One of the most common questions that I receive from friends and strangers alike (after ‘what the fuck happened to you?’) is ‘what IS the Underground’?
Depending on my mood, the nature of the question and the tone that it was asked in, the answer always varies, though at its core it has always remained the same.
The Underground is freedom. Finally…pure, unadulterated and very hard won freedom.
It began as a completely unconditional act of love. When I started at the Burlesque Bar in 2009, I was struck by the glaring hole in the so called Art of Tease. New to the industry and a bit of an idiot when it came to overestimating the altruistic and accepting nature of artists, I just assumed that burlesque was a genre of performance with many a style, type and ‘school of thought.’ Burying my innate mistrust of women everywhere (a characteristic forged in me from a young age – my first betrayal at the hands of women started in kindergarten – but that’s another story) I foolishly though that through the art of striptease I would finally be able to make peace with my vagina’d cohorts and help create a world that accepted all. Surely, since it was such a controversial art form to begin with, we’d all have to stick together, right?
What I found, at its core, was a high school cliché. Ironic, really, that for something initially as shunned and looked down upon by the masses as burlesque; labelled ‘not real art or performance’ by cabaret, comedy and theatre performers alike, there were certainly a whole damn lot of burlesque dancers telling others what was and was not acceptable, what was and was not burlesque…what was and was not deemed ‘legitimate.’
It was an absolute crock…and anyone with half a brain would have seen it for the clique-fest that it was. The higher ups, those in power at the time, wielded their reputations and their egos as a weapon designed to dictate and control. Those who should have been respected were not, so much so that some of them eventually succumbed to the same behaviours as those whom they initially condemned as ‘poisoning the industry.’ Long story short, there was something seriously wrong in the Melbourne burlesque scene. And then there was me…just a babe in the burlesque woods at the time, my ‘but whyyyyyy?’ questions so often met with a stern parental ‘because I said so’ or a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘that’s just the way it is.’
When it comes to the underdogs, I am terrible. I can’t help myself…more often than not I throw a half-dead wounded body over my shoulders and head the charge for the fallen…even when an intelligent person could tell you that those I fought for were already dead in my arms. Some will call it selfish, arrogant…self righteous…and in many cases perhaps they would be right.
But in the case of the Underground, I still believe that I found a cause worth dying for…and oh how I died, over and over again.
Okay, so…the point. I came to quickly realise that in the beginning of the 3rd generation of what was the ‘Burly Family,’ there was a severe imbalance of understanding, acceptance and overall sense of diversity. Having grown up an outcast myself (always more partial to reading gothic horror and pondering the shadows and the deeper meanings of love and lust over the faffery of the general female population) I knew what it was like to not feel a part of anything, to question my own worth as a person, a girl, an artist. I knew all too well how it felt when someone turned their nose up and said ‘oh…that’s just not right.’ And as I started to gather performers and weave the webs of the legacy to come…I watched it happen to those I loved again and again.
Some knew well enough how to play the game and that alone saved them from the scrutiny of the pampered court, some bowed out just as our world began to form and missed entirely the drama that was – the lucky things swept back in the door at the end of the battle and promptly planted themselves comfortably in their niche. But there were many…too many…whom I would see time and again attempt to rise, only to fall or be knocked down. I watched people who had no business in frills and sparkles trying desperately to be ‘one of them’ to fit in- silently begging to be told that they were worth something- falling into depression when the ornamental gorgons on their self etched thrones looked right through them with their chilling sneers.
No one will admit it now – they’ll tell you I’m lying about this. They’ll call me misogynist and say that the family was ALWAYS accepting and loving and caring and the industry ALWAYS invited things that were different.
But I know what I remember. I was there. I have the depressed and suicidal ‘should I just give up performance?’ text messages from some of today’s most talented and recognised artistes saved safely away as proof…and to remind me of what I started fighting for. I remember looking around and wondering what the hell was wrong with the world when there was segregation even in the most shunned of art forms.
And that was when the Underground was born.
It began as an idea…a new kind of show, a dark and decadent offering of the quirky, the ‘out-there,’ the weird stuff that you just couldn’t do in everyday burlesque line-ups unless you had a damn lot of Swarovski’d angels padding it on either side. Inspired by my colleagues and friends…by the Gorelesque Scream Queen Miss Nic, by the beautiful young boy who approached me one night to ask me shyly if he could audition for me and ‘give it a go’ (a young boy we now know by the name of Raven), by the doe-eyed Kerryx who would text me nearly every week and ask me ‘are you sure that I don’t suck at this?’, by the balletic beauty Scarlett who didn’t mind the striptease at all but sometimes just wanted to dance nude by the light of a candle…and by a pair of devilish creatures who’d performed the first burlesque act I had ever seen, calling themselves Betty Bump and Pippy Squeak…
They danced in my mind as I imagined a world where WE were the normal ones and everyone else…well, they had no choice but to accept us.
But there was more to it than that…for I wasn’t interested in being exclusive. I wanted fresh performers, other performers…ones who had perhaps never done anything quite so ‘strange’ to join our ranks and try something new. The Underground was always to be a place for any artist to come and express themselves without the limitations and expectations of the commercial masses.
Jesus Christ, how I wanted them to feel safe and loved and at home and able to do whatever the hell they wanted. I wanted to create a place where I could fight for them and kill for them and protect them as if they were my own, along with anyone else whom the general public shunned and condemned as ‘different.’
The folly of youth perhaps, to think that such a thing could work and be sustained on love alone – but I was never one to think like an adult when it came to art. Or those I loved.
Let the Games Begin.
So, I had a plan. And a good plan, as far as I could tell. But as my ex-partner would wisely tell me any chance he got ‘it’s show-business, not show-show’…and he was right. Sure, you could create a ‘quirky’ production and people would come and see it once, twice a year maybe…but how to keep them coming back time and again so that the wonderful gem that you polished up could continue to shine? What was the secret to making them want more?
I racked my brain. I tried to remember what it was that stole my heart as I was growing up…what were the things that made me return again and again to the same hobbies and interests? What special little morsels would hook me like a drug and never let me go?
The answer turned out to be rather simple.
I remembered the shows that I loved watching on TV as I grew up…Buffy, Angel…the X Files. I thought about soap operas – Days of Our Lives and the Bold and the Beautiful – they’d been going for over 30 years (possibly even more). I recalled the books of my youth – the 50 or so Virginia Andrews novels I still had on my bookshelves, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and the Lives of the Mayfair Witches. I even pondered the ass end of entertainment with turds like Big Brother and my mother’s Woman’s Day magazines.
Ultimately, I came up with a handful of key ingredients that I required to make my decadently dark little cupcake worth eating repeatedly.
Family. Voyeurism. The outrageous and ridiculous. Scandal. An ongoing and evolving storyline. Characters that people could identify with and love or hate. An escape from reality.
Nerdy girl as I was, I knew what I liked…and I liked stories that evolved, that showed you things you’d never seen…I liked tales that spun around me and made me feel like part of the action with people that I adored as if they were my real family. I loved shades of grey characters with flaws that would rise (and fall) again and again and remind us of what it was to be human. I liked experiencing things that made me question who and what I was and my views and opinions on the world.
And I liked darkness. And horror. And sex. And playing dress ups. And pretending to be someone else.
So I decided that was exactly what I was going to do.
Bloody hell, it was going to be fun!
What’s your Deepest, Darkest Fantasy?
The fetishistic nature of the Underground was almost an accident (kind of like that surprise pregnancy that makes you go…’oh…well. Fuck’) that just seemed to happen organically as a matter of course.
I had always been fascinated with the darker side of sexuality – the games of dominance and submission, the pain and pleasure…things that good girls generally weren’t supposed to know about…much less talk about.
But again, it ran much deeper than a mere fascination. I always wanted to know why there was such a stigma on certain topics when it came to sex. I didn’t understand how the wife of the man who wanted to sometimes dress as a woman would be threatened and horrified, I didn’t get why it was unacceptable for a female to say that she liked rough sex and fantasising about rape. I never could wrap my head around the idea that dressing like a 12 year old girl and bouncing on ‘daddy’s’ lap was somehow not a good thing to be doing.
Let’s pause here to point out the obvious – of course I ‘get’ it. I’m not a complete idiot…it’s a fine line between fantasy and reality and I imagine some people are rather affronted by the fact that an event that is so traumatic in real life could get someone else’s rocks off, that issues like child abuse could be so easily ‘mocked’ by the couple playing preschool in the bedroom. It’s a tough discussion to have. These things exist in reality and are terrible and traumatic and should NEVER happen (and yes, we will touch more on this later)….however, I have and always will believe that allowing individuals and couples to explore such taboo matters in a healthy and sane environment goes a long way towards not only helping to prevent such things from occurring in real life, but also to assist victims of such crimes to deal with their trauma in a safe and loving way that makes sense FOR THEM.
It’s neither here nor there really, everyone has an opinion and all are entitled to them. Both within the Underground and without, all I ever asked (okay, demanded) was that people kept an open mind and tried to hear the perspectives of others – whether or not they could ultimately accept or understand them.
And so, armed with the power of ‘why the fuck shouldn’t we?’ the decadent little world I created began to do that thing that all good art should do – it planted seeds. It asked questions, it gave opinions…it invited people to share their deepest and darkest sexual fantasies with the clear message that WE WILL NOT JUDGE YOU (footnoted with ‘and we will fucking crucify anyone who does’).
It was my way of telling people that they were not alone. I wanted them to know that there was nothing wrong with them…that they didn’t have to remain in loveless and passionless relationships living lives that they despised. I needed them to know that EVERYONE had a dark side. And that it was ok to express it sometimes.
I needed it to be ok.
Who Would You Fuck First?
“Forget the world outside…the world outside doesn’t exist. In here…there are no rules and there are no judgements…”
It’s a dangerous thing to tell people, really…that they can do what they want- especially in a setting enslaved to the laws of man and licensing. Especially when there are OBVIOUSLY rules and there have to be to keep people safe.
But it’s a wonderful illusion, the idea that for one night only you can get out of your head and be someone else…do and say things that ‘don’t count’ tomorrow. I was always going to turn the Underground into a live-action role-playing game eventually…there was just no other conceivable way for it to work. Creating a world with characters and an interactive theatrical ‘experience’ is one thing…but getting strangers to engage enough that they feel part of the action is quite another.
And take it from me – alter egos are the best way to blame someone else for the things you say and do. It’s a better excuse than alcohol.
Performers and groupies celebrate Jasper Black’s 31st birthday.
There is something magical and beautiful that happens to adults when – in the right controlled and safe-as-you-can-make-them circumstances – you tell them that they don’t have to be responsible. The mere suggestion that they can indeed take a taxi home tonight, go out the back and canoodle on a bed with their lover (or friend), allow a beautiful stranger to buy them a drink, kiss the dazzling blue-eyed creature that may or may not be a boy but suddenly they don’t even care…it gives me all the happy to watch them light up like kids in a candy store and just let go.
And my…how they’d let go.
I have seen a 60 year old husband and wife, married for 30 years, leave the Underground early and spend an hour making out in their car. I’ve had a 40 year old man plant a kiss on my lips before running back to his wife blushing and giggling ‘I’ve never kissed a boy before!’ (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he still hadn’t). I’ve watched a woman in her late 40’s enter the building depressed as all hell – her husband ran away with a 20-something bit of fluff – leave five hours later crying with laughter and showing her girlfriends iPhone photos of herself dancing on stage with a flogger and a bound and gagged young man at her feet (yes, you’re welcome).
“Everyone knows anything goes…and anything feels SO good…”
While the Underground performers float their proverbial boats doing whatever suits them on the stage, the audience sit enraptured by the idea that they too are part of this hedonistic world…that for that one night they can remember what it was like to be young and throw caution to the wind. The Adult Playground…Neverland…the realm of the Goblin King…
It’s the stuff that dirty little dreams are made of.
Of course it was never all going to be beer and skittles.
Forgive me, Delilah…
Have you met the Black Family?
A psychotic cross-breeding of the Addams Family and The Godfather’s Corleones, with a dash of the Bold and the Beautiful thrown in. Father’s sleeping with daughters, sisters seducing brothers…the Black Family are the Australian burlesque scene’s royal outcasts – the Fergies and the Prince Harrys – the ones that get up to all the trouble that no one wants to invite to their dinner parties.
For every patron and performer that loves the Underground there are at least two others who despise or despair of it. Some offer it nothing but disdain – ‘if we don’t pay any attention to it then it’s not part of our club’ they seem to say, they are quick to change the subject when it comes up in conversation (I had the delightful question put to me recently – when asked what I had been up to and responded with “lots of Underground things” – of “yeah, but you’ve been doing REAL shows haven’t you?”).
I try not to take it personally – the truth is that the Underground world (and certainly the family) is not for everyone. It was the great Lola the Vamp who told me once ‘there are passenger and there are pioneer performers. Passengers will jump on whatever train they think will get them where they want to go…pioneers build their own trains and drive them for everyone else.’
It is a very specific type of artist that gets on the Underground train. Sometimes they do it by accident…and they run off at the next platform so fast you’d never even know they were there. Some take up a personal carriage and make it a way of life…but even they have to get off sooner or later. There’s always an end of the line.
It’s the nature of the beast…one cannot dwell in darkness all the time, and even at it’s lightest and funniest the Adult Playground has a way of seeping vice into your bones with overexposure. Like any drug, it is best to stop taking it before one becomes immune.
I have recognised (finally, many years) the need for fresh blood of a time…as with any Family there comes a point that the children have to leave the nest, to go and grow and find themselves in the world before they become resentful of the familial cocoon. Too often in the beginning we did not realise that need until it was too late.
I would like to think we are older and wiser now…if somewhat bitter for the lesson.
Ah well. More often than not they come back. When I let them.
The hardest thing about being a pioneer and not a passenger is the knowledge that people are going to fight you. They will ALWAYS fight you, they will disapprove…they will even go so far as to vilify and defame if they think that it will justify their viewpoints. In any endeavour you are bound to be faced with obstacles, and when you play dice with the universe and people’s perceptions of reality, right and wrong, you’d better be damned sure that you know why you are doing it…because you will be called to account.
I received an email about a year ago from one of my performers. A former student of mine, she’d reached a place where she did not want to be ‘sparkle Barbie’ anymore (her words) and wanted to explore other facets of her art. She was angry at the world (and the audience could bloody well feel it), she didn’t want to make them smile and laugh…she wanted to SHOW them herself. So I invited her to perform at the Underground. I was at pains to explain (for quite a few hours over coffee) why it was that we did the things we did and dealt with the subject matter that sometimes arose within our shows…and for all intents and purposes she seemed to understand.
So, yeah, the surprise email I received from her one day accusing me of doing things just for ‘shock’ value that were in ‘bad taste’ and a disgrace to entertainment was rather…interesting.
I’m not gonna lie, it fucking hurt.
But then, so did the lack of encouragement and acknowledgment from my peers. So did the sudden ‘judgy faces’ from people I had nurtured for years in my little burly ‘family’…so did the fact that apparently I was so good at ‘pretending to be a boy’ that where once I was their Mama, now I was a ‘misogynist’ and a troublemaker.
I know what I did. I understand what happened…in my quest to create a world for the outcasts I had cast myself out of the mainstream. Some of it was my fault – I stopped going to their parties and supporting their events long before they stopped inviting me…but some was just plain, selfish, bigoted and self-righteous spite. I recall responding to one particular ‘when are you going to invite me to perform for you?’ email with ‘when are you going to come and see my fucking show first?’ I watched people that I had gone out of my way to encourage, accept and make welcome start to shun me for being ‘weird,’ ‘different’ and ‘elitist’ (yeah right).
Of course there’s more to it on all sides…there always is, but essentially I found that the more I started to embrace my dark side and let my true self shine through, the more I was reminded of why something like the Underground had to exist in the first place.
I remember laying sprawled on Jasper Black’s bed with his soon-to-be-wife Bella at 5am after our New Year’s Eve Masquerade. The whole world was falling asleep…everyone else had stopped playing the game hours ago, but we were determined to see in the sunrise. I refused to break character…I knew there were so many people that wanted to see Mama, to see me…to give and receive love and well wishes for the new year – but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was depleted…empty…cynically wary of their intentions…and for some reason Bella Jade Black was too. Drunk to the point of paralysis, staring at the lightening sky through the glass roof of a cabaret club that no longer exists, she suddenly turned to me and said ‘don’t you wish that this was real…that we could just stay this way forever?’
Yeah. Sometimes I did.Sometimes we all did.
I still have a backup plan with some of the ‘Family’ that, if our real lives go to hell, we’re hightailing it to another country and reinventing ourselves as the Black’s. We’ll never actually do it…but it’s a nice fantasy all the same…
Somehow, despite all that the Family goes through, it still sometimes seems like the better option.
When Rabbits Howl
Okay, so…trigger warnings and blah blah. This is the dark part. For realises.
The Underground – while wonderful and fun and existing for performers to express themselves and for patrons to come and play like children and let go of their inhibitions and express their sexuality and get drunk on life and liquor – possesses some seriously dark undertones.
Those of you who have been privy to the live-action role-playing element of show after hours (and have read some of our extra-curricular writings and debriefs) will know that amongst the general tomfoolery there’s some rather heavy subject matter being dealt with. Topics such as rape, incest, paedophilia, murder and serial killers, abuse of all kinds, mental illness, suicide, drug and alcohol addiction…these are par for the course with the Black Family and are the foundations upon which our characters are built.
While to some it may seem that it is all ‘shock value in poor taste,’ allow me to assure you that there is a damn good reason that we are traumatising ourselves in this manner. Firstly…these things exist. As much as we would like to live in a bubble and pretend that it is all happy-happy joy-joy, the reality is that there are horrors in this world that most of us cannot even imagine being inflicted upon the innocent every day.
It is important that people know them for what they are.
For every speech I make telling patrons that it’s okay to express their sexuality, I feel duty-bound to remind them that there is still a danger that it can be taken too far. The Black Family exists as living (ish) proof that while a life of excess is wonderful to indulge in at times, there are some very real consequences for every action and choice that one makes.
And yes it’s shocking and confronting and potentially very upsetting…but that is life. While the show itself is designed to entertain, the game draws the audience deeper into the dissection of human nature – the good, the bad and the downright evil – and asks them to make up their own minds about what they see. They do not always like the answers their conscience gives them…but regardless, they always feel something.
Of course the most frightening thing about all this is that I have read, seen and heard of enough evidence of parallels between the skeletons in the Black Family closet and those of the real world to chill even my blood. Someone once commented that ‘there is only one thing in the entire Family history that I have not heard of happening to someone I know’ (this person was a youth worker for victims of child abuse). I can only begin to imagine what that ‘one thing’ was. I don’t want to know.
If you’d like to ask how I can possibly stomach writing and performing an act where an underage girl is drugged and raped, why I can sing a song in a straghtjacket and be dragged off screaming for electroshock therapy, how my alter ego can be ‘seduced’ into sex with his own daughter in front of a live audience, I shall tell you. It’s because somewhere out there in the world at the exact same time it is REALLY HAPPENING and it makes me sick. And I want people to feel sick too and maybe be moved enough to get their heads out of their asses and new iPhones and try to do something to make a difference. Fundraise, volunteer for a support group…call that friend who once told them they had a ‘secret’ and they were too scared to want to know.
And if, in order to make people wake the hell up I have to be accused of gratuitous shock value performance and ‘using rape as an aesthetic’ then fine…I’ll wear it. Happily.
Gah! Sorry.I always get a bit emotional about this stuff.
But yes, to those of you who were wondering, the Underground also exists to fundraise and build awareness of child abuse, sex trafficking and mental illness in the best ways we know how.
Through our art.
Come…Play with Me.
What is the Underground?
On the surface, it is an interactive theatrical burlesque and cabaret experience with fetish, sexual and adult themes. It allows audience members to leave their own lives outside for an evening and pretend to be someone else for a time…to see, share, explore and understand a different way of living and perhaps learn something new about themselves, their friends and lovers and the world they live in. It is an adult playground where anything goes.
For performers, it is a chance to try something new…something darker and different, something that anywhere else might be frowned upon, shunned, looked at with a raised eyebrow or disdain. It is a chance for those who don’t ‘fit in’ to the mould to exist in a world tailored exclusively for those who DON’T fit in.
For fans it is a soap opera of the most melodramatic and ridiculous order…an ongoing family saga of lies, betrayal, love, lust and all the scandalous goodies you would expect from a cult show. It is also a live-action role-playing game that allows artists and fans alike to delve into the darker side of their natures, separating themselves from the real world and expressing whatever they hold buried within that needs to be let out. For some, it’s a purging…for others it is therapy, and for some it’s just good old fashioned fun and a chance to defrag.
For the wider world, it is a mirror for both the dark and the light in the nature of man…it’s a testament to the strength of victims and a lament to those who suffer. It is a project designed to build awareness, forge alliances and perhaps one day even fund many a means to stop from happening that which should never happen.
And for me, it is my gift to myself and the ones I adore…and those I am yet to know. It’s a playground and a small corner of the world where we can be free to explore art and beauty and sexuality and life in all its glory, where we make the rules. It’s the place I always dreamed of as a child, what I wanted for those like me who were always told that there had to be something wrong with them because ‘you’re not like us.’
Not too long ago a middle-aged woman came into the Underground with her gaggle of girlfriends. They seemed pleasant enough – but halfway through the show the woman sidled over to Jasper and, pointing to one of our regulars – a trans male – asked in a hushed and slightly disgusted voice if I usually ‘allow that kind of thing in here.’
Jasper of course just smiled that enigmatic and rather terrifying smile of his, leant in close and whispered back “Darling…you don’t seem to understand. YOU’RE the strange one here.”
Welcome to the Underground
Let the Games Begin.
Copyright © Natalie Ristovski. 2015