Friday, 14 September 2012

Such a Bastard

You know, looking back at it, I've realized there are a lot of things that happen to you while you are at an event like the Burlesque Hall of Fame. Alcohol tolerance doubles, your sleep schedule completely re-wires itself (I went from someone who was in bed by 11pm to someone who now stays up till 4am regularly), and you start to wonder why you don't wear fake eyelashes and head to toe glitter every day. However, there are also a few things that happen to you after BHoF. One of which is that you get slightly obsessed with your favourite performers from that weekend, you come home tired and hung over and yet you still log onto your computer and hunt down every interview and video footage you can find on them.

Such was the case with me in regards to Bastard Keith.

Bastard Keith was the host of the Sunday night closing ceremonies at BHoF this year and within the first five seconds of him being on stage I was his. It didn't hurt that he started the night out by performing 'Try a Little Tenderness', which is one of my favourite songs, but then he proceeded to be one of the most energetic and charming hosts I've ever seen.

When I returned home to Vancouver I promptly looked up everything I could on him and eventually found his blog 'Polo is My Life', and after reading every post I sent him an email requesting permission to link him off this site as well as the idea of doing an interview with me. He graciously agreed and after a lot of back and forth I am pleased to bring you my interview with Bastard Keith.

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Voodoo: You're known as a quadruple threat: singer, host, performer, and writer. (Not to mention very snazzy dresser!) The first and most obvious question I have for you is how did you get into burlesque?  Was being an emcee your goal, or did you just fall into it naturally over time?

Bastard Keith: First of all, your words are far too kind.  I'd never intended to be involved in burlesque at all, let alone emcee it. I started because in 2005, Jonny Porkpie wound up at a closing party for a play I was in.  He saw me singing karaoke after several drinks, liked my voice and asked me to do a bit as his bastard half-brother, Keith.  So I spent about a year and a quarter doing second banana bits for Jonny in Sweet and Nasty and Pinchbottom, which was where the persona started to develop. I was asked to do some emceeing in 2006 but a bout of tonsillitis put paid to that notion.  
At the beginning of 2007, though, I got a couple of hosting offers and took to it rather naturally.  I'm a VERY different emcee now than I was then, of course.  I used to be much more aggressively weird and confrontational.  More vulgar, edgier.  It took me a long time to find the line and walk it rather than stomp all over it.  Now I take the craft more seriously and the rest of it much more lightly.

Emceeing is an incredibly gratifying and difficult job, and, like burlesque, not just anyone can step on a stage and do it.  Look, for instance, at the sheer iconic madness of Scotty the Blue Bunny; that's cultivated, curated and WORKED.  But I think lots of people imagine they could step up there, make some dirty jokes and do it just as well.  Scotty's developed his persona through a lot of hard work and road-testing, and his mind is a steel trap.  He understands how much fun it is to watch someone think on their feet and triumph.  The best emcees mix scripted material, a unique persona and the ability to process and react to nearly anything while keeping the wheels on the bus.  They also need to know that the show is not about them.

Miss Astrid (another magically gifted emcee) put it best; in the cake, emcees are the eggs.  We give structure and shape to an evening.  Without structure, 90 minutes can feel like 3 hours.  With great structure, 3 hours can feel like 10 minutes.

Voodoo: After seeing you perform at BHoF I was blown away by your vocal talents; your rendition of 'Try a Little Tenderness' has got to be one of the best I've heard so far. There are also a few other video clips of your singing performances floating around online. I was wondering what have been some of your favourite songs to perform so far? What songs are you looking forward to bringing to the stage in the future?

Bastard Keith: Well, I used to sing much more rock and pop.  I loved singing Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Golden Years.  Revealed Burlesque (which Gigi LaFemme and Doc Wasabassco started up in 2007) started me on a path to old big band and jazz, which is the meat of my repertoire.  My favorite FAVORITE is I'm Your Man, the Buble arrangement.  Now I'm starting to love singing great Black soul, which is where the Otis thing came from.  I see the old Atlantic R and B vocalists as the reigning gods of popular music, and I want to pay my respects.

Voodoo: Speaking of the stage, would you say that you have a specific hosting style? I've heard from some emcees that as a general rule it's good to have your hosting acts half scripted and then improvise the other half. Do you agree? Also, how do you deal with hecklers if/when they pop up?

Bastard Keith: I'd say I have about 5, maybe 10 minutes of scripted material.  Also about 5 audience participation bits.  I mean, at all.  Not that I use in a single show.  The rest is a tightrope walk.  I did a bit more scripting for BHoF, because there you're not interacting as much with the audience (though humping Dee Milo's leg was rather felicitous).

It's a good idea to script, probably far more than I do.  As far as style, I'm most interested in the British music hall tradition.  The suavely vulgar compere.  The song and dance man.  I'm a firm believer that if you're going to host, you have to show up from minute one with a talent.  Since I can sing okay, I fixed on that.

The important thing is that you welcome an audience into an understanding, a contract.  They need to know what the boundaries are and how to respect them.  It's very easy for an audience to be bored, so do something exciting at the top.  It's easy for them to get out of hand, so set your rules up at the beginning.  It's easy for them to act disrespectful of the artists, so be hard-nosed about what you will and won't put up with.

Which brings us to hecklers.  Personally, I tend to shut them down with a put-down and then ignore them.  If they persist to the extent that it's harming the show, the audience is usually on my side, so I enlist them to tell whoever it is to "SHUT THE FUCK UP," often in unison.  That does the trick.

I believe that Master of Ceremonies is a serious title with a lot of meaning behind it.  You must master the audience and put them in service of a good time.  It's two-way service: they serve the night, and we serve them.

Voodoo: I was greatly impressed with your blog entry, ' My Adventures in the World of Women: Being a Feminist Smut Peddler'.  Can you talk a little bit about how that entry came into being?

Bastard Keith: Nothing mind-blowing; I just think men owe it to the world to be always growing and thinking and learning.   Because holy shit,  nearly every big problem in the world is the result of a privileged class (usually white heteronormative men) not examining and understanding their privilege.  That piece was my attempt to explain and contextualize my growing understanding of my place in the world and my responsibilities.  It's so EASY to just be a guy.  We get paid more, we're at less risk socially, we're just cut a FUCKload of slack.  Anyone who says otherwise is being deliberately ignorant, and they're part of the problem.  Conservative thinkers like to imagine that all things are equal in this world, that we're all born with the same opportunities, that America is a straight-up meritocracy, that any advantage or disadvantage is born of the actions of the individual.  This is foolishness.  I'm delighted the blog resonated with people.  I'm still learning every day, and I hope I never stop.

Voodoo: "Backstage with a bunch of changing burlesque performers, I’m the one with the immediate potential to be an asshole.  This is their safe place.  Not mine."

This quote in particular is brilliant, and with more and more men getting into boylesque and sharing backstage areas with the ladies I think it serves as a good reminder of backstage etiquette. As a performer, host, intelligent feminist, and man involved with burlesque can you give some of the new guys a few tips on how they should be conducting themselves should they want to stay in the scene?

Bastard Keith: Just be cool.  Be obliging, be helpful, be unobtrusive.  Read the room and know when they need you out.  If, as I have, you date performers, BE FUCKING NICE.  Poison the well and you'll reap the whirlwind (also, never mix metaphors).  Most of all, just understand exactly how lucky you are to be allowed to be a part of the scene.

Voodoo: I found a clip online of you doing a straight up striptease at the New York Boylesque Festival. Can you talk a little bit about the experience of going from host to striptease artist? Were you more nervous about your performance than usual?

Bastard Keith: It was terrifying.  People tell me they don't know how I can go out in front of hundreds of people and wing it, confident that I'll get the laugh.  But striptease artists are a thousand times braver than I am.  My partner, Madame Rosebud, coached me up and made much of the costume.  After watching the other performers tech their numbers, I thought I might find a reason to drop out.  I seriously considered it.  Or I considered coming up with an entirely new routine that played to my strengths.  Like, right there, on the spot.  I'm glad I didn't.  But man, going after Mod Carousel was not easy.  Those boys are cut.  And they can DANCE.  I'm only delighted I didn't totally degrade the night with my work.

Voodoo: And finally, a question that I find I ask everyone, what has been the worst thing you've ever smelled backstage?

Bastard Keith: Ego.

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Thank you so much Keith for putting up with my insistent emails about this interview, you're a patient and sweet man!

If you would like to be kept up to date about where and when Bastard Keith is performing I recommend his facebook page, or visiting his website where you can check out the Gig Calendar as well as see some great pictures and listen to a song track or two.

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