Raven Snook is a Jewish mother who acts, writes, edits… and periodically performs topless in an all-moms burlesque revue. She appeared in the original downtown run of Urinetown, portrayed a vampire on the ABC sitcom Talk to Me, guested as a “female female impersonator” on The Maury Povich Show, played a dominatrix-like self-help guru in the short film Slo-Mo, waxed poetic at The Moth and Heeb Storytelling, and was one of three female drag queens featured in the documentary, The Faux Real. And now she talks to Kveller about how that all fits with raising a daughter in NYC.
Alright, first things first: What exactly is burlesque?
Wow, how much time ya got? Back in the day, burlesque was a naughty offshoot of family-friendly vaudeville with bawdy comics and ladies disrobing, though often in a tongue-in-cheek or over-the-top way. But on the neo-burlesque scene, anything goes. Many acts are like sexy performance art without the pretensions but with pasties. Pretty much anything goes, but having a cheeky sense of humor and creative costuming and storytelling skills are much more important than having a perfect body.
You co-created an all-Jewish burlesque show called Kosher ChiXXX. Why the specifically Jewish angle? What is the history of Jews and burlesque, and where do we Jews fit into the scene today?
The Jewish Daily Forward recently did a whole article on the phenomenon of Jewish burlesque–the accompanying NC-17 video created quite a tizzy in the comments section, too. When Minnie Tonka and I originally founded that show in 2004, themed burlesque shows were just starting to take off. She worked for the 14th Street Y at the time and was asked to come up with Jewish-themed performances as part of the Howl! Festival. We were brainstorming and we thought, why not Jewish burlesque?
Mainstream culture often stereotypes Jewish women as zaftig or hairy or naggy and generally unattractive and unsexy. Jewish burlesque performers who celebrate their Semitism like Minnie and Darlinda Just Darlinda, and my fellow Hot Mamas, Little Brooklyn, Dot Mitzvah, and Miss Ivy League challenge that perception with humor and style. Today Jewish burlesque is all the rage–as is Asian burlesque, nerdlesque, and lots of other sub-genres. Who knows? Maybe I’ll found the first all-Jewish mamas burlesque show! I bet that would bring out a very specific crowd–imagine, an entire room of Howard Wolowitzes who never got over their mothers. Watching us would definitely be cheaper than therapy.
Hmm, wonder what Mayim would think about that? Anyway, in addition to being a performer, you are also a mom. Before we get into the symbolic, post-feminist and profound implications of all that, let’s talk nitty-gritty: How do those hours work?
Well, performing is something I do pretty infrequently these days. There’s only so much I can do in a day (or night). One of the main reasons I founded Hot Mama Burlesque was so I would have an excuse to get up onstage once or twice a year. Everyone in the show does burlesque, parents, and has a separate career. One performer is a maternity nurse and actually helped deliver another Hot Mama’s baby! Another is an art director for a major media company. A few run their own businesses. And I edit and blog for Mommy Poppins and write articles for a bunch of other outlets. How do the hours work? How do they work for any mom out there? You make time for what you feel is important.
So all the performers in your show are, in fact, real-life mothers. How did you get the idea for this show and what do you hope people take away from it?
Like I said, mainly I wanted a chance to perform, since I wasn’t doing it so much once I had a child. (This isn’t the case though for all burlesque moms. I know many who work every week and some who even make their living at burlesque.) I came up with the idea when Joy Rose, the founder of Mamapalooza, approached me about doing something for the annual NYC festival in May. Moms burlesque seemed like the perfect fit.
From the beginning, our audiences have mainly been moms. And here I had this vision of busloads of MILF-loving men showing up at the door! But it makes sense: It’s the perfect moms’ night out. It’s empowering to see your fellow moms strutting their stuff, stretch marks, C-section scars, and all (though some Hot Mamas have impossibly perfect bodies! I’d hate them if I didn’t love them so much). Most of the acts are humorous. In the past, Hot Mamas have lactated on stage, boiled a baby doll, and simulated birth complete with a boa umbilical cord and glitter afterbirth. We must be doing something right: Last year we went international when Violet Eva, a Japan-based performer and mom, mounted an edition in Tokyo. And this past spring, Hot Mama was featured on the NickMom docu-comedy Take Me to Your Mother.
It seems like, these days, motherhood is taken very, very seriously. What kind of response do you get to treating motherhood as something fun… and periodically topless?
We always get a few snarky remarks online: Just look at the comments section of this Yahoo Shine article or this nasty listing from a writer who hadn’t even seen the show and called us “EgoMomiacs” because you know, moms should never seek the spotlight. But overwhelmingly, the response from audiences is always enthusiastic and like I said, most of them are moms, so I trust their opinion. I think the only people who feel uncomfortable poking fun at motherhood either don’t have children themselves, or are hippies or fundamentalist Christians. What’s not to goof on? It’s funny from the outset: Pushing that big ass head through that small hole? Hilarious.
Has your daughter seen this particular act? Has she seen any of your work? What does she think of it?
She saw me onstage once in a G-rated show (I was singing a song fully clothed at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival). She was about 2. I remember her gazing up at me for a minute with a loving hey-that’s-my-mommy! look. But once she realized everyone was paying attention to me and not her, she lost interest fast. I’m surprised she didn’t jump up there and upstage me! While she’s never seen any of my burlesque shows, she know what burlesque is–at least the taking your clothes off part. Her burlesque impression where she mimes striptease is hilarious and, I suspect, may ruin a lot of play-dates. Interestingly she’s super modest. She refuses to actually take off her clothes in front of anyone. Even in the changing room at ballet, she goes into a bathroom stall. I’m sure that’ll change once she hits puberty.
What do you think she gets out of being the daughter of, in the words of your autobiographical, one-woman show, A Drag Queen Trapped in a Woman’s Body? In other words, precisely how fabulous is she?
I’ll let your readers be the judge. That’s her at the Easter Parade. We go every year. There is no Passover parade and we love dressing up!
Raven is planning her next NYC Hot Mamas performance to coincide with (what else?) Mother’s Day and, having seen her holiday act, I have only word for you: Go! You’ll laugh and you’ll relate (I particularly enjoyed the You’re a Mean Mother number). And while individual mileage may vary, I found the show and the Hot Mamas in it charming, funny, and (sorry, ladies) like they say in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: mostly harmless. (Honestly, I told my husband I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable taking our 14-year-old son to it; he told me the boy can find his own toplessness.) Besides, where else would you get an intermission raffle for burlesque lessons, some naughty action with a driedel–and Jewish mother Klingon jokes, too! Keep up to date on the lastest Hot Mama shows at their official website.