Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Interview - Kittie Klaw

Ladies and Gentlemen, please be upstanding for the Queen of Bawdy, British Burlesque - the inimitable Kittie Klaw!

"It's Burlesque so don't take anything too seriously!"

What was your first experience of Burlesque or Cabaret and what convinced you to start yourself?

I first encountered the word 'burlesque' when a photographer quipped that my 'style' of comedic-sexy posing was 'very burlesque'.  I was intrigued and tried to find out all I could - but the only material available were rare VHS copies of Irving Klaw movies with Bettie Page and Tempest Storm. I fell in love with the idea of a taboo of the past becoming a whimsy of the present. So I decided that giant knickers must be bought. I was already performing as a comedic belly-dancer for a local band who were themselves a rock 'n' roll pastiche (Hugh Reed & The Velvet Underpants) and a Glasgow 'legend'; and so my new fixation of novelty knickers was easy to incorporate. 

These early performances were a mix of physical comedy and awkward dancing taking inspiration and themes from American burlesque (specifically Bettie Page as she danced in Teaserama), Carry On movies (the exaggerated social and cultural stereotypes), pantomime (OTT expression) and classic British sit-coms such as Allo Allo (for parodic reference points). My very first 'appearance' involved a make-shift burka. Back then, the burka was in no way the controversy which it would've been in more recent years - there was no political agenda involved. Politics were far from mind.

When I started performing burlesques there was no burlesque scene - nor any hint of a future industry here in the UK (I'm now 30 and began when I was an undergraduate student). Burlesque as a concept was an anachronism and difficult to research. The word itself (when entered in to Google) yielded few search results and none that we'd recognise today. I remember opening a link for a search on 'burlesque' to find that "the trial was a burlesque of justice" - this use of the term as an adjective meaning 'mockery' set me to investigate the form further. I became hooked on the history and the idea of encouraging a modern legacy of this form of social satire (and big pants). 

Since there were no clubs and certainly no theatre shows (!), the places where I could perform were considered 'underground' and alternative - including the fetish-clubbing world. The playfulness and the exploration of gender roles which are lampooned in burlesque, seemed to tug at the heartstrings of the fetish and avant-garde art sub-cultures and so here I made my first network. At this time, burlesque in the mainstream was a fantasy notion. In reality performers like myself were celebrated by the alternative world but derided by the mainstream press and the wider showbiz community. Myself, Immodesty and a couple of others who were working at this time had to continually fight a flabbergasting battle to be fairly represented. The tabloid press did run a few ("positive") stories on my antics but the term burlesque was totally alien to them and my performance intention largely misunderstood with vastly more fabrication than fact printed. Feeling the sting of misrepresentation, the idea of championing the complexity and value of burlesquing became a personal 'mission'. I can be like a dog with a bone over such things. I'm a proud pedant. Over ten years that 'mission' grew in to what is now the bustling Ministry of Burlesque community.

What we (the worldwide community) have today in terms of a whole network of regional scenes across countries, a choice of clubs for both amateur and professional performs, gyms and church halls holding classes, dedicated fashion and costume shops, friendly press, mainstream media appearances and the biggy..... THEATRES (actual real theatres!) who want us, is just incredible. What a difference a decade makes. It's a triumph of perseverance.
"I'm a proud pedant"

You run 'The Ministry of Burlesque', an invaluable resource for the Burlesque and Cabaret community and produce several shows – how did this begin and how has it evolved?

See above.  Also:

After leaving my Masters/PhD course due to the tragic and sudden death of my academic mentor, I headed to London to take on more performance and modelling jobs in the alternative world. During this time, about seven years ago, I met my now partner James who is an I.T. Wizard. After getting over his initial confusion as to what the weird costumes and late nights were all about, he embraced the concept of burlesque and saw value in the scene as having potential to host business. He took over the MoB domain and created the first incarnation of the community.  He has tirelessly spend the years improving and honing the technology behind it, trying to help the industry emerge by creating free spaces for people to network, share and advertise their services and wares - with a sense of community fair-play. It hasn't always been easy as being at the centre of an emerging industry has sometimes led to resentment and often problematic behaviours on the part of users who have misunderstood the intention of the community and necessity of content moderation. Fortunately, these instances have been vastly outnumbered by seeing so many people blossom and our making some very special friends through the system.

Our regular shows are fun and I've learned to ensure that they remain a pleasure for everyone involved. I'm only going to produce as long as it's enjoyable. I need a blend that satisfies both business and personal returns. This is why I hire a 'core' of performers on a regular basis  - for me they equate to reliable, fun to be with and great on stage. We have developed a little family of eccentrics where mutual support and consideration are key. 

It only takes one sour puss to ruin a show for everyone - and an unhappy backstage environment translates to the audience. 

"I have developed a little family of eccentrics"

Which routine of yours is your favourite to perform and why?

I think... though it's hard to say, I like the Solitary Vice routine. I don't tend to get too nervous before this one, I think this is because it's most reliant on expression and clowning rather than choreography or prop gags (other than the chair) and the burlesque is very clear - suggesting that Victorian women were anything but prudish. It's also very cheeky despite for the most part of it being fully attired in far too many layers of Victorian costume (which I love)  and it's based in my favourite era of lampooning. I like the modern sense of absurdity as we mistakenly think of the Victorians as sexless or dull.

"Victorian women were anything but prudish"

Who are your biggest influences/inspirations?

Of the past - Bettie Page, Lola Montez, Lydia Thompson and Co, Vesta Tilley, Buster Keaton.  They were entertainers through wit and wiles. 

Today - I could watch Elan all day. I'm taking some private tuition with him on movement.

Bettie Page ** Lola Montez

Lydia Thompson ** Vesta Tilley

Buster Keaton 

Elan Koszuk

Tell us a little about your favourite experiences so far

Having a sell out 2 nights in Hoxton Hall of an experimental show called Victorian Values.- 5 stars, sell out etc at Edinburgh Fringe for 2 years.- Meeting Ben Elton and having him praise me for my historical comedy and then keep in touch with silly email.- Seeing key High Tease / Burlesque Show performers develop in to stars. It's nice to know I've been a little part of their journey.- Making true friends and coming to understand myself better for their company and perspectives

"Ben Elton... praised me for my historical comedy" 

Tell me something no one would suspect about you

I do the Hokey-Cokey every morning. I  collect taxiderpy (that's 'derp' taxidermy) and Victorian mourning jewellery. 

On a more serious note, those who know me well know this... but most are surprised when they find out that I've struggled with anxiety all my life. MoB's mission to include, and the nurturing of key performers has been born of this - because expressing my ideas in public has been a self-set challenge which ultimately, has  led to my understanding of happiness. Through this, I can see how strong I actually am. I want others who worry or chronically doubt themselves to try it too. The culmination of this has been my one-to-one coaching - www.purrfit.co.uk 

"Be open, honest and up for a laugh"

Finally, any words of advice for newcomers to the scene?

Be open, honest and up for a laugh - with others and yourself. Trust your instincts and never be too timid to ask for advice. Keep a realistic perspective - it's burlesque so don't take anything too seriously! 

More Kittie Klaw:

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