Paco Fish on burlesque, living in a van, and quitting his day job to do what he loves
After his house was foreclosed on, Baltimore burlesque performer Paco Fish decided to seize the circumstance and pursue his dreams. So the performer took the plunge and moved into his van, then embarked on a 52-week Burlesque Vanguard Tour across the country, taking along a variety of characters and theatrical striptease acts. Fish's next stop is Denver, where he'll perform tonight at the Voodoo Comedy Playhouse and Friday, in the Midnite Martini's Sexy Circus Sideshow at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret; he'll also teach two afternoon workshops at Vivienne VaVoom's School of Burlesque and model for Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School on Sunday. We caught up with the bold performer, who talked with us about being inspired by the Dresden Dolls, quitting his day job, and how to shower when you're living out of a van.
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Westword: What made you want to do a 52-week tour? Have you done anything like this before?
Paco Fish: I've done small tours before, but only about a week long. I really enjoyed bringing my art to new audiences because the locals at home, my fans in Baltimore, they know me and they know the style of my work, and so I have to constantly develop new acts for them. When I tour, I get to present work that I've refined, and I get to lay it on a fresh set of eyes, and that's really enjoyable for me. Also, I just love traveling. I realized that I have not explored that much of my country, and I was in Baltimore for the last ten years or so. I was doing cytogenetics for a hospital laboratory, but I looked in the microscope for the last hour of my life. I just couldn't take it anymore. So I quit my day job to commit myself to performing, and unfortunately it was not a financial success and I couldn't pay my mortgage, so I ended up going into foreclosure. I figured that since I didn't have a house anymore, I wasn't bound to Baltimore -- I could go anywhere. But I didn't know where I wanted to go, so I decided to go everywhere. Part of the reason for doing this tour is to find a new place to call home, because I feel like as much as I love Baltimore, I'm finished with it. It's run its course for me. For the most part it's just me, by myself, living in my van. I built a bed and I have storage underneath and all of my costumes. I've got a little 32-square-foot apartment on wheels with no bathroom.
There are a couple reasons why I wanted to do it. One was to get my name out there and further my career. I'm a big fan of heavy metal and punk music, and a lot of the bands that I loved got their success by constantly touring and putting the work in and bringing it to new audiences and building fan bases that way, so that's sort of the model I was working off of. And also just for self-enrichment. The way that I've been rationalizing it is I've ended my life in Baltimore and I'll be reborn in some other city after a year-long gestation in my van womb.
What bands were you inspired by?
That's a big question. Specifically, the Dresden Dolls. They're actually how I got my start in performing. I was a big fan of the Dresden Dolls, and they had a lot of street-performer friends because Amanda Palmer, the lead singer, used to be a living statue and made her living that way. So she invited her street-performer friends to perform at her shows and then the fans all saw that and were like, wow, I really want to do that. So Amanda was like, all right, on our next tour, come out and make some art and make it big, make it beautiful. I really wanted to do that, but I didn't have any sort of skills, so I googled making stilts, made a pair of stilts, taught myself to walk on them and started doing roving stilt-walking that way at their shows. So that's how I got into performing, and that was in 2004. They were one of the hardest-working bands I'd ever seen.
How is the tour going so far?
The whole thing has been pretty crazy so far. It's weird being homeless and trying to maintain at least an illusion of glamour. It's been good. I haven't had to use my backup plan since I'm traveling by myself, but I don't have a complete one-person show, I have to connect with local performers all across the country. So that's part of the mission -- to get local burlesque performers connected to other regional burlesque performers so everyone can work together. Many of them have offered to put me up. I've spent a few nights in the van, but they've graciously all let me use their showers. I have a backup plan, which is a gym membership for a national gym, so I can just use their gym and their showers so I can be the best-looking and -smelling homeless guy that you may ever meet.
What's your favorite act to perform right now?
My current favorite act is also my newest act, and it's called "The Judge." I'm a judge with a powdered wig and black robe and gavel, and it's kind of a love story between me and my gavel. It's really funny, but it also makes social and political commentary -- at least it can if you look for it in there. It's enjoyable on different levels, but the love relationship with the gavel is speaking about the relationship between authority figures and the love of power that the gavel represents. It's also sort of a treatise on marriage equality. It's set to "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right." That one I created this year, but I will also be doing my first-ever act I created, which was from back in 2006. It's a Grim Reaper striptease on stilts set to a song by a Christian death-metal band, and then it transitions to an N*Sync song as the story unfolds.
What do you like about the medium of burlesque?
What I like about burlesque the most is that it's freedom. You can do, say, or become anything that you choose to, and there's a place for it and a home for it. I believe it was a Kurt Cobain quote that punk rock should mean freedom, and that was actually some of the ethos behind the Dresden Dolls movement, if you want to call it that, which was that punk is freedom. I feel like burlesque is sort of the punk of the theater and dance world. It's looked down on a lot by the more legitimate theater and dance performers, but it's really sort of a rebellion against them, and it's entirely self-created. I really like that aspect of it, that it's not usually the vision of the choreographer taught to the performers and then they are just regurgitating it back to the public. And I know that's not the way that other art forms work -- I don't want to offend them. But it's from the performer's heart, whatever they want to create themselves to be -- that's what really draws me to burlesque. Also, since burlesque is rooted in satire, it's a way to flip assumptions and societal norms and really just poke fun at people who take themselves too seriously.
The Burlesque Vanguard Tour begins in Denver at 8 p.m. tonight at Follies Voudou at the Voodoo Comedy Playhouse, 1260 22nd Street, alongside local burlesque stars like Gigi D'Lovely and Frenchie Renard. Tickets, $9, are available at the door or at the Voodoo Comedy Playhouse website. Fish will also perform at 11 p.m. Friday in Midnite Martini's Sexy Circus Sideshow at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret, 1601 Arapahoe Street; teach two afternoon workshops at Vivienne VaVoom's School of Burlesque, 244 Santa Fe Drive, on Saturday; and model for Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School at 7 p.m. Sunday at Crash 45, 321 45th Avenue. For more information, visit Paco Fish's website.