The term "burlesque" may bring to mind images of glamorous ladies, sequins, feather boas and striptease. And while it can indeed involve those elements, the founders of a new local burlesque company -- Curtains Cabaret -- say it can also be much more: a diverse, inclusive, multifaceted experience.
Curtains Cabaret was formed this summer by Scarlet Conte and DeeDee Queen (editor's note: some performers prefer to go by their stage names to keep their burlesque personas separate from their 'day-job' lives) as a way to foster original burlesque performances on the Peninsula and in the South Bay, as well as to provide shows that feature cohesive plots and quality storytelling.
"We had the concept for an entire theater company based in the South Bay, for a new audience. There are incredible performers down here, and a lot of opportunities," Queen said.
Conte concurred. "We're very committed, because we also get tired of having to drive into the city or to the East Bay," she said with a laugh.
Curtains will present its inaugural show, "Variety on the High Seas," at Dragon Theatre in Redwood City on Friday, Oct. 7. The show, as the title implies, involves a variety of acts tap dance, singing, comedy, fire performing, contortion, and more -- while also adhering to a scripted storyline (written by Conte), about sailors who discover a treasure map leading to the fabled "glittering, golden booty." Rollicking, raunchy, nautical-themed adventures ensue.
"It's going to be a really fun, really lighthearted, comedic show, with a lot of silly elements in it. It's good escapism, and right now we all need some escapism," Conte said.
In addition to Conte and Queen, the cast includes performers Lexy Lemondrop, Magnoliah Black, Feline and Felicia Drake.
The goal of Curtains Cabaret is to produce shows that are hybrids of traditional variety shows and scripted theater, and to show audiences that there's more to burlesque than striptease.
"Burlesque is a new spin on an old-fashioned art form," Conte explained, a form that dates back to the days of music hall and vaudeville.
"I think the form of burlesque that we're talking about is taking the ability to use striptease and parody and satire and tell really complex stories with it; it can be about sex appeal but also about politics, nerdy things, things to make you think or feel," Queen said. She said she wants Curtains patrons to "leave feeling like you got a story out of it, not just the striptease, although that's nice too."
Modern burlesque, being mostly performer-produced and with a DIY ethic, "has more freedom" than in years past, Conte said, and isn't necessarily as focused on eroticism as the primary goal. Diversity is now a priority. While some performers revel in doing the "very classic sequin and feathers" routines, others do comedy, dance, music or even gore routines, featuring dancers covered in blood or disguised as zombies.
"The common thread is there is an element of striptease; that's kind of the selling point," Conte said. "Hey, you can see some great-looking people take their clothes off but also you can learn something."
Conte, who's also a belly dancer, fire performer, aerialist and storyteller, got her start in burlesque in Austin, Texas, when she took part in a "Burlesque for Peace" fundraiser and anti-war protest. "I got really inspired and started producing my own shows," she explained. Now a Bay Area resident, she teaches aerial skills in Redwood City.
Queen has a background in musical theater and came to burlesque two years ago, while in recovery from an eating disorder. A date took her to a burlesque show, where she saw "people of all shapes and abilities completely own themselves onstage. It was incredible, before I even left the theater I started Googling classes," she said. She began studying pole dance, became a certified teacher and began performing burlesque, even winning burlesque competitions. She also works as a wellness coach and motivational speaker.
"My specific focus is really on showing people that you can be OK in whatever body you're in. My acts take on a body-positive statement," she said, "to speak to people who might otherwise think, 'oh you can only do this if you're a certain size, a certain shape.' It's about having fun and living right now; it's the only chance you get."
By forming Curtains Cabaret, Queen and Conte have brought their expertise in musical theater, circus arts, storytelling and burlesque together in what they hope will be a long-running partnership. Their next planned show at Dragon Theatre, a holiday-season show entitled "Oy Humbug," is scheduled for Dec. 24 and is in its early stages.
And though their shows are definitely for adults (21+) only, Queen and Conte aim to introduce burlesque to new audiences.
"We try to keep it early and accessible. People who feel a little bit hesitant and think, 'It's going to be risque, it's not for me,'" should keep an open mind, Queen said. "It's funny; it's exciting; it's titillating. It can change the way you see performance."
What: “Variety on the High Seas”
Where: Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City
When: Friday, Oct. 7, at 8 p.m.