This Thursday, burlesque extravaganza Between The Sheets returns again for a new season at the London Wonderground and its fabulous Spiegeltent. Fast becoming an annual highlight of the cabaret calendar, this show has it all: gorgeous and talented performers, routines bursting with humour and wit and absolutely no shortage of sexy charm.
Producer Miss Polly Rae is an indubitable institution of the London cabaret scene. Last month, she celebrated a decade as a burlesque dancer; in that time, she has had notable stints in the West End with The Hurly Burly Girls and has created the naughty nocturnal treat that is Soho Burlesque Late at Hippodrome Live. She has been recognised both in the capital (with a London Cabaret Award for “Best Burlesque Act” in 2015) and around the world: in the latest global poll run by industry site 21st Century Burlesque, she placed 34th overall and 6th in the UK. Demonstrating the depth of expertise in Between The Sheets, its co-star and assistant director Kitty Bang Bang was voted 21st overall and 3rd in the UK.
We caught up with Miss Polly Rae for two exclusive interviews. In the first one, she told us everything we need to know about the latest version of her hit show. Now, she opens up about on matters more personal and some solid gold advice on how to make it to the top.
How would you describe yourself to those who have yet to see you on a stage?
Hmm…How about a red-headed, sparkly songstress with a penchant for innuendo? On stage, I like to portray a goddess-like diva who takes no shit and can get whatever she wants. But doing that while making audiences feel relaxed and happy, like they are in my living room (a tip Dusty Limits gave me a few years back).
How different would you say is your on-stage persona to your off-stage one?
I’ve definitely given Miss Polly Rae a different accent to me. She is perhaps a grander and more eloquent version of myself. Polly Rae is a down to earth lass from Preston with quite a broad Lancashire accent. She is also a bit of a goof! Miss Rae, on the other hand, encompasses the more glamorous and sexual side that is a very real part of me, but those who know the real me would probably say that on-stage Polly and off-stage Polly have quite different characters. I think “realness” in life is very important. The diva stays onstage!
“Miss Polly Rae encompasses the more glamorous and sexual side that is a very real part of me.”
Dita Von Teese has moved more into music recently. As someone who has incorporated singing into her acts for some years, have you considered cutting your own tracks?
I have, many times. I need to get on with it! I have recorded many songs over the years from my Hurly Burly days to present. Most recently I have worked on several pieces for Between The Sheets with our director Laura ‘Friski Mivaj’ Corcoran and musical genius Michael Roulston. We have a version of Oops by Tweet and we wrote a delightful original song named Queef about the embarrassing things that can happen in the bedroom.
I love singing and although I still consider myself a burlesque artist, performance wise I am definitely putting more focus into singing and hosting these days so I wouldn’t rule out a Miss Polly Rae album!
For those looking to follow in your footsteps, how would you suggest they become burlesque dancers?
I started ten years ago with Jo King and the London Academy of Burlesque. She actually introduced me to burlesque and her training and the knowledge she imparted really helped me develop my style. She helped me choreograph my original acts and in later years helped me refine work that I had already created. It had a massive impact on my career and I’ll be forever grateful to her for that.
“My advice to anyone stepping into this business is: be prepared to work hard!”
The burlesque industry must have changed, though, since those early days.
You’re right, it has changed a lot. The bar continues to rise with incredible artists breaking out with new and innovative ideas: you just have to look at the talent coming through the Burlesque Hall of Fame and shows at the national and international Fringe Festivals to see the excitement and diversity. My advice to anyone stepping into this business is: be prepared to work hard!
So what should they focus on?
First of all you need to do your research, look at the history of burlesque right from the beginning and get a good understanding of the art form, look at what has been out there and what is out there now, discover what other artists are doing – not just in burlesque but in other arts – and find out what inspires you. Burlesque is about the individual so figure out what kind of burlesque artist you want to be; these days there are so many different types of burlesque from classical to neo and it’s incredible the way it has evolved.
You need to create acts, characters and personas that represent you and are specific to you. As they said in the song from Gypsy “you gotta have a gimmick”. This is still relevant today and you have to figure out what will make you different and stand out from the crowd. Be innovative and creative.
I’d say you start by creating one act, come up with a concept, costume, choreography, persona, music etc and then you rehearse and refine the act within an inch of its life. Find opportunities to showcase your work , even in the development stages so you can get feedback and find out what works and what doesn’t; there are places around that offer these kind of opportunities, for example Burlesque Idol. The best way to hone your craft is on a stage in front of an audience so try and get as much stage time as possible.
“It’s not easy to make it, there’s no point in telling anyone it is, but if you have the talent, creativity, passion and drive you have a bloody good chance.”
What else can they do?
Go to cabaret and burlesque shows and network your ass off, meet producers, make contacts, promote yourself, create your own opportunities and offer to audition. You have to see yourself as a product and entity that you are selling so once you have an act you’re happy with you need the tools to sell it. Having a website, social media handles and pages, images and footage will all really help. Send your promotional material to whoever you think may be interested. The burlesque community in my experience is very helpful so I would also talk to fellow artists and seek advice from people you admire.
It’s not easy to make it, there’s no point in telling anyone it is, but if you have the talent, creativity, passion and drive you have a bloody good chance.
Between The Sheets will be at the London Wonderground from this Thursday 12 May and continues on 9 and 30 June; 21 July; 4, 18 and 25 August; and 8 September. Tickets are from £19 (including £1 online booking fee). Information on show timings and ticket availability can be found on the London Wonderground