Gotta Get a Gimmick? How to Wow a Burlesque Audience:

In the musical Gypsy, seasoned burlesque dancers give the soon-to-be burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee the following advice: “You’ve gotta get a gimmick if you want to get ahead.” 

But is that advice really true? Do you have to have a gimmick to make it in burlesque? 

What is a Gimmick? 

Defined, a gimmick is “a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business.” 

Flashy, gaudy, and attention-grabbing, gimmicks can generate oohs and ahhhs from the audience and can certainly make you memorable in the short term. 

As with the burlesque dancers in Gypsy, playing the trumpet while you strip or wearing a light up costume can guarantee that people remember who you are, or at least know you as “the one who did that cool thing with the [insert gimmick of choice here]. 

Where Gimmicks Fall Short

As I said, gimmicks can be great in the short-term. But if they lack finesse or a sense of pay off, they can actually be harmful more than helpful. 

Audiences are stingy with their attention. Even when they’ve paid for the ticket, you still have to earn their trust and respect — and you have to keep doing it over and over again throughout the act by either subverting their expectations and surprising them, or fulfilling their expectations and making them feel like their investment in your story has paid off.

Audiences want to care. They are on your side until you give them reason not to be. If you handle your gimmick without thinking of your audience, you may lose them before the number is over. 

Audience reactions to gimmicks often go in waves: 

At first, they are surprised. If your gimmick is cool or surprising or extra enough, this is when you hear the audience’s roar of approval — like when you first turn on the LED lights or go upside down on a chair. 

If you keep leaning on the gimmick — a four count, an eight count — longer — and you don’t do anything with it or the gimmick doesn’t actually advance the story…well, that’s when you start to lose the audience. It doesn’t matter how cool it looks when you spin around with your Isis wings if, by the second four count, the spinning isn’t new or different or advancing the story. 

At this point, you’ll hear yourself losing the audience. The claps start to dissipate, and you’ll maybe hear someone hoot or holler to try to show you that they’re still with you, but often, there will be quiet. 

If you bust out a new gimmick or you move on to something exciting, like a reveal, you may hear the wave of audience feedback come back — but if you keep leaning on the gimmick without giving them a reason to care about it, then you may lose your audience’s attention for the rest of the act. And no one wants to walk offstage feeling like they’ve lost their audience. 

What You Need Instead of a Gimmick

A gimmick will only get you so far. What you need is a STORY. 

Humans are primed to care about stories. We get invested in characters. We want to find out what happens to them, and we care about how the story ends. 

When you walk onstage with a solid premise, a compelling story, and a clear character, you give your audience a reason to care. 

A gimmick should advance the story, first and foremost. If you built your act around wanting to use LED lights or fire, then you’re starting at the wrong end of the act. Remember: gimmicks will only hold your audience’s attention for a few minutes unless you continue to do something amazing or compelling with them.

Compel them to care by giving them a story. Use fire to tell the story, not just to make a few people gasp. Use blacklight to make your character disappear or reappear for a reason. Show off your contortion because your character needs to be flexible, not because you’re proud of that new chest stand move you got last week. Wear a rhinestoned gas mask, balance a chair on your face, eat glass, whatever. Just do it because your story is better because you’re doing it. 

If you make your gimmick about the story and your act about the audience, you’re setting yourself up for success. So: do you “gotta get a gimmick?” No. But if you do, do it because your act is better because you did.