The Burlesque Fest preserves an awesome local pastime

An interview with festival founder and burlesque performer Scarlett James.

Scarlett James

Scarlett James

The eighth edition of the Montreal Burlesque Festival is happening this week. Over three nights, the festival shows will feature over 40 local and international performers — with headliners from Austria and the U.S. and lots of supporting local talent — as well as workshops and dance classes.

Ahead of the festival kick-off on Thursday, we spoke to festival founder and burlesque pro Scarlett James about her burlesque back-story and how she’s contributing to the shake-up and preservation of the industry.

Grace Easton: You’ve been performing burlesque for almost 10 years now. How did it all start for you?

Scarlett James: I didn’t even know what it was — or that it even existed — until some friends took me to see a show. I automatically fell in love with it. I adored how proud and beautiful the women on stage were, how they embraced themselves so fully. They were just the complete masters of their own lives. I saw it and I was immediately like: we need to bring this to the next level. I spent the next six months learning all I could about it and then after a year of performing I founded the festival.

GE: What prompted you to do that?

SJ: Montreal has such a long history with burlesque. It’s a really huge part of our heritage and our culture. To me, Montreal is not Montreal without burlesque. It felt really bizarre that we didn’t have a festival to celebrate this so I decided to jump in and create one.

GE: What can we expect from your shows this year?

SJ: I’m doing two different shows this time around. I’m performing at the festival, and doing the Casino de Montréal as well. The Casino show is really a musical. There’s lots of singing and dancing as well as burlesque – it’s a pretty amazing spectacle. For the festival I’ll be bringing artists from all over the world as well as local talent to perform their acts, so I guess you could say it’s more of a purist show.

GE: What’s expected from the audience at your shows?

SJ: Burlesque is all about exaggerating. We do it on stage, and the audience should do it to. If you’re going to see burlesque, dress up! Burlesque is your chance to wear a cocktail dress and bring out your faux fur. You can be as glamorous as you want to be.

GE: Is it a good place to go on a date?

SJ: It’s a good place to go on anything. Go on a date, go if you’re already lovers, go with your friends, go with your family.

GE: What makes the Montreal Burlesque Festival unique?

SJ: Montreal is a very special place, and burlesque is part of the reason. It’s our heritage and we need to keep it alive. Back in the 1930s when the prohibition was going on in the U.S., everybody would come up to Montreal to party. We had whorehouses, we had speakeasies, we had it all. This festival keeps that history alive and gives people a chance to interact with it on a deeper level, too. Not only can you attend shows but you can also participate in it. We are running workshops over the three days as well as live drawing where our international dancers will be posing for the artists. There really is something for everyone here. ■

The Montreal Burlesque Festival is happening at Club Soda (1225 St-Laurent) —  with supplementary events at Mainline Theatre, the Wiggle Room and the Casino — from Oct 13-15, doors open at 7 p.m., tickets cost $30/$45, $65/$79 premium, $115/$129 VIP

See the full schedule of shows, workshops and performances on the festival’s official site.