Theatre Thoughts: ACE Burlesque

The other day it was announced that the Hebden Bridge Burlesque Festival has secured Arts Council England funding for their next event.

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In recent years HBBF came under fire from protesters, arguing that Burlesque was anti-feminist, akin to stripping and shouldn't be allowed in certain venues. Fortunately the team behind the festival were able to overcome these objections and put on an acclaimed festival. This year many of the venues booked for events were flooded before Christmas, leading to a scramble to find other performance spaces. I'm sure it's been a roller-coaster for them, so the news that they have secured ACE funding for the next event must be a huge weight off their minds.

I have a background in cabaret performance, so I may be a little biased here: HBBF is the first event of its kind to get ACE funding. The Arts Council has suffered from year-on-year cuts and in the theatre world it is becoming increasingly difficult to gain funding from them (one friend has spent several weeks putting together the application and has to wait several more weeks to hear from them. Many more have had their applications refused.), so for a burlesque event to gain funding is a coup for the cabaret industry as a whole.

But it got me thinking: why is this the first? Why haven't ACE funded burlesque before, and will this set a precedent for future funding. 

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Burlesque and cabaret is so inclusive. There are performers of all races and ethnicities, performers with disabilities, from the LGBTQ community, those who identify as gender fluid and more. They all find a home in Cabaret, and therefore tick the boxes for funding from the Arts Council. Festivals also tend to include workshops and talks, therefore fulfilling the educational requirements of ACE.

Previously, cabaret performances have tended to be largely self-funded or venue-led. Many smaller shows are profit-share, and any surplus from the first show gets carried over to be able to offer a small fee to performers on the next show. It tends to be self-sustaining.
In London and some other cities, there is another side to cabaret where venues will offer a set amount of money to a troupe of performers, or a company, or a set of individuals to put on a show that suits the venues requirements.

* Maybe it's partly this DIY attitude, which permeates all areas of cabaret and burlesque, that has meant no one has asked for help from ACE before. Or maybe they have, and have been turned down - I'd like to know more if this is the case! Cabaret performers are largely self-sufficient and maybe it's a little bit of this sensibility.
* Perhaps (and I'm sure this isn't the case) the people who are putting on the shows don't think that cabaret is *worth* funding? That it's not worthy of funding in the eyes of the "establishment" because it's not a 'serious play' or piece of politically inspired contemporary dance in an immersive environment. (I have nothing against the latter, actually, it sounds quite interesting!)
* It might just be that cabaret performers don't really have the time to sit filling in a lengthy application! From my experience as a full-time cabaret performer I would spend most of my time making or repairing costumes; working on choreography; updating my website; searching for music for routines; networking and maintaining an online presence; shopping for glue, fabric, crystals or the 'right colour shoes'; and vast swathes of time travelling on trains or in the back of a car. If you're also planning a show, or series of shows, there is the added stress of doing all of the above for whole group of performers and liaising with venues, techies and marketing. Where is the time in the day??

Photographer Credit: Mat Ricardo -
Model: Ruby Deshabille -

I'm glad that HBBF gained the funding. It will be a financial weight off their minds, which will allow for more "risky" programming, which in turn will expose the audiences to the weird and wonderful variety of variety.

I'm glad that this might set a precedent for other productions and groups to apply for (and hopefully gain) funding from the Arts Council, as this will allow more and more people to be introduced to cabaret and see it for the modern, subversive and progressive performance that I believe a good show can be.

And I'm actually really glad it's happening first outside of London! Here we have our pick of venues, events and performance styles, and I'm happy that a festival all the way 'oop North is getting this opportunity.


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