CDs Be Gone: A New Appproach to Burlesque Stage Management

It’s one of every burlesque performer’s biggest nightmares: the emcee bellows forth your name, the crowd quiets its roar, and just as your Swarovski-studded heel is just about to strike forth on the stage…a paralyzing silence takes over the venue. Nothing. Nada. Crickets. The audience looks confused, the stage manager looks flustered, the emcee starts to babble to kill time, and the DJ throws up his hands.

You’ve just experienced an Epic. Music. Fail.

Over the years, producers and performers have created various strategies to avoid this mishap: 2 identical copies, emailing music ahead of time, etc… but they all have drawbacks or lack flexibility. Burning a single CD of everyone’s music means you’d better hope no one shows up late, gets sick, or needs to swap acts at the last minute. And who among us hasn’t forgotten our music at home at least once? Even the most seasoned of performers can experience the occasional brain fart, especially when rushing out the door or juggling multiple gigs in one night.

But those days may be behind us all — remember back when I wrote about Five Technological Innovations That Shaped Neo-Burlesque? This might just be #6!

John Adams, chief sound engineer for Hubba Hubba Revue, has poured a lot of blood, sweat and coding tears into creating a system that will rule out all of the above. It’s fast, updates immediately, is super user-friendly and easy to use – and quite frankly, it kicks ass.

John was kind enough to share a little more about this awesome new high-tech creation of his that really changes the game in terms of agile stage management:

Sparkly Devil: Tell us a little about yourself.

John Adams: I’m also known as DJ Netik, or when working at Hubba, Kingfish likes to call me Johnny Electro. I was one of the first thirteen employees at Twitter. I was originally hired to fix Twitter’s scaling problems and to defeat the Fail Whale — we had many problems early on building a system that could scale with the incredible amounts of growth that we faced, and my work, along with those of a very dedicated team of engineers, made the site into what it is today. These days, I lead a fifteen person security team protecting users and our systems from attack.

When not doing that, I’m a DJ, bad musician, and sound engineer. It’s said that that best engineers are failed musicians, so I guess I’m proud to be part of that group. I ran a sound company, Retina Sound, for about 6 years, mixing FOH (Front-of-House) for everyone from big bands like Parliament to one-hit-wonders like Crystal Waters.

SD: How did you come to be chief sound engineer at Hubba Hubba Revue?

JA: When I first moved to San Francisco, I was immediately taken by all of the amazing performers and art surrounding me.  One of the first shows I went to was Spectacular Spectacular, a predecessor of Hubba Hubba containing less burlesque and more variety. Back then, I had no idea that burlesque and vaudeville scenes were still alive and so strong. Kingfish (Jim Sweeney) and I met at a tiny yet classy club called Dark Sparkle, and it was there that I asked him about the show. He needed someone to make music and sound effects and I’d just moved my entire music studio from the east coast.

Much like Fred Norris of the Howard Stern Show, I own a massive sound effects collection. It’s just something I’d always buy at record stores. No matter what Kingfish can think up, I have a sound for it. I’ve combined various sources to make everything from mad scientist lab atmospheres, to the rolling thunder and rain of a terrible storm. Also, wolves. There seems to be a never ending stream of requests for wolves.

Combining this love of sound effects with my DJ and mixing abilities was a perfect match for becoming the show’s chief engineer. I love working with so many talented people on this show.

SD: What inspired you to create this tool?

JA: It’s in my nature as an engineer to find problems and make them disappear. At Twitter, we have this process where we discover how something has failed, extensively research why we failed, and take steps to make sure the problem never happens again. It’s an iterative approach that works extremely well and something that I live by.

Hubba has had its share of problems over the years; the majority of our performers bring their music to us on CDs, and while this would seem at first to be a reliable delivery mechanism for audio, it’s not. Our failures range from losing someone’s CD, to video not playing, to a CD burn just failing part way through. Some of this is human, and some of this is technical.

The process of creating a CD burn is also highly variable. Different CD burners aren’t compatible with all CD players and all it takes is one failure to kill what would otherwise have been a fantastic act. Also, if the song doesn’t finish, no one will see any pasties, and well, we don’t want that, do we?

If all of our performers use the software to upload their music, I should be able to download one big file containing that night’s show, and all of these CD problems will go away. Of course, as I know all too well, new technology may just introduce a new set of problems for us to deal with!

SD: OK, for the tech geeks: how many hours of coding did it take? What was your approach?

JA: I’ve actually started and stopped this project multiple times over the last year and a half. I finally had time to work on it, and when the time came up, I started over again from scratch. The difference was that when I started the project this time all of the ideas had been fully fleshed out in my head.  I’d originally decided to write a simple upload system but what the end result was after many iterations, was a full show management system that both the stage managers and tech crew could use.

The system is written in Ruby on Rails, Mongo DB, and relies heavily on jQuery and Twitter Bootstrap for its user interface. What the average performer sees while using the system is just the tip of the iceberg. They sign in, upload a file, create an act, and log out. In the stage manager part of the system, which you can’t see unless your account is granted access, is a full schedule, attendance, and file manager for the backstage staff to use in building the show.

It took me around 300 hours of coding time to write this, most of which was spent writing the show editor code.

 

SD: One a scale of 1 to whiskey, how much of a pain in the ass was it to create?

JA: I’m primarily a back-end and security engineer. That means that I don’t spend most of my time designing user interfaces. The pain in the ass was all of the Javascript and jQuery code, which was something I’d never really worked in that much before. Getting the system up and running was easy but the front end code was difficult for me to write.

One of the features in the software is the ability for any stage manager to use an iPad backstage to make changes to the show and for those changes to automatically appear on the iPads or laptops carried by the rest of the crew. That was a pain to write because I had to get the timing right so the users would see the right items and the updates at the right time.

So, yeah, Whiskey.

 

Any time I revisit one of these acts for another Hubba show, all I need to do is select it from my list of saved acts – HOW COOL IS THAT?

 

SD: This is open source. Meaning, anyone can use this platform. Why’s that?

JA: Open source is something like what you’ve described with a couple of key differences. When a project is open sourced, it’s source code and underlying implementation details are available to anyone who wants it. Not only can anyone use it, but anyone can see how it works and fix problems that they find. Contributing to a software project and working together means that all users of the software package benefit when code is upgraded, repaired, or has features added to it.

I’ve always been a strong proponent of open source software. The underlying code for the Show Manager is already open source and publicly available, so adding to it seemed to be a logical thing to do.

If you’d like to get a copy of the software, it’s stored at http://github.com/netik along with many other software packages that I have open-sourced. Please contribute!

 

SD: And one final question: when does Skynet become self aware?

JA: I’m a huge Terminator fan, you know. First we were all supposed to die in 1997, and then 2011, but now, who knows.  Maybe this software will become so self-aware that I can kick back, drink bourbon, and watch the show.

 

Thank you, Johnny Electro!

 

Inside the 44DD Brain of Nasty Canasta

Photo by Melody Mudd.

From the moment I first saw her on stage stage at Starshine Burlesque in the very early 2000s, I’ve been captivated by Nasty Canasta.

I’m not alone in my obsession – this flame-haired knockout is one of the most consistently innovative and spectacular performers in burlesque today. A twisted genius in all the right ways of wrong, she loves to take tropes of burlesque and femininity, twist them around, fuck them up, and mold them into wry and often gut-wrenchingly hilarious commentary.

Whether it’s her classic white fan dance to car alarms, or her beautifully clever striptease tribute to The Portrait of Dorian Gray – which earned her second runner up for Miss Exotic World 2010 – Nasty is truly the thinking woman’s burlesque performer.

Recently, Nasty was kind enough to sit down and answer my probing questions about her art, inspirations, the whole mustache thing, and that one time when she was naked and someone thought she was a dude. Without further ado:

Tell us a little about how Nasty Canasta came to be.

I moved to NYC after college to be an actor – a serious stage actor, mind you, none of your commercial film nonsense, no musicals, just straight inaccessible experimental un-air-conditioned ART. After nearly ten years of temp work, improv rehearsals, and parts in not one but two of the worst productions of Richard III in all of history, I was beginning to re-think a lot of these decisions … at which point, a friend dragged me to a show to see some acrobat he knew. Also in the lineup were Julie Atlas Muz, Harvest Moon, and Lady Ace. I’m not sure how I had made it through an Ivy League theatre program and almost ten years in the arts in New York City without ever hearing the word ‘burlesque,’ but that was pretty much the beginning of the end for theatre.

Actually, it was almost another year before I really jumped into burlesque myself. Back then there were only a couple of regular shows, no classes, and only a handful of people who actually called what they did “burlesque.” So it took a while of auditioning, filling in last-minute at shows when the real performers couldn’t make it, late-night go-go gigs, and, you know, working to get good enough to get booked. (I shudder to think of some of the first acts I inflicted on the world. Thank god there weren’t many digital cameras around then.)

You used to be a full-time stage actress in New York. How did that affect your transition to burlesque, and what are the differences between those two realms?

Photo by Ted D’Ottavio.

Clearly, burlesque arrived in my life at the right time. Much of what I was getting fed up with about theatre was being nothing more than an ingredient in someone else’s recipe – and, at least in my experience, that recipe was usually a completely embarrassing inedible mess that the chef cooked just so he could cast his girlfriend as the entreé. I do enjoy the collaborative aspects of theatre, but even more I appreciate being in control of my own creation within the larger context of a show, a local scene, or the art form as a whole.

Coming from an environment where the actor is fitted into a pre-existing part, the idea of being cast in a show for my art – rather than for my brown hair and 45 seconds of Viola’s monologue – was rather wonderful. The scary-ass side of that was that no one was telling me where to stand or what to say. And I couldn’t blame my ugly shoes on an inept costume designer.

I’ve come to love being my own writer, director, costumer, prop builder, dramaturge, and even road crew; but even with that – and I don’t think it’s just the theatre background rearing its ugly head – I also very much appreciate those producers who celebrate their performers’ unique creations while also crafting shows that are themselves a complete whole.

Where do you find the inspiration for your acts?

The Burlesque OCD has reached such a point that I’m not sure there’s a short answer to that (not that I’m capable of a short answer to anything), but I’d say that most often it comes from Being A Wiseass. Which is to say, more often than not I hear a song or a sound, see a costume or an object, encounter a concept or an idea or a phrase and the first thought is How can I fuck with that? I rarely intend to be deliberately off-putting to an audience, but I love the idea of challenging expectations and of twisting aspects of the art form – which seems to happen even when my initial intent is to do a perfectly straightforward striptease, for once.

Can you describe the process of how your acts are born, from initial concept to realization?

Photo by Don Spiro.

I suspect my process is much the same as most people’s (though not being any sort of dancer the ‘choreography’ part is more just ‘blocking’ in the theatrical sense).

Usually there’s an initial idea – I wonder if I could make a costume out of a dressmaker’s dummy? – that sits around in the back of my head forever; then an element gets accidentally added – It might be fun to do an act as a costumer designer to “Material Girl” – and idly expanded upon – Huh, there’s a great string quartet version of that song – and then combined – I want to strip out of a dressmaker’s dummy to that recording – and obsessed over. If it sticks around in my brain long enough there’s a period of simultaneous costume sketches, playing and re-playing the song, and first-draft choreography ideas.

I’ve learned to pin the sketches on the bulletin board and leave the song in the ‘potential acts’ playlist for a while after that – if I keep thinking about it for long enough, then I’ll start building and rehearsing it; but I’d say at least three-quarters of the time a new idea takes over and the first one doesn’t seem as exciting to work on. The ones that stay exciting are the ones I pretty have to make happen, if only to shut myself up. 

What are the three most critical elements to your creative process?

Irritation, surprise, and magnets.

You’ve been performing for a decade. How have you transformed over the years?

I think I’ve both expanded and refined my performance style over the years. When I first started I had a very specific and limited idea of the ‘type’ of burlesque I was going to perform (Pop music only! Edgy and serious! Full-back underwear at all times!); over time I went in the complete opposite direction and did a little bit of everything, which was a great exercise for me, even if most of those numbers have long since been retired. I’ve now come to a loose and utterly non-binding description of my general aesthetic, which tends to be ‘a burlesque on burlesque.’ Sometimes it’s utterly deliberate – car-alarm fan-dances – and sometimes it sort of sneaks into the more straightforward numbers too.

Practically, I’m a better performer. I think it’s important to acknowledge that to myself, both because it’s then easier to focus on the specific things I want to tackle next (I’m only just getting comfortable with close-up floor shows, and holy crap am I a mess with live music), but also because anyone who works within any specific discipline for nine years and doesn’t improve or grow or change in any way has no business being a performer.

Sammich striptease at Wasabassco Burlesque at The Way Station. Photo by Mo Pitz.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? And where do you see burlesque in 10 years?

Ten years ago I would have answered that first question with total certainty, and I would have been completely and utterly wrong in every way. Hell, over the last two years enough has changed in my life both personally and professionally that I wouldn’t hazard much of a prediction right now. I imagine I’ll still be performing in some context; I am certain I’ll still be making things, whatever they are; and I hope that I’ll have seen significantly more of the world by then.

As far as burlesque itself … I have a nightmare where it just turns into the American theatre structure: repackaged corporate family-friendly Broadway shows on one end, unendurable skill-less community productions on the other, and a little bit of original and interesting work going unnoticed somewhere in between. Plus lots and lots of nerdlesque. And then there’s the Golden Dream version: more high-profile, professional shows with respect for the skill, creativity and value of the individual performers and for the audience, well-run smaller shows where emerging performers can refine their craft in an equally respectful environment, and truly original and interesting work being presented at both. Plus nerdlesque that consistently expands upon and transcends pop culture.

In reality, well … burlesque will never be totally mainstream, of course, but it will keep pervading the general sphere (Muahahahaha! Moustache-twirling!) for a while, until The Next Cool Thing takes over; at which point, being female-driven and queer-friendly and the domain of individual artists and by definition fearless, it will continue to evolve – with the added benefit of the experience of a lot of artists who have been performing, producing and creating burlesque professionally for a long time.

What is the most outrageous prop you’ve ever created?

Since I always want to be the thing (floor lamp, sandwich, Peep) rather than just play with it, the silliness tends to come out in costuming rather than props. That being said, I do own a three-foot-tall Greek diner take-out coffee cup (with correspondingly-sized sugar packet, creamer and straw). As a stripping caffeine-addict I just couldn’t let the whole martini-bath thing go untouched.

Let’s talk about the costume & pastie company you’ve created. Were you always a seamstress, or was this something you picked up with burlesque?

Blue Streak Fancywear mustache pasties.

For no particular reason, it’s called Blue Streak Fancywear. I grew up without a lot of money, with a grandmother who knitted constantly, and with an imagination that exceeded the available toys; so the general rule was, Figure out how to make it. (I also recently realized that most of the props and creatures from the sci-fi shows that I grew up with – Star Trek and especially 1970’s Dr. Who – were random objects glued together and spray-painted. I think this probably had a huge influence on my emerging DIY aesthetic.) Most of the early things I made were shoebox-dollhouses and paper-towel-tube lightsabers and retired-curtain gowns; then my grandmother taught me how to knit, and all of a sudden my dolls all had a lot of hand-knit aerobics outfits …

Pretty much the only thing I learned in mandatory middle school Home-Ec was how to thread a sewing machine; a few years later I had a brief stint with the SCA (ahem) and basically had to teach myself how to sew in order to make my truly bitchin’ and very awesome 12th-century Welsh peasant outfits. Seriously, though, despite my personal Ren Faire period, and even though I’ve always been a performer, I was never really into Dressing Up As Things In Public; so I ended up making a ton of increasingly-elaborate costumes that I never really intended to wear, just to see if I could. That’s basically how I learned to sew … and a few things stuck around in the closet long enough to make it into burlesque numbers, too.

Obviously, being a seamstress means I can make my own burlesque costumes; the idea of the company really just grew from selling pasties as merch at shows, from a few other performers occasionally needing help with costumes, and from civilians asking about commissions. I enjoy the hell out of sewing for other people, partly because it’s such a wonderfully intimate thing, but mostly because it satisfies the constant crafting obsession but then I don’t have to store the stuff. It’s a great scam.

Year of the Mustache – tell us more!

Moustaches make me laugh. They are the hamsters of facial hair: compact, adorable, and funny. Everyone of every gender looks good in a fake moustache, even (especially) if they already have a real one underneath. Girls in fake moustaches are especially hot (I defy anyone to look at Stormy Leather or Victoria Privates in a ‘stache and tell me otherwise). Even the word ‘moustache’ makes me smile.

Really, the Year of the Moustache is just a low-impact attempt to add a little joy to my days, and to other people’s days, and to the Internet (if most of my FaceTube interactions concern moustaches rather than flame wars, I can keep the tech-induced rage to a minimum). Also I love the sheer number of moustache-related photos and messages that people send me.

And finally, tell me about your most memorable experience on stage – good, bad or ugly.

I’m going to go with most perplexing.  I was performing my Flash Gordon number for a show that allowed full nudity (woo-hoo!) in a very “intimate” venue – which meant that I was about 2 feet from the front row of the audience, who were themselves seated exactly at crotch-level. To explain the act: basically I flash the audience every time Freddie Mercury sings “Flash!” (Get it?) At the end there is a full-girl-bits-exposed, stand-there-for-10-seconds reveal … at which point, Crotch-Height Audience Member #1 (Female Crotch-Height Audience Member, no less) leans over to her friend, FCHAM #2, and loudly proclaims, “Oh, yeah, that’s a guy.”

I have since chalked it up to a gross failure of the American education system, particularly in the area of the Life Sciences.