Smile Politely

It’s a Carnie’s Life for Me

burlesque [ber-lesk] noun

  1. an artistic composition, especially literary or dramatic, that, for the sake of laughter, vulgarizes lofty material or treats ordinary material with mock dignity
  2. any ludicrous parody or grotesque caricature
  3. a humorous and provocative stage show featuring slapstick humor, comic skits, bawdy songs, striptease acts, and a scantily clad female chorus

Ludicrous parodies and provocative stage shows were just the beginning for Champaign-Urbana’s premiere burlesque troupe when it formed just over eighteen months ago. Carnivàle Debauche has come a long way since their debut performance in June 2010. Since then, they’ve built a solid fan base, performed at a variety of venues, and created the all-original set “It’s a Carnie’s Life for Me” from the ground up.

The carnies of Carnivàle Debauche gave us a sneak preview of their newest naughty bits at Pride Fest in August, and are eager to unveil their full-length feature at Chester Street Bar next week, on October 24th.

I recently caught up with the troupe at one of their weekly rehearsals and quickly felt like part of the carnie family ― within minutes of my arrival the performers shared their delicious home cooking with me and the music director offered to adopt a three-legged kitten my sister is fostering. I was not only among great choreographers, musicians, and performers, I was among friends. Carnivàle Debauche takes everything I love about Champaign-Urbana ― the relaxed warmth, the unpretentious humility, the offbeat humor ― adds a band, some pasties, and a full year of artistic dedication and delivers us a supernova of sexiness.

Smile Politely: “It’s a Carnie’s Life for Me” has been a long time coming. Walk me through what has happened with the new show up to this point.

Carnivàle Debauche: Ever since we started our own troupe we’ve wanted to create original material. It became clear after a couple of big performances in which we performed covers of songs and choreography, that in order for us to get to the next level, it was important to be able to own everything we do. This is more artistically fulfilling.

SP: Creating your own music, scripts, and choreography is quite a bit of work! What went into the decision to start creating from scratch, even after having a few successful shows under your belt?

CD: After our October 2010 show, we had to sit down and really think about where we wanted to go and why. We acknowledged it would take a lot of work before we’d get back on stage, but the vision of the end result was shared by everyone and we were willing to put performing on hold.

We didn’t necessarily have a time frame in mind, so our music director took the reins and began writing original songs, which jump-started our choreography and allowed us to put our own creative energy into every piece along the way.

At first we all thought that putting everything together might only take two to three months total. The band and musical scores came together wonderfully, but we needed the scripts, choreography, costumes, and coordination of other acts. There’s so much more going on beyond the stage as well ― every little bit of “A Carnie’s Life for Me” has been developed from scratch. It’s been a long year; we’ve been working really hard to build in all of the pieces to make everything cohesive.

SP: Your lineup has changed significantly since your first performance. How do you deal with drastic modifications to your troupe as you’re working to build a new show?

CD: We rewrite! Instead of writing a script and casting it, we’ve developed around whom we have and the strengths they bring. We’re very fortunate that we have so many different walks of life in our troupe that bring different elements to this performance. Everyone has a lot of character in this show ― they each have a distinct personality, down to the color of the costumes they wear.

We’re also very aware that people who want to do this kind of thing are nomadic. People come and people go, so our show is written in such a way that we can be flexible depending on who is in our troupe.

SP: Does everyone have a background in theater and performance? What drew you all into burlesque?

CD: Well, we were all in this yo-yo club … [Laughter] … But seriously, many of us graduated with a degree in theater or something similar and do shows now and then. With Carnivàle Debauche we’re writing music, designing sets and costumes, and have a hand in creating an all-original show. Some of us are actually using our degrees!

SP: How does it feel when you put your heart and soul into each performance, and strive to get better, and the first thing out of someone’s mouth is a criticism of what you’re doing?

CD: We kind of like it, because we’re charting new ground. There’s nothing like this happening between Colorado and Pennsylvania. We’re more than just a burlesque troupe; this is essentially a musical that we’ve written ― it’s adult, it’s fun, it’s musical, it’s unique. This isn’t something we’re creating for people who don’t enjoy or appreciate what we have to offer.

As far as our fans who want to see us do better burlesque, what we presented at our first show in June 2010 is drastically different from what we’re bringing to C-Street on Oct 24th. Pacing is no longer a problem. We recognize that during our first performance certain parts came screeching to a halt and we’ve worked to remedy that. With a musical, we can pace dialogue better and give the performers time to change their clothes.

We’ve been able to use the criticism from our past shows, as well as visiting other burlesque-style performances, to inform what we’re doing and to improve.

SP: Recently, there was an academic presentation of burlesque that brought in an entirely different demographic from that of your previous performances. How have you been marketing your new show to bring in a new audience?

CD: This is only the second time we’ve performed during the academic year, so we often miss out on the college crowd. Since our new material is burlesque-meets-vaudeville-meets-creepy-carnival, Halloween season is a perfect time for all kinds of interested people to attend the show.

We also have a new street team that gets the word out by passing out materials in public places, and the venue has been great at helping us promote this show and get ready to make it an amazing night.

SP: You will be at C-Street this time, correct? Why the change in venue?

CD: It actually fell into our laps. We’d originally planned to perform the new show in June [at the Canopy Club], but a few weeks before, realized there was still way too much to do to put our best foot forward on this performance. We didn’t really know when we should reschedule for, but C-Street does a two-part Halloween event and their theme this year is “The Creepy Carnival,” so we connected that way.

Monday nights are usually the nekromancy/industrial nights, and this year Halloween is on a Monday night. So our show is one week before Halloween and part of their two-part Halloween event.

At first we were going to do a guest appearance, but then realized we would have enough time to finish our show, so we proposed performing our entire new show, and they gave us the full night. It’s developed into this event that is entirely us and we have carte blanche to do everything we want, which includes working with the Illini unicycle and juggling club, hula hoopers, and the Scions of Prometheus among others.

SP: You work with so many different people and organizations around town. How do you synthesize your burlesque identities with your real-life identities?

CD: People remember naked.

We have a rule that anyone who takes their clothes off cannot reveal their real-life identities. Our shows are open to the public, and we never know what kind of audience we’re going to get, and it’s a little safer in the end to keep those identities separate. We’ve had some super fans along the way, and a few run-ins with people who didn’t know we had these alter egos until they saw us perform.

So while our employers, colleagues, and family members might end up seeing us at a performance, we don’t need to publicize to everyone that we get naked on stage.

We do our best to keep our performance lives separate from our personal lives because we want to keep this as professional and classy as we can, even though some of us take our clothes off for a performance.

SP: What are you most excited about for this show?

CD: Something that makes this original show awesome is that we’re creating it with people that we genuinely care about. We’re a family. We practice together in a home; we prepare meals together. It’s what sets us apart from other forms of theater you might see around town. We’ve built this relationship for over a year, spent time together, built connections … and that translates on the stage. And even those who aren’t part of the troop anymore are still part of this family; they still visit and support us.

SP: Where do you pull your inspiration from? Is there a How-To handbook for burlesque?

CD: It involves a lot of intense research into the original burlesque movements. We all work on researching and share our ideas to inform our work.

SP: Give me a historical fun fact about burlesque.

CD: Hold on, let’s look it up on Wikipedia! Seriously though, this isn’t historical, but we thought it would be a fun idea to do a Mario Brothers themed show, only to find out there already is one!

The type of burlesque that we love is that of the very early forms ― more circus-inspired, with a hodgepodge of acts and personalities that come together to form the troupe and show. We have a variety of backgrounds and come together so well in this troupe because of the variety put into our performances.

The origins of burlesque had strong ties to vaudeville and we’re trying to incorporate that into what we do.

SP: Give us an idea of what this night will entail.

CD: You won’t even know you’re at C-Street with all of the decorations and staff and participants in costume. If you arrive early, you are involved in the experience ― it’s more than just a show because you’re participating from the moment you walk in the door. We encourage people to dress up ― it’s burlesque, it’s a carnival, it’s Halloween! It’s easier to get involved in the atmosphere when you dress up and participate.

The first two hours is what we’re calling the “Carnie Bazaar.” We’ll have different booths, pre-show festivities and other creepy carnie fun. Jaegermeister is sponsoring our night and the Jaeger girls will be giving away tons of free loot.

Our first act of “It’s a Carnie’s Life” will be followed by a fire show. Our second act will showcase more of our original music and choreography. We’ll wrap up the Burlesque with dancing and other surprise shenanigans.

Our band, Dirty* has been put together just for Carnivàle Debauche. We have a solid group of amazing performers ― some who are classically trained and some who are more garage rock. The two coming together to create the fusion of sounds in our music is extremely interesting. So even if you’re not sure you like burlesque, the music itself is enough reason to attend!

SP: And what if I come to the performance and just can’t get enough of you carnies and can’t wait until the next show?

CD: We have merch! The merch is something just as different as our show. We wanted to take it a step further and make it a little more creative ― so it’s not just something people can put in their homes, but also something that is uniquely Carnivàle Debauche. Our merch theme is kind of a gypsy wagon garage sale ― everything from screen printed clothes, decoupage cigar boxes, hand designed posters from a local artist, pasties, aprons, and more interesting and meaningful items that we’ve collected and hand decorated.

SP: What else would you like our lovely readers to know?

CD: Whether or not you’ve seen one of our shows, this is like nothing else we’ve ever done. Prepare to be wowed ― this is our baby and we’ve been working on it for seven days a week for a full year!

The details:

  • Date: Monday, October 24th
  • Venue: Chester Street Bar
  • Doors: Carnie Bazaar at 9:00 p.m.
  • Show: 11:00 p.m.$9 to enter on 10/24, or $7 for advance tickets ordered through e-mail
  • More info.

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