Burlesque Scene Saturation Is a Myth

By on July 15, 2015

I regularly hear performers complain about how saturated the burlesque scene has become and how much harder it is now to get gigs or bring in an audience than a few years ago. It’s very true that burlesque has become a thriving art scene with many, many performers and shows vying for attention, but this is true of the scene surrounding just about any art form. Does this mean the scene is saturated? I say no. The scene is maturing, that’s all. And that’s actually a good thing.

Rubber Duck Sea by Whispering Hills

Rubber Duck Sea by Whispering Hills

Burlesque as an art form has grown in public awareness and popularity so that it is no longer an underground, edgy art form only for those “in the know.” The growing number of burlesque festivals is just one indicator of how far we’ve come in recent years. In 2001, there was only one neo-burlesque festival, Tease-O-Rama, and the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend was called Exotic World and the museum and annual reunion and pageant were located on the site of an abandoned goat farm in the middle of the desert in California.

Now there are burlesque festivals all across the US (I believe there are 4 festivals just in Texas) and in more and more countries around the globe! “I think festivals play an important part in this development of burlesque as more of a profession,” says Red Hot Annie, “because I think 10 years ago – or even 5 years ago – there were significantly less people who were even attempting to make this a profession.”

So even as the number of burlesque performers and shows has swelled significantly, creating much more competition, the public’s awareness and appetite for burlesque has grown just as dramatically, providing many new opportunities as well.


The problem is not that there is too much competition.

The problem is a lack of clear differentiation.

With so many more performers and shows on the scene now, it takes more effort and strategic planning to make a name for yourself.

Until a few years ago, being a burlesque performer was a novelty in and of itself, so it was easier to stand out, which means you didn’t have to be as business savvy to get noticed. Some performers who had success during this phase became frustrated when the scene grew and changed, and many new performers now struggle to get hired to perform.


If you want to get traction in burlesque, you need to find a way to stand out from the crowd.

dr-seuss-youer-than-youIn burlesque, we say “You gotta get a gimmick.” In marketing, we call this having a “unique selling proposition,” or “USP.” In other words, be different. Be unique. Be YOU! There is and will always be only one Dita Von Teese. There is also only one YOU, so the trick is to highlight what makes you different from everyone else.

For example, as a show producer, why should people go to your show rather than the show tomorrow night? Or the night after that? Or the show that’s closer to home? How can you make the experience of your show so different that they’ll choose your show when they have so many other options?

To paraphrase Dan Kennedy: When everyone zigs, you need to zag.


This is where you’ll need to do some research.

Here’s a really helpful exercise from Brendon Burchard’s “World’s Greatest Speaker Training” seminar that I’ve adapted for burlesque show producers. You can adjust the same exercise as a performer, teacher, merchandiser, or for any other area where you want to make a splash.

First, make a list of all the other burlesque shows in town. Open a spreadsheet program and list these shows in the left-hand column of your chart.

Now, make a list of the various elements that define the experience of a show and place them in the top row of your spreadsheet. Here are a few ideas, and you may want to add more items to this list.

Format: Many shows in San Francisco consist of two sets with a 10-15 minute intermission, with an MC to keep the show flowing. A few producers here have put on burlesque plays, which tend to be popular both because they’re out of the ordinary and they only run for short periods, so people know they have to get their tickets now or possibly miss out on the show.

Number of performers: Do they have 5 performer doing 2 acts each? 10 performers doing one act?

Types of acts: Are the costumes burlesque festival level, or is there a more DIY aesthetic? Are the acts mostly classic, comedic, naughty, etc.? Is it all burlesque, or are there variety acts as well? Is there a theme to the show, and does the theme change or is it consistent?

Venue type: Bar? Theater? Stadium? (haha!) What is the aesthetic of the venue, and does it contrast or compliment the aesthetic of the acts?

Location: List the city and/or neighborhood. Also, is the location near public transportation and easy to get to? What is the parking situation in the area?

Capacity: What is the capacity of the venue? Also, does the show regularly fill to capacity?
Seating or standing only? A combination of the two?

Audience demographics: What are some commonalities when you look at the audience? Average age? Is it mostly women or men, an equal mix, and is it friendly for genderqueer or non-gender-conforming people? Do they seem conservative or more edgy? Locals or tourists? Scenesters or people who are new to burlesque shows? Is everyone dressed casually or are they done up to the nines or even in costume?

Vibe: How would you describe the atmosphere of the show? For example, people have said that they like going to my student shows, because it feels like a family. The performers all stand at the side of the stage and cheer for each other, there’s a lot of hugging and playful fun, and we invite audience members on stage for birthday spankings and a short dance party at the end of the show, which makes them feel welcome and included.

Ticket Price: What is the door price? Is there a discount for buying tickets in advance? Are there different prices for VIP or special seating?

Frequency: Does the show run weekly, monthly, or is it more sporadic? Also, what night of the week does the show take place?

Show time: When do doors open and when does the show start and end? Does the show start on time?

Fill in these details for each show on your list. If there are any shows you haven’t actually attended, go to them! Then go home and add details for them as well.


duckie-swansOnce you’ve filled in the chart, look for patterns and repetition.

Which shows have similarities and in what ways? What can you do differently? For example, if most of the other shows are held at bars with standing room only, you can choose a seated theater or a supper club as a venue to stand out. If most of the shows take place at night, try offering a Sunday brunch show. If everyone performs to recordings, you might consider bringing in a live band. Don’t be afraid to get creative!

Keep in mind that sometimes no one is doing something because it doesn’t work – or it hasn’t worked YET. I recommend that you start small while you’re trying new ways to set your show apart. That way you can afford to try something and have it fail at first. It might take a while to catch on, or it might be good to tweak the idea or even to drop it and move on to a new idea. You’re experimenting. Innovating. If something doesn’t work the first time, find out why. Ask your audience for feedback, and then keep trying. Persistence can make the difference between eventual success and failure.

Famous Failures: 


The founder of Tease! Bang! Boom!, Bombshell Betty began performing in 1996, toured internationally with her first burlesque troupe in 2001-2002, and founded her burlesque school in 2004 in San Francisco. She has released a burlesque training DVD and 2+ hours of free burlesque training videos, published the pinup modeling book “Plain Jane to Pinup Queen” in 2008, and has toured the US performing and teaching classes and workshops.

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One Comment

  1. Nicole

    July 16, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    I LOVE this! Thank you! Totally doing this as I prep my first show.

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