Interview with burlesque performer Rebecca Kenny

Interview by Amie Taylor (@spoonsparkle)

Rebecca Kenny is a burlesque performer, and has recently performed her show ‘Frieda Loves Ya!' at The Pleasance in London - a different kind of burlesque show encompassing a multitude of theatre forms. We met up for a coffee and a chat in Herne Hill last week - having seen Frieda Love at one of her early shows in Peckham a couple of years ago, it was great to finally meet Rebecca and find out a little about her journey in to burlesque.

AT: Hi Rebecca, so let’s start at the beginning, how did you get in to theatre and the arts?

RK: I got in to performing and acting quite young, my drama teacher was very encouraging, I did drama GCSE and A-Level, weirdly I didn’t end up doing it at university, though I knew that I wanted to, it must have been an early life crisis because instead I went to Birmingham University and studied classics. I don’t actually regret it at all, it played a part in getting to where I am today. I kept doing all of the extra curricular drama there. Then after uni, with no training, I was kind of naive and started applying for acting jobs, thinking that was okay, and I ended up working for a TIE company in Italy.

AT: Oh I did that. Which one? Was it ACLE?

RK: Yes!

AT: I worked for them too. What year?

RK: It was in 2004, before I went to drama school and I had a really great time.

AT: Me too, I had a wonderful time. But it’s also quite tough, I always thought it was a bit of a social experiment, sending four people off in to deepest darkest Italy, to work, live and socialise together for six months, with no one to talk to but each other, and Italian children. I mean, I enjoyed it immensely, but it didn't come without its challenges...

RK: It’s almost like a right of passage I think. I mean, I hadn’t trained at that point, it was a starting place. I also did Edinburgh that year before I trained. We did Playhouse Creatures. All of us were untrained, except maybe one, she must have hated us. We didn’t have a director, we decided to direct ourselves. Then I decided to go to drama school. My best friend was moving to Brighton and I wanted to live with her, so I figured I’d go to drama school there, I went to The Academy of Creative Training. No one's ever heard of it, but it's the place to go in Brighton. It’s a bit like the Poor School, so you can work around the classes, and because I’d just finished Uni and been to Edinburgh, I really needed that. I have an issue with that drama school thing, that you have figure out a way to pay £10, 000 a year to be there, or be from a very wealthy background, it isn't fair, and they charge you fifty quid a time to audition, I don’t agree with that. I think the arts world is worse off because of it. Anyway, I did that for two years, evenings and weekends. And finished there, clueless, wandering in to the world of acting.

AT: Tell us about Frieda:

RK: Frieda happened in Brighton. She is literally just something that happened to me. And there seems to be this pattern in my creative life, which is that all of my most successful or most enjoyable creative projects have just happened to me, I haven’t looked for them, or gone ‘I want to do this now’ - which is probably why they’ve worked, I’ve gone with the flow a bit. Maybe it’s to do with your energy at the time, you think ‘I’ll just go with it’ and it gives you more freedom. I’d just come out of a relationship, and I decided to join this burlesque course, it was above a pub in Brighton, lots of ladies, it was silly, loads of fun - nipple tassels and things. And by the end we had to have come up with a routine and a name, that’s when Frieda Love was born, in name I suppose. The performance was near halloween, and my routine was to Alice Coopers' 'Feed my Frankenstein' - it went well and people loved it, and I don’t know what happened to me, but something did - by saying yes and getting up there. I’d never been naked on stage, I’ve never been a person who’s been comfortable with my body, but I see Frieda Love and Rebecca Kenny as different people. Frieda love is totally cool with it.

AT: Do you think ‘Frieda Love’ has shifted any of Rebecca Kenny’s perceptions or feelings about herself, or has altered her attitude in anyway?

RK: I don’t know. I think Rebecca Kenny is still a bit body conscious, but I think Frieda has put that idea in Rebecca Kenny’s head that [her body] is something to be celebrated. Though I’d never be okay doing the things that Frieda does. The world of burlesque is great because traditionally it is about the art of tease and celebrating the body, it’s not about looking beautiful and having a perfect body as being really sexy, and by being Frieda I think I’ve realised that. I am like a clown…

AT: Is it about an attitude that Frieda has, which is a confidence? -It’s Frieda saying ‘I’m here, I’m going to do this thing and…’

RK: … and you can enjoy it with me. Yeah, I think that’s the thing about Frieda, she allows people to have fun with her, she’s silly - she doesn’t take herself seriously ever, though without trying to send things up. When I come on stage, I am Frieda doing sexy burlesque, and by getting up there and not having the ‘perfect’ body, that people imagine anyone who gets naked would have - and by being fun, it really reaches out to people, because they feel good about themselves - they think ‘maybe I could do that, because she’s just normal like me.’

AT: So moving on a bit, though it’s all connected - you use a variety of theatre forms in your show, what do you use and why did you make the decision to stray away from traditional burlesque?

RK: I trained as an actor and I suppose I’ve naturally always fallen in to comedy acting. There’s a lot of clowning involved in the show, I think Frieda’s a clown over everything else, and when I start making things I naturally tap in to stuff I already know. I also did gymnastics and acrobatics for ten years; I’m a very physical performer, so those skills are naturally in me and I fall back on to them. I love dance, I wish I was a member of the Royal Ballet. I’m not a person who believes in the boundaries of those things, I get really cross with people that say ‘well you’re not a dancer, so you shouldn’t be making dance’, or ‘you’re not an actor so you shouldn’t be making theatre.’

AT: It can be quite a cut off can’t it? Whereas if we encourage people, everybody has those abilities inside them…

RK: And it’s actually interesting to have a new take on an old thing, saying ‘well you’re not trained in dance so you can’t dance’ - when actually, everyone can use their body in their way, and that’s all dance is. I’ve recently started song writing, I’m not trained in music, but I have a ukulele and started learning some chords and now I include those songs in the show. And sometimes when you don’t know the rules, you create something completely outside of them. It’s the same with anything, sometimes that’s when the best stuff is made. I always get an idea in my head of what I want to do, and then I just do it, and I think in my head I’m a really great dancer. [She laughs]

AT: That’s the thing though, if you’ve got the conviction, that’s all you need.

RK: Yes.

AT: Just a couple more questions, have you met any challenges while making this work? Personal challenges, or challenges with an audience?

RK: Yes, loads actually, usually with myself. The first challenge for me was - I was never comfortable with this idea of burlesque. It’s taken a long while for me and Frieda to be separate, which they are now. I used to get really stressed out about it, maybe I still do. I never used to know why I did it, and I never used to be comfortable with it just being about me getting my body out, because it has to be more. I now have a stronger sense of what Frieda is about and she is more than that and she does have a voice now. So that was my first challenge, understanding what it is about Frieda that people really enjoy. I used to wonder if they just came to see my body, because it’s funny to see someone naked.

AT: And do you feel it is that, or do they come for more?

RK: I don’t think it is that, but my own insecurities used to make me think that they did. A challenge for me was finding out what it was about Frieda that people liked, because they did, people used to ask when the next show was - and it was more than then just coming to see me naked. I hope that in seeing Frieda, people sort of feel okay about themselves. I think that’s what it is. And I feel that now that’s what my work is about.

AT: Ah, maybe that answers my final question - which is ‘why do you keep doing it?’

RK: Exactly that. At first I used to keep doing it because people kept making me. But that's changed now. I used to be an actor, but really, I'm a maker, so I enjoyed the ‘making’ elements of the Frieda show. I do it because I constantly have ideas and they’re always wanting to escape and get out there. I started to focus on what it really was I wanted to make. And now I do it because I like to make people laugh, but also want to make theatre that people enjoy. I don’t know if I can change the world with that, but it’s a good place to start. I want my work to mean something, and to me it’s all about speaking to the audience, with Frieda I want to make work that’s for the people.

AT: Thank you Rebecca, it’s been so great speaking to you this morning.

If you want to follow Frieda Love, or keep an eye out for updates on her next show you can find her on Twitter @Frieda_Love or on Facebook:

Author's review: