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Ember Ophelia Woody Oral History Interview, September 11, 2021

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LAURIE KURUTZ: Today is September 11, 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.

EMBER OPHELIA WOODY: My name is Ember. Sometimes I go by Ophelia Woody. Sometimes I go by Ember Ophelia Woody. Sometimes Ember O. Woody. And definitely Josephine Love on the stage. I am she/her and I am sort of a Renaissance woman. I have had many skill sets over the years,based on the necessity of work, but ultimately I'm a creative problem solver.

LK: So Burlesque. What is Burlesque?

EOW: Oh my goodness... that's such a giant question. For me, Burlesque is sort 00:01:00of traditional, making fun of popular themes, politics, politicians. It's sort of like making fun of stuffy theater. It's also serious and Burlesque is comedic, and it's edgy, in my opinion. It's basically on the fringe of performance art, or it's where people who didn't fit into the traditionally accepted roles could go.

LK: How do you describe the kind of Burlesque that you do?

EOW: I like to clearly make fun of Burlesque while doing Burlesque. I definitely like to make fun of popular things and politics and politicians, but also the seriousness of neoclassical Burlesque. I love it. I revere it. I also like to 00:02:00poke a little fun at it.

LK: Why do you do Burlesque? What does it give you artistically?

EOW: Freedom. Freedom and autonomy. I started out in a troupe. I spent my first two years compromising, artistically, with three other women, or people I should say. That was great and awesome. I love cooperating and collaborating. At the same time, it was very limiting for me and I didn't realize that it was until a local Burlesque show was short on acts. I got contacted and they asked if my troupe would come put in two acts. None of my other troupe-mates wanted to but I really did. So I had four hours, and I just was like "yes, I have four hours!" So what I did was I took two acts that I had choreographed personally that was a 00:03:00group act and I made them a solo [act.] And I went and I performed. I didn't take anything off. I didn't show anything. But I went and I filled those spots. That was the moment that I realized that Burlesque was a very liberating creative art form where I no longer had to compromise, and I could do whatever I wanted to do.

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

EOW: I grew up in Florida. St. Petersburg/Tampa. I was born and raised there but I left when I was 18, I moved to New Orleans.

LK: And what brought you to Oregon?

EOW: You really wanna know?

LK: yeah!

EOW: I was pregnant and the car broke down and I stayed.

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


EOW: I didn't. But my mother's father was a general creative, renaissance man and theater man. He did opera, theater, and he plays drums, painter, and funny. And we would make these little home videos, like theatrical home videos. Then my father was in theater throughout all of his school years but he gave it up and became an attorney. I come from performer stock.

LK: And then just a formal education college or training, what did you... do you have any of that?

EOW: Yeah and I dropped out of high school. I got a GED when I was, like, 30. And I went to community college and I absolutely adored learning science. But 00:05:00while I was doing a science program, that's when I got involved with Red Raven Follies. So I was simultaneously learning the systems of the body, while also sort of learning about theater via just experience. And I realized that they're so similar. Like they're systems and they're so similar and every single piece of the puzzle is necessary for them to function. So I ended up finishing the science degree but then I ended up going to the U of O and doing the Theater Arts department as a Bachelor's [degree] and I made it a year and I dropped out. But I learned a lot of great skills. I'm a little bit more of a production-side person. I do like performing, but I don't really have the training and I can do it, but I'm much better as a production person.

LK: What area of production?


EOW: Anything, everything! I love it all! I mean that I don't have actual training in lights and sound and things like that, but I could do it if I had to. I would be great at making props and set and design and wardrobe.

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

EOW: 2009. I had written a show outline called The Lonely Hearts, I think, what was it called? I can't remember. But it was modeled after the Wheel of Fortune tarot card. And it was basically this idea that you would start out with the beginnings of love and you would go down the wheel and go through all the different aspects of love to break up and then back up to new hope. I created this kind of outline for a variety show that was for Valentine's Day at the 00:07:00Lonelyhearts Cabaret Show, that's what it's called. I just randomly shared the idea with some friends that have been doing cabaret shows and two months later they said we wanna do your show idea, we really like it. So we collaborated. That was my first experience and I wasn't supposed to perform. I was just... but they were like "can you just learn all the acts and be an alternate." I was like yeah! And then I ended up, all the sudden, there I was. But anyways, so we did this show that was very nautical themed and it was all about love and tragedy and what-not and we had a live band. It was really lovely.

LK: What was the venue?

EOW: Sam Bond's Garage. It's in Eugene, Oregon. People might not know if you went into the Sam Bonds you wouldn't guess that it is probably the best Burlesque venue in town but it actually is.


LK: Why is that?

EOW: Because you have to create your own green room out back and blah blah blah, but they let you do whatever you want, with what they had to offer you. They're not... It's really nice.

LK: How did you pick your stage name?

EOW: My first stage name... Originally we picked native flowers and I picked Ladyslipper because I have big boobs and I thought it was funny. But then later, I changed it to Ophelia Woody, 'cuz I thought that was funny, too. But then, I figured out that there were a ton of Ophelia's out there in the Burlesque world. So I chose a character, and I created a little mini series of acts of this character called Josephine de Love that was rebelling against Burlesque and against love. She had a chip on her shoulder, and it was very cartoony. I now 00:09:00perform under the name of Josephine de Love.

LK: So that was the beginning of your Burlesque career. How did you develop that career after that?

EOW: Well I mean I... I continued to produce Red Raven Follies shows, but a really, really, really, big influence and opportunity was the Broadway Revue Burlesque show. That's like the longest running Burlesque show in Eugene. I started working with them on a production level, but also on a performer level, after they invited me that one time and I went. I continued to work with them for about five or six years. I had my own monthly shows and then I had quarterly shows but they had weekly shows that then ended up being monthly shows, so I was doing my shows and their shows. I was doing my graphic design and I was doing 00:10:00theri graphic design. It was beautiful. It was a huge passion of mine for ten years total. Broadway Revue was very key in my foray into Burlesque and the independence of Burlesque.

LK: Outside of Burlesque. What do you do to support your creative life?

EOW: I work. I'm a stagehand. It's not a steady gig but when the jobs come it's good pay. So, I'm a stagehand, that's my favorite job, production. Pretty much anything! I worked at Nobody's Baby vintage clothing and retail. They had a costume rental shop in there so I would costume people, and that was a really nice job, too. I've done a lot of things. I've been a dessert baker. But really, 00:11:00I think... My son is grown so I don't have any dependents. And that gives me a lot of privilege and independence around being able to decide what I wanna do. I wanna do this and so I'm gonna focus, you know, on saving, making extra money, making money, so I can do this thing. And so, that's just what I do.

LK: You mentioned the Red Raven Follies. Can you tell me how that came about? Why that name for the troupe? Just paint us a picture about that.

EOW: In 2009, I did the collaborative show with the troupe that precedes Red Raven Follies called Terpsichore's Daughters. If you would like I would be happy to refer you to my friend Angelina who is an anthropologist and brilliant. Tersichore's Daughters was kind of the first cabaret troupe that was sort of 00:12:00parallel to Broadway Revue. But they didn't do Burlesque, they did group acts. Sexy, but group acts, and stuff. That's who I did my first show idea with. Then they retired. One of them got pregnant and was gonna have a baby. One was going to grad school. And myself and this woman Rachel, Rachel Schmidt, we were like "we want to keep going, like we don't want to stop." We were super fired up. So she had this book, this Burlesque history book and I think she basically ripped the name out of the book. She sort of implied it at one point, and I was like "I didn't hear that." So I think Red Raven Follies probably was an old troupe from back in the '20s or '30s, maybe? Am I right?

LK: I don't know, I'll look it up.

EOW: I'm pretty sure. I didn't like the name. I was going for French stuff, but 00:13:00you know I'm a weirdo and my ideas are often a little too obscure. So, we chose Red Raven Follies, and we just kept going.

LK: Are they still producing? Are you still producing today?

EOW: No, not really. I mean I have a show booked for Valentine's ....We started out doing two shows a year, we did a Valentine's show and we did a summer variety show. Then when Rachel had a child and left, I did the Valentine's show, traditionally, and a Halloween show, 'cuz I love Halloween. And then I got into hyper-producing, I was so inspired. And then I burnt out and so now I'm only willing to commit to 1 to 2 shows a year and so I'm going back to Valentine's and Halloween. And it's usually creepy Valentine's. We'll see what happens with 00:14:00Covid. I mean, at this point I'm booked at Sam Bonds for February 11, 2022, but we'll see.

LK: In the course of the 10 years or so that you did Burlesque in Eugene, how did the Burlesque scene change over that time?

EOW: Hmm, that's a good question. Well, I mean, I don't know if you know Eugene very well but... you're down in Southern Oregon, yeah?...so I imagine that you're pretty familiar with the small-town vibe, where if you want something to happen, you just have to make it happen. Right? So that's how it is here. It's just one of the best things about it; it's like you can do whatever you want. It's just, just make it happen and you do it! I think with the changing times 00:15:00... well ... it started out... you know, troupes: there was the Broadway Revue. I didn't have anything to do with that. I actually didn't really love the Broadway Revue at first. It was just kind of like a "stripper show" which I am now no longer willing to downgrade strippers and the whole idea of that kind of work and that kind of performance art. At the time though, I was like "aea!" about it. But you know, it's kind of like Eugene, Oregon has this medium [level] kind of bar of excellence and expectations. I call it the Land Of Mediocrity. So kind of what happened is that there were a lot of really amazing performers that were like trained dancers and what-not and they did the Broadway Revue and what-not. But they graduated out of Eugene's mediocre bar and they moved to 00:16:00Portland. They moved to bigger cities where they could actually make a better living doing what they were good at.

In Eugene it's not terrible, it's better than Scotland in that you can make [money] doing a Burlesque show. It's definitely only... there's only so far that you can go and then it's like there's no further that you can go here. So people moved away. I think there's tons of people here that are really talented but most people that are really talented are afraid to do Burlesque. Or they're afraid to get up and perform. I'm really good at spotting people, like "you're a performer." But all the good performers eventually moved away from here and so it changed a lot.

Then inclusivity sort of came into the picture. The difficulty with that that I 00:17:00saw... 'cuz I was always inclusive and just "I like what you do on the stage, I like your ideas, I like your art." I never really cared... like it never really dawned on me... I always had different body types and different genders, different genre identities. None of that ever really...what mattered to me was the quality of the work. like what you do, I like your message, I like your art. But at some point it sort of turned into...you can. Can you delete any of this?... OK I'll be really careful then.

I don't wanna dis on anybody but I feel like what happened was inclusivity became more important than quality of performance. And what happened was - and I'm super excited that inclusivity is a thing. It's great. At the same time, we live in this little town in Oregon that thinks it's progressive but it's not 00:18:00really that progressive. And a lot of people didn't appreciate the inclusivity at all. They were very cis, very hetero, very uncomfortable. And so there were these great performers, mediocre performers, whatever, it doesn't matter brilliant ideas and just the audience didn't appreciate it anymore. Cuz we went from a very like cis hetero reality to inclusivity and people just stopped coming. And it was really sad. And fine, like don't come if you don't want to, but it was just like yeah ... so that happened and that's OK. Well, it's not OK, but...

LK: Right,... pre-pandemic, you mentioned Scotland. Have you traveled to Glasgow 00:19:00for the festival of Burlesque? What was that?

EOW: Well I first travel to Edinburgh for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. One year I did a show, a variety show. My son came and he hosted his mother's Burlesque show, it was hilarious. It went over really well over there, it was great. We had all these, like you know, I would be backstage... When you go to Scotland and you perform, the venues are much smaller than our venues and the [audience] capacity is very... illegal. You have this tiny, little room but it's crammed with people. So, I could yell to my son without a microphone "you're my favorite son," and he's like "I'm your only son," you know, that kind of thing. He hosted my Burlesque variety show, and I have a MILF act, extra hilarious! Then I ended up meeting this woman Roxy Stardust who is a Burlesque performer and a theater person who's from Glasgow.She ended up booking me in some shows in Glasgow, but also in some festivals in Northern Scotland.


LK: How do you fund that kind of travel? Burlesque doesn't pay very well, or at all.

EOW: Yeah, but well, you know...it's like I can have my dinner paid for but, no, I save up. Traveling to other countries is important to me. I've made friends, I love going. I did it the one time and I just got hooked. What I basically did was I would come back and I would spend the entire year saving up money to go back. I figured out how to find the cheap plane tickets

LK: So, then COVID-19 has hit, about a year and a half or almost a year and 3/4 ago. How did that affect the Eugene Burlesque scene?

EOW: Everything closed. All the venues closed for a good long time. Everything 00:21:00ended and... yeah... it's just now starting up again.

LK: Did it negatively impact your personal creative process?

EOW: No, because before Covid I was already sort of semi retiring from being a regular performer. I kind of decided I didn't want to do it here anymore. I'll still produce shows and I did an act or two, but I decided at least nine months before Covid that I was happy to bring some acts over with me when I traveled so I can make a little bit of money. But for me it's been fine. In fact, staying home and sort of honing in on other artistic skills has been a great experience. But I didn't have any work as a stagehand. It was the first industry to go and 00:22:00the last one to come back in.

LK: So how are you keeping body and soul together, if you're not working?

EOW: Well I'm starting to work now, because everything is opening back up again.

LK: You've sort of referenced, and people in Burlesque say, it empowers them. What's your take on that?

EOW: I see Burlesque as being inherently in the realm of the feminine. And the feminine in a patriarchal world is not very popular. But the feminine, in my experience, is quite cooperative. And it doesn't really matter like gender or gender identity. I personally believe that Burlesque is in the realm of the feminine. And therefore, inherently empowering for the feminine, because 00:23:00nobody's telling us we can't do it. We're in the first world, we're very privileged that we can do Burlesque. We can own ... that... isn't like the feminine owns Burlesque and runs Burlesque. You know, there are shows that are run by masculine men or whatever... But for the most part Burlesque, and not just Burlesque, but it's a very empowering experience for the feminine realm. 'Cuz, I mean, the feminine realm, even though we're super free here in America, it's still quite subjugated, even though not so much, but it is. And then you know the tiers of subjugation based on class, race, you know, blah, blah, blah, culture, all those things- immigrant versus non-immigrant and all that stuff. You know, Native-American... The feminine in general is just really, really in 00:24:00that realm.

LK: And is that how it can be a force for social change?

EOW: Oh yeah, oh yeah, well, it's inclusive, inherently. I mean,I know that there are Burlesque shows probably around the country and around the world that are less inclusive but my experience with Burlesque shows is that they are totally inclusive, to everything.

LK: Then final question, what do you wish the general public would understand about Burlesque?

EOW: That it's not going to corrupt your children to be terrible people, I don't know. I mean that it's a really, really free and safe environment for anyone who struggles with the mainstream. And anyone who is a performer, even if they're 00:25:00actually trained theater people, even if they are in theater school, Burlesque is this free form opportunity to literally express yourself. It's beautiful, too. And fun. .


LK: Great, thank you.

EOW: Thank you.