A Camptacular! Q&A with Kitten N’ Lou

Photo by JiJi Lee Photography

Where in the world are Kitten and Lou? Given the burlesque duo’s international performance schedule, the answer could easily be Estonia or Paris, New Orleans or Perth. But earlier this week, the answer was Capitol Hill, where Kitten LaRue and Lou Henry Hoover holed up in the sweltering rehearsal space at V2 (the art space formerly known as Value Village) to work on their brand new show Camptacular!, which premieres at the Triple Door this weekend. For this summer comedy-inspired show (think Troop Beverly Hills, Dirty Dancing) they’ve assembled a cast of Seattle’s finest in burlesque, dance, drag, cabaret and theatre.

One afternoon earlier this week, Jody Kuehner (Cherdonna Shinatra) stretches on the floor, Marc Kenison (Waxie Moon) and Jamie Von Stratton rehearse tap steps in one corner, Scott Shoemaker and Josh Hartvigson run lines in another, while Markeith Wiley, Jim Kent and Randy Phillips (Faggedy Randy) work on a trio number in the middle of the room. Like all of Kitten and Lou’s shows, Camptacular! promises a special blend of highbrow camp, lowbrow comedy, no-joke dance technique and, of course, glitter. I crashed rehearsal to talk to them about it.

You did Freedom Fantasia as your summer show for years. Why retire it?
Kitten LaRue: We adore that show so much, it’s like our child. But sometimes you need to put your child to bed for a minute and go do some other activity so you can learn to love it again. [laughs] Really, it was an opportune moment with scheduling for us to do a new show. This is a topic we’ve been thinking about for a while and so we were like, fuck it, let’s do it.

Lou Henry Hoover: It’s happened pretty fast and furious, but it’s been exciting. We came in town maybe two months ago and worked non-stop with the cast for two weeks, and then let them go percolate for a little bit and came back. We were afraid that in such a short amount of time we wouldn’t have enough ideas, but we had too many ideas.

What makes the topic so inspiring?
Lou: I just remember as a kid going to summer camp, first of all you could be anyone. Anything can happen, you’re gonna reinvent yourself. And then at the end of the summer I remember so clearly that feeling of, I grew up so much, I’m not even the same person I was, my parents aren’t even going to recognize me! That sense that so much growth has happened, so much time has passed, your whole world has shifted. Trying to have that feeling in a less than two-hour show is an exciting challenge. And in this show, more than any other show we’ve done, everyone really has a strongly developed character, and all of those characters’ stories tell the story, rather than there being one overarching story that most characters are supporting.

Kitten: It’s really about, as all of our shows are, community, otherness, connecting with other people in the middle of feeling confused or lonely. But unlike a lot of our shows, everyone speaks in this show. When we first conceptualized it, one of the first people that popped into our heads—obviously we wanted to use our brilliant cast, these brilliants that we love working with—but this guest star Jeez Louise from Chicago is an international burlesque star, and from the very beginning we knew she would be perfect for this show. She’s such an amazing little weirdo and a really great actor as well as a performer, and an incredible comedian. These summer camp movies, they rely so heavily on these kind of tropes: the nerd, the jock, these kind of Breakfast Club tropes of the people you find at summer camp. We wanted to tap into that.

Does your cast give a lot of input as you develop the show?
Lou: Everyone in the show is such a generative artist in their own right, so it’s exciting to get to really use their voices. We create the structure and all the images, and Kitten chooses all the music, and then we’ll come in and ask people to sort of fill it out, in terms of assignments. For example, we had an idea about a ghost story we wanted Cherdonna to tell and we went through some bullet points, but she’s actually crafting it herself, so it’s really in her voice. We did a similar thing with some of the dance moments with Markeith.

Kitten: Markeith is such a brilliant dance artist, so we gave him this sort of homework assignment: This is the imagery, this is the song, this is the story we want you to tell—go. I’m not about to tell that man how to dance!

What were your favorite parts of summer camp as kids?
Kitten: I really loved any artsy, craftsy, theatre kind of bullcrap. Also, all the covert romances that were always happening! I feel like summer camp is when puberty happens; all of a sudden the volume gets cranked to 11 with your hormones because you’re in this little pressure cooker of people your age and you’re all like, sleeping in the same place, eating meals together…it’s all very romantic.

That seems like it would fit in very nicely with a Kitten N’ Lou show.
Kitten: Oh yeah, we have a few summer romances in this show, and ours is one of them.

Lou: It’s also that whole sense of belonging, of instant friendship, where you’re in a situation with people and now they’re your new best friends and that’s just how it is. I think that’s a very sweet thing to deal with at any time, but especially at a time when people are not nice to each other in the world.

Also something that adults don’t usually do anymore, just casually make great new friends.
Kitten: That was one of the things that was really appealing to us as well, the endless possibilities involved with grown-ass adults playing children and teenagers. We get to do all of these things and express all of these sentiments that as adults we’re too cynical or jaded to do.

Are you guys able to focus on one show at a time, or are you always tinkering with the next thing?
Lou: It’s both. We have to be thinking about the next thing, and there’s always lots of balls in the air at once, but then once we really get into we have to shut all that out and fully immerse. I’ll purposely stop myself from thinking about other projects, because there are only so many hours, and you need all of those hours to think about this project right now.

Kitten: Before we decided to do this show, we had actually started the wheels turning on our next evening-length duet show, which we’re going to debut it in January, and then we made the decision to do this show and it was just [screech], put on the brakes, put that on ice and dive into this, because it’s too much, creatively. Administratively we keep multiple balls in the air, but creatively, we can only live in one world at a time.

How did making your first full-length show last year, Overexposed, change how you approach the rest of your work?
Kitten: Making our own evening-length show cracked things wide open in terms of what we can do. It used to feel a little bit more like, yes, we have to hit all these points in a five-minute time span, and it has to have this kind of musical shift and this kind of costuming. With an evening-length show, we were really able to flex our muscles, play with duration, play with sadness and awkwardness, things people maybe don’t want to see in a five-minute burlesque act at the club, you know? There’s this one part in Overexposed where I’m sad and eat potato chips for three minutes, and so many people are like, that was my favorite part of the show! Hearing responses like that really let us give ourselves permission to take things to different places than we maybe would have before.

In this next show, what are you playing with, in terms of duration and themes?
Lou: Camptacular! is kind of the opposite of duration, because in trying to create the sense that so much has happened, we have lots and lots of ideas that are mostly very short, and also the structure is one day, so it should feel like six weeks of relationships have been formed in one day.

Kitten: It’s established in the beginning that this camp is six weeks long, what’s going to happen in this next six weeks, but it’s really over the course of an hour and a half. So scenes are happening quickly, little pockets of magic exploding all over the place.

Lou: And there’s no stripping in the first act, which is really fun also because we’re using lots of dance and dialogue and images…

Kitten: …and the second half of the show is the camp talent show, so that’s the big culmination and a place to have more traditional cabaret acts.

What about your next full-length show, currently on ice.
Kitten: Well the theme is biblical in nature, so we’re diving into the murky waters of religion, which we both have complicated relationships with, as everyone on earth does. The working title is, Kitten N’ Lou: Holier Than Thou. We’ll be playing with a lot of Old Testament imagery, because there’s so much incredible, bonkers storytelling.

Lou: We’re really excited about those stories as myth, but also the idea that it’s universal to want something to believe in. But with some of these stories, I’m like….that’s the thing? Really? It’s really interesting.

Kitten: We’re excited to dive into that, not only because there’s so much rich material, but also to be reclaiming these stories as queer people, who have been told that these stories aren’t really for us or about us.

Lou: I grew up going to church, and when we go sometimes now I love the moments where everyone is singing together or when you pass the candlelight down—those things are so magical to me. So trying to also create a sense of that spiritual pageantry, within the context of our show that also humorous. Those are the things we’re playing with.

Kitten: For the record, our second working title was, Are You There, God? It’s Us, Kitten N’ Lou.