Atlanta’s burlesque scene right now is hot, hot, hot, and one lady is right at the sizzling heart of it – Kool Kat Katherine Neslund, aka Katherine Lashe. This week alone, Syrens of the South, her production company, is giving Atlanta a new monthly burlesque showcase with Tease Tuesdays at The Shelter on June 11 (specific Tuesdays will vary per month). She’s also a key player in the city’s first Debut-Tease Ball, featuring Katherine and a mix of experienced and new talent either teaching or taking classes at Studio Burlesque, Atlanta’s own burlesque school which launched just last winter.
Perhaps most of all, Katherine is the driving force behind the Southern Fried Burlesque Festival, which celebrated its third anniversary this year. Finally Atlanta has an annual event that brings together local, regional, national and even international burlesque revival stars and legends. Tease Tuesdays are fundraisers for SFBF. And that’s not even beginning to talk about Katherine’s own talents as a performer who has graced nationwide stages including the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas.
ATLRetro caught up with Katherine recently to find out more about this week’s events; her own path to burlesque via theater; what else she has coming up, including a significant partnership between Syrens and 7 Stages theater in Little Five Points; and much more.
ATLRetro: What’s the one thing that happened to you during childhood that made it your destiny to be a burlesque performance artist?
Katherine Neslund/Lashe: When I was younger my Mom made costumes and clothing for drag queens in Knoxville, TN. I ended up wanting to be a drag queen when I grew up because they had the best clothes! Later it was explained to me that, being a girl, I couldn’t technically be a drag queen. I was pretty disappointed with this childhood realization. I’ve obviously since realized my passion and have been doing theater in some capacity my entire adult life. I’ve always felt pretty at home on the stage. Burlesque seemed to unite the whole drag queen dream with my theater experience.
I understand you kicked off your burlesque career in Atlanta by opening for Dita Von Teese. That’s a pretty exciting beginning. How did that happen and can you share something about that experience? Did Dita impart any words of wisdom that have stayed with you.
I used to be the head performer at The Chamber, and one day Howie, the manager, told us we were opening for Dita von Teese in two weeks and we should do something burlesquey. I had no idea what that meant since I had very limited experience with burlesque having only seen The Doll Squad and Torchy Taboo perform a few times at that point. We ended up putting together a Fosse-style group number that incorporated burlesque, dancing and a little bit of that Chamber touch. It’s kind of funny that out of that group came myself, Renea’le Roux and Gia Nova as professional burlesque performers.
The Syrens of the South is a production company, not a troupe. A lot of people don’t know the difference, so can you clarify what this means in the burlesque world?
A troupe is traditionally a group of people that works together on a regular basis; going through routines and rehearsals, every member focused on a common vision of what the group should embody as a whole, and then also on what every member will perform exclusively. Syrens of the South treats all of our performers as independent contractors, and I have always encouraged everyone to have their own identity – to perform whenever and with whomever they want. Each performer creates their own personal vision of what they want to be, and they own and control their personal performance. Syrens is like a playground on which these amazing folks can show their talent. Thanks to this freedom, performers can feel free to include everything from classic, to comedy, to just plain weird stuff. I also try to make sure that we have a good variety of acts, including, of course, vaudeville type acts to break up the boobies, making it an interesting evening for everyone!
It’s been long overdue for Atlanta to have an annual burlesque festival, and Southern Fried really seems to be putting the city on the map. SFBF has made it to its third year and seems to be really hitting its stride. What did you personally enjoy the most at year’s festival and can you give us a little preliminary tease about your goals are for next year?
My favorite part each year is the Legends. I have a passion for burlesque history, hence why I teach a very in-depth class on it, and have been collecting burlesque legend interviews for a very long time now. My goal is to gather as much information as possible before the information is no longer available. I was lucky enough to interview Tura Satana before she passed away, and I am so very grateful I was able to do so.
This particular year I was really excited with how many people from the local Atlanta burlesque community became involved. In between volunteers, performers and even those that just showed up in the audience to come and see us, plus so many regular Syrens of the South performers, members of Hot Toddies Flaming Cabaret, The Imperial OPA Circus, Minette Magnifique and Musee du Coeur showed up both on stage and off. The hope is that Southern Fried can help show Atlanta a taste of what goes on in the rest of the world, as well as showing the rest of the world the amazing talent we have here in Atlanta and the Southeast. Many performers don’t travel, so this is a great way to show off all that we have to offer here!
Funding a festival must be challenging. Where does Tease Tuesday fit in?
The goal of Tease Tuesday is to help raise money so we can continue putting on this amazing festival. It costs around $20,000 to put on each year, and we make less than half of that from ticket sales each year. The rest of the money comes from our vendors, sponsors, application fees, Syrens of the South shows and out of my pocket. We need approximately $2,500 to pay off the remaining bills from last year before we can start moving on to next year. Tease Tuesday events, at 10 acts for only $10, gives us a nice inexpensive monthly show to help us get the remaining bills paid off and then hopefully help us get the deposit for the hotel next year so we can continue going forward with the festival.
Another thing we love about Tease Tuesday is that it’s going to be monthly. In New York there are multiple monthly and even weekly burlesque events, but Atlanta audiences have had to wait several months between shows by the same troupe or producer. Can you tease our readers about the Syrens first Tease Tuesday and how you plan to keep a monthly show fresh and exciting? Will shows be themed and will you just feature local performers or regional and national performers as well?
Our first Tease Tuesday show was in May as a straight up fundraiser and test show. We were lucky enough to have the current Southern Fried Queen, Lola le Soleiland two time SFBF winner Bourgeois Betty, Little 5 Points Rockstar Orchestra founder Rob Thompson doing an acoustic set, as well as Talloolah Love, Nipsy Tussle from Knoxville’s Salome Cabaret, Tora Torrid, Persephone Phoenix, Edie Akimbo, Tru Bliss, and my Wednesday night Beginning Burlesque class from Studio Burlesque. Fritzengreuben was our Master of Ceremonies with Tupelo Honey as our stage kitten.
Our show on Tuesday, June 11, will have some amazing burlesque – Florida’s Tokyo Bell incorporates fire into her stripping, Atlanta favorite Ursula Undress will be there, Jed Drummond will be singing and playing his ukulele, there will be sexy juggling, some sultry singing and many more burlesque dancers. Remember -10 acts for $10, so it’s a surprise as to who the other performers will be! The next one on July 16 is so secret I can’t tell you anything other than it’s gonna be awesome!
Studio Burlesque is another milestone for the Atlanta burlesque community. How did that get started and what was your role in its fruition?
I have been teaching burlesque classes for almost six years in borrowed/rented spaces. It was really only a matter of time before someone realized the popularity of burlesque was on the rise and that there should be a studio dedicated to it. An investor approached multiple members of the Atlanta burlesque community until he found the right fit which happened to be the valedictorian of the very first Syrens of the South graduating class: Ursula Undress. She and I had a long talk about it after she was approached, and her mission statement was beautiful and her heart was in the right place, so I decided to move my regular classes to Studio Burlesque. I’ve given a little advice just because of the six years of previous experience, but with the festival taking off, it’s really nice to get to just show up as a teacher rather than organizing all the classes like I used to. Many of my former students became teachers in the Syrens of the South class series and now teach at Studio Burlesque. I am very proud of all of them and love that there’s a home for everyone in Atlanta Burlesque to be able to come to learn and to teach.
Are classes just for aspiring burlesque performers? Could any of them be an alternative to a conventional boring exercise class?
The regular weekly classes are for anyone at any level of dance experience. My Beginning Burlesque class on Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. has people who have never danced before and a few seasoned performers, however, they all work great together in learning the new choreography we do each month. For those who want to try performing, I’ve been offering a performance spot for that class at each of the Tease Tuesdays. Students get a little firsthand taste of the performance experience and can then decide if it’s something they want to try. The performance track classes are for those that are interested in becoming burlesque performers or at least getting a solo opportunity on stage. It consists of three months of classes; we focus on getting them on stage for a student showcase at the end of the three months. The next performance track series will be starting in July after July 4th.
I love student showcases! There is that excitement of it being their first time, and you can see the nerves, the joy, the fear and the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment when they walk off the stage. It’s like watching someone be born without all the gross parts! However, even if you’re not a big fan of watching newbies, myself and many of the other teachers will be performing as in this show, so many professional performers will be gracing the stage as well as all the newbies. Ursula Undress, Talloolah Love, Fonda Lingue and The Chameleon Queen will be performing, just to name a few!
Are any of your students performing? Any star student in particular to watch out for?
Every student that is debuting on the 15th is part of the Studio Burlesque Performance Track Classe Series so I have gotten to teach them all as I teach the History of Burlesque and Tassels and Gloves classes in that series. Many of them also come to my Wednesday night class so I’ve gotten to know a few of them fairly well. If I had to pick one to watch I’m going to have to say A to Zee as he is the only boy making his debut that night. I’ve seen his work in progress, and I think everyone will have fun with it. Being the only guy, I think he’ll succeed in inspiring other gentlemen to come out and learn the art of boylesque!
Finally, burlesque is just one of your talents. You have a background in theater and were heavily involved with 7 Stages‘ hit DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA. Anything you’d like to share about that experience and what’s next for that production? Or anything else you’re up to?
Yes, I was honored to be the stage manager for DRACULA: THE ROCK OPERA! The finished recording of the awesome soundtrack from our show will be finalized and out for sale on CD sometime soon. We’ll be doing a concert version in February so do keep your eyes peeled for that! I went to school for musical theater and am now finishing up a degree in technical theater to balance out my onstage and off-stage experience, which is good since I was just the lighting designer for LADY LAY, a great play at 7 Stages Theater that closed out the 2012-13 season. I’ve also been a stage manager for The Imperial OPA Circus for a few years, and look forward to continuing at 7 Stages in the 2013-14 season. After Dracula, I really just found my home at 7 Stages as I love everyone who works there and what they are trying to do through art and community building.
I’ve recently been made a member of their fundraising committee and am helping to put together a brunch at Our Way Cafe on June 23. Brunch will include a concert by the awesome local band Till Someone Loses an Eye, and benefits will go to 7 Stages. Mark your calendars! Also, our Syrens of the South 6th year anniversary show will be held on the main stage at 7 Stages on Aug 3. I’m splitting the profits with the theater to help them with their fundraising goals. As 7 Stages is now going to be our new home for our big shows, for instance our Anniversary, Tits for Toys for Tots (Nov 23) and our Vixen’s Valentease show, we want to make sure to start our new marriage by giving them a decent dowry!