On Tuesday, April 7, Gorilla Tango sent out an email announcing the news: The Chicago-based theater company had decided to pull its Mario Bros.–themed burlesque show, Boobs and Goombas, from its residency at Hollywood venue the Complex.
Boobs and Goombas had been set to open a few days later and run for six weeks, with four shows per weekend. But L.A. burlesque companies were unhappy about the show — and the cancellation opens a window into the sometimes insular world of the local burlesque scene.
One problem was that the show was set to make its L.A. debut right after local troupe Peepshow Menagerie launched its “Sintendo” night, called Super Burlesque Galaxy.
Moreover, there were rumors that Gorilla Tango might bring out other theme shows — perhaps its performances inspired by Star Wars and Star Trek, which its dancers had done in Chicago. In Los Angeles, Devil's Playground has become best known for its long-running Star Wars parody, Star Girls. Meanwhile, Saintly Bomb does a send-up of Star Trek.
According to Los Angeles burlesque producers, it's considered bad form to bring a show to a city that already has something similar in place.
Dan Abbate, who owns Gorilla Tango Theater and produces the 5-year-old Boobs and Goombas show, received emails from several local producers concerned about the similarity between his shows and ones that run in L.A. He says he did not experience this problem during stints in Milwaukee and New Orleans.
When the email exchanges became heated, director Nikki Taguilas-Pierce says she intervened to alleviate the situation. She notes that, when communicating with local burlesque producers, she was asked about changing the theme. Taguilas-Pierce explained that this wasn't possible, as Gorilla Tango would be using the same choreography and script from the troupe's other productions of this show. The director offered to help promote local burlesque events at the Boobs and Goombas shows. No one took her up on the offer.
In a mass email canceling his show, Abbate placed the blame on the Los Angeles burlesque community. He stated that he is “genuinely worried about the potential backlash to our performers in the L.A. market after the show was done.”
In a recent email, Abbate claimed that ticket sales were not the problem, and that they were roughly equivalent to similar runs in other cities.
Taguilas-Pierce similarly expressed concerned that some of her performers “might not be as welcome” by other L.A. producers once the Gorilla Tango show was complete. When asked if there were any specific threats from local producers to blacklist performers, Taguilas-Pierce said no.
In fact, there weren't many locally established burlesque performers in Boobs and Goombas. While the cast was L.A.-based, Abbate estimated that just three of the nine performers were connected to the local burlesque scene. (Chris Beyond of Peepshow Menagerie mentioned that one performer from the Gorilla Tango show has been working with his company regularly.)
The dispute reveals a difference between how Gorilla Tango and the Los Angeles burlesque scene operate. “It feels like I'm working with somebody not in the scene at all,” Beyond says. Gorilla Tango has a show with a script, choreography and costumes that remain the same whether the show is in Chicago or L.A. What changes is the cast and crew. Abbate says that's a business decision, as they don't have to take performers and crew on the road.
Los Angeles burlesque producers have to be business-minded, too. They also are mindful about community. In L.A., it's common for burlesque performers to have another job. They often invest in their own costumes for the routines that they develop and make their own — they wouldn't normally give the routine to someone else to perform. Their shows frequently take place in nightclubs,such as Fais Do Do or Dragonfly, as opposed to a theater like the Complex.
While cover charges vary, general admission is roughly the same as for a DJ or band night, as is the promotion model: A specific theme might do well with fans of a certain genre, but the companies and individual performers have their own followings.
Burlesque may seem like theater, but it isn't quite equivalent, since its events also can include live bands and art exhibitions. “I find that burlesque lays somewhere between a music show and an art show,” says Peepshow Menagerie's Beyond. “However, a big difference is that you can't buy their latest single and, thankfully, you can't take them home and hang them on your wall. So very often it is an art about the moment.” He adds that while burlesque performers may revisit older routines, “It's never the same act twice, and often it's in a different kind of show that might change the meaning of that act.”
The burlesque producers who spoke to L.A. Weekly indicated that it's common for local companies to stay in contact with one another, and that they try to avoid developing shows that are too similar. When working on Super Burlesque Galaxy, Beyond says, he was careful not to repeat what Devil's Playground does with its general video-game event.
Burlesque companies use this strategy because they tend to work with the same performers and, ultimately, reach a similar audience. Plus, some companies repeat their performances. Devil's Playground has been performing Star Girls several times a year for five years and has done its video-game show a number of times. Peepshow Menagerie debuted Super Burlesque Gallery in February with a single performance, and likely will do it again at some point.
Burlesque producers also say that they don't overlap with local companies when working outside of L.A. Devil's Playground producer Courtney Cruz says she would investigate local scenes and try to work with the community if she were to tour.
Beyond says that touring does get tricky because companies in other cities may run productions with similar themes. But they make it work, sometimes by collaborating. San Francisco's Tight & Nerdy Burlesque has worked with Peepshow Menagerie to bring Al-Stravaganza, a “Weird Al” Yankovic tribute, to Los Angeles.
Cruz did not believe there would be any repercussions for the Boobs and Goombas performers, stating that it's “the producer/director's job to get in touch with other producers in the city they are visiting to see what's already going on and offer something that is different,” not the performer's duty.
Before canceling the show, Abbate talked about his belief in a “free-market” approach. “Let the audience decide,” he says. Except Gorilla Tango didn't get that far. And it may have been the business-first attitude that hurt its chances.
“Historically,” Beyond notes, “what I have seen is when people come in to try to make a bunch of money from burlesque without actually knowing … how the community works with each other, shortly after hearing about them you never hear from them again.”
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