1. Tell us a little about your latest developed routine. What drove you to choose the particular piece of music, create the costume, and pull together the specific moves in the routine? Are there any links between that routine and your “real life” that tie the two side of you together?
Hmm. I think one of my latest acts is DAZZLE. I was commissioned to create a new act for Taylor Mac's Holiday Sauce show. I had previously performed my signature "Father McTigger" Priest strip in the show's original incarnation. Another option was my traditional holiday act: Virgin-Mary-aborting-the-Baby-Jesus act. But this time we discussed having me create a completely secular act for the new version. The show already deconstructs Santa Claus & Jesus & much of Christian mythology. So I decided I should simply be a Gift. I immediately decided the song should be Siouxsie & the Banshees' "Dazzle." I had several reasons for choosing it. I've always adored Siouxsie, and Hyaena is one of my favorite S&tB albums. The sound is so sweeping & grand, with a bit of a melancholy undertow. I could visualize the entrance right away. The closest the song comes to a chorus is the refrain: "Dazzle, it's a glittering prize. Dazzle, it's a glittering prize!" An obvious fit for a burlesque present. And finally, my brilliant friend Machine Dazzle was going to costume this act, so it's also a nod to his magnificent work. Once I had my basic idea & my music, those two elements guided me to create choreography that helped to tell my story. That's usually how I develop my choreography. It's all in service of the storytelling. I reject the idea that our lives onstage are not real, just like I reject the idea of a "real name." Performing is my job & my passion. It is every bit as real as somebody's cubicle or their social security card. That said, I'm an actor. My degree is in theatre, and acting is what I've done all my life. I've basically been "acting like a stripper" since 1992. So I tend to create characters to tell my stories. But of course, I often put a lot of myself into those characters. It's just expressed in very different ways. But all of these characters came out of me, so there are always links between me and my characters.
2. What got you into burlesque, and can you tell us about the moment you realized you wanted to be a performer? Building on that, is there a specific performer or act that guided your performances in the beginning?
Those are two different questions. I've been a performer all my life, since church pageants at 5 years old. I always planned to be an actor. My degree is in Theatre. I also formed a performance art group in college. I've always been interested in alternative modes of performance, but it's all theatre to me. I was already known in NY's downtown theatre scene as "the Naked Actor" because I kept taking my clothes off in so many plays. I've always enjoyed that provocation & I've always battled against puritanism. I didn't use the word "burlesque" at first or even have that concept in mind. There was no burlesque scene in downtown New York in the 1990's. No burlesque revues or venues or audiences, certainly no men I'd ever seen stripping in a burlesque context. I was a big fan of legendary performance artist Penny Arcade since I first saw her in 1990. She came to see me in an original play based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (in which I stripped naked, again). After the play she said to me, "Look, I know you're a trained actor. But I'd like for you to be an erotic dancer in my show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore!" I always say YES to genius. So I started dancing in Penny's life-changing show in 1992. I taught myself pole-dancing and developed my moves & stripper skills onstage over hundreds of performances. We toured all around Europe & Australia in 1993-94, where I was the (Erotic) Dance Captain. And I've been acting like a stripper ever since. My burlesque acts started as a lark. I was frustrated with the tendency in downtown theatre of preaching to the choir, performing for audiences who were already on the same page. I wanted to surprise real people, people who might never chat with me, people who just wanted to enjoy a night out. I wanted to hit them with shows that were fast & funny & subversive (and naked, of course). I was still committed to the politics & experimentation of my theatre pieces, but that had to be hidden inside little bon-bons of entertainment. I was asked to join a group of friends doing guerilla circus performances in the back of an East Village bar. I knew I couldn't follow a fire-eater with my Chekhov monologue, so I created these mini stripper-theatre pieces. Our only awareness of burlesque was from the musical Gypsy or a few old photos of the glamour girls from the 1940's & 50's. This was before the internet, after all. It took me a while to recognize my kinship to those women, because I looked nothing like them, but I eventually I realized that burlesque was the perfect word to describe what I'd been doing.
3. Who would be your main influences or performers you admire?
Influences are all around us. Early formative influences include: Alice Cooper & Iggy Pop & David Bowie for their visceral rock'n'roll theatrics. Carol Burnett & Phyllis Diller & the Muppets for their over-the-top hilarity that owes so much to old-time burlesque comedy. Historic influences include Oscar Wilde, Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, Marcel Duchamp, Dada, Theatre of the Ridiculous, etc. My best friends continue to inspire me, like Julie Atlas Muz & Dirty Martini, of course. But performers who work outside of burlesque influence me too: Taylor Mac, Machine Dazzle, Basil Twist, Justin Vivian Bond, Tabboo!, Dina Martina, and my mentor/drag mother, Penny Arcade.
4. If you could call in any one collaborator to do a routine with, who would it be, and why?
The friends I named above are all dream collaborators! I've probably collaborated with Julie Atlas Muz & Taylor Mac more than anyone, and those collaborations are among my favorite performing experiences ever.
5. How would you describe your performance style to someone who’d never seen you perform before? What is one review from the media, an audience member, or a fan has made that made you cringe?
I prefer to let others describe me. Even the name Tigger! was a private nickname from an old boyfriend. I don't know what it's like for others to see my performances. Back in college my style was dubbed "Search & Destroy." Some of my favorite press has included: "a fantastically watchable naughty satyr" in Edinburgh, "disturbing, funny and oddly riveting all at once" in Vancouver, and "the Taboo-Defying Dynamo" in New York. It was lovely to have a review simply call me "a brilliant satirist" because satire is at the heart of my art. I've been very fortunate with my reviews (at least anything that's been said to my face). Not that I haven't encountered lots of negative reactions. I've been banned & threatened, even physically threatened, for the content of my work. I never seek that negative response out, but I am a provocateur. I'm supposed to provoke & subvert & challenge (maybe even threaten) the status quo. I want to trigger audiences & I want to be triggered when I'm in the audience. So I've learned to see a kind of compliment in those negative experiences. I know that I'm not everyone's cup of tea. If all you get is praise, you're not pushing any envelopes. Perhaps the most cringe-worthy review would be if anyone ever calls me "competent."
6. When it comes to the musical component of your performance, is there a certain musical genre, artist, or specific song you have always wanted to use? What was the first song you ever used – and what does that song mean to you now?
No. I started with rock'n'roll, but I always want a wide variety of musical styles. I'm especially wary of the artists I admire most, like Bowie. Because for me, Burlesque celebrates Losers. It is NOT about being the coolest kid in the room. So I often use songs I despise, provided they help me tell my story. And I'll use those really cool songs too, provided they help me tell my story. I use all kinds of music for my acts, as well as spoken word. In one act that I love to perform the only sound is recorded applause. Storytelling is always the bottom line. Another tricky question, since I gradually developed performances since about 1990, but I didn't think to call them burlesque until 1997. The first solo act I performed as Tigger! that'd definitely be considered a burlesque stripper act was done to Alice Cooper's "Is It My Body?" I've loved that song since I was about 6 or 7, thanks to my big brother's records. Like many things I love, Alice Cooper scared & confused me at first. It's a natural song for stripping--about performance, identity, fandom & lust, all with a raunchy groove. I also love songs that ask questions! Burlesque acts (all art, really) is most effective when it asks questions. I don't perform that act anymore, although pieces of ideas helped me to create my Tawny the Tigress character later on. But I will always, always love that song.
The beauty of burlesque is that audiences shouldn't need to know a damn thing about us or about burlesque. The entertainment should suck them in. Whatever we do with their attention once we have it is up to us. What they make of our performances is entirely up to them. We have no control over that. Perhaps I'd like people to remember that the word "burlesque" means to mock, to parody, to lampoon. It should challenge conventions, and it should always have a sense of humor. I have this reputation for being a rebel, a rule-breaker, an envelope-pusher. (There are several of us in the burlesque scene.) I promote that reputation because I love it. But some folks seem to believe that those of us with that reputation don't give a damn. That we don't need as much precision, that we just do whatever we want & don't care about the consequences. WE CARE A LOT! I rehearse certain acts & stunts more to make them appear loose & spontaneous, but actually it is carefully choreographed chaos, with just a little wiggle room to keep it lively. I always aim to be a provocateur, never a saboteur! The difference between those two is immense. It takes a lot of careful planning to choose the buttons we want to push & then try to push them in just the right way. I'm challenging myself as well as certain conventions. Sometimes I've miscalculated, and regretted the outcome. But I have never "not cared." I fight against censorship. I believe audiences can handle far more than they are usually give credit for, that they should be able to choose for themselves whether or not they want to see something. And I believe it's important for all of us to see some things we weren't prepared for or expecting. I try to communicate exactly which rules I want to break (or appear to break) with the producers beforehand. I have never, ever tried to get banned. I always fight for the show to go on. But after those last-minute backstage negotiations (usually via a messenger because censors are cowards), once I realize that I won't get to do what I love for that audience? You can bet my next thought is promoting that shit. I'll say, "They banned my act in Rome! They tried to ban me in San Francisco!" The better to prepare future producers & audiences for what I try to accomplish. This is very important to me. This is political. I always say "FUCK 'EM IN THE HEART!" instead of "Break a leg." And I mean it. It's aggressive but not violent (unlike "Break a leg"). It's sexual too. But it is especially about Changing People with Radical Love. Being a so-called Bad Ass is ALL about caring, a whole lot.
8. When was the last time you were star struck by a burlesque performer and who was it?
That's a tough question because I came up with the best in the biz: Dirty Martini & Julie Atlas Muz & World Famous *BOB* & Miss Astrid & Bambi the Mermaid & Angie Pontani, et al. We were friends & collaborators & partners-in-crime before any of us were burlesque stars. Hmm. Some Burlesque Legends have made me feel star-struck, even though they've since become dear friends. The first time I saw Satan's Angel perform I lost my fucking mind! Talk about fucking me in the heart! The Legends also repeatedly give performances that make me cry my eyes out like nobody else.
9. What is the best part of being a burlesque performer? Conversely, what is the worst part? If you could no longer be a performer for whatever reason, what would be your other artistic outlet?
The stage & the dressing room are my Home. My Sanctuary & my Altar. It is sacred to me. Burlesque performers are Freedom Fighters! This is an important cause. I get to explore my dreams, nightmares, and fantasies onstage & share them with a room full of people. I get to make connections with complete strangers all over the world & share something intimate with them. I get to be the playwright, director, choreographer, costumer, and the entire cast of my own shows. I also have to be the agent, manager, promoter, secretary, and baggage handler. Probably the worst part is when I have to leave my lovely home & my lovely husband for gigs. But that all fades as soon I step into the dressing room, where I tend to find myself with several dear friends, who are also inspirational artists. Not any kind of performer? Yikes! I don't care whether the shows I do are called burlesque or performance art or theatre or obscene filth. Definitions are the least interesting part of any art form. But I've been performing all my life. Performer is who I am. I don't know who or what I'd be without it. Hmm. Directing & teaching performers. Then I'd still be contributing to the performance world.
10. What is one question you have always wanted someone to ask you as a performer – and what is the answer? Conversely, what question are you tired of answering?
Can I buy you a drink? And the answer is "Yes, thank you!" I really don't know. There are plenty of questions that I've been asked many, many times. But I resist the urge to cut & paste my answers from previous interviews. I can't help but repeat myself on certain questions because the answers still hold true. However, I try to answer as honestly as I can in that moment. (I will say that I'm not a big fan of these kinds of questions that ask us to complain about our burlesque lives. Everybody can complain about their jobs, but who wants to read it?)
11. Looking back over your burlesque career, is there a single moment or situation you feel was a misstep or you would like to have a “do over”, even if it didn’t change your current situation?
I mentioned before that there are a couple times that I miscalculated my rule-breaking, when I ended up pushing the wrong button or envelope. Years later, I still relive & regret those times. I wish I could take it back. I've also had to turn down some amazing opportunities. When I was performing in France in 2007, they asked me to stay & perform through the summer. I couldn't just stay there and abandon all the work/show/life commitments I'd already made in the U.S. over the next 3 months. But ohhh, if only I could have said OUI!
12. What is one thing you still want to achieve in the burlesque world? At the end of the day, what contribution to the local burlesque scene do you hope you will be remembered for?
The one thing I want to change goes way beyond the fishbowl of the burlesque world. As I said: Burlesque performers are Freedom Fighters! Art is so powerful. I do burlesque in the hope of changing the world! The world--this country right now, in particular--desperately needs to change. We all need to change this culture on matters of sex & sexuality & gender & skin color & intolerance. All of those issues are in burlesque's wheelhouse! I want to help make that change happen. I hope to be remembered as a Freedom-Fighting Artist-Activist who made a difference while making it fun. I hope to be remembered as a faggot who truly FUCKED 'EM IN THE HEART! (with all the Radical Love that implies).
MICHIGAN BURLESQUE FESTIVAL LINKS: