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Chris Stewart Oral History Interview, January 3, 2020

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LAURIE KURUTZ: Today is January 3rd, 2020, my name is Laurie Kurutz, would you please introduce yourself, tell us your pronouns if you care to and tell us what you do.

CHRISTOPHER STEWART: My name is Christopher Stewart, onstage I'm known as Zora Phoenix, a gender illusionist in the Portland, Oregon area and also known as Sean Nannigans, a Boylesque performer. I've been producing Burlesque for eleven years, performing Burlesque and strip tease as well as been part of the Burlesque and performing arts community in Portland and beyond for twenty two years.

LK: What is Burlesque?

CS:Burlesque is the interesting intersection between striptease, live theatre, and the collaboration of community engagement with the stage. I would say that 00:01:00stripping is a destination and Burlesque is a journey. Because we are under the same umbrella, we are a sisterhood as we are with belly dance and many other forms of art in that when you say dance you can mean jazz or tap or ballet. When you say stage performance, you can be Burlesque, belly dancing, other. Burlesque is the culmination I think of taking away the fourth wall combining stage theatre with body positive movement and it incorporates a lot more. There's the glitter, sequins, feathers, and rhinestones, but at its core we are an exotic art form that brings the audience into the stage performance.

LK: What kind of Burlesque do you do?

CS:I am primarily a producer. I've produced in Portland since July of 2009, so about to hit my eleventh or twelfth year, give or take. As a producer, I 00:02:00primarily provide a safe and creative space for lots of different styles of Burlesque. One of the spiels that I do onstage is there are as many different types of Burlesque as there are Burlesque performers, which is one of the reasons that I love the art form so much. Burlesque encompasses Classic Burlesque, Neo-Burlesque. Under Neo-Burlesque are so many different subdivisions including Nerdlesque, and Clownlesque, and Metallesque and David Lynchlesque, and Rocky Horror Burlesque, and so many different other versions. So my role in the community is been primarily been a curator of spaces for people to bring their art to the stage.

As a Boylesque performer or as a Drag performer, I tend to be pretty clear with the divide between very Classic performance and very campy parody driven satirical pieces. On my Boylesque side, I have some classic 1950s and 1960s songs, some Ruth Brown and some Nina Simone. And then I have some very...I have 00:03:00a creepy clown act. Then I have a Disco Inferno act where I come out with a handlebar mustache and my outfits "on fire" so I must take it off so I won't *fans face with hands.* So my style tends to pick and... part and parcel from some of the best performers and performances that I've been honored to bring to the stage and finding inspiration from those.

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

CS:*raspy voice* It was a Tuesday and I- *return to normal voice* no- actually it was a Friday. I'm originally from Kentucky. I was born and raised just south of Louisville Kentucky in Bardstown, where My Old Kentucky Home is, for the people that don't look at that. That's also where Heaven Hill Jim Beam and Makers Mark are all distilled so that's where most people know that. I was born in Louisville, then we moved to rural Kentucky until I was in late middle school. Then shortly after I graduated, my mother and I moved to Louisville, 00:04:00which was where I stayed until the age of twenty-five. Then I spent all of about three and a half years just south of LA in Orange County and Long Beach, California. Then May of 2007 I moved to Portland and then thought I'd be here for six months and here we are coming up on thirteen years later.

LK: What brought you to Oregon?

CS:I moved with a partner, an old relationship *clears throat for comedic effect* fifteen years ago. And with it came an interesting culture shock of entirely new experiences and new people. Coming from rural Kentucky, which was obviously very different. I was also involved in a hate crime I was gay bashed in Louisville. So that sort of solidified my decision to move out of state. But moving to Southern California really opened my eyes to other cultures and other art. Then moving to Portland just sort of epicenter of a lot of different 00:05:00cultures and art brought me to the person that I am today.

LK: What did you do in your formative years that led you to performance?

CS:I was a professional square dancer for twelve years, a professional clogger for fifteen years, and I taught country western line dance for five and a half years. My first technical performance was at the age of eight where I, cringily now, sang Don't Close Your Eyes by Keith Woodley. As a square dance caller, so at eight years I was singing about infidelity and love, and having no idea what it was. Then from clogging and square dancing, I moved into marching band in high school. Where I was in the color guard so I was in the fly corps and I did that for four years. Once I graduated, I taught high school marching band color guard for a couple of years.

I kept doing line dancing until I got to Southern California and that's when the 00:06:00interesting cross-section of moving my body with the dance and then moving flag sort of came together. That's where I found Drag. From Drag performance I initially started singing is how I started out doing Drag, which is a primary portion of my performance now is as a primarily live singer. It's that line of movement to singing, to singing to movement, to Drag to performance that sort of led me to where I am now.

LK: Who was an inspiration to you? Who did you look to and think "I wanna do that" or "I wanna be like that," was there anyone?

CS:That's an interesting question in that I have, and for no specific reason, I've never found myself wanting or needing to compare myself to anyone else. So 00:07:00I've never felt that I needed to have an idol. I've definitely had a lot of respect for a lot of performers, specifically ones who came from either a place of under-privilege to find their art and have it make their success, which I think is an incredibly powerful thing and that journey is very empowering and inspirational to me. But I've not really had an idol or a- I've more or less created my character and my persona and my art from within...with nods to other performers.

LK: What if any formal education or training have you had?

CS:Not a one. I have...I say luck, I believe luck is the residue of design. By 00:08:00luck, I have lucked into pretty much every major life change or job that I've ever had, which I believe is very clearly... because I've... I remembered at a very young age hearing "be careful who you step on the way up to the ladder 'cause you never know who you're gonna pass on the way down." So I've always believed first and foremost, think about what you say, is it helpful? is it inspirational? is it necessary? is it kind? So using that in professional personal settings have allowed me to really curate the space that I have, as opposed to trying to emulate what I see other successes being.

LK: So this is a study about Burlesque in Oregon, but I don't want you to hesitate to mention the other performing and other things that you do. When did 00:09:00you start doing what you might consider Burlesque?

CS:When I first moved to Portland and was doing Drag, the best way to get into the community was to do Emcee positions for nonprofit organizations, which was where I sort of established my foothold. In September of 2008, I was reached out to Emcee a nonprofit fundraising performing arts showcase called BOOBS, Best Of Our Burlesque Show. At the time I was like "the wage sounds great, I don't know what Burlesque is but I will talk about it on stage with passion." I did not know at the time that I was amongst some Burlesque royalty. In the show were Indigo Blue, Iva Handful, Inga Ingénue, The Rubenesque Girls from Oakland; just some amazing, amazing performers who at the time I didn't know of course. Many 00:10:00of whom I still know and communicate with.

I was rather taken with the art and the... I don't think that anyone including femme-identified folk need to be empowered because they have the power, but I saw the empowerment and- that they gave themselves by stepping onstage. And was really taken with the way that the audience reacted. It was very different than a lot of other performing arts where being onstage doesn't have to be performative. Being performative can be part of being onstage and that's what I found as part of Burlesque. So in September of 2008, I Emceed that show.

A few months later I also was asked by another local person, they were coordinating a touring show, Burlesque then stopping in Portland. I volunteered 00:11:00to work the door the other person that worked the door with me said, "hey I've heard of you and I'm thinking about starting a monthly show I'm looking for an emcee." So, two months after that, in December of 2008, I started Emceeing a Burlesque show. After four or five months, the producer decided they were more of a performer than a producer, and asked if I would be interested in taking over production of the show. I agreed and two months later, it was rebranded as the Phoenix Variety Revue, which started at Kelly's Olympian [bar] in July of 2009. Which was a rebranding and re-use of a previous label. I had started the Phoenix Variety Revue in 2005 at a bar in Long Beach, California, which was a Drag and live singing variety revue that included belly dance, so it's interesting that it kind of moved over. So I started that show in December of- or excuse me, July of 2009. That show ran for seven and half years. It sunset in 00:12:00December of 2014.

In that time frame I also launched the show Burlesque S'il Vous Plait in March 2010, which will be celebrating its ten-year anniversary in a of couple of months. Then a year after that I started Burlescape, which was meant to be Boylesque and Burlesque wrapped in a taste of tease. We were focusing on a variety of Burlesque performances.

Then over the course of the last ten years there've been Control Tease, which was a Nerdlesque show. There's been the Starlet Showcase, Improvlesque, which the performers spin a wheel and they have five minutes to figure out what they're going to perform. I did two seasonal runs of an event called The Pasty Pageant, which was a ten-week performance challenge experiment where the performers had one week to create an act that they would bring the following week. Draw from a random deck of cards of- with three different things: the 00:13:00music, the style, and the accessory. So one week it might be: disco, chair and fans, or country, gloves and stocking peels.

So over the course of the time I have tried to take what the community isn't asking for but seems to need, try to anticipate the needs, so that I can help grow performance, challenge performers and get to where we are from where we've been in a way that makes sense.

LK: Just take me through a week in the life of the entrepreneurial creative artist that you are.

CS:oooh uh

LK: All of the jobs, all the skills, all the

CS:all of the things

LK: ...considerations.

CS:Well, in addition to Burlesque, I also work full time managing at the event 00:14:00space of a local bar. So I am the events coordinator and promotions manager. I am in a very unique position in the community in that I work at the bar in which I produce my shows. I manage the counter at the bar in which I produce my shows. I am also in a unique position in that I produce and performed in shows, and also am the Executive Director of the Rose City School of Burlesque. So I teach people how to do Burlesque, I put them on stage, I perform with them, and I run in fringe circles with them. So I work for a bar, I produce two monthly Burlesque shows, with several ad hoc and quarterly productions.

I am Executive Director of the Rose City School of Burlesque. I teach seventy percent of the classes with a ten-week semester. I teach seven of those ten 00:15:00classes. I also run a small business, consulting and graphic design company, primarily focused on micro businesses, or businesses of one. So for artisans or performers I teach them how to take their hobby and turn it into a business because most people who have passion for something don't know how to profit from it. I work with quite a few performers either working with their websites, I manage several performers' Facebook pages and help them with promotional information.

I also run a monthly clothing optional dance party called Pants Off, Dance Off. Then I do quarterly Queer-focused "benefits," dance parties, where a portion of the proceeds go to support a local nonprofit. So I've my hand in lots of different things, however a typical week for me is dividing my time between various foci. Whether it be external/internal, meaning someone's hired you to do 00:16:00something that I have created or the maintenance of ongoing shows. So I often, I'm maintaining ticket sales for my two monthly shows. I am working out scheduling conflicts with upcoming performances and making sure that we get a good variety of performers performances and performance styles in my shows. I'm very keen on making sure that I have all bodies, all types, all styles in my shows over the course of time. So a typical week is atypical compared to what it was fifteen years ago.

My background... I spent what 20 years in corporate marketing started with Papa Johns went to Meijer, M-E-I-J-E-R, from the Midwest, where I was in network admin. From there I was Assistant Director of marketing for Hooters corporate 00:17:00office and from there I was the Director of marketing for Coldwell Banker in Southern California. And from there I worked for PGE and UPS. And then for the last six years of my corporate career I was a digital media analyst for Kroger and launched their social media platform. I took raw data and turned it into charts and information that digital media buyers could understand the benefit of their cost.

So my background is very different than what I do now because I primarily make my own schedule and work for myself as it were, which is a challenge all in its own. But finding the ways to take my week and break it into pieces that make sense for creative, but also realize that I need to crunch numbers and do accounting and financial background. It's an interesting week.

LK: How did you learn to do all that?


CS:Again, it's a lot of lot of interesting "luck" as it were. I have found my ways into positions by being a person of worth to people. I'm often referred to as Siri or Google by a lot of my friends because I either know the answer or I know how to find it quickly. And I think by being willing to find an answer, being willing to say I don't know but I will find out, kind of beholden to a lot of folk. That this is a person that I will trust that I don't know but I will let them know that I don't know. And I think through that setting your personality up as one who is willing to find what someone needs has helped me in a position to learn things that I didn't expect to be put into a position to have to learn.

I didn't know I didn't know anything about real estate when I started there. I 00:19:00didn't know about corporate marketing when I started working for Hooters. I knew a little bit about... I've been a nerd for thirty five years, but I knew a little bit about computers. When I found myself in the network admin managing several stores that are on entire computer systems. So it's been an interesting scope of ...not fake it till you make it... but try it before you buy it, as it were, and so offering to "hey I- let me see if I can figure that out for you" "oh Chris knows how to do that, so let's..." and then finding your way to those positions.

I like... I knew so little about... when people say performing arts they often think very specifically stage theatre and I knew I was familiar with but did not know a ton about... knew nothing about producing shows before I started doing it. Knew nothing about Emceeing before I started doing it.

But I think that being able to dissect the reason that you can do X and finding 00:20:00out how to apply it to Y and Z is part of a malleable personality that provides you with professional success. So I've really said "well, you know, I don't know how to bake a pie, but I know how to make cookies." I'm able to dissect those things... that's really... what's kind of led me to a position where I've found success in either doing it with some panache, so that you can make it happen or finding a way to learn from other people who already set the standard.

LK: So a stereotype of Burlesque is that there are male producers and put-upon, victimized female performers... old stereotype. What's the Burlesque community like in Portland?

CS:Well, I mean, from an outside perspective one could say that that seems very 00:21:00much what it is. Myself and The Mad Marquee, are two male identified performers, who in the scope of Burlesque, do not perform Burlesque but produce it for a primarily femme identified Burlesque community.

I very clearly chose to make my Burlesque Emcee persona a gender illusionist or a Drag performer for the primary reason of it not being another dude on stage announcing women. For which for many reasons I have issues [with.] In the way that it can be done and from my understanding there aren't enough of the numbers growing or enough femme identified Emcees or producer. Fortunately, that's changed over the last ten years, give or take, quite a bit but there's a lot of 00:22:00stereotypes now because art imitates life in a lot of ways. And because the patriarchy is so in depth part of so many things whether it be from marketing or corporate world or the theatre, I think without meaning to we often find ourselves imitating what we see whether it be right or wrong and not realizing or dissecting the reason behind it.

Fortunately, while the producer has the power, so to speak, of who gets onstage, that is like the real true sell of the house and the person who's buying the house making it what's theirs. The performers make what they, what they believe, they need to put on stage and what they believe needs to be seen. And so there's 00:23:00some pow- and as a white cis-male who appears white and female on stage it's easy for me to say it from that perspective but I truly feel like the power is in the performers' hands.

Making a statement on stage happens because you chose to bring a statement to the stage. Granted there is the key holder, the gatekeeper of the producer, in the area that kind of stands in between. What has been interesting in the community, specifically in the last five years or so, is how many people regardless of what was being put on stage, if they didn't see it, they would create their own. So we got an explosion of different styles of shows and different art and people finding their own path without needing to adhere to whatever structure has been set for them. So while there is some truth to the 00:24:00stereotype, in that it exists, I don't think overall that it is as permeated the entire community.

Overall the, at least in Portland specifically, it is overwhelmingly femme identified producers and Emcees, which is wonderful and really how it should be. It's also easy to have to pull the wool over your own eyes and assume that you're doing great by everyone. I've made mistakes in the past where I thought I was, you know, doing the right thing and not realizing that by doing what I think is the right thing I was either being ableist or excluding other folks. And it takes people letting you know that you made a mistake before you can learn. So I think there's just some truth to that stereotype and I think there will always be some truth to it from someone's perspective; someone's always 00:25:00going to see that.

LK: How did you come to be the head of the school of Burlesque?

CS:Oh, that story! Well, in 2010, Holly Dai --who founded the Oregon Burlesque Festival...that's a different story we'll talk about later-- founded the Rose City School of Burlesque. I was brought on to teach comedy and drama. So there were three or four instructors at the time, so I taught a couple classes as the comedy and drama instructor. And then I took over some of the admin for the school. Then, Holly had some life changes and had a new job and a lot of things going on, and asked if I would be interested in taking over the school. So I took over the school in June of 2012 as Executive Director.

I changed the curriculum a little bit, changed up the staffing just a little bit, and we more or less maintained a similar curriculum and philosophy since 00:26:00our staff has changed over the years due to scheduling and many other things. But I basically went from "hey you're funny on stage!" to "you want to teach funny in class?" to "hey do you want to help us teach people?" to "hey do you want to run the school?"

And I have always run the school as a very Neo-Burlesque focused. I tell the students "I will never tell you No" until your idea is identical to someone else's, so that we can protect their intellectual property, that you're not cloning what they're doing. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it is also still imitation and can also be reworded to plagiarism, so you have to be careful.

Holly went on to start the All That Glitters Burlesque Academy, which was originally focused on Classic Burlesque. So we had two different styles of Burlesque that were being taught. For example, for the group routine for the Rose City School of Burlesque, it's always a top 40 pop song that incorporates 00:27:00Burlesque and striptease into movement-based curriculum. So that kind of changes the focus of the performance and helps the students.

I never thought that I would find myself in a role that others have deemed life-changing and pivotal to their life journey. But it took several years of teaching before I realized that what I and my faculty are doing is teaching people how to find themselves without the structure of societal influence. Which is an incredible-it's an incredible power to hold. It's also incredibly humbling position to be in, to watch people's lives change over the course of ten weeks; watch them completely rewrite their self-identified DNA over that course of 00:28:00time. It's a really fascinating experience.

LK: Some people might be perplexed thinking the School of Burlesque has a teaching philosophy. Could you talk about that and then you could you talk about Neo-Burlesque versus Classic?

CS:Certainly. The Rose City School of Burlesque, our tagline is "Portland's first and foremost school for the art form of Burlesque." And I feel like it's important to talk about the art form. I have up- our philosophy has several points: number one, our intention is never to be a performer factory. My intention is not to put people on stage for the intention of them returning to the stage. I want them to have the opportunity of being on stage. I would say like not quite 50/50, maybe like 60/40, a lot of our people have some form of 00:29:00performing background. They've taken jazz class or they were swing dancers or they were theatre nerds, so they- some version of that. They wanted to figure out a way to find their- find something within themselves and their background.

Because our intention was not to be a performer factory. I teach people how to not apologize for taking up space in the world, how to learn that it's okay to be who they are and not who someone else deems them to be. And how to recognize that the space they take up is valuable to the world. Those are my main tenants in teaching Burlesque and I teach them that... I am a firm believer... for example, karaoke: "oh I hate karaoke, why? I can't sing well." Everybody can sing, some just better than others. I think that philosophy also applies to Burlesque into movement, you know, "oh well I'm not a dancer!" Well, if you move 00:30:00your body and it's while music's playing, you're dancing. It doesn't have to be on beat because there's syncopation.

There's so many different ways of movement. So I teach people how to sort of break down whatever historical influences told them they can't-- they aren't --they shouldn't-- and they're not enough --and find ways for them to identify with... The fact that I can't find first position to third position in ballet, but I can do an eight count Grapevine. Or I don't know how to move my feet but I can find movement with my arms. So I think the philosophy includes letting people find the power within themselves that they need.

That also applies very much to the difference between Neo-Burlesque and Classic Burlesque in that Classic Burlesque is very much... In an allegory, it's very much ballet, whereas we are very modern movement. A lot of Classic Burlesque 00:31:00focuses on the lines the art and the flowing movement. Neo-Burlesque is more focused on not so much what you're doing but how you're doing it and what statement it makes. So two very strong statements and styles of Burlesque, but the approach is very different. Often with Classic Burlesque, it's find the song and the rhythm and figure out the best way to apply movement to it. And often with Neo- Burlesque, it's find the statement, find the song that goes with it, and then create the costume and movement that goes around that. Those are the main differences. Also with Classic Burlesque, it's find a song that has been 00:32:00recorded, find a version that you like of it. And with Neo-Burlesque, it's find a statement and then figure out what song from all genres, all eras.

With the Rose City School of Burlesque, you've had the students do everything from Nina Simone to Nice Inch Nails. From Jay Z to Rob Stein. A little bit of everything from classical music to straight rap. I feel like there is incredible value in finding your body's movement style in a song that means something to you, as opposed to molding yourself to a song that's out there.

LK: Who's typically drawn to the Burlesque world in terms of your audience. You're a producer of so many things. Who comes to see that?

CS:It's changed quite a bit over the last decade. I think when we started... 00:33:00when I started in Burlesque, there were two Burlesque producers and there were six or seven performers, so it was a very small community, many of whom have either retired or moved away or moved on. Then our first job wasn't promotion, it was education that being the city with the most strip clubs per capita in the world, we had to educate people the difference between stripping and Burlesque. In that stripping and striptease are two sides to the same coin but they're very [flips hands mimicking coin flipping] and the thing about coin is that you only look at one side at a time. So we had to educate people. So then it was often people who thought they were getting something different, who thought it was a stage version of a strip club. In some performances that's accurate but not all shows are necessarily derivative of that strip club experience.

So when it started, we were getting a very different demographic than we are 00:34:00now. I would say overall our audiences tend to be in the 25-35 [age group], sort of older millennial, hip-with-performance group. And quite a few of our audiences in the 40-65, even seventy-ish [age] range, who remember that Burlesque has been around for a while, that it just took a little nap for a bit, and are curious to see what it has brought to the current zeitgeist, as it were.

It's also fascinating to me, I feel like people connect to Burlesque in kind of one of three ways: it's either in the physical in that I find this person attractive and I like the way that they're moving, it's in the mental in that I 00:35:00see something that looks like me on stage and I wish I could move like that, or it's in the soul in that I want to be able to do that I wonder if that's a thing that I could do. Because of those three triad points resonate differently in different audiences, our audience tends to be wildly different.

I have the good fortunate to have a long running monthly show, so I am S.E.O'd all the way. In that I don't have to do a ton of promotion for my shows. It's always fascinating to me at the beginning of the show, when we first like to ask how many people have never been to a Burlesque show before, and often it's forty to sixty plus percent of the audience every show. And that's a hundred and thirty two shows or whatever now, and that's just for one show. They're both usually like that, so it's interesting for me to see the demographics and also, 00:36:00because I'm incredibly nerdy, I look at all the backend data. I look to see who are returned people, how often certain credit cards are used, and that shows me "oh they buy a ticket every two months or three times a year, or, or.." So our demographic has definitely changed. But it seems to be less of us having to educate people.

More as Burlesque has grown and become part of the performing arts community at large in Portland, it's more people looking for an escape from reality that provides them with a connection. In that, it's easy to go and sit for two and a half hours and watch a movie at the movie theater, except there's no connection except for with yourself. While when you're watching a Burlesque show, you can either connect with "I see something on the stage that looks like me, that's fascinating that they can move like, that I wonder if I can do that?" You can have the escapism of watching an incredibly beautiful talented person on stage doing movement that takes you away from whatever is going on in your life, take 00:37:00them on a little bit of a vacation through visual arts.

Or it's people that are already supporters of Burlesque and are there to see their favorite people, which is lovely. And it's a growing number of our demographic we have some people come to every one of our- who come to every single one of my shows. I have some people to come to every show that Asteria Atombomb is in. People that come to every single show that Sandria Dore is in, every single show that Angelique Devil is in, because they are fans of that performer, so that demographic changes based on who, how and what.

LK: So shifting to more artistic aspects, for you your process for creating a new piece of performance. What is your process for creating a new piece of Burlesque?

CS:For me...more times than not I find inspiration from hearing a song and having a flash of "oh that would be amazing to do this act to that song." Or 00:38:00falling in love with the fluid movement of instruments in the song and wondering how I can apply that to my body or to movement on stage. That's part of the time. The other part of the time is I'm often sort of commissioned "hey I'm doing a show based off of this. I'd love you to be a part of it. Could you create a thing?" Which I am incredibly flattered and honored to have been able to do that. Lacy Knickers, who is not only one of my Burlesque children but also a music producer in her own right, asked me to be part of her disco show and said "I would really love it if you would consider doing something very classic disco." So I thought "well, you know, what I've always loved the song Disco Inferno, so why not create an act around that?" So I went "OK how am I gonna do that?" and I thought, well...I over the years I've grown into my skin and I like 00:39:00how I look and I'm proud of it and I have no shame within it, but I don't think I'm classically or typically sexy. So my version of sexy is making you fall in love with how silly I can be onstage, while adding elements of sexuality and sensuality to it. So sometimes it's how can I take... okay, my underwear is going to be on fire and I've got a song and how do I make that sensual, sexy movement on stage that will make sense for the audience to go on that journey?

Because I truly do think that every act is a journey that the audience has given you the gift of their five minutes of time. How do you make the most of that time? So for me it's often finding a song, sometimes it's having the structure, the pressure, as it were, to adhere to a theme.

I was booked for a show called Eat It and it was a benefit for a food pantry in 00:40:00Southern Oregon. She said "I've got- I've got all these things covered, can you do something about chicken?" Okay. So I found a Louis Armstrong [song] Chicken Ain't Nothing But A Bird. I thought "well, how do I how do... I make that together?" Well, it's I want to be... it's a class.. this song is silly but it's a classy song. I wanna be silly and classy. So I thought "how do I make it sexy, silly and classy?" So I created a striptease act where I have a classic black and silver gown on, that's oversized, very 1950s-60s style. Turns out under it I have a chicken onesie, so I pass out chicken tenders to the audience on the way to the stage and then suddenly I *motions taking off gown* and I stripped out of that. So finding elements of sexuality, sensuality... Ways to make people fall 00:41:00in love with the unexpected, for me, are the most compelling ways to create an act. And those were some of my more silly acts.

Sometimes, it's I wanna create this style of movement on stage to challenge myself. I have an act who...The Man With The Golden Arm, which is a title that no one would recognize, but if you *starts percussing with mouth and hands* da da da da da tss tss tss tss da da da da da... I thought I really loved the way that beat goes. How do I find a way to make my body move in a way that challenges myself and also how am I going to strip out of a white tux and have it be sexy? So adding those elements.

So often for me, it's finding the inspiration of a certain piece of the act in developing it past that. I teach my students much the same way: find your inspiration in music, costume, or concept, and then grow the other two around that inspiration.

LK: Because you perform with different personas, how do you how do you decide 00:42:00who gets this fabulous idea?

CS:That is a challenge for sure! The easy way is that if it includes a considerable amount of striptease it's much easier to do as a Boylesque performer, because the amount of illusion that I do to become a Drag persona often limits the amount of striptease that I can do. I also generally leave the singing to Zora and the striptease to Sean, so that I've got different elements of the characters. There's a little bit of both of that has that bit of a Venn diagram overlap. But primarily most of my singing is done in Drag, most of my...I say that but I have several acts as Sean Nannigans where I sing and strip. It all depends on the scale. But it is times... do I do Zora? or should I 00:43:00get naked and...? It sometimes it becomes a story and there are a couple songs that I do where I flip back-and-forth between the two characters based on whoever feeling it at that time.

LK: There's a good deal of discussion these days about on the topic of cultural appropriation. You're a teacher at the School of Burlesque. How do you discuss this topic with your students?

CS:I encourage people to stop and ask themselves why they feel inspired by this piece of music, by this piece of art, or by this performance that they've seen before. Then also much in the same way that we talked about determining why you're doing something. Making sure that you're imitating, not plagiarizing, not cloning.

When you do decide to take a piece of music, a piece of costume, a piece of art, 00:44:00and use it in your act, ask yourself if you saw someone who doesn't look like you do the same thing would it look unique to you? Would it look interesting to you? Would it seem off putting to you? So kind of putting it through that lens of: you decided you wanted to do belly dance in your act and you decided that you wanted to include a very specific style of scarf in your act. And then how do you determine whether or not what you're appropriating is not only a culture but also another art form. How do you put those pieces in? So I encourage the students to really look at what they're doing.

What I- because I have an overarching philosophy of never saying no, so to speak. I will often say "does it make sense for someone who looks like you to be doing something that someone who doesn't look like you was already doing?" Is 00:45:00there a need for you to do it again? And try to offer them that perspective. I've had some interesting paths. I had a student, who did a beautiful fan dance to a sort of hardcore-ish hip hop song, where she was white, the artist was Black. The performance that she did was not derivative of the style, so it just happened to be the song that had a lyric in it that spoke to the movement she was doing. After that at graduation, I had an audience member say "how do you talk to your students about using music and art?"

All of my instructors are white. I am white. We have lots of people of color who come through the school. So finding a way to incorporate those conversations has been a challenge, but it is one that we have welcomed, so that we can continue having the conversation with our students around making sure they take the time 00:46:00to look at what they're doing and determine why they're doing it. Why do you feel inspired? Why do you feel the need to do it? But it's been a cultural touchpoint for quite some time.

LK: That leads us into diversity in general here in Portland...

CS:...or the lack thereof...

LK: Yes, how do you, or do you, promote? How do you deal with the need for diversity and promoting diversity, if you do?

CS:There is such a careful tightrope to walk between being supportive of diversity and tokenization. I've heard of people in the past saying "well I make sure I always have one person of color in every show." I understand, as perhaps a less than educated or less than familiar, person thinking of that as checking 00:47:00off a box. But the whole point is that there's still a box, which means there's four walls that you're putting someone in or out of, and you're still finding a way to "other" people.

I feel fortunate that, over the course of my history, I have had enough people who would want to work with me, who reach out and seek a spot in my shows, that I don't normally have to consider the makeup of my show. But I do...and I try to make it a point to at least take a census of what has happened in the last three months and how is it looking? Am I getting all tall, blonde, thin girls? Am I getting ...am I seeming to put the same kind of performers on stage? I've been very fortunate that because I am... I'm a white cis dude dressing up as a girl on stage and producing Burlesque, that people feel more comfortable coming to me 00:48:00that might not feel as comfortable in a lineup in another show or might not ask for a position in another show. So, I take, as unfortunate as the statement is, I take a passive approach in that I watch what's happening and ensure that it doesn't veer in a direction that seems like either tokenization or just seems like whitewashing everything. I often focus on the people with whom I have the connection that want to work with me and that seems to help me the best.

On the flip side of that is that I work very hard in my classes to ensure...I teach the makeup class for example. When I have a person of color come through, we have very specific conversation about the way I'm teaching to do this, this is how it would work your skin tone, this is how it would work on stage, this is why I'm teaching it, but this is how it might be different for you. Making sure 00:49:00that also that anyone who-- which fortunately the majority of the folks who take my class are an "othered" group, they're either non-binary, they are Queer, they are people of color-- for whatever reason the make-up of most of my classes tends to be people who are part of an othered group, which I really appreciate. So I give them extra attention in that like "hey is this something you want to continue to do," "here are some great ways" "here are some resources." I refer them to one of the two other schools. I tell them about different dance classes and opportunities because I think those things are incredibly important to provide that information.

Because quite honestly white cis folk have all the resources out there and I don't have to help them. I just don't think that they need additional extra help. If somebody is incredibly talented, excited, and well rounded out, I will give them a direction but I will give additional resources to anyone who has 00:50:00ever felt any sort of systemic or societal pushback. Because I think that's my role as a white cis dude or should be all white cis dudes roles. But that's a topic for a different oral history.

LK: People talk about Burlesque... how it can be a force for social change how- what are your thoughts about that?

CS:I absolutely think that. I think that's an accurate statement in that there's an incredible amount of power to having society's eye literally on your body as you're performing but making a political statement. Loving yourself is inherently an act of rebellion. [rumbling sound distracts him so he pauses to wait for it to pass] So, I feel that you're creating a political statement just by the nature of getting on stage. The best part about having the opportunity to 00:51:00have to make a change is you can do it just by getting onstage and not looking like a model, not looking like you're Photoshopped, not looking like you're created, usually by a white cis dude in a basement on a computer. Figuring out that alone creates the opportunity for other thoughts in people's minds like "oh I can look like that and get on... because that person looks like me" "I can get onstage." I think that Burlesque is also a very powerful statement to make in that bringing Burlesque and striptease to the stage almost, most of the time, includes a statement about political current political climate, socio-economic climate, either in the act or in the show.

There are some amazing themed shows throughout here and Seattle that are focused on Planned Parenthood. I was proud and honored to coproduce a show called 00:52:00Pre-Existing Conditions, which was all the performers brought their pre-existing condition to the stage and founded an act, created an act, around talking about invisible illness. Whether it be lupus, or HIV, or Cancer, or many of the other things. I think it's almost like putting honey in the cough syrup so the kid will eat it like... by saying "hey I'm going to get naked on stage and do a sexy dance for you, but also have we talked about how thousands of native Americans have been killed due to the..." 'Cause somebody- you got their attention, so why not use that for good.

There's some, there's a lot of phenomenal Burlesque because the story of Burlesque- I always tell my students-- you should always tell the story on stage. That story can be "I want to feel sexy." "I want to be covered in glitter." "I like this song." "I want to bring people's attention to the fact that there have been two spirited and non-binary folks for thousands of years." 00:53:00These are all stories that you can tell onstage.

So by having the strength and power to create an act and bring it to the stage, cause that's the other part, is like creating an act is tough. And then perfecting it in your own mind is tough. Then finding a place to put it on stage can be its own journey. With a lot of performing arts, but Burlesque specifically, people often create this amazing act that they love, where "I shear a lamb to the music of Postmodern Jukebox to a song that was originally written by Nirvana." How will I have something that is so weird? Every Burlesque show can use an act like that. It requires the Emcee to weave a storyline that makes the journey onstage from performance to performance smooth- smooth, timeless and seamless.

I do think finding an act that you really like creates that change in yourself, 00:54:00which almost creates a universal woo-woo force field effect of creating change before you even get to the stage. Burlesque has brought so much incredible awareness and change to a lot of different topics that I feel like we've almost cornered the market on "hey we're doing this but we're also doing that." It's that prestidigitation, that sleight of hand that magicians use. It's very much a "hey look at this also did you notice this little thing over here?" [slides one hand across opposite arm and then chest] Just a fascinating way of using our art and our bodies much in a way that society doesn't approve. So by taking that thing that has been taboo, that has been regulated, that has been prohibited, and using it for our own sense of change, I think it's incredibly powerful.

And I do think that we change people's lives in a lot of ways. Whether it's...I've had people be like "well that didn't turn me on but I found it 00:55:00incredibly fascinating to watch someone move in that fashion." I've had people tell me "you know it wasn't for me but now I understand why it's different and why it's important." Which I'm thankful for. That just having the opportunity to change someone's mind is the change that we should start with and then change their mind about the topic of a subject of whatever.

LK: So two more questions: what are the challenges facing Burlesque today?

CS:Oh social media. Primarily it's the...I am very thankful that I don't have to do a ton of promotion due to longevity and search engine and all the kind of stuff because I can't get an ad approved [by social media] most of the time. You know it's... the "free the nipple" has been a thing forever. Because how do you find what's the difference between what is nudity and what is art? How do we 00:56:00promote things that include nudity and art? It's exhausting and there's tons of talk about "oh well let's create our own social network. Let's create our own platform. Let's create our own..." It's technologically not quite feasible nor is the ability to sway the minds of... I mean, it's been three and a half years since I worked for Kroger. At that point, Facebook had 400 million active daily users. It's not that it couldn't be done, but that's the difficult spot that we lie in is that we have difficulty with Instagram.

We have difficulty with Facebook. It's figuring out how to reach people in a way that isn't regulated, isn't prohibited, but also it's one of the difficulties in being artistic is that artistic and intrinsically technically-minded is not 00:57:00necessarily a great crossover. I'm fortunate enough that I've been a nerd longer than I've been artistic so I can usually figure out "okay, well if a Facebook ad isn't going to work, maybe I can do this or maybe I can do that." I think that's a struggle that a lot of Burlesque performers and producers have is how do you reach your audience in a constantly changing.... We just... when Burlesque performers started using Snapchat and then it dropped it's share by considerably. Then people started using Vine and then Vine closed. And now it's TikTok.

When I'm teaching the technology portion of class, I talk about here's what you do and the next steps. It's, well, here's how you create a gmail account and here's how you tie your gmail account to your other gmail account, in case one gets shut down. You have the opportunity how you create a Facebook account using your name which isn't your name, so how do you... here's how you create a Facebook page. And your Instagram, and your Twitter, and your TikTok, and then which platform do you use for accepting payments and producers because some of 00:58:00them will take SESTA/FOSTA and freeze your money. It's a constant struggle in not only figuring out how to navigate the societal aspect but figuring out how to navigate the technology and trying to figure out how the where the twain shall meet.

And then also in a socio-political environment, talking to our friends and family, whether by choice or by blood, becomes a new struggle. You know for years we used to talk about Burlesque in the scope of Gypsy Rose Lee or the movie Gypsy. Then we had to tell everybody it's not like Burlesque the movie with Cher and Christina Aguilera because that movie could have been called "cotton candy" 'cause that movie had no Burlesque in it. Then, now I guess our most recent is explaining, well, then it was Dita Von Teese, who is a whole 00:59:00other topic, who harkens back to all of our previous conversations around cultural appropriation and explaining that what we do is not like that.

Most recently, there have been a slew of Rupaul's Drag Race alum who do Burlesque style acts, so we've -- as that zeitgeist has grown, as that fandom has grown-- we've had to kind of explain, well, that's not exactly what we're doing either. It's fascinating that the word Burlesque which comes from the Italian "Burle" which means parody or to be satirical, and used to be applied to so many different things and then it became to mean one thing and now people are starting to use Burlesque in a broader term. I mean language evolves and it cycling back to its original form where saying something is a Burlesque of something else is another way of saying it's a satirical take on, it's a sardonic look at. So it's fascinating to me when we're explaining Burlesque and what it is, that's a struggle all in it's own in defining what it is. I think 01:00:00what's also kind of a struggle is choosing with which audience to use the word Burlesque or to use the word striptease. Because Burlesque to a lot of people means Can-Can and striptease and showgirls.

So figuring the right way to talk to whom, you know, if I'm working with a local print media I will often use the word striptease because that that will draw the eye over the word Burlesque. Which a lot of people still somehow don't quite know what it is or even when I say striptease well it's the art of tease through movement and live theatre on stage. Because Burlesque doesn't have to mean that striptease portion, could not have strip in it, because some Burlesque has no clothing removal, it is a movement on stage that teases an idea. So the struggle becomes often just identifying how to define what we're doing. So there's a lot 01:01:00of elements there. I think our primary struggle at the moment is reach. Like how do we reach the people either through technology, or how do we reach the right people that will make the most sense for us to continue to grow our community. That's probably our biggest struggle at the moment.

LK: You may have already touched on this, but the final question is what do you wish the general public would understand about Burlesque?

CS:There's quite a few layers to that. In that Portland is so unique in that we have no blue laws, so there are no nudity regulations. Unlike our sister stripper city of Seattle where you must have pasties on regardless of gender presentation. Also if you're within ten feet of someone who's consuming alcohol 01:02:00they purchased in the venue, you have to be that distance away from them. We have none of that, so getting people to understand the difference between Burlesque in different cities...it would be an easy... it would be a great thing to accomplish. It would just be so difficult much in the same way it's a different drivers test in Oregon, Kentucky and California. Those things are so different.

I think understanding intention and why we get onstage would be... if I could blink my eyes and make a wish, it would be get people to understand that there's nothing... rarely is there ever something sexy to the person other than them feeling sexy. We are rarely ever onstage to make someone feel that we are sexy. We do it for ourselves. We do it for a cause or story, whether that cause or 01:03:00that story is just "I want to feel sexy." Getting people to understand the reasons behind... I think that would be... but that's also like there are so many reasons that it would be difficult to dissect from person to person from performance to performance, but understanding that it is not, it is not meant to be often... to piss somebody off. It's not meant to be the act of rebellion that they see. We are rebelling but not because we're taking our clothes off because we're- we're saying that we can do it and we will do it regardless of what society may think.

I think also understanding the reasons behind why so many people continue to do it. Getting on stage and doing something one time is making a statement. Getting on stage and doing it multiple times is making a voice heard. So that I think is something that would be really fascinating to figure out. Sorry, I don't have 01:04:00the answer to figure out how to articulate that to the community at large, to the world at large, that Burlesque is performative, it's transformative. And it's an experience for the audience, the producer, the Emcee, and the performer. Getting people to understand that...I give away tickets to my shows all the time, so that it'll be "whatever you think it is, why don't you not think of that and come to the show and see if you were right? See how you feel. See how it changes things." I think you really get people to understand to put their preconceived notion or prejudice aside would be fascinating.

If we could figure out that, snap! that way to do it. I'm hoping someday, well, I hope to continue on my journey producing Burlesque and creating a safe curated space onstage for creative folks to come and bring their art, and through that reaching new people. Hopefully, I will continue to go on the path of helping 01:05:00people understand just how important Burlesque is, especially in this socio-political climate.

LK: Yeah.

CS:And that's my story.

LK: Great, thank you.

CS: My pleasure.