• Paige Canepa-Olson

DIRECTING BURLESQUE

Burlesque has been a huge part of my life since 2014. My university in Boulder, Colorado, had an annual burlesque show as a part of a student-produced Fringe festival. I had danced before, but never in a way that was completely focused on owning ones sexuality. I was cast in the show, and found it to be such an incredible experience. The dynamic created amongst the company was so motivational and supportive, and the end result generated more enthusiasm and excitement from the crowd than I had ever witnessed as a performer. The following year, I took the reins to produce and direct the show myself. It was not without its challenges, even with the huge advantage of having rehearsal and performance space available for no charge. But I learned so much from the experience, and loved being able to create and direct theatre that was empowering for both the performers and the audience. I helped to choreograph and produce two more burlesque shows at my school before I graduated.

Now, having lived in London for two years, gotten an MA in Theatre Text and Performance, and seen more incredible, strange shows than I can possibly count, I find myself back in Colorado. It’s a much smaller theatre scene than London, but impressive for the size of the city. That being said, it lacks accessibility for up and coming directors to make a name for themselves, compared to London. There aren’t many affordable performance spaces available for hire, and everyday theatregoers aren’t as inclined towards more experimental performance styles. This made me start thinking of what type of shows I could make that might attract an audience.

I had been interested in returning to burlesque and cabaret for a while, and it seemed like an easier style of performance to market in a smaller city. But I also didn’t see any reason to cut down on theatricality or dramaturgy in the productions I wanted to create. I formed my production company, Lip Bite Productions, last summer while still in London, with an aim to create immersive and movement based theatre productions. Translating that idea into the form of a burlesque show leant towards something with a very cohesive feel, featuring characters and numbers that heighten the audience’s experience. With the help of a close friend living in Denver, we came up with the idea of a cabaret show taken out of a specific era. We settled on the 1950’s: All the numbers would be to music of the time, there would be comedic bits bringing to light the sexism and political climate of the time, and the performers would embody certain types of women who might have lived at that time. It was a beautiful little idea for a show; it just needed to be brought to its feet.

Putting the whole thing together was a challenging task, but not impossible. After doing some research, and contacting people with greater knowledge of the city’s venues, I found a performance location and booked it for a month out. The space was primarily used as a space for filming, and ended up being quite affordable as a weekend performance space. I did a callout for performers on social media, and reached out to people who might know actors who wanted to get involved. My priority was less about finding people with vast amounts of dance experience, and more about those who were excited about the production and had ideas they wanted to contribute. The entire rehearsal process was two weeks. This may seem like a very short amount of time (and trust me, it was), but with our time managed correctly, no more was needed. I spent two days teaching the choreography for the group numbers, then we practiced individual numbers and put the whole show together over a few more days. We had one rehearsal in the space the day before, then tech and a run through on the day of, before our early and late performances that night.

This show went up in mid December, and was quite successful. I started talking with the company almost immediately after about putting together an 80’s themed show for Valentine’s day. There was a venue downtown that had caught my eye, so I stopped in one day to see if they had any information about space rentals. I started a conversation with the person in charge of bookings, told him about our concept, and he agreed to book us for a two-show day in mid February. This may have been quite a lucky strike, but I’m so glad that I went to ask in person, because I left with a venue that I didn’t have to pay for. It never hurts to ask.

We repeated the process of the two weeks of rehearsal, now with two fabulous group dance numbers set to the hottest 80’s hits. The individual numbers were more involved as well, incorporating back up dancers, more costume pieces and props. It was a much more difficult show to have two performances of back to back, with so many more routines to remember and a whole lot more running around. But both of our audiences loved the whole thing, particularly the second audience, who all stood up to do a Jane Fonda style workout along with us, and some even danced on their chairs for our last number.

As the director, producer and a performer in the show, it’s an amazing amount to be juggling: putting together the script, creating sound cues, running tech, managing costumes and props, making sure everyone knows their parts and aren’t stressed, and making sure you know your parts and aren’t stressed. It can be quite the balancing act. It makes it so much easier to be surrounded by an excellent team who can pull their weight, and will help you out when you need it. It’s such a joy to work with people who give you the confidence to make your best work. And it’s just as satisfying to create a show that brings that same confidence and joy to the audience watching it.

Paige Canepa-Olson is a director, producer, and performer, based in Denver, Colorado. She loves dancing, the great outdoors, traveling the world, and pretending to be a photographer. Her ideal evening is spent with kind, passionate people discussing feminism and queer representation in contemporary theatre (accompanied by a good bottle of wine and an oversized cheese board).

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