Unclothed for Business
Kitty Kitty Bang Bang helps keep burlesque alive in Austin
Granted, dancing in front of a group of strangers and artfully removing most of what you're wearing can be loads of fun. Still, the lovely ladies of local burlesque troupe Kitty Kitty Bang Bang manage to enjoy themselves so much while fully clothed, you'd think someone spiked their drinks with catnip.
"We went out to the Copper Tank after rehearsal one night," says the vivacious Bi-Bi la Boop, her curly tresses shimmering.
"It was a character exercise that went a little crazy," interjects the blonde bombshell known to mortals as Belladonna Nightshade.
"It was an extension of rehearsal, really," adds Bi-Bi. "We had strict rules that we had to stay totally in character until we left the place we were going to. And let me tell you: That was fun!"
"People thought we were some international group that had stopped in Austin to perform," says the glamorous Emerald Lovejoy with a sly smile.
"I had people convinced I was from France," says Bi-Bi.
"We really had this one guy going," says Emerald. "I'm like, 'Dahling, you do not make enough money for me.' And he's all, 'Whoa-a-a-a.'"
"And my character is the real party girl of the group," says the remarkably limber Tijuana Trixie. "By the end of the night, two frat boys were trying to buy marijuana off me."
Tijuana Trixie isn't always this woman's name, of course; nor does she commonly truck in frat-boy entrapment. Tijuana Trixie, when she's offstage, is called Stacey Breakall, the founder of Kitty Kitty Bang Bang.
"Burlesque is one of those things that I always wanted to do," says Breakall, sitting with four of the other Kitties in a local coffeehouse. "Ever since I saw the movie Gypsy the Bette Midler one about Gypsy Rose Lee and her mother, I wanted to be part of a troupe. And I'm into a lot of vintage pin-up art and stuff like that, and from researching on the Internet a few years ago, I came across some people who were doing burlesque. And I thought, 'OK, other people are doing it, and I wouldn't have to actually open up a club. ...'
"So I talked with one of my old roommates about it," continues Breakall, "and she was like, 'I've got some friends you've got to meet.' So I got together with Ellen Stader and some of her friends, and we held auditions.
"The main thing I was looking for was stage presence somebody who could convey a strong character or feeling onstage, who could be seductive and sexy or just present a fun, girl-next-door quality. There was no expectation at all as far as stripping goes. If they wanted to wear just a nice evening gown, that would be OK. Of course, I kind of had a ratio in mind like I couldn't have five girls that wouldn't wear anything less than an evening gown but that was just a matter of ratio, it didn't apply individually when I was deciding. I was definitely looking for people with some experience in acting and dancing, who could create a whole, distinct persona. And I was also thinking of the group dynamics, like 'How are these people going to get along together?' Because I wanted to go in the direction of ensemble work."
And everyone who auditioned knew exactly what she was getting into, right?
"Most people didn't know what burlesque was," says Breakall. "So when they'd inquire by e-mail, I'd send them to a few Web sites. At this point there were a few burlesque troupes in North America doing their thing there's a lot more, now so I sent them to see what the Fluff Girls were doing in Canada and the Shim Shamettes in New Orleans."
"I wasn't really familiar with burlesque," agrees Emily Cropper, aka Belladonna Nightshade. "But I liked the dance number that we learned in auditions. Then we went to rehearsal, and Stacey handed out this little packet with the history of burlesque, and we all went over it. It opened my eyes to a scene that I'd never known much about, so it was really enlightening. And then we started talking about wearing pasties."
"I met Stacey through one of the other girls in the troupe," says Eunice Rios, who's better known as Bi-Bi la Boop onstage. "Stacey brought her folder with all the pictures and the research she has research galore! and all her plans. She'd already approached clubs and had started figuring out routines and themes, and I was really taken with the whole idea, like, 'Oh my God, I have to get into this somehow.' So I helped out during auditions, then just jumped in and auditioned myself."
Emerald Lovejoy, who swears her parents christened her Tiffany Love, says, "I answered an ad in the Chronicle, actually. I've been a dancer for 10 years and have done theatre on and off since high school. Stacey set me up with an audition. And I made the cut."
By now, at least seven have made the cut to become Kitties and strut their stuff in the fashion of Blaze Starr and other legends at local clubs and parties. Besides those already mentioned, there's Venus Velvet, Legs Cadillac, and Lucky St. James. Of course, there are attractive women in their mid-20s and early 30s attached to all these fanciful names. And, often, there are pasties attached to those women.
"Not everyone got on the pastie train immediately," says Breakall. "Me and Ellen were the only ones who said, 'OK, no problem.' But I wanted everybody to feel comfortable with what they were doing, and there were six Kitties at the time, and only two of us were willing to go down to pasties. But by the time our first show premiered, everybody was like, 'All right, dammit, I'm wearing pasties.'"
Perhaps we should mention here that pasties are, according to the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, "Small round coverings for a woman's nipples worn esp. by a stripteaser." We should definitely ask what it's like wearing them for the first time.
"What's it like taking pasties off, that's the question," says Belladonna Nightshade.
"Yeah, ouch, that's the hard part," says Lucky St. James, the Kitties' costume designer and seamstress.
"The best thing to keep them on with is a kind of medical adhesive," offers Emerald Lovejoy. "We started out using spirit gum, but it didn't work very well. And it caused some irritation."
"I was very allergic to spirit gum," says Breakall, "and I found out the hard way. I had to explain it to a doctor, too, and he was a little weirded out."
"Getting used to wearing pasties was interesting," says Lucky St. James, "and now we're learning to twirl them."
"The five of us lined up in front of a mirror," says Belladonna, shaking her head, "trying to get those tassels twirling, oh my God ..."
The Kitties fall into laughter.
"We did a kind of twirling contest at No Shame Theatre," says Lucky, "and each character had to display her talent, had to do some other thing while she twirled."
"And Bi-Bi painted Starry Night with her tassels!"
"And Belladonna did karate!"
"And Trixie Hula-Hooped, Emerald jumped rope, and Legs Cadillac roller skated!"
"And I put my tassels on my butt," says Lucky. She grins. "I have more there than I do up front."
There's more to the Kitties, it turns out, than just seven comely lasses essaying a dolled-up bump-and-grind across Austin stages. There's a lighting designer; a sound technician; a props mistress; and sometimes, for cabaret shows, a singer named Honey Bee Blue. There's also former Esther's Follies performer Lynn Raridon, who serves as both consulting director and personal inspiration for the troupe. But perhaps most importantly, there's live music.
Once You're In, You're In
"Our band is the T & A Players, and they play exclusively for us," says Breakall. "Our musical director's Tim Girardot from the Austin School of Music, and he'll plug extra people in sometimes, the trumpet player for our Ruta Maya show and so on. He has so many resources it's amazing. So we've got a stand-up bass, keyboards. Two saxes and two trumpets?"
"One trumpet," says Belladonna.
"And one sax," says Bi-Bi.
"Guitar and bass guitar," says Breakall.
"And the sax player can even do clarinet," says Bi-Bi, "so that works out well."
"And the triangle, too," says Belladonna.
"And the cowbell!" says Bi-Bi.
"We should mention David Lampe, our emcee," says Emerald. "He's got a lot of great ideas, and he's always helping us onstage stalling for us if we have a, what do you call it, wardrobe malfunction? He's been very supportive of us. And Brian Azar is our lighting designer. We found him at Antone's. He was our assigned light guy there, and Hazmat was our assigned sound guy. And we're trying to keep them with us, because they're excellent. So Lucky's taking one for the team now."
"She's dating the lighting guy," says Belladonna.
"And Belladonna's working on the sound guy," says Lucky.
"Yeah," says Emerald, "being a Kitty's like being in the Mafia: You can't leave. Once you're in, you're in."
And what sets this particular mob of ecdysiasts apart from the other burlesque groups in Austin?
"The shows I've seen are strictly women coming up and stripping," says Bi-Bi. "There's not really any choreography, it's a matter of taking clothes off. And that's what striptease basically is, and that's great for what it is, but we derive something different from that."
"That's why we say more power to 'em," says Emerald. "Because there's room for all of us, and everybody has their own take on the whole thing."
"Like Red Light Burlesque," says Breakall. "They're very stylized. They have a kind of rockabilly, Sixties-era sensibility."
"And Chitlin & Grits," says Lucky. "They're a local group who do a lot of incredible balancing with their bodies, a lot of twisting and contortions."
"Ensemble work is our specialty," says Breakall. "Our characters, and the fact that we always have ensembles in our show, really set us apart. We're all very driven women, so we make ourselves rehearse together twice a week, at least five hours a week, and have for two years now."
This is the sort of dedication that's made a success of their themed shows El Rancho, which plays upon the Kitties' overarching retro-Texas mythos, and Cabaret Rouge, a Prohibition-era revue created specifically for their stint at downtown's Speakeasy. This is part of what it takes to sell out their current James Bond-ian Spies, Thighs, and Private Eyes show at Antone's.
"We've kind of made ensemble work our thing," agrees Bi-Bi. "There's a very strong theatrical background here."
So, with all this theatrical industry going on, what's the point of stripping at all? Why not just put on a play or do improv comedy?
"Been there, done that," says Breakall.
"The act of taking your clothes off can have a lot to do with feminism and being powerful," suggests Emerald. "And anyway, why shouldn't we exhibit sexuality as we perform? Or do sexual comedy? Why should those things be segregated that's what it comes down to. We're not afraid to look silly or to look smart when we're up there, and we're not afraid to look sexy, either. And that's using all you can as a woman."
"What I like," says Belladonna, "is that so many girls come up to us after a show and ask 'How do I join?'"
"It's not like we're just stripping for guys," says Lucky. "We have a real diverse crowd. All ages well, 18 and up and all walks of life, all ethnicities, all genders, all sexual orientations. And at our show at the Alehouse, there was a group of five or six women, 60-plus years old, and they were former burlesque stars. And they loved the show. They were so happy that we were keeping the whole thing alive."
Thanks to Boudoir Clean at Pink Salon
Kitty Kitty Bang Bang will be keeping it alive one more time this season, with a final performance of Spies, Thighs, and Private Eyes on Friday, July 9, 10pm, at Antone's. For more info, visit www.kittykittybangbangshow.com.