From Meow to Rawr: Becoming a Stage Kitten in the Burlesque World

Sweep up the stage, help clear the clothes, then go grab the stool and the chair, I say to myself, trying to remember what else. Then quickly go back for the chocolate syrup, the napkin, and the spoon. Once you’ve got those, go back to grab the ice cream plate from Seedy Edie – you don’t want it to melt! And try to look like you’re having fun, but be efficient and quick about it!

Kittening is a strange thing. Before I go on about how strange it is, I’ll tell you what it isn’t. Being a kitten, a.k.a. a burlesque stage assistant, isn’t as cute and fluffily fun as it sounds – you’re not, unfortunately, lazily chasing a ball of yarn on an idyllic farm. It isn’t even just being stage eye candy to be ogled, which is what a lot of people think it is. The burlesque stage kitten, actually, is a tough steel fist wrapped inside a fluffy ball of yarn. She looks adorable outwardly, but inside she’s all business. She should really be called the stage lioness.

A stage kitten is the person responsible for the setup and cleanup of each burlesque act in a show. That might sound simple, but with so many acts, there can often be a boatload that goes with those two duties, as well as tasks outside of those duties. It really depends on the show, but you are basically a stage assistant and the producer’s right-hand woman, working hard to make sure everything goes smoothly. Because the producer may also be hosting, she may not have time to answer any questions, and you are essential to the running of the show. It’s kind of exhausting and after many a show I’ve kittened, I’ve sat down to a much-needed cocktail by myself, feeling glad the night is over and like another success has happened (or failure has been avoided!)

The first person to give me a stage kittening gig was my friend Calamity Chang, a burlesque producer in New York. This gig was at Macao Trading Company, one of my favorite venues for burlesque, delicious Asian cocktails and Macao-style food. Calamity produced a monthly event there called Drunken Dragon Nights, and she needed a sub (no, not that way!) kitten. Macao’s downstairs space is an intimate throwback ode to Asia’s drinking and canoodling dens, and I love it.

I can’t even remember what I wore, but it was probably just okay – maybe a simple corset, bra, garter and fluffy knickers, with my hair curled and my most flaming lipstick on. What I do remember is the stockings I wore – I had to ask Calamity to readjust the garter attached to them. We were doing so in the kitchen amidst the heat and fervor, with all the busboys looking on with great interest, when she broke a nail because the stockings were thick ones, not thin beautiful showgirl stockings. I laugh now when I think about those stockings and how they were more suited to a Heidi-type boarding school outfit and a wool kilt. They were the only ones I’d ever had at that point!

That gig turned out to be really fun, and one of the best kittening gigs I did. Though it was a tad bit busy and stressful at times, due to trying to hear over the din and execute everything in good order — from props to cleanups — it was also enthralling. Games like musical chairs were played! Stunning performers unrobed! Dance contests were had! Many laughs poured out of audience members! Calamity had champagne poured all over herself while lying on the bar!

Afterwards, the performers and I had a gratis dinner from the delicious late-night menu at Macao, and I even got cab fare home. The next morning, Calamity posted on my wall, “You’re part of the glitter world now! Welcome to the other side!” Little did I know the onslaught of glitter to come. Glitterphobes beware – don’t hang with anyone in the burlesque world!

When there are a lot of props in a show, as there were at The New York Asian Burlesque Festival, and Anja’s Keister BHOF fundraiser, The One-Off Show-Off, you really need two kittens and you need to coordinate quite well with your co-kitten. Setting up the stage can often be quite complex. Minx Arcana’s Legacy of the Witch act had multiple props that needed to be set in specific areas for her to pick up during her act. Agent Wednesday’s stage setup for her meatball act at The One-Off Show-Off was so complicated that she had to draw me a diagram for her pasta bowl, giant fork, sign, tray, napkin, and table. Essence Revealed had a set of newspaper boards that had to be set in order on a stool for her to pick up one by one during her Josephine Baker act, and if they hadn’t been in order, the act would have had hiccups disruptive to her. It’s tiring being a kitten sometimes, but it’s so fun! A lot of times you’re working with a really cramped amount of space to store props backstage, and you just make do the best you can, stashing away things where you can. I’m far from perfect. One time a busboy even stole the martini glasses my co-kitten stashed!

When the performer removes his or her articles of clothing, a good kitten counts everything taken off and returns all items to the performers as soon as possible. I watch acts avidly, and try not to miss anything. During Legs Malone’s Legacy of the Witch act, one of her star earrings fell off and I was sure to retrieve it. I think she really appreciated that!

As the kitten, you may also be called upon to assist with games or spin the trivia wheel, sell raffle tickets, show off raffle prizes, help execute the raffle itself, check tickets, and distribute prizes. In that case, you will need to know raffle ticket prices, make change and tear tickets to prep them for the drawing.

During games, acts or demonstrations, I’ve been lassoed by a handsome cowboy, danced upon by a gorgeous showgirl, used as a magic assistant by a charming magician, and planted as a rube in the audience by a sexy clown (not complaining about any of those). You’re sort of “all hands on deck” as a kitten.

There are other technical duties – I have fastened many a garter strap, helped pick jewelry, procured safety pins, applied glitter, helped quick-fix stage props, offered advice about the stage because the performer couldn’t come out in front of the audience at that moment, and noticed or fixed makeup smears.

It’s an informal duty, but another aspect of being the kitten is offering moral support. I have calmed the nerves of stage jitters backstage, fetched drinks, and consider hugging a personal duty. I’m a warm person, and I love giving hugs. I love being part of this world. I love hanging out with these other feminist women and men, I love the queer community in burlesque, and I feel supported and safe in it. (This is not everyone’s experience in burlesque – it’s only been mine. It’s not a perfect, shiny, happy utopia, but my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive).

I’ve been a successful, capable person in many bookish areas my whole life, but I’ve never before craved the limelight in the sense that you’d expect a burlesque performer to. However, there’s something about the burlesque world that makes even being a side character in it incredibly fun. It’s a theatre that’s so raw and DIY, so creative and so fun. I’ve been watching, working with and volunteering for circus and burlesque for over a decade now, from the small stage of now-deceased fave Rififi in the East Village and the old Palace of Variety where I volunteered for the Bindlestiff Cirkus, to the intimate stages at Duane Park and Parkside Lounge, to the big stages at Drom and Le Poisson Rouge. I’ve written about burlesque for dozens of publications and have now produced more than a few burlesque shows. Yet I still feel like a little kid at the circus when I go to see a burlesque show and the lights come up on the stage and the host intros the show and the audience cheers! To be involved with it is an honor – I am constantly shocked and awed by how incredible costumes and acts are, and how warm and kind burlesque performers have been to me. I believe that what we’re doing as a community is superfeminist, because we decide and we create and we produce. Regardless of content, when feminists make the choices (even when we as a community disagree or are not wholly of one mind), we are a feminist organism that kicks ass.

As a burlesque producer, I realize the value of a kitten more than ever. My best kitten has consistently been my close friend Rhoda Dendron, who is also a burlesque producer and trivia host. I can rely on her to give me and the performers moral support, look great onstage, remember cues, and quickly and efficiently perform her stage assistant job duties. A great kitten is hard to find, and I appreciate her. I’ll be kittening for her when she produces and hosts this awesome benefit for HollaBack!, the anti-street harassment organization. Hope you can come!

Here’s to kittening for many years to come.


Image Credit: Justina Villanueva. Syn Peaks kittening at Legacy of the Witch fest.