I have to preface this interview with a few notes. First of all, Artemus Vulgaris is also known as Damian Blake, my fiancee. So, needless to say, it took weeks of hounding and effort to track him down for an interview. Eventually, I just trapped him in our bathroom by holding the doorknob from the outside, and withholding whiskey until he talked.
Your name (stage name, please)?
Artemus Vulgaris (Arty for short)
How long have you been a performer?
I guess I’ve been a performer ever since I was a kid. I was never really a class clown, I just liked pretending I was someone else and putting on silly costumes. I did a Charlie Chaplin ‘Gold Rush’ routine in a grade school talent show where I ate my shoe, and a friend and I hosted a 5th grade talent show as Groucho and Harpo Marx, complete with song and dance, harp playing, and sight gags in between each act. I did theater and musicals in high school, and in college I got a BA in Fine Art and minored in theater. I started busking as a clown and as a Chaplin impersonator, and joined the KC burlesque scene two years ago. I hope to still be putting on baggy pants and a silly hat when I’m 95.
How would you describe your performance style?
Frequently sweaty and occasionally pants-less. I think my style differs a little from my burlesque peers in Kansas City because my routines are not always based around a striptease. I usually create a character that gets themselves into a situation, and then has to resolve that problem onstage. A musical instrument that falls apart, a small pet that escapes, a magic show that goes wrong. I like to incorporate over the top, cartoonish gags and nods to an older style of comedy, while giving it a somewhat bawdy twist. If I’ve made an audience chuckle, I can go home feeling like I’ve done my job.
How did your stage name come about?
When I first joined the KCSOB, I was a hobo-clown type janitor character that would do pick-up and the occasional routine. I called myself ‘Bindlestiff Willy’ after researching some hobo terms. A bindlestiff is the bundle a tramp carries on a stick. Willy was a nod to Emmet Kelly’s clown character, and ‘stiff willy’ is… you get the idea. When I started performing in other cities, people thought I was part of the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, based in New York. Not wanting to create any confusion, I changed my name to something vaguely old-timey that could relate to any character I play, not just a hobo clown. ‘Artemisia Vulgaris’ is the Latin word for wormwood, the hallucinogenic part of absinthe. I like the way it sounds, and the way it looks spelled out. It’s generically sinister, and has the word ‘vulgar’ and ‘art’ in it.
Are you wearing pants right now? Nevermind, trick question. What attracted you to burlesque?
To be honest, it was the scantily clad performers. Then once I saw a show, I was hooked on the old-school variety revue format. I had been struggling for years to find a place to do the type of entertaining I wanted to do. I thought of going to school and becoming a performer with a professional circus, but Ringling had closed their clown college doors the year I graduated high school. I tried to audition as a character for Universal Studios (they have roving celebrity impersonators), but at the time, they were not hiring new people due to budget cuts. I tried community theater, busking, and birthday-party style clowning. I had been to several local burlesque shows before performing in one, and I knew immediately I had found my niche. It’s the closest thing to being a vaudeville actor you can get these days. I get paid to do exactly what I like to do, create my own routines, work along side wonderful, beautiful people, and wear ridiculous costumes. What other medium includes music, dance, comedy, drag, and sideshow skills? It’s very therapeutic. (Recently, however, I have had the opportunity to audition for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus in Boston, and it went very well. More on that in the coming months…)
Who makes your costumes?
Ebay and the Salvation Army. I’m a stickler for good costumes, so I make all my own stuff based on the vintage things I find online or in thrift stores. The only problem with wearing old clothes is how thick and sturdy they are. Doing a routine in a three-piece wool suit gets me sweaty very quickly. I’m pretty handy with a needle and thread, and it’s been a fun challenge finding ways to make costumes work onstage, like pants that can come off in a few seconds, or rigging an outfit to bleed.
What do YOU like to see on stage? What entertains you? What inspires you as a performer?
I love any person that grabs my attention from the beginning, and holds it to the very end. I love weird characters and confident performers. I love movement timed perfectly to music. I appreciate the strange and wonderful things people can do with (and to) their bodies. I love sideshow freaks and old circus clowns and people with a really great shtick, even if it’s corny. It seems like everything has been done before, but if you can give it a new twist or do it really well, I’m sold.
What’s your pet peeve, onstage or backstage?
Inflated egos. Unnecessary drama. Lack of air conditioning. Having to change in a storage closet or a public bathroom… nothing says ‘professional’ like seeing Charlie Chaplin glue on his ‘stache next to the urinal.
Do you have a favorite memorable burlesque moment or story you’d like to share?
I’ve had the pleasure of entertaining across the Midwest with both burlesque and my Chaplin-impersonating work. I’m a history nut, so getting to perform in old, historic theaters is a real treat. I got to do a black-tie benefit at the Folly Theater (in Kansas City) a few years ago as Charlie Chaplin, and that was a lot of fun. I think my greatest burlesque memory to date is traveling to New York with you (Annie Cherry), performing in the burly revue at Coney Island, and having my sister (who was living in Brooklyn at the time) attend the show. The entire trip was pretty magical, if I may be so sappy.
Who are your favorite performers, both vintage and contemporary?
I think it’s pretty obvious that a huge inspiration of mine is silent film comedy, and I love the work of Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Red Skelton, etc. The list goes on and on. I’m fascinated by old vaudeville and music hall performers, and old circus clowns like Emmett Kelly and Otto Griebling. I find the work of modern day clowns Bill Irwin and Rowan Atkinson to be a real inspiration, and there are a handful of local and national performers who continue to amaze me with their stage presence.
What’s an interesting fact about yourself that you don’t think your fans would guess?
No toenails on my two big toes. I’ve considered touring as the ‘Toenail-less Wonder’ and forming a whole show around how I lost them, but it has yet to receive a positive response. Potential backers, please contact me if you are interested.
Do you have any advice for burlesque performers just starting out?
Never stop researching, and never stop exploring what is out there. There is so much that has been done, and so much that is being done right now. I think the worst thing a performer could do is think ‘I’m the best I can be, from now on I’ll just coast on the shtick I can do.’ Keep learning, keep practicing, keep experiencing.