Reading and writhing: Booklover's Burlesque is back
You might not think striptease and reading go together, but burlesque producer and performer Lacy Knightly (pronouns they/them) says there is some overlap: The overactive imagination.
Knightly's Booklover's Burlesque returns to the stage Friday, Feb. 18, for an evening of shimmying and shaking to music paired with libidinal literary readings.
Burlesque, which is the adult themed spin-off of 20th century music hall entertainment, has enjoyed a 30-year revival. Fans have recaptured the art of dancing and striptease, giving its analog simplicity new appeal in an hypermediated world. Knightly's cast members aim to take burlesque one step further, with themed nights, improvisation and a nod to the cultured life. They've held Shakespeare burlesque nights, noir mystery nights, fairy tale nights and love letter nights.
Booklover's Burlesque began in April 2016 and has happened four or five times a year since. Knightly's friend in their writers group, Amber J. Keyser, had a book coming out and wanted a dramatic launch. It was called "The V-Word," an anthology of Young Adult writers talking about their first time having sex.
"She wanted writers to go up and read their excerpt, and then have a burlesque act that matches it in feeling, tone or emotion, right after it. It was a big, big success," Knightly told the Portland Tribune over chai in Sellwood. With their lilac hair, trilby and man's suit, Knightly stands out as stylish in a rainwear world. This former elementary school teacher is also a drag king and drag artist.
On stage, the audience will see different readers doing five- or ten-minute sets, followed by lavishly costumed burlesquers interpreting their words and moving to recorded music while shedding their layers. The readers and performers may or may not work together beforehand. When they do, they collaborate on the themes or emotions they want to express. There's an emcee to tie it all together, but apart from a technical rehearsal, the performers are siloed and can surprise each other. Past readers and performers have used texts such as Colette's "The Vagabond" and Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."
The shows used to be at a Southeast Portland bar called Crush where they would squeeze in 80 audience members. In the pandemic they are at Alberta Rose Theatre, with 60 percent capacity for social distancing. The first in-person event, after 18 months of online shows, was a Gothic literary night, in October 2021. Knightly performed while a reader in a Regency dress read from "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies." The show attracted the capacity 300 people.
Not only fans, but book lovers, too
Knightly recently did a six-month stint of the Cabaret Society, at the Botanist, a Pearl District bar that closed in December 2021. "It was a mix of all different kinds of burlesque: draglesque, boylesque and circus and cabaret type of acts," they said.
Knightly is fluent in genderfluid art forms and explains how the art of burlesque has evolved. "Classic, neo, nerd, draglesque …"
Draglesque is drag acts dancing and stripteasing, although switching up the genders.
"Nerdlesque is anything attached to pop culture. Like a character in a Marvel or DC movie, like Spider-Man or Wonder Woman. Harry Potter would be nerdlesque. Boylesque would be someone who identifies as male and is doing burlesque. I have also produced Cinemalesque, which is based off the Golden Age of Hollywood films. I like to match burlesque with something else." Neo refers to the post 1990s revival, which began in New York and spread and flourished in Seattle.
Portlanders can still learn the moves. Holly Dai's All that Glitters classical burlesque academy teaches burlesque in dance studios. There are weekly burlesque shows at the Jack London and The Queen's Head bars.
"It's coming back, but it's been hard," Knightly said, not of the revival but the return from the pandemic.
The emcee goes over the rules for how to be a good audience member, such as no photography, how to tip and how to treat the performers with respect. They pass the hat after every act, so audience members should bring a fistful of fives to fit in.
Knightly is also a writer. They have a master's degree in creative writing and have written poetry, plays and novels. Their latest work in progress is a play called "A Night At The Monocle."
"In the 1920s and 1930s The Monocle was the first lesbian nightclub in Paris," they explained. "A monocle worn (by a woman) then was the symbol of being a lesbian or bisexual, or someone who is sapphic and interested in women. So, it'd be a female-presenting person wearing a suit and a monocle."
Drag has blossomed and made it on to screen (Pose, "RuPaul's Drag Race," Trixie Mattel & Katya) but, despite the 2010 movie "Burlesque" with Cher and Christina Aguilera, burlesque has not been mainstreamed.
"The neo-burlesque revival started in New York City with Jo Weldon," they said. "Seattle has an international conference every year called BurlyCon that is wonderful and inspiring. And every year in Las Vegas there's the Burlesque Hall of Fame, where they do the Miss Exotic World pageant, but they've had to stop it in person."
During the pandemic, Knightly got into virtual work, where the audience pays for a live show online. Their partner works in television. He made sure their home studio's lighting and cameras were high quality. They taught other performers how to upgrade, such as using lights from Home Depot, and how to synchronize music. The pair worked out of their living room in front of a red velvet curtain from Amazon.
"Three-point lighting, aspect ratios, use your phone in landscape mode. It was much needed in 2020," Knightly said. Some rented spaces, some performed at home, or outdoors. Knightly met people from all over the world, such as a producer in Australia, for whom they did three shows at 2 a.m. and producers in the UK, France, Italy, Scotland and Spain.
Performing virtually — look at the camera, not the monitor, connect with people in exotic time zones who may not speak English — was a slog. They're really happy to be back on stage.
"It was wonderful and hard. And it helped keep me performing, even at home. Keep putting on the costume, keep putting on the makeup, keep doing the acts and meet people from all over the world," said Knightly.
When: 7:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 18
Where: Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 N.E. Alberta St.
Other upcoming shows are: Vinyl Burlesque: A Retro Records Revue at Dig A Pony on Feb. 13; a new show called The Nightcap Revue at The Bit House Collective on March 4, and Dapperlesque, a mix of burlesque, boylesque, draglesque and drag king on March 18 at Alberta Rose Theatre; Booklover's Burlesque: The Sci-Fi Edition is April 29, and the Shakespeare edition will be in July.
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