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!

 

In Memory of Eddie Dane

Last Thursday, Eddie Dane — producer, comedian, MC, pioneer, son, and friend — died at the age of 42.

For the past couple of days, I’ve struggled to articulate my thoughts on his passing; something a little more eloquent than “man, this fucking sucks.”

But, seriously?

This totally fucking sucks.

I can’t quite remember exactly when I met Eddie; but I think it was at Tease-o-rama in 2002, when he was ripping on a makeup-free Marilyn Manson, who was standing in front of Bimbo’s in a very staid brown suit while Dita performed inside. At the time, I thought he was kind of a jerk — Eddie, I mean; not Manson.

Anyway, In 2005 we sat next to each other on a panel called “How to Be a Burlesque Star for Fun & Profit” — when we both made the same joke at the same time, I laughed and put my hand on his knee….and he told me to knock it off or he’d get wood in front of everyone. The entire room laughed and I turned bright red in shock and embarrassment.

We’ve been pals ever since.

Eddie was a true pioneer of the burlesque revival; he founded Dane’s Dames, one of the very first neo-burlesque troupes in the country, which he brought to the very first burlesque convention ever, Tease-o-rama in New Orleans in 2001. He went on to co-produce Hubba Hubba Revue with cohort MC Kingfish — and the show was recently named one of the top 10 burlesque shows in the world by the Travel Channel.

It was Eddie who first introduced me to the Hubba crew, booking me for their second show under the Hubba moniker — just weeks after I had moved to San Francisco. I remember checking my email via a hotel lobby computer somewhere half way through my cross-country journey; thrilled to find an invite to perform from Eddie. I vividly remember rushing back to the room to tell my driving buddy – who just so happened to be Gorilla X, another core member of Eddie’s crew. His response was: “Good. Those are the people you need to be with.”

And he was so right. Hubba Hubba truly became my family, in every sense of the word. I remember feeling at home the moment I set foot on the DNA stage and the “Hooray!” sign went up. We all have the tendency to reflect on the past with rose-colored glasses; but truly, my first show with Hubba Hubba was a pivotal point for me — one of those simple moments that seems so profound, but at the time you just can’t figure out just why. I had the same moment of clarity when I met my husband the first time; and as with him, when I met Hubba — I just knew it was meant to be.

Over the past few days, as we’ve all shared moments and memories, a lot of folks have said they’ve always liked Eddie, but felt they didn’t really know him well. It’s an understandable sentiment; for all of his boisterous behavior on stage, Eddie was actually a soft-spoken guy when the spotlights weren’t on. And it was that reserved part of Eddie’s personality that fueled such great comedic timing; Heaven forfend the fool who mistook him for shy. Eddie was sort of an insult ninja; waiting in the wings, deceptively quiet, until he swooped in to deliver a viciously hilarious one-liner that would leave the recipient boggled, laughing until the ribcage rattled. That was one of Eddie’s true gifts; the man could ruthlessly mock you to your face, and not only would you not feel offended or hurt, you’d be gasping for breath as the tears of laughter streamed down your face.

One of my favorite past times was heading right to the front of the Uptown stage on Monday nights, and letting loose with the heckling. Eddie would burn me so fucking hard, I swear, I almost peed myself a couple of times. I’d hurl off a crack about his saggy balls; and he’d marvel that I managed to pull the whiskey-tinged sailor’s dick out of my mouth long enough to string together a sentence. I’m sure, to some outsiders, it looked like a vulgar, crass volley of insults — but in reality, it was a delightfully deft tango of wit; one that he danced time and time again with any friend who was brave enough to taunt him. And it was a dance that both parties enjoyed to the fullest.

Eddie also understood the extremely delicate line of insult comedy; he knew the difference between a good-natured razor-sharp jab, and just being an asshole. I’ll never forget the time a fellow “comedian” – who was actually just an asshole — threw a punch at me that was way below the belt. It wasn’t funny, it was petty and mean — and Eddie immediately phoned him up and called him out. I didn’t need someone to come to my rescue — Eddie later told me he knew I was perfectly equipped to deliver my own comeback. But Eddie said something anyway, because it wasn’t right, because it wasn’t cool, and because that’s just the kind of guy he was.

Like so many of you, my life was immeasurably brightened by Eddie Dane. I’ll never forget the shit he would get into, with his impish little grin — whether it was stuffing a blowup doll into an unattended meter maid vehicle in North Beach, lumbering around the stage in his big pink bunny costume, or sacrificing his last shred of dignity solely for the sake of a laugh. Despite the fact that he wouldn’t want any of us to be sad, the sense of loss is profound — and the glitter seems just a bit more dull and drab now that he’s gone.

Farewell, my friend. I look forward to the day when our paths cross again, and we dance the insult tango one more time.


Illustration by Fritz Striker

Hubba Hubba Revue gets mad props!

Exciting news for us this week here in San Francisco: my burlesque family, the Hubba Hubba Revue, was named one of the Top 10 burlesque shows in the world by the Travel Channel!

Read the full list here.

Back when I lived in Detroit, I was part of an incredibly close-knit dance troupe, Causing a Scene Productions, who were my second family. Leaving that group behind was one of the hardest things for me to do, and I assumed I would never find that kind of supportive, loving family environment again.

I was so wrong!

I performed at the second Hubba show ever, just a couple of weeks after I moved to San Francisco. I’d known Eddie Dane from past burlesque conventions (true story: we actually both were part of a panel called “How to be a burlesque performer for fun and profit” at Teaseorama 2003) and he’s the one who booked me for the show. Right from the get-go, I knew these were my people; and it’s just gotten better and better over time.

Hubba is my chosen family; we love each other, support each other, and create beautiful mayhem together. It’s so joyous to have this incredible group of savagely creative people who all come together each month to put on a tremendously entertaining and dynamic show, We’re all one big crazy happy dysfunctional showbiz family.

Plus, if you hang out with other people with glitter addictions just as bad as yours, you don’t feel as bad. We’re all enablers, you know.

With Kingfish, Hubba producer and my brother from another mother, at my first Hubba in 2007