“What do you do when you’re not a grad student?”: An Interview with Brooke Sales-Lee

As part of our efforts to connect graduate students outside of the classroom/department, we’re interviewing our fellow grad students about what they do when they’re not reading, writing, or researching.

This week we interview Brooke Sales-Lee, a PhD Year I who studies the use of Catholicism by the Portuguese dictatorship during the Cold War. She is also one of the 2013-2014 co-editors of The Document, the GHSA’s newsletter.

 1. What do you do when you’re not a grad student? Describe your hobby/job/talent keeping in mind that others may know little or nothing about it.

When I’m not being a grad student, I help do historical research for the Museum of Canadian Burlesque. It’s a new and ongoing project that doesn’t have a physical space yet, but it’s a long-term project. Basically, the Museum is creating an archive and permanent exhibit of documents, photographs, costumes, props, etc. related to burlesque across Canada from the earliest days of burlesque in the nineteenth-century to the neo-burlesque of today. My role is basically helping with the history side of things. Less the actual acquisition of items, more the building of timelines, context, historical connections and trends, etc. So far it has meant working with a lot of memoirs and online newspaper archives, but there are plans for future archival work as well. Basically, when I’m not doing history, I’m doing history with rhinestones.

2. How long have you been doing this, and how did you get involved?

Brooke Sales-Lee with Mysterion and Canadian Burlesque Hall of Famer and burlesque show host extraordinaire Canadian Wolfman.

Brooke Sales-Lee with Mysterion and Canadian Burlesque Hall of Famer and burlesque show host extraordinaire Canadian Wolfman.

I started working on the Museum project early in 2013 when I was writing a paper for Marc Stein’s History of Sexuality course. I was already familiar with the local burlesque scene in Toronto, and it seemed like a great way to get more involved. I came to York as a Canadian who had been educated from Grade One through university in the US. Suddenly there were all these people doing really great Canadian and local history. I knew no Canadian history whatsoever, did really pretty traditional top-down history focusing on elites, and when I heard that the organizer behind all this, Chris Doyle (aka Mysterion the Mindreader), was looking for help, I jumped at the chance. I wrote my paper on burlesque in Toronto and struggled all the way, as there really isn’t a lot available yet. But I got into my primary research, twentieth-century Portuguese history, because there wasn’t really much out there (at least in English), so clearly this is just the sort of thing I enjoy. After the paper was done, I sent all my notes, my finished paper, a timeline, and a bunch of news clippings to Chris, who has been keeping me in the loop since.

 3. What’s your favourite aspect of this activity?

It’s really hard to say! The first thing that comes to mind is the non-research part, going to shows and especially taking people for the first time. I’ve never taken someone who didn’t have fun, and a lot of people have said to me, “oh, I GET IT now!” I’m a bit of an evangelist for burlesque as a feminist, working-class-friendly, politically engaged art form, and it can be hard to explain how women taking off their clothes and dancing in rhinestone underwear can be a bold feminist act. Learning more about the history has really only driven this home for me, though. I’ve read a fair bit of secondary literature from various disciplines, and you see over and over again the themes of women escaping poverty and abuse, owning their bodies and sexuality, becoming business-savvy, defying gender norms and expectations. A lot has been written about all this in the US, but there’s not a whole lot yet about Canada.

Working on this has given me a really great connection to my city. It’s not all politicians and war heroes. When I am in Chinatown and see the RBC branch on the corner of Dundas and Spadina, I know that used to be a huge burlesque theatre. I walk down Queen Street and see the lovely old church that was the focus of pearl clutching in the early 1960s because there was a burlesque theatre practically across the street, and city councilors had accidentally made burlesque on Sundays legal when they made theatrical performances of any kind legal on Sundays. I know that because the venues for concerts were so limited in the 1970s that the first punk rock concerts in Toronto took place in burlesque halls, the only venues willing to take them. The project has given me a feel for the artistic, musical, theatrical, and in some cases political bones of twentieth-century Toronto. That’s something I wouldn’t have been able to get without this project, and it’s given me a sense of belonging here.

I went to a fundraiser show for the Museum last fall, and it was really remarkable. A lot of historians will know that as you do research, you find all sorts of fun anecdotes and stories that don’t make it to your finished work. This show was about the history of burlesque in Toronto, and it was like watching all my fun anecdotes play out on stage before me. With feather fans and rhinestones! I don’t think I could ask for more than that.

4. How do you manage the balance between your graduate career and your activity?

I’m a big fan of productive procrastination, where you procrastinate from one important task by doing another important task. But really, while I’m in coursework, a lot is on hold. I tried to be honest with myself and the other people working on the project about my ability to devote time to extra research, and I’m a bit time-starved right now. But if I don’t go to a burlesque show fairly regularly and chat with people I know, catch up with Chris about the latest progress on the Museum project and so on, I get a bit run-down. There are a few monthly shows in Toronto and a ton of special shows, often with fun themes, so I can hardly go to all of them, but I will often go to a couple shows a month and just make sure I get my work done before 7:00 and don’t have class or TAing first thing the next morning.

Brooke with burlesque legend Tempest Storm.

Brooke with burlesque legend Tempest Storm.

Most shows start at or after 9:00, so it’s really more a matter of not having anything to do early in the morning. I make sure to always go to events with legends, the women who were performing in the hey-day of burlesque from the 1930s to 1950s, and last year I sat moist-eyed through the greater part of a talk by Tempest Storm about her life and experiences. I still keep an eye out for books and articles, and I’m a bit of a compulsive researcher and sometimes do a quick web search of a digital archive. You know, just to check… And because I just can’t leave well enough alone, I’m helping one of the producers of a monthly show organize the February show to be a fundraiser for a women’s shelter. It’s not about history per se, but it definitely connects back to the themes of women escaping poverty abuse, reclaiming their bodies, and remaking their lives. And that’s really my favourite bit, I think.

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