How Anne McDonald Makes Art Accessible With Boise Burlesque Show

Jun 6, 2014

Like a lot of people, Anne McDonald’s basement is a bit cluttered. But it’s safe to say the things strewn about are a little more interesting than your average basement clutter.

“This is Prudence, the rhinestoned and feathered rubber chicken who has a removable head," says McDonald. "And it’s kind of bloody because she’s been used a couple of times on stage.”

No, McDonald is not a hoarder with eclectic tastes, she’s a performance artist, specializing in burlesque and cabaret. Her basement is her wardrobe, prop closet, and rehearsal space. There’s a brightly colored tumbling mat on the floor and a trapeze hanging from the ceiling.

"I have some sequenced mouse ears," she says. "There’s strawberries over here, I found these at a thrift store -- and I really would love to make an enormous headpiece of fruit.”

McDonald often performs in feminine dresses, heels and glittery makeup -- her stage name is Frankly Frankie -- a nod to her spunky and beloved grandmother. On stage she has a lot of energy, but she’s surprisingly low-key in real life. She wears Birkenstocks and a sweatshirt, her hair is tied back in a ponytail.

The 32-year-old Boise native co-founded the Red Light Variety Show in 2008. It’s a modern vaudeville-style cabaret that includes everything from trapeze and comedy acts to striptease and singing.

The shows at Boise's Visual Arts Collective regularly sell out.

Credit Kate Grosswiler / for Boise State Public Radio

McDonald studied theater at Boise State. Although she was trained in classical acting, she says it wasn’t until she found burlesque that things really started to click.

“Burlesque means to make a spoof of or make fun of, and you can do that easily while strip-teasing," she says. "There are comedians and there are underlying social commentary, it’s very low-brow and accessible.”

On a recent Sunday, the artist is getting ready for her next performance at a downtown Boise bar.

“I’ve got the setlist handwritten, I’m taping it up here and then I’ll put another one up backstage as well.”

Besides the Red Light Variety Show, McDonald also started the Frankly Burlesque show, which has a classic vaudeville feel. She uses it to try out new material and experiment.

"You see all the strings attached," she explains. "If you’re over there you’re seeing the performers waiting to come on. There’s no theater magic here, which I like a lot.”

The performer says burlesque lets her connect closely with her audience. McDonald's acts deal openly with gay rights, gender issues and liberal politics, and she’s not afraid to push the sexual envelope with her strip tease either.

Her pieces can be didactic, but are balanced with a healthy dose of humor. On stage McDonald has seemingly boundless energy that keeps her audience on its toes.

“That kind of element of surprise allows you perhaps as an audience member to shift the way you were thinking about something, it allows you to go along with Anne because she’s knocked you off balance a little bit,” says Boise State theater professor Leslie Durham.

She taught Anne, and has watched her evolve since then. The professor says the young artist’s business savvy makes her unique. Durham says McDonald’s offering something different to Boise.

Credit Kate Grosswiler / for Boise State Public Radio

"She combines things in really intriguing ways," Durham says. "So Boiseans will be lucky if she stays here for a while, but I think she could certainly succeed very well in a much larger market in a different part of the country if that’s where her ambitions take her.”

In a couple of weeks, McDonald will be headed across the country for some special training. She and her partner Dan Costello -- a Boise musician -- won a grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts. They’re using the money to go study a classic Italian style of comedic acting in New York City.

She’s also landed a gig to perform at the New York School of Burlesque, and McDonald says she’s planning on taking what she learns this summer and incorporating it into a project she’ll debut in the fall.  

Right now, the artist’s performances alone don’t pay the bills. She helps manage a local restaurant to help make ends meet, juggling her many artistic projects on the side.

Despite that struggle, McDonald isn’t planning on leaving Boise anytime soon.

“It’s not completely saturated with performers and artists," McDonald says. "There are a lot here, but people are still excited about it and they want to go see it, whereas in New York or Seattle these things happen all the time.”  

McDonald says in Boise, there’s enough room to experiment in the arts -- and if an act falls flat or she falters -- her audience will still show up to support her at her next show.

Today’s profile is the third in a series we’re calling “Artist Statement.” The Boise City Department of Arts and History is providing funding for this project.

You can also check out more about this project on Tumblr and tweet to @FABarnhill using the hashtag #BoiseArts.