in their acts, all as part of a routine. I have been guilty of one or two of these myself! This is behaviour that would be completely unacceptable in any other given circumstance, however the creation of the performers character, and the licence given to them by dint of fact that it is a 'performance' permits the audience to allow this. One of my favourite quotes on this comes from a cabaret comedic-magician who talks about the smoking ban as he lights a cigarette: “Smoking indoors is still allowed if it is part of a venues entertainment programme, so the next time you're stuck at a bar and fancy a cigarette just pop a little box down on the floor and stand on it. If anyone tells you to stop just tell them it's performance art.”
Post-Show: This is where it all gets a little bit muddy for the professional cabaret performer. As mentioned, alcohol is served at cabaret shows, and therefore there can be occasions where audience members feel that, because they have seen a performer in a state of undress, or that a performer may have accosted them during a routine, they then have the right to continue this kind of behaviour once the show has finished. I recently saw a fellow performer, while onstage, during her routine, be groped by a female member of the audience who, when challenged, responded with “Well you put your foot on me in your last routine, and I'm a woman as well so it doesn't count!”
Fortunately, situations like this are few and far between, however unfortunately they do happen and the performer simply has to carry on rather than interrupt their act. After the show it can be harder to remain polite but firm as heightened emotions (from alcohol or the persons natural temperament) can often spill over into an unpleasant situation.
Promoters or bookers will often visit other shows in the area to both support a local scene and scout performers for their own shows (this is not like poaching or head-hunting as we are all freelance and not committed to just one venue or event!) so it is always essential to remain polite and professional, even when the show is over and the performer may feel that their job is done. Also, to be unprofessional at an event would almost definitely mean not getting booked there in the future and for performers who live from one gig to the next this would be a disaster!
This task has raised some very interesting questions for me about further lines of enquiry to consider. Prior to this I only had a very muddled idea about where to take a professional inquiry and had no clear route I thought I could take this down.
Answering the questions posed above has made me consider a couple of things that I hadn't previously thought of, and opened up different routes to explore based on questions I already had. When I looked through my journal I realise that I am questioning or commenting on the same things time and time again, and this will form the basis of my enquiry.
I am leaning towards a focus on performance in and of itself – in the context of my personal professional practice the performance element is what I enjoy the most, rather than the administration, promotion or creation of an act, so this is naturally where I will find the most 'food for thought'.
The two questions I have posed below I have developed as they will allow me to cover many of the aspects I have already considered in the past or discussed in this blog, and I feel they will have a wider arc of discovery than a question with a narrower focus.
Image from sjsu.edu
Questions that I am considering so far:
* What makes a good performer? Why do audiences react differently to two performers of the same style? What makes one performer popular (to audiences and bookers) and another less so? Is there a marked difference of opinion on this between casual audience members, cabaret enthusiasts and others in the industry? Is there a difference of opinion regarding body types, or a particular 'look' that is considered by audience members to make a 'better' performer?
* How much is it the performers responsibility to incite an audience reaction? How much of the reaction is dependant on the host creating the atmosphere? Audiences are expected to cheer at visual cues; how much of their reaction is based on following this protocol? How does audience reaction differ from venue to venue, or between acts, between styles, or from one event to another? What is the expected audience response across art forms other than cabaret, and, if there is a difference, why?