Posted by: Necci – May 17, 2012
Upon first meeting Mark Slomski a couple of years ago, my positive first impression of him was a high compliment to his taste in alcohol. I can't help but notice that the varying conversations I've had with Mark since then have almost always included a Maker's on the rocks. But more importantly, he has a timeless sense of humor, and an unfailing good nature. After seeing him perform and host for various events around the city, dazzling the audience with his understated humor and silly songs, I decided to find out more about what being a Vaudeville entertainer and an MC entails.
I want to start with your recent gig at Byrlesque at the Byrd. When I arrived there was a line all the way out the door and halfway down the block. I'd say it was a success! Tell me about your involvement with this show. Will there be a repeat performance at this venue?
Well, my involvement started nearly a year ago when Deanna Danger approached me about the opportunity, and I immediately accepted. I absolutely love MCing burlesque shows, and the Byrd Theatre is amazing venue. Admittedly, I don't think I realized how amazing until I stood onstage. And the whole crew did such a fantastic job. It's certainly in my top three favorites shows, and I dare say it's my favorite show I've MCed by myself. I think everyone involved felt like the show was a success, so I don't see why we wouldn't be looking to do it again.
Travelling back in time to your pre-MC days... how did you first become introduced to music? Describe some of the evolutionary processes that eventually led you to where you are today.
I was just telling someone about this recently. I dabbled in musical theatre in high school, and sang in an acapella group as well. Singing is something I believe I'm naturally good at, and I've now had 20 years experience doing it. I put it on the back burner during college, but returned to it when I grew tired of my office job. After a year of open mics, I was asked to join an adult comedy band about ten years ago. Since then, I've been in several bands, but always felt the need to "up" the stage aspect of those shows. I wanted to incorporate a certain look to being on stage and to give the audience more than just auditory delights. It wasn't until Phil Slomski and I formed our vaudeville act, The Slomski Brothers, and got the chance to be in our first burlesque show, did I realize that I wasn't the only one who felt this way. And once we found that scene, we were hooked. Fast forward two years and I've traveled the country extensively, produced two albums, joined several burlesque troupes as their official MC, and done everything I can do hone my craft.
What led you to Vaudeville style comedy?
As I mentioned, I joined an adult comedy band in 2003: a four-part harmony group that sang about sex and bodily functions. While immensely creative, our combined lives didn't facilitate traveling very often. After a conversation late one night, Phil and I decided we both wanted to perform outside the Richmond area as much as possible, and thus the Slomski Brothers act was born. Both of us had a knack for hamming it up on stage, and we took to crafting routines. Honestly, at first our focus was on the music, with jokes almost as an afterthought. But during our initial rehearsals, we quickly realized it was the quick back-and-forth comedy that would drive the act. After our first performance, someone asked us, "Do you have a CD?" We didn't, but spent the next week making The Lost EP, a 12 minute album with 4 songs and 3 comedy bits. Another week later, we performed our second show. Only one person bought the CD that night.
Tell me how you became so involved with burlesque.
I like to say Phil was the musical genius, and I was the marketing brain. And once we had a CD and some videos, I started contacting anyone and everyone I could to get us booked. At some point, a friend suggested I look into the burlesque scene, and a just a few months after forming the act, we got booked at our first burlesque show in Richmond. During the first set, Phil and I looked at each other and said, "We're home." Almost a year later, and with several shows under our belt, I auditioned for my first MC job in Baltimore and got it. I spent the next year hosting at least one show a month, sometimes every weekend, and was traveling up and down the east coast regularly. In two years, I put 75,000 miles on Van Slomski. What can I say? I like the sound of my own voice in a microphone, and introducing ladies taking their clothes off. It's the best job in the world.
What are some of the roles of a Master of Ceremonies, onstage and otherwise? Describe a typical show.
I'm so glad you asked this, but there is so much more than just announcing performers. Obviously, that's the bare minimum and shouldn't be overlooked. But a great MC does much more than that. He or she is the link between the audience and the rest of the cast. Performers are often very hard on themselves when they make mistakes, but it's rare the audience notices or cares about that. So one of my roles is to encourage the performers. Pre-show, I like to play a tune and give a pep talk to help raise the ladies' spirits. Additionally, a burlesque show isn't like other shows - the audience is expected to participate. I usually start my shows with a song, and most often, a song that encourages the audience to sing along. And while It's amazing how quickly people "get it," often they need reminders throughout the performances, so I'm constantly getting the crowd to cheer and yell. It really makes a difference to the dancers when the audience is reactive. A MC also has to fill time between the performers. There is usually some setup required for the dancers and definitely clean-up of the sexy clothes that came off, so it's my job to keep the audience entertained during that time. And not everything goes according to plan, so being ready to stay onstage for several minutes is a necessity. I do this in a variety of ways: I sing songs, tell jokes, perform magic tricks and sideshow acts. My goal is to give the audience a non-stop entrainment experience, and luckily I've heard from many people that I accomplish it.
You've performed comedy acts and have MC'd for various organizations over the last couple of years. Name and describe some of them.
My first official MC job was for Gilded Lily Burlesque in Baltimore. While I do believe I nailed the audition, those ladies took a chance on me, and I believe it paid off for both of us. Not too long after that, Deanna Danger was looking for a host for her Boom Boom Basics recitals, and I happily accepted that job as well. Since then, I've MCed all of her shows and gotten to meet each new graduating class. I absolutely love helping newcomers grace the stage for the first time. I was also asked by the Sinclaire sisters to MC for Bouncing Betties, Richmond's only non-profit burlesque troupe, and I've been doing that for about a year. It's an added reward to be involved in a show that donates it's proceeds to various charities. Last summer, I began doing shows with the Hellcat Vixens in Raleigh, NC. Immediately the vibe was different - they were much more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of troupe, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Honestly, what I've liked most about working with all these different performers is learning something new from all of them. Each show has similarities and differences, and that's what makes it interesting. I've found that everyone is motivated by different things, and the trick is finding out how to work with others. I've said it many times: I've seen a lot of breasts, and I can't deny it's quite a pleasure.
What are some of the challenges of a career in performance arts?
The first challenge I face is how to engage the audience. Just like every troupe is different, so is every audience. And as I said earlier, these aren't like other shows - you have to get the audience hooked. I think this is where my improv skills really come into play. I love thinking on my feet and interacting with the crowd. While I generally dislike true hecklers, I love being put on the spot and seeing how my brain gets me out of those sticky situations. Secondly, I'd say it's a challenge staying fresh. Traveling so often allowed me to reuse a good deal of my material, but even then, once you've done a magic trick a couple of times in one city, you can't just keep doing the same thing. So I challenge myself to reinvent my act all the time, making little tweaks that help strengthen the routine and continue to surprise the audience. The third major challenge, and this one is critical, is to remember it isn't about me. As anyone who has worked with me will tell you, I love the spotlight, and I love performing. But my job is to help the dancers shine and the audience cheer. It's very easy for an MC to steal the limelight, but that's not going to make a great show. I suppose I'm like the glittery glue that holds the tassels on the pasties. Both are important, but one should be getting a lot more attention than the other.
Tell me your favorite story from the road.
Favorite story from the road eh? I've got lots of stories, some which I can share, and others I cannot. And it's funny, some of my favorite moments wouldn't even translate well out of context. Immediately, two stories come to mind, and I've written songs about them both. But I'll let your readers listen to "A Man Like Me" from The Found LP and "Left My Suit in SLC" from Travelin' and hear those very real and true stories for themselves. Honestly, I couldn't make that stuff up. Instead of telling you one story, I'll tell you my favorite thing about the road: the space in between. Phil and I had a goal to see as much of the country as possible. And that's exactly what we did. Sometimes for us it felt like the show was second to sight-seeing. Take a look at some of photos from the road and you'll see what I mean. We made it a point to stop at large and odd sights alike. I've seen the Grand Canyon, the St Louis Arch, Roswell, Ponce De Leon's Fountain of Youth, a polar bear, the American Gothic House, the world's largest ketchup bottle... the list just goes on and on.
What are some of the projects you are currently working on?
I'm currently co-producing an act called The Slomski Cabaret with my lovely lady, Ms. Bitsy Buttons. We've produced a handful of full variety shows, including burlesque, sideshow, and comedy. We've also appeared as a duo at festivals and shows in town where I play songs, and Bitsy hoops to my tunes. Additionally, I continue to host various shows, such as Byrlesque at the Byrd and Bouncing Betties, as well as the upcoming ABSFest in Asheville, NC and the Carolina Burlesque Festival in Charleston, SC. I also enjoy teaching this craft to newcomers. I've seen some great MCs, and I've seen some lousy ones. Honestly, I've been both myself, which I believe has given me a good basis to teach others not to make those same mistakes, and how to grow their own stage persona. Lastly, I'll say I'm still working on the Slomski Brothers final album, which I hope to complete sometime this year.
What is the future of Mark Slomski?
Whiskey. Seriously, lots of whiskey. Beyond that, more shows, more music, more comedy. I look back on the last two years and [am] amazed at what I've accomplished and experienced. But it's the future that drives me. Sometimes I think about getting out of the business, and then I do a show and I realize the same thing I realized at the first one, I'm home. And this crazy vaudeville, burlesque, sideshow world is only beginning to see it's revival. I think people are growing tired of the same ol' bland entertainment. They crave more, and I want to give it them, one sexy striptease at a time.
Words by Rachel Braford
Top Image by Ian Graham, other images by Dave Parrish