Designer and international burlesque performer, Kalee Jackson chats with us about her recent creative residency project ‘Performer Type’ in which she created a typeface in response to the burlesque and drag performances on Karagahape Road currently on display at Studio One Toi Tū until 31 Mar.
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I recently undertook a year-long creative residency at Studio One Toi Tū. My residency project was to create a typeface in response to burlesque and drag performance on Karangahape Road.
I’ve been performing on K’ Road as burlesque artist Amourous Ava for nearly a decade. Pre-COVID I performed burlesque internationally on a semi-regular basis. More recently I’ve also taken up performing drag as Large Hard Ron Collider. I’m also a designer/creative who works with typography. This project is an intersection of two worlds in which I inhabit – those of typography and performance.
Over years of performing I’d noticed that drag and burlesque show posters tend to feature similar display typefaces. I wanted to talk to performers and producers to understand why these design choices were being made and the connection between personas that performers adopt and typography that is used. From these interviews/conversations I was hoping to gain insight to help develop a typeface to offer my performer friends as a response to, and a gift back to the performance community. These conversations are documented in the Performer Type: Werkbook publication and the process of designing the typeface is explored in the exhibition.
The design response:
As well as my research with performers, I spent some time on K’ Road itself, looking at the typefaces moulded into the Edwardian building façades, and contemporary signage on bars and clubs. In Fiona Clark’s images documenting K’ Road in the 1970s–1980s I found a gold mine of legacy typographic references. I was particularly inspired by the Love Tub Inn signage. It reminded me of iconic New Zealand typeface Churchward Marianna (Joseph Churchward), and had a fun balloony quality that reminded me of drag artist Kita Mean’s costumes. I also enjoyed the curly lettering of The Pink PussyCat Club, Aotearoa’s first dedicated stripclub.
From this starting point I thought about these shapes in association with those common in both burlesque and drag costumes – an accentuation of voluptuous contours, dramatic stylised swoops and curves in the wigs, and sharp sculpted flicks of eyeliner. It became obvious the typeface was to be a display face, bold and for capitalised use. There are no straight lines in the shapes that amalgamate into letterforms. Shapes are repeated to create rhythm and movement. The more letters are set in unison, the more the typeface appears to be dancing.
I created iterations of letterforms in black ink on tracing paper to map out individual letters and how they might fit together as a whole typeface. These working drawings are a documentation of partial successes and failures.
It would not be possible to take on a project of this nature without leaning heavily into puns. As it all started with wigs, I’ve named this typeface BOUFFONT.
The wall piece, a joyously yellow BOUFFONT set at 1200pt, uses techniques used in hand-made costuming. I wanted to explore making the letterforms even more voluptuous, softly padding them out in the same way performers use costuming to accentuate the body.
For the portrait of Ron (Large Hard Ron Collider – Teal Steel) I took letter component shapes initially derived from makeup and reapplied them to the face to explore how the exaggerated forms might translate back to drag. I wanted to see if the shapes still bore a relationship to the face.
The gentle works on paper are performer names stenciled in each letter’s constituent parts. They’re executed in stage makeup, the bright eyeshadow and greasepaint flash palettes that I use for stage.
There are as many different flavours of performance as there are performers. This is a starting point, a response to performance on K’ Road, rather than an attempt to reduce K’ Road performance to one aesthetic. As a residency project it is a work in progress, the conversations will continue, and as a typeface it will continue to be refined and grow.
Kalee Jackson: Performer Type is showing at Studio One Toi Tū, 3–31 March 2022
Performer Type: Werkbook is published with the support of the Waitematā Local Board. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to order a copy.
Thanks to the performers and photographer who took part in the conversations: Monty Montgomery, Kita Mean, Kiki Kisses, Nat Hugill, Nocturness, Bebe Gunn, Dolly DeStory, Lilith La Lune, LUNA QUEEN OF THE MOON, Nasty Sistikk, Praline Parfait, Princess Vivian, Victor Victorious, Peter Jennings. Also Fiona Clark, Hannah Tasker-Poland, Kimi Whalen, Ellyse Bisson, Vanessa Green, Naiomi Murgatroyd, Annie Bradley, Siobhan Connelly and the team at Studio One Toi Tū for contributing their time and/or images to this project.