Hooting and Hollering: A beginner’s guide to Montreal’s burlesque scene

by Selin Altuntur, A&E editor

(Selin Altuntur / McGill Tribune)

Deep in the underbelly of St-Laurent’s nightlife scene lies the Wiggle Room—Montreal’s iconic burlesque club. Founded in 2013 by Jeremy Hechtman, the man who produced the annual Fringe Festival and opened the Mainline Theatre—the club is somewhat well-hidden behind a large black door. Only a small label on the mailbox and a bright orange pinup sign indicate what lies beyond the venue’s exterior. Upstairs, however, the Wiggle Room makes up for its subtle first impression—flaunting red velvet curtains, a classy-kitsch décor, and an impressively stocked cocktail bar. Every week, several burlesque shows with novel themes, ranging from Batman to Stephen King to Gwen Stefani, are performed on the Wiggle’s stage in front of boisterous crowds.

“When I was a kid, all I ever wanted to do was open The Muppet theatre,” Hechtman explained. “Which is essentially burlesque and vaudeville and stuff like that. And that’s what I did—we’re a grownup Muppet theatre.”

Along with his partner in crime, Manager and Performer Frenchy Jones*, Hechtman set out to fill the burlesque club niche that was lacking in Montreal. Before the Wiggle Room opened, some venues like the Mainline and Café Cléopatre hosted burlesque shows.

Jeremy Hechtman and Frenchy Jones performing at the Wiggle Room (Selin Altuntur / The McGill Tribune)

“But there was no specific home of burlesque,” Hechtman added. “And now there are a number of places. Our vision was entirely unique!”

Originally working in theatre, Hechtman got his start in the performing arts by directing, writing, and acting in plays at Dawson College and McGill University. After running the Mainline and the Fringe Festival for a number of years, Hechtman turned to burlesque in search of an alternate creative path. The switch wasn’t unprecedented, however, as Hechtman was interested in the art form long before opening the Wiggle Room.

“I wrote a play about burlesque in Montreal,” Hechtman said. “That was the first show we did at the Mainline. It was called Johnny Canuk & the Last Burlesque.”

Hechtman’s right-hand lady, Frenchy Jones, stumbled into her burlesque career by chance.

“I never thought I would be onstage until I started doing improv by [a] fluke,” Jones said. “I went to Théatre St-Catherine and a friend of mine was like, ‘If you come to a class you can see the show for free.’ I was fucking broke, so I attended the class—and I had that a-ha moment where you’re like, ‘Oh I should really be onstage. This is really fun.’”

“So I did 10 years of improv and I kind of wanted a change,” Jones elaborated. “In my previous life, I was a makeup artist and a stylist and so I decided I was going to help out burlesque girls with their costumes [.…] After a year, I just started my first number, but I didn't want to take my top off.”

“Now we have a hard time getting her to keep her top on,” Hechtman chimed in.

The duo riffed off one another with ease during the interview. A stranger listening to them would undoubtedly notice a certain familial rapport that seemed deliberately, albeit naturally, played up for laughs. Turns out, hamming it up and playing a role is a quintessential part of the experience at the Wiggle Room.

“We all have our characters. The staff, we all have our scripts that we follow,” Hechtman explained. “Frenchy talks to every single client that comes in, goes up to their table. If I’m working the bar, there's always a back-and-forth between the host and us, it's very immersive—right from the minute you walk up the stairs and you buy your ticket from the little ticket booth window. My role is to be the surly boss. ”

“And I’m the mama,” Jones added.

This sense of intimacy and community is an important aspect of Montreal’s burlesque scene, which has been gaining a lot of traction in Montreal in recent years. Although larger cities like Toronto and New York have burlesque venues of their own, Montreal’s community is especially vibrant.

“I think that the girls here are often challenged to stay current and come up with new acts, so [the burlesque scene] stays fresh,” Hechtman said. “We do classes here, we're constantly coaching new talent, helping them build acts in order to keep the scene healthy and vibrant […] and it's great. Our burlesque community has more of a sense of community than elsewhere. We all know each other for the most part.”

Selin Altuntur interviews Jeremy Hechtman and Frenchy Jones at the Wiggle Room, as the venue's crew sets up for a show nearby.

Additionally, Montreal’s scene benefits from a unique brand of weirdness. Lulu les Belles Mirettes* , burlesque performer and producer of Burlesgeek, a geek-themed burlesque troupe, illustrated how Montreal’s attitude diverges from what are seen as norms in the international scene. For instance, the annual Montreal Burlesque Festival, features the glitter and glamour associated with classic burlesque; however, the city’s scene is more defined by the creativity of its performers and their willingness to explore more comedic forms of burlesque.

“We have a burlesque festival here, but we didn't really feel it was representative of the scene in Montreal,” Mirettes said, referring to herself and her business partner Baron Von Styk. “The festival is really beautiful, a very good Las Vegas quality show. But a lot of [burlesque performers] in Montreal don't do beautiful shows—a lot of people do a lot of weird, comedy things.”

Lulu les Belles Mirettes performing at Burlesgeek (photo courtesy of DeCourval Photography and Art by Michel Poulin)

In response to this discrepancy, Mirettes debuted her own annual neo-burlesque festival, the Bagel Burlesque Expo, in April 2016. The lineup often includes numbers that reference geek culture and incorporate ‘gorelesque’ acts—bloody routines that aim to scare audiences.

“It's a neo-burlesque festival, so it's geek-themed, really theatrical, [including] gorelesque or other really weird stuff,” Mirettes said. “It's not classical in the sense of the boa and feathers [....] If you have a boa and feathers, the person is going to do something weird with it. It's more contemporary, more funny, and weird.”

Embracing oddity is essential for entertaining burlesque. Some performers, like Frenchy Jones, are interested in pushing the limits of burlesque as far as possible. A couple of her numbers include fake blood and costumes inspired by classic horror films, such as Saw and The Ring.

“I do gore, too. I have two numbers that are more gore—I have a Jigsaw number and a Ring. number,” Jones said. “I love it because I [used to work at] haunted houses [.…] I had to stay in character for like ten hours, so I created these weird characters that I never thought I would use again. I happened to be asked to do a horror show and I used one of my characters and people loved it. I end my number by ripping my dress. So every time I do this number, I have to go buy a dress.”

Burlesque is a unique form of self-expression—one where anything goes. Each routine can be as unique and personal as the artist. While some performers, like Jones and Mirettes, enjoy testing the boundaries of the genre, others mobilize burlesque as a form of protest against current issues. Concordia student and performer, Sugar Vixen*, sees her art as a powerful means of making an impactful statement.

“I mean, I’m angry! I’m a women’s studies student and I’m really upset about society!” Vixen said. “My idea of feminism parallels my idea of burlesque. It’s very much rooted in creative self-expression, freedom in choice, sexual freedom and liberation, and sort of taking the patriarchy and being like, ‘Fuck you! This is my body and I’m doing what I want.”

Sugar Vixen performing at the Wiggle Room (Selin Altuntur / The McGill Tribune)

In addition, burlesque is Vixen’s preferred art form because it lends performers absolute freedom in creating personalized routines.

“You can do anything onstage that you want, you can tell a story,” Vixen explained. “A lot of people incorporate satire or do a parody of a typical gender trope or norm. I once did an act where I was a 50’s pinup housewife serving dinner. And when I served dinner, it was a [man’s] severed head on a platter. So, it’s like, you can really portray any story you want and do whatever you want because it’s fundamentally you.”

Vixen hopes to see more outspoken feminism within Montreal’s burlesque scene. She also has dreams of a more inclusive future for the burlesque community in the city.

“Not everybody in Montreal identifies as a feminist [just because] they’re a burlesque performer,” Vixen explains. “But when I spent time in Seattle, for example, they’re advocating for feminism and are super inclusive [towards the] LGBT community. Even disabled persons are more welcome, I find. Here [in Montreal], we don’t have any visibly disabled performers, there’s low representation of women of colour and people of colour and obviously that’s something I’d like to see change if we’re advocating for inclusivity and feminism [in the industry].”

Delivering a strong feminist message is one of the most important aspects of burlesque for Sugar Vixen. Thus far, positive reactions from audiences have been extremely encouraging for the young performer.

“[My favourite part about my burlesque experience] is being able to connect with people and then subsequently [growing] as a person,” Vixen emphasized. “I do burlesque because I want to change the world! You know? Why would I be doing it otherwise?”

In burlesque, audience engagement is almost equally as important as the performances themselves. Before every show at the Wiggle Room, burlesque “virgins” must stand and take a pledge, promising to “hoot and holler” and be generally boisterous throughout the evening. Lulu les Belles Mirettes emphasized that screaming and cajoling are an essential part of watching a burlesque show. Vixen sees audience engagement as part of the deal—it encourages her to give her best effort.

Sugar Vixen at the Wiggle Room (Selin Altuntur / The McGill Tribune)

“One thing that I’m super trying hard to work on nowadays is being really present,” Vixen said. “You don't want to be onstage and accentuating a movement and think like, ‘Oh fuck, did I turn over my laundry?’ You can't do that because then you get disconnected and it breaks the moment. What I'm trying to do is create an experience with my audience and connect with them […] It's a give-and-take relationship. If they're not reciprocating and they're not holding up their end of this equation, that's kind of a turnoff. Presence is so important.”

“People are very loud and cheerful. People like Frenchy—she's such a screamer,” Mirettes said with a laugh. “It's an exchange, so when you perform, the audience needs to scream and shout at you.”

Attending burlesque shows may seem like a niche interest for the uninitiated—yet they are very easy to find when one knows where to look. The Wiggle Room hosts four to five shows a week, all listed on the events section of their website. If one is looking to try their own hand at performing, Mirettes’ Bagel Burlesque Expo offers workshops, and Arabesque Burlesque Montreal offers showgirl training in various skillsets necessary for burlesque .

Honey Dynamite performing at the Wiggle Room (Selin Altuntur / The McGill Tribune)

“It depends how ballsy you are. You can also go to Voix de Ville, [the Wiggle Room’s Wednesday show],” Mirettes added. “They're always looking for new talents. You prepare your act at home and you go and you can perform.”

Another way to get involved is by doing backstage and production work. Performers like Sugar Vixen and Frenchy Jones got their start working backstage at burlesque shows, doing hair, makeup, and technical work. Regardless of how one looks to get involved, it is essential that aspiring performers are not afraid of looking silly.

“Most people have a view of burlesquers [where] they think of beautiful costumes and big shiny things,” Jones said. “Yes, that's true, that's one part of it, but there's another part of it that's the silliness behind it. I have a number where I jump onstage and I'm a huge ridiculous penguin.”

Whether they are performing or attending a show, newcomers need not be intimidated by the burlesque crowd. Despite having little experience in the scene, burlesque virgins are always welcomed and encouraged to take part. This openness is what makes Montreal’s burlesque scene so easily accessible. Letting one’s guard down in a room full of equally unfiltered strangers is an unparalleled experience. The freedom burlesque provides to audiences and performers alike, has an alluring quality to it—it is a compelling magic that keeps people coming back.

*All performers are referred to by their stage names.