Mixing Burlesque and Greek Theatre in LYSISTRATA at the 2017 Toronto Fringe
Interview by Brittany Kay
“The Fringe is a perfect platform because it is the rock and roll of theatre festivals: anything goes, so the audiences are open and up for surprises.” – Sebastian Marziali
Burlesque and a Greek classic. Both very different genres, both incredibly alike in intention. One wouldn’t normally find this mash-up in the Toronto theatre scene, but this is Fringe, right? After a sold-out opening performance, Kay Brattan’s take on Lysistrata has found the perfect place for its debut.
In this preview, we chat with writer/director/co-producer Kay Brattan, Las Vegas Burlesque Hall of Fame performer St. Stella, and performer Sebastian Marziali/El Toro about their burlesque adaptation of Lysistrata.
Brittany Kay: Tell me a little bit about the show.
Kay Brattan: Historically, Lysistrata is a story about the women of Greece uniting together in a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian war. Our Lysistrata turns the strike into a “strike-tease”, adding slam poetry, songs and strip-tease to heighten the tension of this Greek Comedy. This production is a site-specific piece of immersive theatre that is set in The Painted Lady, a bar in Toronto that is known as a burlesque venue. We’ve chosen to completely annihilate the 4th wall in this show, and present this story to its audience as a burlesque revue. We know you’re there: we want you to know that. Because everything in this play is for you. In the revue style we’re able to explore all the different types of acts that make up the wonderful world of burlesque, from the Can-Can, to Vaudevillian numbers, and the new wave of Neo-Burlesque.
BK: Where did the idea come from to mix Burlesque and Greek theatre?
KB: I studied Lysistrata in university and have always loved this play. It’s funny, playful, and can be contextualized in a way that makes it a strong piece of feminist theatre. Finding a way to marry it to burlesque was actually quite easy because by the end of the play everyone is practically naked. The characters start off in a world that’s a little more conservative and very quickly everything gets turned upside-down. As the clothes fly off, we see their everyday restrictions disappear and it’s incredibly liberating to see. For myself, this is a feeling I’ve always experienced when I watch a burlesque show. Living in a world that constantly makes women feel that our worth is judged by our waistline is daunting, so to be able to have a space that celebrates body positivity and empowers everyone to own their sexuality is exactly what I wanted to explore in this show.
Burlesque is such a big, bold, cheeky, and extravagant form of performance art, so it made sense that the women of the play use it as their tactic to aid them in this sex strike. It’s all about the tease, and not only do they use this to their advantage, they use it as self liberation. Instead of matching violence with violence, they use their femininity and cleverness to fight and win this battle.
BK: What do you think will be really successful about this mash-up?
Sebastian Marziali: Plain and simple, burlesque finds its roots in ancient works of comedic satire such as Lysistrata. The strip-teasing style we know today was built on the foundation of making a mockery of those in power, specifically with women lampooning men and turning the tables on the power dynamic of storytelling. Early on in my burlesque career, I came across the idea that “if you get them laughing, you can shove anything down their throats,” and I feel that this show does a beautiful job of just that. It’s fuelled by raunchy, bawdy comedy and dance but upon a foundation of real honest reflection around man’s obsession with war and profit. The other beautiful part about it is the distance that we have from the ancient Greek pieces, which allows more room to play, experiment, and adapt. There is less preciousness than there is with more modern Western classics so we’ve really been able to integrate the eclectic nature of modern burlesque and cabaret, inserting music and dance styles from all across the spectrum but grounded within the structure of the story. It’s a marriage of form that you don’t need the Fates to have seen coming.
BK: The Fringe is all about daring to see something different. This piece is going to be different and definitely stand out. What would you say to Fringers that would entice them to see this show?
St. Stella: I think we are doing a very ambitious show this year. For first time producers, we took on everything and the kitchen sink! I think people will want to see this show for the extravaganza of it all; singing, dancing, striptease, feminism, political relevance, (near) nudity and site-immersion – there are a ton of themes in there for almost everyone to say “Heck yeah! I wanna see that!” I also think people are always interested to see fresh twists on the classics, particularly a text that has been given new relevance in the current political climate.
BK: The Burlesque community is very real and current in the Toronto arts scene, but some people haven’t tapped into it yet. Why is that? What makes the Burlesque world different and exciting?
SS: A lot of people don’t realize that Toronto really is a leading city in the world, particularly in experimental or what we call ‘neo’ burlesque. But even with that, many people still haven’t seen a show or even heard about our community. I think there are still a ton of misconceptions about what burlesque is, which is fair because burlesque has a ton of permutations. But, the thing I love most about burlesque is that feeling that we so rarely get any more from entertainment – the raw humanity of it. It’s intimate and glamorous, a fantasy, but not fake, it can be simultaneously subversive, sexy and silly. Burlesque is a tease: it keeps people wanting more. And the coolest thing is that the ‘more’ can often be what the audience makes of it themselves; being inspired to buy a sparkly flower for their hair, or some fancy lingerie or dance in front of the mirror… Burlesque invites the audience to take the feeling of the show home with them. I’m really excited that this show might open the door to a whole new audience of burlesque fans.
BK: Why is the Fringe a perfect platform for this experience?
SM: The Fringe is a perfect platform because it is the rock and roll of theatre festivals: anything goes, so the audiences are open and up for surprises. People are at Fringe to have a good time but also to challenge their preferences and expand their scope. What better way than to be immersed in a blend of modern burlesque and Greek comedy which exists and has existed to speak directly to the masses in a way that is entertaining but also sparks curiosity and questioning of our sociopolitical structures. Also, at the end of the day, this show is first and foremost a celebration, a raucous experience that puts the action right in your lap. In the end, isn’t that what Fringe is all about? Getting crotch-deep in art!
SS: I think Fringe has this big beautiful feeling of ‘let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks’. For a lot of people, it’s the only theatre they see in the year because it’s so accessible, it’s not elite. That aesthetic fits perfectly with the pathos of burlesque (and Lysistrata!) – it’s by the people, for the people. I also think that the way we have put together this adaptation has a lot to do with the Fringe itself as well – it’s a Pastiche. We rap, we sing, we take our clothes off, we dance, we climb on bar-tops – it’s no holds barred theatre, just like the festival itself!
BK: You have Burlesque artists but also actors in your show. Why this choice artistically and how does this aid in the performance and storytelling of the piece?
KB: It honestly just worked out that way through the audition process, and I’m so glad it did. Having a mix of both disciplines of performers helped the show in the same way combining the two performance styles did. The burlesque performers were able to share their craft with the actors, and the actors did the same for them. The best part of this experience was just watching how much fun everyone was having. It’s a different way to approach a play, and I think that because we attracted a group of artists that were willing to explore this new side of themselves, and do they ever shine in it! Everyone’s willingness and eagerness to explore this work has been more than a delight to bear witness to and I think it’s something our audience will really enjoy to see as well.
BK: What do you want audiences walking away with?
SM: We want audiences staggering away! Bent over in laughter and arousal with hardly a voice left (hooting and hollering is strongly encouraged). We want people leaving having had an experience desperate to come back and try the ride again from a different angle. We really take advantage of our venue using it in its entirety, which means keeping our audience right in the thick of it all (pun intended). I feel that we also want people going away with a new-found appreciation for both burlesque and theatre as platforms to bring us together in our ever more splintered lives. It’s been my mission, since being sucked into the magical world that is burlesque, to bring “traditional theatre” more into that world. After all that’s what theatre was and is meant to be, a mosh pit where we tear down the world outside and experience something wondrous together.
BK: What other shows are you looking forward to seeing in the Fringe?
SM: If you are even remotely intrigued by our show you are going to absolutely love Shirley Gnome’s Taking it up the Notch a comedian singer with the voice of an angel and the mind of a filthy sailor. So yes, I am excited about her. Also I am dying to see Mind of a Snail’s new show Multiple Organisms. Their work is so enchanting and knowing that they’re marrying that with sexuality and the human form just gets me all tingley.
BK: What are the most exciting parts about the festival?
SM: I think the most exciting part about the festival is the open and engaging interactions. Seeing giant groups of people excited to be in the same room together and take a collective dive into the unknown. Putting aside the phone and Netflix for a couple of weeks and enjoying shared experience. There’s something so necessary about this beautiful space that is created where everyone is just really excited about art and conversation.
Company – how.dare.collective.
Playwright/Creator – Aristophanes
Starring: St. Stella, with Brittany Cope, Jennah Foster-Catlack, Sebastian Marziali, Amanda Mattar, Amanda McKnight, Timothy Ng, Jordan Shore
Directed and Adapted by Kay Brattan Choreographed by St. Stella
Costume and Props by Stevie Baker Musical Composition by David Kingsmill
Lysistrata leads a rebellious group of women in a sex strike, hoping to end the war that is tearing their country apart. In this modern adaptation of Aristophanes’ classic comedy, how.dare.collective. puts a burlesque spin on this tale of resistance and desire.
The Painted Lady
218 Ossington Avenue, Toronto, M6J 2Z9
July 5th, 6th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th – 7:00pm
July 8th, 9th, 15th, 16th – 2:00pm