When the pandemic hit, local burlesque performers traded their pumps and pasties for sweatpants and Netflix.
As days turned into months, however, members of The Velvet Hearts! decided to ditch the pajamas and cure their cabin fever by heating things up online.
“We realized this wasn’t ending any time soon, so we found a way to do something creative,” says Viva Valezz!, who founded the queer burlesque troupe 12 years ago in Columbus, Ohio.
Every month the group invites viewers into the Red Light Lounge, a virtual cabaret experience. From the comfort of their own homes, members strut their stuff in front of laptop or cellphone cameras. The acts are broadcast live via Zoom.
Performer Britsa N’Ass, who hails from the United Kingdom, doubles as the peep show’s tech guru, interspersing pre-recorded bits and commentary in between segments.
The next Red Light Lounge! shindig is Saturday, Sept. 19 at 10 p.m. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased through Eventbrite. https://www.eventbrite.ca/o/red-light-lounge-exclusive-queer-cabaret-experience-30233763186 You can also tip performers through Venmo and Cash App.
This month’s theme, Red Light TV, features scantily clad participants paying tribute to their favorite music videos. Upcoming installments are scheduled for Oct. 24 (The Kingdom of Shadows), Nov. 20 (Eating Out) and Dec. 19 (Bawdy! Humbug!). Follow the Facebook page for updates https://www.facebook.com/vivasredlightlounge/
Organizing what is, in essence, an adults-only Zoom meeting, is risqué business (the video-conferencing platform has a policy against nudity and sexually explicit material), but The Velvet Hearts! have adapted to the rules.
During pre-COVID days, the troupe let it all hang out at local venues such as James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy, a North Side institution that closed in 2017, and the Body Shop in McKees Rocks. Artists basked in the spotlight, feeding off cheers from the crowd.
Audience members can still hoot and holler during the show, but Britsa N’Ass has the power to mute folks who get unruly.
Although they miss baring it all on stage in front of cocktail-swilling spectators, Viva Valezz says the new format forces her to be more creative. She’s experimenting with video editing tools, something she never had an interest in before COVID-19.
She’s also thrilled that Zoom allows The Velvet Hearts! to entertain viewers from across the globe, not just in Pittsburgh. Last month, fans from Canada to Texas tuned in.
For people who are new to burlesque, performing (or watching) in their living room provides a safety net that can help lower inhibitions.
“You don’t get that instant gratification from the audience,” Viva Valezza! says. “You have to rely on your own energy and sexuality to pull it off. It’s exciting and it’s helped me remember why I started doing this in the first place.