Burlesque Magazine asks Lilly Laudanum to expose the realities of the dressing room – and other areas, from who should be there to who should not and what the hell is really going on at the back end…
Excess All Areas?
In my other life as a ‘youth’ (might have been some time ago – ahem), I used to be obsessed with what was going on backstage at shows. Yes, these were rock shows and although I was quite happily stage diving at the time, I would still be desperate to get backstage to where all the ‘real’ action might have been going on. Let’s get this straight from the start, this wasn’t because I was some kind of budding knob technician, I’d heard all the tales of Mötley Cruë’s excesses, The Damned’s punk antics and yes, I’d seen Spinal Tap also so was just convinced there was more to the gig than the action on stage. I was also a music journalist wanting to ask the bands important questions like, ‘When did you last cry?’
Let’s roll this forward a few years to finding myself backstage in the burlesque context. I can confirm it’s very different to the unwashed, booze-fuelled state of affairs above. While the punk rock backstage concerns are mostly who can down all the rider without dying, accompanied by the stench of filthy blokes who have sweated in a van for weeks in the same trousers, the only excesses going on in the burlesque and cabaret dressing room are the choking fumes of a newcomer going overboard with the glitter spray – probably a whole can (this inhalation is usually referred to as ‘glitter lung’ in the profession), hairspray, perfume and powder. And while this may seem like a glamorous place to hang out, let’s explore what is really going on…
Backstage is the height of glamour!
We’ll let you into a little secret here… While in your imaginations backstage might be painted gold for the night and be strewn with flowers and champagne – ooh, and only the finest chocolates flown in from Belgium, the realities are far from this. My favourite backstage experience was changing on a cooker in the kitchen of a function room. Thank the gods of burlesque it wasn’t turned on (it was a gas, quite literally). There were four of us crammed into this kitchen – another performer was changing almost in the dishwasher and someone else among the bin bags. The highlight of the night was the venue’s resident cat paying a visit and, attempting to get inside one of the catering crisp boxes (the ones with holes in the front for easy access), sent the box, cat and contents falling from a high shelf into my case. Another very dazzling experience (for all the wrong reasons) was when myself and Betty Blue Eyes found ourselves doing a show in a Welsh rugby club. Betty picked up an ‘interesting article’ which turned out to be a used adult nappy right there in front of us. So you see, if you find yourself changing in a cupboard with a dozen other performers, you are lucky. It could be worse. If you find yourself in that gold-painted dressing room with the lights around the mirror you are living the dream. It’s all a good bonding experience, though, isn’t it?
I need to get back there to hang out with all the stars…
As an audience member, actually, no you don’t! Let’s put it like this… Backstage is the equivalent to the stockroom of a rather posh rhinestone-infected store. While all the merch is being displayed front of house – in some cases all the merch – in the stockroom it’s being prepared. Backstage is a private area for a reason; while it may sound like such a mysterious place where only the special few are permitted, here’s what’s really going on: space in backstage areas can be at a premium (see above) and one more person could tip the balance. There’s massive suitcases, performers vying for space to change costume, elbows are in each other’s faces while hair is teased, fans are saved as someone knocks a drink over, there’s an array of discarded shoes, costumes, props, bras, spray – lots of spray, make-up application, performers trying to unite a pair of gloves, wigs, hats, stockings, the stage manager in and out ushering performers to the stage on time, returning props and costumes, talk of wine and shows, glitter spillages…
But I’m desperate to get backstage and tell the performer I love them!
We know you’ve had a great time and you’ve seen something totally magical and memorable but please save your praises for when you see the performer after the show… The performer will not thank you if you burst backstage to shower them with enthusiastic complements, especially if they are in the middle of a quick costume change, trying to adjust a merkin or apply a pastie. Nor will the other performers who are more than likely in the same boat – and bringing back your boyfriend to say hello (“the performers have just been near-nekked on stage, they won’t mind, right?”) is not a good idea. In short, it’s a hive of activity and organised chaos and bill-watching/ time keeping. Far better to chat to your favourite performer at the bar over a relaxed glass of wine. When they are dressed.
You get all the best gossip backstage, right?
Ooh, yes, you do! Backstage isn’t just the place for loosening of the costumes, but also the tongues. Performers who haven’t seen each other for ages love to spill the beans on things they’ve experienced and other performers they’ve met. We would love to tell you what is being said but we can’t… We are sworn to secrecy!
Who should be backstage?
This is always a difficult question with no real definitive answer. The producer of the show and the venue are the only ones who can really decide who goes backstage. The venue might have a restriction on production crew and cast only, which might include their own in-house technicians and staff. The producer might want other staff including a photographer and other show-help backstage, or people involved with the production needing a safe place to stash their belongings before setting up the merch, say, or the ticketing. There is a difference between photographers going backstage and backstage photography and in my own experience both have been very respectful. A photographer might need to leave their very expensive equipment backstage, or check in with performers if there are any shots (usually the reveal shots) they don’t want to be public. Backstage photographers are usually mindful of performers being in a state of undress and prefer to take those lovely mirror-perspective gurning shots when you are putting make up on in an awkward position. If any performer has a problem with anyone backstage, it is usually up to the performer to ask at the time if there is anywhere else more private they can go to change. Backstage is a working space and is not the place to invite half the audience for a special tour or to catch up with your nan whose put on her best pearl necklace for the occasion. As a performer you shouldn’t invite anyone backstage unless everyone else in the production is okay with it.
You gotta fight for your right to party!
Actually, it’s very rare that a party is going on backstage. Remember that kitchen? Or that adult nappy-incident? Not really conducive to an apres-show party. And besides, sitting in someone’s case with your can of ready-mix cosmo when they are trying to pack doesn’t make the best party atmosphere. After show celebrations are much better held in the venue’s bar – that way you can look like you need showering with free drinks after your exhausting, glitter-pouring ordeal on stage (there will be some audience members who will happily oblige if you catch their eye).
Backstage pass and backstage class – a word on backstage etiquette…
Finally, here’s a bit of advice to performers. Everything you do backstage can make or break your present and future shows. If you are generally a lovely person, friendly, with no dramas or expectations, then your fellow cast will love you. Making an enjoyable backstage for your fellow cast members is crucial not only to the smooth running of the show you are at but, as a lot of performers also double up as producers, they might be scouting and will generally book those who have not only blown them away on stage, but who have been awesome company backstage. Remember the loosening of the tongue part above? If you are fun and friendly to be around, then this will spread. It also works in reverse – but beware! Bad news travels fastest, my friends. If you have been a total nightmare, borrowed another performer’s costume parts (gloves, pasties, shoes, boob tape,)stolen their make up, had dramas and brought bad vibes or have hogged the only mirror (or horror of horrors! Blocked the only toilet backstage), been incredibly rude to others, have turned up drunk, thrown up in someone’s suitcase and smashed their props (this is a biggie!) then you will not be invited back to a show and the likely hood is you will not be booked by others. So keep backstage sacred – if you have a backstage pass, don’t be a backstage ass!
Winner of the World Burlesque Games 2015 British Crown, Lilly Laudanum performs regularly across the
UK and is best known for her portrayal of comedy character acts with a historical edge. Performing for 20+ years, Lilly has fronted many bands, been a character model and actress and enjoyed a four-year stint at The London Dungeon, where she performed and ran the actors company. She is also a professional costumier, belly dancer, resident performer and producer of the’ Bluestocking Lounge in South Wales.