A lesson in pleasure: Burlesque
Arriving at the Crass Menagerie's monthly resident neo-burlesque night at Matchstick Piehouse to catch the show and speak to two of the beautiful people who run it, is like walking into a wonderful alternate universe - where everyone can just be. The atmosphere is natural, earthy. Everyone is the most alive, real version of themselves; there’s sass, sexiness and also a huge amount of respect and celebration of individuals’ creativity and wit.
The collective that makes up Crass runs a show every third Monday of the month, and it’s always a great night as the show creates an environment of celebration, safety and inclusion for performers and audience members alike. The one-of-a-kind atmosphere is enabled by all of the drag, cabaret and neo-burlesque artists, but in particular by the infallibly hilarious, enjoyably awkward and quick-witted presenting skills of the MC, Ariana.
The Piehouse is a multi-arts venue and an inclusive feminist and queer/ally space. Their offerings range from regular nights put on by queer cabaret and drag troupes to life drawing sessions and various pop-up shows, each bringing their own unique identities and positive energies to the space.
At a Crass show, no subject or personage is too holy to take the piss out of or base a burlesque or drag routine around. Past themes include, 'EU OK Hun?!', 'Incest is Best', alongside a fringe theatre production of 'Oedipus', Jurassic Stark and a Hallowe'en Special, 'Blood and Titties'.
The June’s show; CLITERATURE. You can just imagine. A range of acts including a Hunter S Thompson - Rum Diaries Strip, an alternative musical number by a dominatrix librarian, confessing her enjoyment of BDSM, a Naked Shakespeare recital and a Mr. Darcy Drag King! Prior to the performances starting, audience members relax and chat energetically with each other. Some visitors take time to read the letters of love and self-empowerment that have been suspended and hang like mobiles from the ceiling; these are messages of celebration that the performers have written to themselves or received from close friends.
I'm there for the whole cabaret show and afterwards chat to two of Crass's founding members; Arianna and Martha, to find out more about their feelings towards the night, reasons for putting on cabaret and why this artform is such an effective medium to raise awareness. Alongside this, we discuss the importance of education and creating a healthy space for discussion and discovery around body image, sex, pleasure and establishing boundaries.
Q: What are the advantages of cabaret/queer cabaret/burlesque/stripping/tease as an artform?
Martha and Ariana say that it's open to everyone and is famously unpretentious, therefore accessible (in an accessible venue too!). There are many shows that also cost very little, it shouldn't restrict people too much from attending. Neo-burlesque, cabaret performers are harnessing today's political themes and popular culture, sometimes with a traditional, vintage burlesque twist - or perhaps just by being totally bizarre and it makes for incredibly creative comedy.
We agree that there's also an educational aspect - certainly of their performances. Significantly, consent is built in to the show - none of the amazing people involved with Crass ever perform without the MC first establishing the house rules - ‘no touchy touchy, unless they ask you to!’ and giving audience members a discreet accessory to wear, if they would like to indicate that they don't wish to be touched by performers during the acts. It becomes clear that consent is not a constraint on our viewing and sensory pleasure - rather an essential part of it and something that enables a more open and adult dialogue generally; rather like the one we need to have when having sex with people; am I right?!
Q: What does your work critique, express and discuss?
Both Crass women are able to real off a list; consent, gender norms, society's constraints, real pleasure vs fabricated pleasure, toxicity, elitism, sexism, racism, class themes & etc!
This month's show seemed to be a lot about having fun and simply celebrating the human body, womanhood and queer identity too. We discuss both artists' contributions to the show:
1. Martha's Mr. Darcy drag act/strip that evening was an excellent soundtrack spliced Peter Andre ft. Shaggy's 90s hit Mysterious Girl with the much loved 90s BBC Production of Pride and Prejudice. Our drag king, D'Arsey humorously addresses toxic masculinity and patriarchal constraints that exist and are imposed on men (yep, they affect men too!), as well as exploring, quite hilariously how once again, the man is in the role of voyeur. All this with no live dialogue - just lip-synching lines from the original novel, that also appeared in the film.
It makes you wonder how much has changed since Austen's time. We are all laughing because we can still draw parallels with Austen's and today's society, that's why it's relevant and funny. In fact, when she crafted this piece, Martha was fresh from a positive debate-come-chat with a nice (but deluded) man who didn't believe that toxic masculinity was a thing.
2. Then there's Arianna's 'Naked Shakespeare' act. Society still has this idea that women's bodies should look a certain way; we should perform our gender and move in a certain 'sexy', coy and 'feminine' way; shave or wax our pubic hair. Arianna's Naked Shakespeare, strolling calmly and confidently on to the stage, displaying her curvaceous naked body (complete with full bush) addressing the audience with Henry IV's famous monologue straight on, brightly and with no head tilt or 'bum and chest pushed out' stance is surprising (perhaps shocking for some) and funny because she is very simply and effectively shining a light on how ridiculous this all is. Obviously, every woman should have the space to embrace and celebrate her body as she chooses, but this should be free from the norms imposed on her by society.
… This raises another question.
Q: How can performers be personally empowered through burlesque? How do we make sure that it's not just another thing to be controlled by the patriarchy and make sure that we don't promote the view that it is simply for male pleasure? There's an argument, that the more empowered and emancipated women are, the more they are viewed as sexually available by the straight men around them.
Crass: Cabaret and burlesque shows are fun ways of entertaining and teasing the audience whilst also taking the viewer's gaze, subverting and owning it and throwing it right back at them. We are on stage having fun and exploring political themes, whilst showing others that we are in control of our bodies and how much flesh we show. That's sexy.
Q: What are you personally passionate about changing in society? What needs to change?
Arianna: Well if we're speaking about body positivity, I'm at the point now where I just really don't give a sh*t about being naked. If people have a problem with it, it really is their problem. I'm happy with my body and I should celebrate it.
And we saw that 'hello everyone, nice to see you, but fuck you if there's a problem' attitude from Ari as she took to the stage her 'Naked Shakespeare' act, walking on, off and performing entirely nude.
The conversation moves on to inter-generational feminism and the challenges that we all feel are present for younger and 'coming of age' feminists in the UK today. We discuss the feminism of Germaine Greer and some other second-wave feminists. You know, the sort of feminism that was relevant at the time, but just isn't feminism any more. Something that's become the parade ground of TERFS and is now recognised to be a form of feminism that does not celebrate people of colour, transgender, working class and many others.
Martha: Growing up at my school near Oxford, during my teenage years, feminism was presented to us as something that 'had happened'; we were emancipated and this was it, end of. We even had a PSHE lesson where we were given a writing exercise to describe our 'ideal husband'. That's not very long ago and that's worrying.
Arianna: Hopefully this night (and a growing amount of performance art) is a way to celebrate modern, inclusive feminism and all be allies to each other - also educate, rather than alienate.
Q: If we're speaking about the themes of feminism and inclusivity, what contrastingly negative elements have you come up against in the performance industry?
Martha: I also do theatre and remember an agent telling me that I was 'just wonderful darling, but it would be great if there was a bit less of you'; that I would get more work just by losing a couple of pounds.
Ariana: I was not taken seriously in the theatre world, because of my appearance, I did not look 'like an actress should', but I was up there tonight, performing Shakespeare and honestly I fucking nailed it.
She fucking did!
Q: If we're having conversations about a space where we can discuss pleasure and sex, as they are related, I'd be interested to know your thoughts on the 'sexual wellness industry'. Would you say that it is giving us opportunities with sex toys and sex-related accessories to celebrate our desires and our pleasure, or simply feeding off our insecurities of needing to pleasure ourselves and have sex in a certain way?
Arianna: Anything that is an 'industry' and makes money off something is not designed to put people first, let's be honest.
I'm inclined to agree. Just look at the Lelo brand of sex toys, ergonomically designed adult toys described as 'everything you’d expect from impeccable Swedish design and engineering', have a starting price of £80 and no clear upper price limit.
Martha: Yes, definitely. What I would say is that the website 'OMG yes' and self-help forums and information sharing services are a different thing, also small sex product companies. I had no information when I was growing up; my parents felt way too embarrassed to have those discussions with me and I had a difficult couple of years as a teenager and young adult just working things out on my own, before I realised that it was ok and normal to have conversations about these topics with people and also that there were information services out there.
We agree that sexual pleasure and self-care and just general information about sexual health and contraception should be accessible to everyone; the reality is that we still have a situation where sex education is presented in a cold, scientific way, rather than a fun opportunity to have pleasurable and positive experiences. Many young people are accessing information on sex and pleasure through (often hardcore) pornography at a young age and that’s not fair.
The great thing about Crass is that, well, they are just that; crass! The four amazing women that form the core group of this troupe, plus all of their monthly guest performers are not afraid to speak up about issues that they feel strongly about and ruffling feathers and provoking dialogue along the way. What is also incredibly enjoyable is that you have the reassuring feeling that they are genuine in their delivery; this does not have the tired feeling of artists speaking about subjects that they know will get them more air time or discussing themes that are simply fashionable. Yes, they are current and political, but you feel the personal engagement and feeling with which they address their subjects of choice.
This is a night that truly normalises the conversation around taboo or uncomfortable subjects. Given that we live in a post-MeToo world and that sexual harassment and the importance of teaching consent and a diversified sex education programme are often spoken about on social media and by news outlets, it's easy to forget that it's still not that easy for many people (person-to-person) to have frank, unembarrassed conversations about consent, body positivity, the full spectrum of beauty (unconstrained by photoshop, waxing and make-up), pleasure (particularly for female-bodied people) and fetishes or kinks. The monthly Crass Menagerie nights are forging a path; combining sass and sexiness, creativity and wit and a raw and uncensored human warmth.
If you’ve not been down yet, this night deserves your attention! Long may it continue!