The producers of the RVA Burlesque Festival are heartbroken.
“We had to kill our baby,” says Ellie Quinn, a local burlesque performer and one of the six producers who have devoted the last 18 months to creating and bringing the festival to life. Now, in the face of coronavirus uncertainty and the need for social distancing, the festival has been postponed until March 2021.
Initially it planned to keep going but with guidelines. These included providing hand sanitizer, limiting ticket sales, asking patrons to sit at a distance from one another, asking performers not to get close to audience members and altering any performance that might see performers touching their mouths.
“By nature our events are more intimate,” Quinn says. “We just knew we weren’t fighting for the event we really want.”
Plans for the RVA Festival began in December 2018, when producers Ellie Quinn, Venessa Chevelle, Sally Stardust, Scarlet Starlet, Murphy Lawless and Jo’Rie Tigerlily discussed their vision and how to make it happen.
“We’ve been traveling together to other festivals for the past seven years,” says Scarlet Starlet. “This felt like the right time [for Richmond] because I think the scene had just developed more.”
Locally, burlesque has experienced a bit of a boom in recent years and the producers say their success lies in their mutual support of one another.
“There’s a good handful of producers, not just a few,” says Venessa Chevelle, who produces Afrotease, a recurring local showcase of performers of color. “We all come from different communities, we all have different friends, but we are also promoting each other, plugging each other’s shows and supporting each other, and I love that about us.”
The six festival producers produce and perform in local burlesque shows year-round, in addition to holding down day jobs, so the festival fundraising, planning and application process all happened during their scant free time, a true labor of love.
The festival would have included classes and performances of all kinds of burlesque, including classic burlesque, which is probably what most people think of when they picture a burlesque performance. But the art form has many varied branches and tendrils, ranging from neo burlesque to nerdlesque to boylesque to acts including elements of dance, theater, comedy, acrobatics and drag.
“Burlesque is for everybody,” says Sally Stardust, meaning that it embraces all bodies. Come to a burlesque show in Richmond and you might see thin bodies, fat bodies, bodies of color, queer bodies, transgender bodies, bodies of many ages, bodies of different abilities and of limited mobilities. “It’s this art form where you’re making your own choreography and your own kind of dance and you can work with your body’s limitations and still create art.”
The decision to postpone until next year was important because her own health puts her at increased risk if she contracts coronavirus. She and festival headliner Jacqueline Boxx, aka Miss Disa-burly-tease, both have compromised immunity due to Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and dysautonomia.
“I personally feel very strongly about canceling large events at this time, because of my health. Looking at me, people can’t tell that I am high-risk, and surely there are lots of other people out there like me. I would hate to host an event like this and to find out later that someone at my event became sick,” Stardust explains, adding that she, Scarlet Starlet and Murphy Lawless, producers of Burlesque Right Meow, had to make similar decisions about other shows.
Fortunately, they were lucky enough to postpone the big event. Moving it a year later meant that they could retain the same venues without losing a deposit and many of the performers have already voiced their desire to continue with the festival in 2021.
“We have put in so much work and time and we thought we were in the home stretch, so this was a really hard decision to pull the plug on the dream,” says Quinn, who also canceled her other upcoming event, “Strip Level Midnight,” a burlesque show based on “The Office” that was slated for performances at Gallery 5 and Center of the Universe Brewing Co. “Even though the dream couldn’t be fulfilled in 2020, we achieved it, and can we make it happen in 2021? Definitely.”
Carmel Clavin, the director of the inaugural Richmond Fringe Festival, is taking an entirely different approach to performance art in the time of social distancing.
Originally planned as a three-day event featuring plays, performance art and variety acts at locations across town, the Richmond Fringe Festival will move online featuring live-streaming ticketed performances of three of the festival productions, as well as a free, live telethon-style event.
Clavin, as a former producer of the Shenandoah Fringe Festival, member of the World Fringe Congress and a veteran of many fringe festivals worldwide, is always thinking about issues of accessibility when it comes to the art she creates and produces.
“What about the people who are deaf? People of modest means, people who are homebound, people who only speak Italian? People who are on the autism spectrum — how can we make this accessible to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to enjoy it?” Clavin asks. “This is not about replacing live, in-person work, it’s about understanding that the ecosystem of art now must include these kinds of measures, not only because of a crisis, but to address the people that always needed this, who were always pushed to the back of the priority list. It’s an ableist, classist problem that doesn’t get a lot of attention.”
Some of the events leading up to the Richmond Fringe Festival had already been live-streamed, like the program launch in January.
“Then this happened and we were like: ‘We don’t need to cancel, we don’t need to live in this mentality, we can pivot and edit,’” she says. “With our resources as they stand, with the world as it stands, with our roster of artists, some of whom are local, or local enough.”
Many of the acts who would have performed were asked not to make the trip, as Clavin wanted to keep all festival-related travel within 100 miles.
Clavin says the festival had to be honest about what it was capable of hosting.
“We had a lot planned, and we just can’t do it all. But we can build something new.”
The Richmond Fringe Festival is scheduled to take place April 4. A digital pass for $15 buys you access to all three featured-shows, “Being B.A.D.,” “Ripples in the Water,” and “Cirque-ocalypse,” followed by a 1960s-style telethon with Carmel Clavin and Jo’Rie Tigerlily as hosts. It features variety entertainers and musicians including the Embalmers, the League of Space Pirates, Dr. Dour & Peach, Fiona Walkington, and burlesque from Eden Charade and Caza Blanca.
“I think the magic of what we do is still alive in the festival format, in the festival vibe,” Clavin says. “Fringe festivals are known for being experimental, kind of risky, and that’s what this is.”
For information on the RVA Burlesque Festival, now scheduled to take place March 25-27, 2021, visit rvaburlesquefestival.com. To learn about other area burlesque events, visit facebook.com/RVABurlesque or subscribe to the RVA Burlesque newsletter: tinyurl.com/ruym4jn.
To tune in to the events of the Richmond Fringe Festival via live stream April 4, visit richmondfringe.com or facebook.com/events/1517751428401612.