Self-doubt and the burlesque stage: Are we our own harshest critics?
Musings by Monet Petite…
I’m going to start by admitting one very pertinent thing: I am writing about this topic because I am one of the worst
offenders – Ask any Perth performer who has spent a considerable amount of time with me talking about burlesque. I have been known to deflect praise, respond to compliments with “Oh, but I thought I had really messed it up” and walk off stage proclaiming “That was terrible”. I can tell you from first-hand experience that this can really hold you back as a performer. It can also make the people around you feel uncomfortable.
Thankfully, I have received a few ‘tough love’ pep talks from some of my favourite local performers and friends, each of whom has reminded me that I can be extremely hard on myself and need to just “cut that out right now” – Ruby Slippers (Miss Burlesque WA 2015, reigning queen of awesome, and all round good-gal). Along with the likes of Ruby, the lovely Lulu Liqueur and Lola Moore have both told me that I should have more faith in myself, and I have a choice quote from one of Perth’s true powerhouses Sugar Du Joure forever ingrained in my memory, which I think we can all benefit from hearing: “If you keep saying you are not good enough, not good enough is what you’ll become”. Hats off to Sugar, Ruby, Lola, Lulu, and every other bad-ass peer in the scene with the good sense to call a performer out on these kinds of self-deprecating tendencies – But wouldn’t it be marvelous if we didn’t need to remind each other to believe in ourselves?
By its nature, the performing arts sphere is an extremely competitive one and the Perth burlesque scene is no exception. You just have to look at the enrolments for the many courses offered by local troupes such as Sugar Blue Burlesque and Lady Velvet Cabaret, attend a few shows, or talk to some of the regular players about their favourite performers, and you’ll get a pretty clear idea of just how many talented acts we are lucky enough to have, not just in Perth, but all over the world. This is such a wonderful thing. Being part of a scene with a monumental caliber of performers who are continuously enhancing their craft is nothing short of an honour. It also means that for every great performer with an innovative new idea for a show, there are several others with equally impressive skills.
Anyone who has ever performed burlesque will tell you that there are setbacks. You may find yourself rejected from a festival or show that you really thought you’d be perfect for. You may have just walked off the stage after having experienced just about every malfunction that could possibly occur. You may have even received some harsh criticism for something you poured your heart and soul into. These things happen to great performers. I repeat: THESE THINGS HAPPEN TO GREAT PERFORMERS. Got it? Good! I plan to address some strategies for managing specific types of setbacks in a future post but for now, I’d like to focus on what I have found to be the most effective mechanism for keeping myself in a positive headspace whereby I genuinely believe in my own ability to absolutely knock the socks off every audience member who sees me take the stage.
It has taken me more than six years of performing burlesque to be able to say “Hey, maybe I’m alright at this”. For a long time I have wondered if I was the Joey Tribbiani of the Perth scene – ‘Friends’ fans will know what I mean by this, but for those you who don’t know what I’m on about (I may need to lend you my DVD collection because you are missing out on something awesome), over the course of the series Joey constantly tries (and fails) to become a successful actor and as such, keeps landing amateur jobs and receiving harsh criticism for his lack of acting prowess. I had a conversation with a friend last year where I compared myself to Joey and she offered this brilliant piece of insight: “But Joey found his calling in the end by becoming a successful soap opera star. Maybe you just haven’t found and capitalised on your strengths as a performer just yet”. My mind was blown. She was totally right.
As soon as I started to hone in on my strong points as a performer (and to be honest, this is still a work in progress), I started to feel more excited about bringing new ideas to life. As a result, I really believe that the five acts I have created in the past year have been my best work yet, and that is an amazing feeling – One of the best you can experience as a performer in my opinion! I find that getting into a positive headspace with regard to my own performing is still an uphill battle, however, being aware of these negative tendencies and opening myself up to owning and addressing them has immensely impacted my confidence. And as any experienced performer will tell you: a confident performer is a better performer.
It is crucial to remember that not everything is a competition. We are all in this together and the best way to ensure that you get to keep creating and presenting art that you are proud of is to compete primarily (if not solely) with yourself. Aim to make your latest creation the best damn thing you have ever done. Aim for people to be talking about your act weeks after the event. And most importantly, remember that everything you create can and should be continuously improved upon. Keep workshopping your stuff. Perform and rehearse so much that your choreography, facial expressions, characterisation, and gimmicks all become muscle memory. Then keep going. You are never above learning and there is always room for improvement within every art form. Some say “You shouldn’t mess with perfection” but I’d like to challenge this by asking “Why strive for perfection? Why not strive to blow everyone away just that little bit more every time you step onto the stage?”
As I noted upfront, I am not quite there yet as I am still navigating the choppy waters of loving myself as a performer whilst being completely open to continuous improvement (as clichéd and Dr Phil as that may sound). But what I have discovered only very recently is this: Striving to continuously be better is great, but in the process, you also have to genuinely believe in the art you are creating and actively project this belief at every stage of the creative process – from conception to that final pose on stage.
To end this on an uplifting note, I’d like to set a challenge for those of you reading this and relating to the kinds of insecurities that I have owned up to. I want you to list at least three of your strengths as a performer. I know you can find a minimum of three things you know you are good at. If you can think of more than three, that is splendid. List them all. Now, I can’t take all of the credit for this exercise –Ruby Slippers (as if we needed yet another reason to love her) is the one who encouraged me to make my own list of strong points. I cringed at the idea initially, but I believe that every performer, irrespective of experience, has a lot to gain and absolutely nothing to lose from overcoming this challenge. So here are my three:
1) My mind doesn’t seem to want to stop creating – I always have at least 2-3 ideas on the go. Granted not all of these transpire, but I definitely consider it a positive to be able to entertain new concepts pretty much all the time.
2) I always have a lot of energy on stage. I have a bit of a reputation for being clumsy – Ask Magnus Danger Magnus of Perth’s Danger Cabaret about the ‘chair’ incident, or there was that time during the Miss Burlesque WA 2012 state final when I broke a cane into three pieces over my man prop’s head. Oops! Despite my penchant for getting a little it carried away with the physical comedy on stage, I always enjoy myself and audiences definitely pick up on this energy. That can only be a good thing! Perhaps I should look into insurance though.
3) I am good at finding ways to turn a strange idea into an engaging narrative. This is probably why my strongest acts tend to be of the ‘neo’ variety. My most recent wacky idea involved me evolving from an oversized retro telephone into a smart phone complete with apps that I adhered to various parts of my body and yes, I included a Tinder vagassle. This was a completely certifiable idea when I first concocted it (who am I kidding, it’s still pretty weird), but somehow it worked and it is now my favourite act in my repertoire.
Okay, so I made my list – Now it is your turn. Really think about what you are good at and write them all down. Add to this over time but make sure you take the time to look at it on the regular and remind yourself that no matter what uncertainties you may be experiencing, you totally got this.