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The Infamous Nina Nightshade Oral History Interview, September 25, 2021

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LAURIE KURUTZ: Today is September 25, 2021. My name is Laurie Kurutz. My pronouns are she/ hers. Would you please introduce yourself, tell us your pronouns if you care to, and tell us all the things you do?

NINA NIGHTSHADE: Yes, my name is Nina Nightshade. My pronouns are she/her, and I do a plethora of things, including Burlesque performance, costuming, show production. I am also a Hula dancer and a Corgi Mom and Mom of a teenager.

LK: What is Burlesque?

NN: People come at it from a lot of angles, and there are a lot of angles, depending on which angle you come in. There are those that come in with the 00:01:00historical angle that Burlesque was a lot about satire and finding ways to use humor to tell a story, to make a point. A lot of Burlesque has also included in it striptease and when the Burlesque circuits ended, Burlesque became about the striptease. Because the comedians, the other performers, the satire, those other pieces were able to be absorbed in the other theater types. So there really wasn't a place where Burlesque could go. I think that's... while a lot of people will talk about the history of it, when we're talking about it now, we're talking about a form of striptease, whether it's one piece of clothing or all the way down. You're generally telling some kind of a story. Whether it's just 00:02:00"I'm a pretty, pretty princess and I want to strip" or you're getting deep into the weeds with "this is a story about this person who went on this dark path and discovered the light." Whatever it may be. Burlesque can mean a lot of things for a lot of people.

LK: And how do you describe the kind of Burlesque that you do?

NN: I like to describe my Burlesque as mostly a classical performer with a geeky streak. I do a lot of Nerdlesque and do a lot of silly things. I would say I'm distractible but at the core I almost always fall back on my dance and the more classic style of performance.

LK: Why do you do Burlesque? What does it give you artistically the other forms don't?

NN: Burlesque feeds my soul. It gives me the opportunity to be on stage which 00:03:00feeds my soul and in its own form. But I found that I want to do and be all the different things in theater and in dance. In Burlesque I get to do and be all of those things. I am the choreographer and the costumer. I decide when and where I'm going to do a show. I decide what happens during an act. It's my vision. I get to be all of those pieces and put all of that into one small package that's 3 to 7 minutes long depending on the act. I think the reason that I really found Burlesque the most interesting.

I also found a group of people that I connected to, more than any other dance form that I've done. I have great Hula sisters, I have wonderful modern dance performers that I've worked with, but I've never created a bond quite the way 00:04:00that I have in the Burlesque world.

LK: Why do you think that is?

NN: I think some of that is we all have a shared interest so there's something to fall back on. But I think especially with where I came from and with how few of us were performing at the time, we all had to look out for each other. Yeah there was competition with each other, but more than anything, we're all just trying to just get through this together and get booked and make Burlesque known and seen more. And, elevate it, make it better. What could we do to improve upon it. I also find that in Burlesque people hold... I guess they put their monsters 00:05:00on display, so to speak. So they're not afraid to put things out there. They're not hiding. I know that the person that I meet in Burlesque, most of the time, I mean, there are exceptions to every rule, but most of the time, those people are giving you who they are. Or at least giving you a piece of them that's real.

LK: Where on the spectrum of sex work does Burlesque fall these days?

NN: I mean it's sex work light. I would say that it falls in the spectrum but not very far. It's in the grand scheme of looking at sex work, it's pretty safe. A lot of sex workers are putting them themselves in very real situations where emotionally, even physically, they could be harmed. Burlesque is kind of stepped 00:06:00back from that. I get a lot of "how can you be so vulnerable onstage?" And I'm like "are you kidding I'm the one in control!" I get to decide if you're not good enough, I'll walk off that stage without taking everything off. I would say when it comes to that, there is a piece of sex to it but there's only a part of it.

LK: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

NN: I was not a military child, before your follow up question comes from this, but... I was born in Minnesota, very northern Minnesota, very close to the border of Canada. My parents divorced when I was three, and my mother and I moved to Denver Colorado. We moved various places around Denver and then we ended up in Phoenix. Then I took a side tour to San Antonio for a job and then 00:07:00we ended up in Oregon. So I've bounced around quite a bit over my life. Oregon is definitely home at this point. It's where I've spent the most time and where I feel like I belong.

LK: What brought you here?

NN: Well originally, again we moved to San Antonio for my job. The job was OK but it wasn't quite what I had in mind. My husband and I together decided we wanted to live in the right city and then the jobs would figure themselves out. I actually only spent a short time working as an industrial designer, which is my degree. Because it was more important that we find the right environment for us and the jobs could figure itself out. Portland was one of those cities and that's the one where we found the jobs.

LK: What did you do in your formative years, whatever those were, that led you 00:08:00to performance?

NN: I, as the odd duck in my family, because nobody is a performer in my family. I didn't grow up with it. I just always liked being on stage. Was a very shy child and still socially pretty awkward in social settings. But I found, I think and ...you know... I did take a few tap dance classes when I was little and stuff like that. But it was really in high school when I was able to be a part of the Theater program that I found that was where I felt comfortable. Being able to perform, whether it was... I was both in the theater and I was also on the flag line... I see both of those as a performance style and both of them allowed me to have common ground with people to get to know them, but also have a focus. I just have always been around Theater from there.


LK: In what year and how did you get started in Burlesque?

NN: I started Burlesque in 2008. At the time, my husband and I owned a retro clothing store called Cherry Red. We were hosting Go-Go Amy and Bettina Mae were doing a pinup class. I happened to know that they were Burlesque performers as well. I was asking them some questions: "what's it like to be a Burlesque performer?" Because I'd only actually seen one show before then. I had already been a modern dancer and a belly dancer. They connected me with a local performer Megan Mayhem. She and I kind of traded ... I taught her some belly dance and she taught me some Burlesque. Then she helped me get booked into my first show. They kinda said "you're already 90% of the way there, you just need 00:10:00to learn these other skills and then you can do this." Megan helped me get on the stage for the first time.

LK: How did you pick your stage name? Your Burlesque name?

NN: There's a little bit of history to that. I've always been somebody who's on the darker, more morbid side, a little bit more morbid. I like..."melancholy is my happy place" is one of the things I like to say. The "Nightshade" came from there. So my real name is Nina, not just my performance name. When I was a belly dancer, I had some Arabic brothers that were customers of mine when I worked at Starbucks and they helped me translate my real name into Arabic. They took my real name, figured out what it would be and it was Nina al Tawhil, which was my 00:11:00belly dance name. I did pin-up first before I really got into Burlesque and so my pinup name I decided I wanted to go with just keeping the same name and changing the last name. That's where those two pieces came together, and then the alliteration is always fun.

LK: I read you're called "Oregon's First Lady of Burlesque." How did that come about?

NN: That title was originally given to me by one of my friends, Susan MC named Vincent Drambuie. A First Lady is usually considered at the top of her craft. Or, if you're looking at the First Lady of the United States, historically it was the hostess of the White House. So between my wanting to be in that hostess 00:12:00status and always taking care of people, and when I produce shows I'm very like "OK what do you need? Is everybody good? Who needs what?" So playing off of that hostess side and then also being at the top of my craft, is where that tagline came from.

LK: Beyond those beginnings in 2008, how did you develop your career in Burlesque?

NN: Small and scrappy at first, I'm not gonna lie. Again Meghan got me into my first Burlesque show that I did. There were maybe eight people in the audience. I think I brought four of them. So, which is fine, because it was terrible. I don't need people to remember that. But after that, Amy and Bettina came into town and Cherry Red helped host a Burlesque show in Salem, where we were still 00:13:00living at the time. After they left, all of our customers were like "well, when's the next Burlesque show?" "I don't know. When they can get back around here." And they're like "well, you know some performers in Portland, right?"

So after only having been in two or three shows, I jumped into producing shows. I had some event experience, it wasn't like I just jumped in cold. I stepped into the role of producer pretty quickly just because there was a void and a bunch of people who wanted more of it. A lot of me building myself up came from not just performing in a few places and being one of about nine people that were regularly cycled through the rare show in Portland, but I created a lot of my 00:14:00name from stepping into a producing role pretty quickly. Performers are very interested in you if you're producing a show because they want to get booked.

LK: Tell me about Rosehip Revue.

NN: Rosehip Revue was one of the local shows that was happening. Raylene Courtney was the one who was producing that. It was a monthly show that was happening, it started in i'm going to forget... The Barracuda Club, downtown, which doesn't exist anymore. A side note, we actually discovered it used to be the dancing hall girls who used to be in that building years ago. And it was in the saloon girl era and we were one of the last dancing girls to be in that 00:15:00building before they completely closed it down. Anyway, that [show] moved to the Star Theater and I was just kind of on the regular roster of people who... I didn't work every month... but every two or three months I was cycled back into the roster on that [Rosehip Revue.]

LK: And then Rose City Shimmy, what was that?

NN: Rose City Shimmy was a group of four performers that I got to know pretty quickly and connected with pretty quickly. It was Itty-Bitty Bang Bang, Charlotte Treuse, Baby Le Strange, and Hai Fleisch and Megan Mayhem. I already knew Meghan, and Meghan's the one who introduced me to the other ladies. They were a troupe that just kind of... they didn't necessarily have group acts but they did work together. They did a lot of... so like when I produce shows in 00:16:00Salem, I brought Rose City Shimmy down. I was always kind of an honorary member so to speak, but I was never actually a member of that. I did a lot of shows with them. I would travel with them to do shows in Astoria and do shows with them in Portland. They were just a collective of girls that looked out for each other and did shows together.

LK: So Astoria what's it like to do Burlesque in a small town on the Oregon coast"

NN: It was a lot of fun! We did that in the theater... I don't remember the name of the theater... it was a smaller one. I think technically it was a movie theater. I find that one they treated me like I was a celebrity in the whole town once they... Like I came and stayed at a hotel, and they were like "ooo, you look fancy! What are you?" I told them I was in the Burlesque show and like 00:17:00all of a sudden I was treated like a rockstar. It really depends on the town and how they embrace you. But the ones that embrace you, it's almost better than the big city shows, where you go to San Francisco and there's all kinds of people there. Because the [small town] audiences are so excited and so engaged. Sometimes in the big city they're kind of too good for it. But in some of the smaller towns the cheering is louder and the energy is bigger. Maybe it's because they don't see shows as often. I don't know. But I had a great time in Astoria.

LK: I saw you had a connection to Miss Kennedy's Cabaret. What was that?

NN: Miss Alex Kennedy did a monthly show at Dantes for a while. Again I was a 00:18:00cycled-in performer for different things. She became a very dear friend of mine. Originally I just contacted her and she was like "great sounds like you'll be good for this," and they [the shows] were always themed every month. "It sounds like you'd be great for this theme. Do you wanna do the show?" And then it got to the point where she would reach out to me and say "hey here's the theme, can you make something for it?" So I created many acts for Miss Kennedy, sometimes just adapting a costume I already had, but a few times creating something completely scratch, and new for her. It was always just a lot of fun to work with her. She had a very set theme and script in between things like that. She's also the one who used to run the yearly Rocky Horror Pastie show, which I did with her every year.

LK: And your costumes, how do you acquire your costume skills? What kind of 00:19:00things did you make?

NN: I would say costuming is probably 50% of the reason I'm in Burlesque is I love the costumes, I love making them. I need reasons to make big ridiculous gowns. This [indicating the gown behind her] isn't even a big ridiculous gown, but... So the costume skills... I always grew up with a mom who sewed everything. I learned very quickly how to use a sewing machine and how to do some basic things. My skills went above and beyond when during my last year...In my bachelors degree I worked as a stitcher for the lyric opera at Arizona State. Just a student worker position. I went to work between classes when I could and I learned so much sitting in that shop. I got to work on two different shows 00:20:00while I was there.

What I loved about those ladies was they would always be like "oh you haven't done that before? Well come over here we're doing it." Instead of just throwing things at me, they're like "oh this will be easy for you. just so all these straight hems." Or, like "oh you've never made a bustle? come over here, we're gonna show you this." I learned how to set a sleeve with them. I learned how to use a serger with them. A lot of my skills came from that year that I got to spend working in the lyric opera, just a side job. Then I also, before getting into Burlesque, I was a part of SCA, the Society for Creative Anachronism. You have to make a lot of your own stuff there too. We also learned how to make a lot of big renaissance gowns and ridiculous pirate costumes, and the like. Yeah, 00:21:00I love making costumes.

LK: Tell me about the BHoF Movers, Shakers and Innovators Showcase in 2011.

NN: That's definitely... there are a few shining moments in my Burlesque career, so to speak, that I'm really proud of. One of them was having the opportunity to be in that showcase. The Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender is a fundraiser for the Burlesque Hall of Fame Museum. It's the big competition and the big show. Also when you have the option to see a lot of the Living Legends perform, which is my special place in the Burlesque world, I love them so much.

I applied, I was like "sure I'm gonna apply to this!" Charlotte Treuse is a 00:22:00performer and she's now in New Orleans. She and I call each other cousins, but we actually aren't related, but she is my Burlesque cousin. She convinced me to "just start it and apply, if you don't get in this year, at least they'll remember you from next year. Just keep at it!" So I applied and was ready for my rejection letter and it was not a rejection letter that I got. I was shocked, because Charlotte Treuse, Angelique Deville, and I all go into BHoF that year, which having that many people who are fairly new to the the scene...Charlotte and Angelique have been in the scene a little bit longer than me, but all three of us got in.

They got into the new performer competition and then I got into the Movers, 00:23:00Shakers, & Innovators, which is the first night [of the weekender.] Just having the opportunity to be there was amazing. I got to meet a lot of people. I got to... I just kind of stepped in and rather than walking in and getting my feet wet, I literally just went straight into the deep end and dove off. Being able to be chosen to be on that stage, there are many, many people who deserve to be on that stage who have never been on it but I feel like of those people that are deserving of being on that stage, I'm at least one of them. I was just privileged to be the one that was chosen.

LK: After that in the 20-teens, I saw credits at Rue Royale Burlesque, and you 00:24:00produced that?

NN: Correct. I co-produced that with Sugarcane and Sophie Maltease. We were looking at ...there's a piece missing to our community in our shows. There's a lot of little shows going on and the Rosehip Revue had stopped happening. That was our bigger show in town at the time. And then getting people in from outside of Oregon was something that we were pushing for. So the three of us... originally we started with our first show actually having Charlotte Treuse come back as our headliner. Because now she was from out of town and she happened to be in town. We were like "yes, let's produce a show! We can make this fabulous!" It originally started as just a one-off show that Sugarcane and I put on. Then we realized "OK, there's a niche here for bringing in a big out-of-town 00:25:00headliner and doing it at the larger theater" where Rosehip Revue used to happen at the Star Theater. The three of us just keep trucking, and it became a quarterly show. We did it for as long as we could. We got sponsors for a little while and lost sponsors, as things happen, We kept it alive for as long as we could. We keep hoping that maybe, someday... we'll see...

LK: You mentioned the ups and downs of producing and sponsor financing. How do you go from "let's put on a show" to finding financial [backing]? How does all that work?

NN: Well, most of the shows that I have done... I've had some sponsorship that's helped with like... that's been more of an in-kind sponsorship. So we will put 00:26:00out your advertising, so like with Rue Royale, Sugarcane set up a relationship with Hale Pele, where anytime you got your check you also got a Rue Royale advertisement. "Hey, there's this Burlesque show happening." For most of the shows I produced on my own, I'm taking the financial risk. I'm looking at "OK here's how much it's gonna cost to do all these things. Here's how many tickets I need to sell to be able to pay people." And I'm kind of figuring out that budget and basically coming up with what am I willing to risk, how much money am I willing to take a risk on?

With Rue Royale, we were fortunate in having some cash sponsors as well. Those really came from creating relationships with people. We had a relationship with 00:27:00the Betty Paige store when they were in town. They were one of our cash sponsors and then we would do, during intermission, we would do a fashion show with the new Betty Paige dresses. They were getting that advertising. Again, anytime you're looking at that kind of sponsorship, you want it to be even on both sides. I'm not just taking money from you, I also want to give you something back, that's why you would give me the money. So when the Betty Paige store closed, we obviously lost that sponsorship.

Some of those things kind of come and go. I find that alcohol sponsors come and go. They... when I was working with Orchestra L'Pow, we had an alcohol sponsor for a little while and then that just kind of disappeared with no explanation of why. They thought we were great for a while and then I guess they decided we weren't, I don't know. But yeah, that again, that's just kind of the nature of 00:28:00the beast. But I think in the end anytime you're producing, you have to be ready for how much financial risk I take on.

LK: Great and then there was another production company or show that you produced that brought in the living Legends. Can you talk about that?

NN: So anytime I'm producing on my own, it's under Bergamot Burlesque, which is... we kind of go with the poison themes. For people who don't know that Bergamont is actually, truly a poison. Actually it was my first year that I went to BHoF, so I got to perform at it on the first day and then I got to enjoy the rest of it like a crazy person. The day that I was watching the Living Legends, I was just like "why why aren't these people out there?" The MC for that show 00:29:00was World Famous Bob from New York. She got up there and she's like "You know what, do you think these Legends are great? Do you want to do something to support these Legends? Book them!" I was like "OK call to task!"

I had had the fortune of meeting Dee Milo before at a BurlyCon, which is the Burlesque convention in Seattle. I'd signed up to be... the best way to meet people is to volunteer, by the way. I volunteered to drive people to and from the airport. So I drove Dee Milo to and from the airport. She again... she is still like my Burlesque mama. She has given me permission to do an act in tribute to her red dress. Things like that. She's a wonderful, wonderful woman. But I heard that call and I was like "OK, so Dee, do you want to come to 00:30:00Portland?" She came and stayed with me for a week. I took her around and listened to her stories. Then after that happened and everybody was like "This was amazing! She was amazing! How did you do this?" I decided to make it an annual thing. Again, for as long as I could.

I was able to bring in Tony Elling, who used to actually perform here in Portland. She worked at Mary's Club, when Mary's Club was a Burlesque house. And then she worked at the Desert Room, which is now in the basement.... it's downtown close to the Crystal Ballroom. But because she was a colored woman those were the two places that she could work. But I got to hear great stories from her while driving around. She's like "look can you drive me over there? This is my house!" Getting to hear stories about Duke Ellington. It's so great. 00:31:00I've had Tiffany Carter, who's another one of my mentors through Gabriella Maze, who is so much fun. Then I was supposed to have Judith Stein, but unfortunately she fell and injured herself a week before the show and couldn't come up. So we did a tribute to her acts as our finale. So I'm coming up with problem-solving and when your headliner is not gonna show up three days before the show, you call up all the performers and say "here's what we're going to do. Just wait for your cue. I'm gonna give you this!" And then we sent it to her. Yeah, booking Legends is my favorite thing.

LK: And so for something completely different, 2016 Miss Yardbird? Tell me about 00:32:00using Burlesque for community fundraising.

NN: Oh, so I... through Burlesque I got into this kind of sideshow-roadside attraction world with Jake the Alligator Man on Long beach and their friends Yardbird. So Yardbird is... Yardbird Mall is a mall in Chehalis, Washington. They have a large piece of Roadside Americana outside that is a giant black bird with a yellow beak. And they were doing fundraising to save Yardbird because it was falling apart. I'm sure it was never meant to last as long as they have made it last. So they started the Miss Yardbirds PInup Contest. For a couple years I would support it just by sharing. Like "I can't be a part of this, and you know 00:33:00for whatever reason, but you guys should go to this, you should sign up." Then one year I decided I wanted to finally go for it. So going there... and again everything with the Roadside Americana is very tongue in cheek. It's you know... you're honoring American history, but you're also kind of joking and you understand how kitchy it is.

They had us do speeches where it was silly things like "OK so on Gilligan's Isle, are you Ginger or...?" So it was a lot of fun. And then they had all of us do an act but it had to be a PG-13 act. So I did an act that basically... I did 00:34:00a Burlesque act but didn't strip down to just the next layer without [getting naked] which is, a lot of times, I do because then it just becomes... it's not so much a striptease as it is a costume change. Costume reveal! Because I do a lot of things around "there's not a dress underneath- just kidding!" I ended up winning that year! I was super excited! Then from there it was actually a whole year of parades and I did a lot of local parades at the egg day parades, Christmas light parades. But also when they had said "if you're going to be Miss Yardbird, what would that mean to you? How would you carry it forward?" And I said "well one of my promises is if I'm Miss Yardbird, I will wear my crown to every curtain call for the entire year."

So I wore this silly little crown, it's cracked and a little bit sad right now, 00:35:00but I wore that crown to every curtain call with my sash that said Miss Yardbird. Then, because word got out, a lot of "what is this?" So I would say to producers "I made this promise so I'm gonna be wearing this at curtain call, I hope that's OK." Nobody fought me on it. Then I also... we did a lot of...they had a festival and my daughter and I went and played with the kids and we taught a GoGo lesson. It was definitely a silly little thing. One of my friends now refers to me as the Queen of Kitsch. She's like "what's with the Jake the Alligator Man? and the Yardbirds?"

LK: It's great, that's funny. I was going to ask you in... I want to ask about 00:36:00technology since you started [Burlesque] in 2008, you know, the world has exploded. You applied to BHoF in 2011 and I was wondering about the technological logistics of that. Today we would take a video and attach it to an email or a Dropbox it or something. I've read a lot about early Neo-Burlesque people talking about the early Internet, meaning the 2000s, and that connectivity was a driving force in this burgeoning Neo-Burlesque. What was your experience with all that?

NN: I was always a little bit behind on the tech thing, so I already... 00:37:00everybody had their MySpace and then they moved over to Facebook and I was like "OK I don't wanna do any of these things." Because when I first started, really everything that I did wasn't tech. I got my first bookings by talking to people physically and you showed up at a gig and you handed them your CD. The big tech was I burned the CD with just one song so you don't have to find it. You know, instead of handing them your CD from Portishead and you're like "track number four please!"

When it comes to the tech of the show logistics, that's changed a lot. Again, we're not coming in with our "here's my CD and then you played on this and then hopefully it works." There's a lot more cutting of songs now, so instead of being like "play track three and skip to seven" I'm actually cutting music 00:38:00together; it's just the way I like. Then as a producer being able to just have everybody's music and listen to it ahead of time. And obsessively listen to it to make sure that there's no glitches in it, that there's nothing going on, and then being able to just hand it to somebody and say "Just hit next."

When it came to just reaching an audience, I definitely again started with My Space and then moved onto the Facebook. I avoided Facebook for a really long time because my grandparents were on Facebook. I was like: "Grandpa can't find me on Facebook! This is gonna be bad!" And then I learned you can block people! I thought "Sweet! I can do this!" Again I was doing a lot of pinup modeling at 00:39:00the beginning so I was on like Model Mayhem and those kinds of websites. Then there was a pin-up social media thing for a while... I don't even remember the name of it. I was super into that for about eight months and I was like "I'm done."

It's definitely made a lot of things a lot more accessible. I can call up a Living Legend and say "Hey, do you wanna do a show?" I can contact Dirty Martini and be like "do you wanna do a show? What are your rates?" And maybe your rates are too high but that's OK. At least you still have that opportunity. Again people are more accessible, which has its good and bad. But as a performer, it means that also people ask me to do things that I'd be like "oh my god yes I'd absolutely wanna do that!" And they're like "really? Oh we went out on a longshot on this." But I find that a lot of performers, if you ask them, they're 00:40:00interested. I mean for the right price most of them are interested. So the tech has definitely, as both a performer and a producer, made the ability to do my job a lot easier.

LK: You've talked a little bit about the Burlesque community in Portland when you started. How there were more monthly shows, and some things were quarterly, and another thing was once a year. It sounds very fluid. How would you describe just the community and the scene?

NN: It's changed a lot since I started, what? 12 to 13 years ago... When I 00:41:00started, there were maybe nine of us performing regularly... there were other performers. I'm not gonna say there weren't other performers. But there were only nine of us, within my circle. There were only nine of us that were cycling through a lot of these things that we were getting booked for. As new people came in, it was exciting and then all the sudden it was like "wait, I don't know everybody anymore! How did this happen?" Then once we started getting the [Burlesque] schools, that really built a lot of new performers. I started to feel kind of out of touch from the community. I've met a lot of people along the way but I still... I don't know all the performers. There's well over 100 now that perform, that I would say perform at least a couple times a year. It's had its ups and downs and it's moments. We've always seemed to have some Queen Bee 00:42:00running around who is trying to control the scene. We always have that person on the other side who is like "I'm just gonna be different from the rest of you!" I would say within the Portland community, there are groups, certain groups, that work together and then a lot of us that just float between those groups.

LK: oh, I can hear your dog!

NN: Sorry!

LK: No! You said at the beginning that you are a Corgi mom, so, I thought "where are they?" But, we will persevere! We won't get too distracted. So you've talked a little bit about business skills and business savvy. Can you just talk a little more about a week in the life of a Burlesque artist-producer? What was 00:43:00your week like? All of the skill sets?

NN: I mean it really depended on... just like doing a theater show, it depends on where you're at in the process, in the cycle. We all have our Hell weeks, we all have our dead times, where we're like "now what? everything's over and I'm not doing anything." I would say a typical week ... I work full-time outside of performance, so I've always had to balance parenting and the full-time job, along with the Burlesque side of things. For me, there's a lot of business emails during lunch, better Burlesque business emails during lunch.


You kind of have to just figure out what am I focusing on this week? So if I'm gonna be in somebody else's show, I'm focusing more on my choreography and making sure that I put that snap back on that costume that I broke last time I was wearing it. That I'm working through maybe the bugs on what didn't work last time and just getting some general practicing in.

As a producer, I'm usually spending more time on how do I get the word out? So my first thing I wanna do is I book all my people. So I take the time to figure out who's gonna be in my cast, and then you have the logistics of getting their pictures, and all the things that you need from them. Checking in with them pretty regularly to make sure that they know what's expected of them. Then my next task is to get butts in seats. A lot of times I would be spending time 00:45:00after work, or on my lunch breaks, a lot of times I would do ... Sunday mornings would just be my workday for shows, where I would go in and I would plan all of my posts for the week and schedule them on Facebook and stuff like that.

Facebook used to be a really great place to get the word out. I think that's changed as, one: Facebook has changed but also as people using social media has changed. But whatever that social media may be, spending the time to get that stuff ready so that I can tell an audience "Hey, did you know? Go buy your tickets! Don't wait! Go buy your tickets, you're stressing me out. So, yeah, I would say every week is different. There was no "I always do this every Thursday." Other than the usual conditioning things. like I take a dance class 00:46:00once a week. That feeds my craft, but that's not necessarily working towards a specific project.

LK: You mentioned the day job. You don't have to tell me where you work, but what industry do you work in?

NN: I work in higher education. I am currently the Director of Operations for a private university in Oregon.

LK: And then... we've had this pandemic.... so the Covid pandemic...

NN: I have noticed that!

LK: Yes you have! How does that affect the Burlesque scene in Portland?

NN: I think, like many other communities, especially performance communities, there was that first period of we're just shutting everything, just canceling shows. I can't do this, I can't ... Where we're going to cancel this because we don't think it's gonna be over yet. Or if you're good sitting tight, we're going 00:47:00to check in next week and see if we can do this show. I had a pretty full summer booked already. My daughter is in a dance team and they had a state competition coming up. So for me, those first few weeks, I was like "oh well, we're not doing dance competitions, but I'm not losing out on all of these performance opportunities." When we thought this was going to be over in two months. I was like "well I have lost out on one show." Then they kind of collided and started canceling more and more. And then we started to realize "oh maybe this is going to take longer." I was just kind of like "OK take a break." I was actually finishing my masters degree at the time. So for me, I was like "OK well, while we have downtime, I'll take two classes at once and really get this thing done!" 00:48:00So I spent most of the beginning of the pandemic just focusing on getting my degree done.

And checking in with my performer friends and seeing how they're doing. I had been asked to be in a couple virtual shows pretty early on that I had turned down for two reasons: one was working on my masters degree and I was trying to get that done. And [two] I didn't wanna have to figure out how to make a camera situation happen because I've never...that's not something I had to do before.

But also there were so many performers that were dependent on that money and all of a sudden they had nothing. And I was still at the time... I'm considered an essential worker, so I'm still driving to work every day. Which was its own stress right now during the pandemic. But I didn't want to take away from that small pool of money that was left for performers. It was like, right now, I don't need to be a part of this. I need other people who are more dependent on 00:49:00it to be able to take from the pool of money. So I just sat back for a while and didn't do anything. Then I toyed around with "OK, maybe I should do something." I started watching all these other people do all these online shows and things happening. It was exciting to see the adaptation. The "OK, live shows are gonna happen for a while." People still need performance art. I mean both the artists and the audience still need some kind of connection to that performance art because there's a reason they were going before. Watching people just fill in that gap was fascinating. I didn't join.

I did two online shows in total. It was a fun social experiment, and it was a fun challenge for me to step out of my comfort zone and do something new. I 00:50:00didn't love it as much. I definitely feed off of the audience's energy, whereas I was watching some people just all of a sudden become amazing videographers. I was like "you're making a music video over there and doing a great job!" And finding ways to use the medium to their advantage. How often do you get to actually go out to the woods and begin your act in the woods and then step inside? That's a feat of stage make up and set design that we don't have the privilege of being able to use [in live performances] so it was neat to see people adapt to that and figure it out.

LK: People in Burlesque say it empowers them. What's your take on that?

NN: I'd say yes for a lot of people. It definitely gave me a lot more confidence. I don't think it's just the Burlesque itself. It wasn't just the 00:51:00striptease. Yes, there's a piece of "I accept my body for what it is and I'm gonna put it on stage." But frankly sometimes, I put it on stage, I'm not real proud of it at the moment, and I'm still gonna put it on stage because that's what I'm here for. But I found that one again, I've been asked a couple times "don't you feel so vulnerable up there?" And, I'm like "No. I have full control." I get to decide when things happen and why they happen. Frankly I get to decide if you're worth it. So I'm in complete control when I'm on stage. There's a piece of that that is empowering.

I think a lot of people who are interested ...this is just my general opinion... but I think a lot of people who are in theater are actually very shy people who 00:52:00aren't very good at getting out there. There's both. There are very gregarious people who are on stage don't get me wrong but I think there's a fair amount of us who aren't very good in social settings but will go on stage and do something crazy and have no problem with it. I think of that aspect that it's empowering because I have control over everything that I do. As I spoke to earlier, I get to decide my costume, I get to decide what's right for my music, I get to decide what my body can and can't do today. I think that piece for me is what's empowering about it. Also I get to be proud of being a woman and the body that I'm in, even if some days I don't like it very much. Most days I like it, just to put it aside, but some days it's like "what are you doing?"


LK: So do you think empowerment or growth or confidence... do you think that's a piece of why people say Burlesque can be a force for social change?

NN: I think it's one of them. There is a piece of empowerment. You're also... you're on stage to entertain an audience, so there's that social contract. While you're on stage, you're not up there just to feel empowered and bring your therapy on stage. You're also there to entertain an audience. I think part of it is that... it gives people who, in a lot of other performance circles wouldn't have an opportunity to be represented on stage. I think that's where some of that social change, or social justice, comes into this community. How often 00:54:00would my mom body be allowed on stage and be considered sexy, when there's another girl who follows this certain stereotype. Burlesque still has it's stereotypes, don't get me wrong. Every producer is different, every show is different. I'm not saying that we're perfect.

But I think that it also... again you have control over the message that you're bringing. So I have an opportunity to go on stage and make a very strong message. So if I want to go out there and I wanna be a pretty, pretty princess, great! But if I want to go out there and I wanna make you feel something, I have that opportunity. Again, working with your producers... but some producers are looking for something and some producers are looking for other things.... but also there are producers out there ... what they're going for they're like "show 00:55:00me the things, on stage, that are making a difference."

LK: Do you have an act that embodies that? Can you describe that act?

NN: I would say a lot of my acts are very based on costume because that's what I love about it. But I do have...I have some acts that come across as silly that are actually making a pretty strong message. One of them is... along with all the other things that I do, I am an honorary member of Tight and Nerdy, which is a Burlesque troupe that only performs to Weird Al songs. We have a lot of fun. I also... any time they're in Portland, I co-producer the shows with them. Some of the best ladies, I mean, I love Weird Al. I really love these ladies.

I have an act to a song that Weird Al sings called The King of Suede, that's basically a song about thrift store shopping and how he is the King of Suede in 00:56:00the thrift store. Everything in my costume is suede and none of it fits right. So I have purposely made it where it's like that feeling when you're standing in the dressing room and you just want this thing to fit and it doesn't. And you get stuck in it and you're panicking. So I went in with "wouldn't it be funny if nothing fit and you got that panicky feeling." It ended up being more of a commentary on body image and how I wanna look a certain way, but this dress isn't letting me look the way that I want to feel, and then this thing is too big and I don't have big enough boobs, and I don't have the right... and so in 00:57:00my brain, I wasn't originally going for a social commentary on body image, but that's kind of where the act went. It was more like the frustration of "there's this gorgeous dress in a thrift shop and it's two sizes too small but I am going to try it on anyway."

LK:Other than the obvious Covid, what do you think are the challenges facing Burlesque today?

NN: It's hard not to think of Covid because we've been in this for so long, but I think one of the challenges facing Burlesque, which has kind of always been there, is the stigma of Burlesque. Anytime I say that I do Burlesque for the first time with a group of people... so the first time I told my Hula sisters, I 00:58:00kind of waited for that backlash. Then you're always kind of pleasantly surprised when they say "that's so exciting!" But you always have... there's always somebody in the group that's not comfortable, even if they're trying to pretend they are. I think that... that's one of the challenges.

But also one of the things that makes it great is, it also... I've had all these opportunities to have these conversations with people about "what about Burlesque is upsetting to you?" Because let's talk about body image, let's talk about the stigma of the way women are treated and the way women are seen, and the sexualization of women. Because, yes, what we do has a sexual nature, but it's not all about sex, I think that's one of the things that challenges it.

One challenge also in that line is the number of people who don't see it as an art. I absolutely think of myself as an artist. I think of myself as a 00:59:00performing artist, as a textile artist. The number of people are like "but it's not real art." Oh, so you're an art critic? How much art background do you have? So I think that's a challenge.

The other challenge I think a lot of us face is just finding venues. There are amazing shows that could happen if there was a place to have them. Some of that is a lot of the great venues have become movie theaters. That the theater that we worked in in Astoria, they kind of figured it out for us, but they had converted an old Burlesque house into a movie theater. Then fighting with big-name things.

Even in our town here... I have the perfect venue with this old Burlesque house but they are more interested in... even if it's a low name band but a high name 01:00:00booker, they're more interested in that. I walked into a thrift shop the other day, it wasn't even that great of a thrift shop, and it had a stage with the curtain and I was like "why is this a thrift shop? I want to put on shows here! You're killing me!" So I think that's the challenge, selling it to somebody to get them to book you. And to book you more than six weeks in advance.

LK: Final question: what do you wish the general public would understand about Burlesque?

NN: I think kind of stepping back to what I had said about... in Burlesque there is an element of sexuality to it. There is a striptease, you're showing the body 01:01:00and some acts are very lewd because they can be. One of the other reasons they called me "First Lady" is because I am a little bit more of a prude in the way I... I'm a little bit more uppity in my performance style. So it was... that was kind of the high-falutin' name. But given there's always a little bit of sex in it, but for me, it's not about sex. I think that a lot of people get so hung up on the sexuality side of Burlesque, that they miss all these amazing things that are also happening with a Burlesque performance. I liken it to when you watch a movie and there's a sex scene in it, but was the movie about sex? No! Now, there are movies where you're like "that sex scene was not necessary." But there's a lot where it's a part of the plot line. But it's a part of the plot line, it's 01:02:00not everything about that movie. I think a lot of Burlesque acts are the same. There's a sexuality to it but sometimes it's ... I'm not ... I'm not a sex object out there to be enjoyed, I'm just a naked person. I think that that stigma doesn't have to be there.

LK: Great. Thank you so much.

NN: Thank you.