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How burlesque positioned Kat Ebaugh to play The Little Mermaid in LabTV’s ‘Dis!’


Like so many other actors, dancers and singers throughout Southwest Florida, Kat Ebaugh was feeling disjointed and out of sorts. She was experiencing an overwhelming drive to perform somewhere. Anywhere. Then a friend suggested she audition for Disenchanted: A New Musical Comedy! because she knew Kat is a big fan of princess fairy tales. So Kat indulged her friend and sent in a video reel. To her pleasant surprise, she was cast in the role of The Little Mermaid.

Although Ebaugh’s favorite fictional character growing up was Alice in Wonderland, Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid was a close second. “After the movie came out [on November 17, 1989], I would act out the part with my babysitter and little brother, singing and dancing around the house,” Kat fondly recalls. She would regale both with songs from the film, which was credited at the time with importing Broadway into the realm of animation.

But Ebaugh’s fascination with The Little Mermaid did not end there. As an adult, she’s portrayed mermaids in both the Marco Island Christmas Parade and the Gay Pride Parade in Naples in 2018. A burlesque performer, Kat has also incorporated a risqué version of “Part of Your World” in one of her acts.

“I have a mermaid tale in my closet,” she divulges with a coquettish laugh.

But Lab Theater Artistic Director Annette Trossbach did not know any of this when she cast Ebaugh for the part in Lab’s Stay-At-Home Version of Disenchanted!

While Ebaugh does not infuse playwrigh/composer Dennis T. Giacino’s mermaid with a sultry sexiness, her extensive background in burlesque does add understanding, depth and dimension to her character. Throughout the show, Disenchanted’s princesses-on-parade lament the roles they were assigned by the Brothers Grimm and other mediaeval storytellers in their time-honored fairy tales – which uniformly depicted them as pure (Snow White), chaste (Sleeping Beauty) damsels in distress desperately in need of rescuing by dashing young princes mounted on prancing white horses. Giacino’s enlightened and empowered Elite Eight rail against this “princess complex” in much the same way that burlesque parodied the 19th Century Victorian sensibility and cultural mores that postulated the ideal woman as an unseen, unheard helpmate or homemaker.

Sure, modern burlesque enlists bumps, grinds and shimmies in aid of style, sensuality and sexiness. The discipline focuses on engendering confidence, coordination and a celebration of all bodies and sexualities regardless of shape, age, color and physical ability. In fact, viewed from the perspective of the burlesque community, the striptease component of most burlesque acts challenges notions of objectification, orientation and other social taboos, which explains why this DIY form of self-expression clearly resonates with the women in the audience (which frequently approaches 70 percent) and other performers (who typically watch from the wings or back of the room).

Kat’s burlesque background predisposed her to flourish in the cutting edge film/theater format that Lab Theater has developed in response to the limitations imposed on social gatherings by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Virtual performing requires you to be very disciplined,” Kat explains. “I was expected to learn my song and all my lines on my own. I had one rehearsal with the Musical Director and another with Annette and then I had to go home and do my homework.”

But that’s nothing new for Ebaugh.

Most burlesque performers work out their acts in the privacy of their homes long before they bring their routines to the stage in local cabarets or at regional burlesque festivals like the Kansas City Burlesque Festival, the annual Burlesque Festival in Madison or the Savannah Burlesque Festival (which are three of Kat’s favs).

Working alone on stage afforded Kat yet another advantage in the context of Lab Theater’s hybrid film/theater production of Dis!, in which each of the actors appears on stage alone in order to protect both cast and crew from infection.

“The only time I met my cast mates was on Zoom,” Kat notes. “When I went in to film my particular scenes, I was told where on a screen people would be. It’s probably the closest that I’ll ever come to acting with C.G.I. [Computer Generated Imagery] because I’m acting and reacting to people who aren’t there at all.”

But that actually played into another of Kat’s strengths.

“One of my [burlesque] acts is based off the hot dog song [“I Want A Hot Dog for My Roll”] from Bullets Over Broadway,” Kat shares. “I bring a four-foot tall hot dog on stage and dance around with it. It’s very funny; more comedy than raunchy” (notwithstanding the rather graphic lyrics that accompany the tune).

C.G.I. is prevalent in film and television on an increasing basis. In films ranging from Star Wars and Jurassic Park to Ted 2 and Game of Thrones, actors are called upon to deliver dramatic performances while looking at co-stars and scenery that aren’t there.

Most film and television actors hate green screen acting.

“It sucks,” says actor James Wolk of his work in CBS’ Zoo. “It is so hard to do because as an actor, hopefully in your best case scenario, you’re really watching someone, you’re really taking them in, you’re really interacting…. With green screen, you’re just making that shit up in your imagination. You’re looking at like a c-stand with this green piece of tape and someone’s yelling, ‘The rhinos coming! The rhinos coming!’ And you’re like, ‘The rhinos coming!’” [No, I didn’t ask Kat about the inner dialogue she employs during her rendition of the hot dog song.]

Actor Adam Driver hates watching himself on screen, but he makes an exception when it comes to his portrayal of Kylo Ren in Star Wars. There’s so much G.C.I. and green screen wizardry during the shoots that he has no idea what the finished product is going to look like until he actually watches the film. Kat knows what he means. Not only hasn’t she seen her own performance on film, she wasn’t there to observe and hasn’t seen the performances of any of her cast mates either.

Kat is looking forward to the screening of Dis! for yet another reason. “My family and friends haven’t been able to come to my shows because of location, so this gives them the chance to see me perform, some for the very first time.”

For example, Kat’s brother hasn’t seen her perform since he was a kid and she made him play Flounder in their own Stay-At-Home reproductions of The Little Mermaid.

“He’s doing his fellowship at Yale, so this is the first show he’s going to see me in. And my best friend since kindergarten hasn’t seen me perform since [we were in several] historical plays in Miami because she’s in the Midwest working on her [second] Masters degree.” [In case you’re curious, Kat can hold her own with her intellectual family and friends. She’s pursuing a degree in environmental science and sonography (ultrasound) and volunteers in a program that is documenting the differences between coastal and inland box turtles. So if you dare cross swords with Kat intellectually, heed J. Iron Word’s admonition: “She is a mermaid, but approach her with caution. Her mind swims at a depth most would drown in.”]

Given all of this, there’s certainly a lot to look for during Kat’s segments in the show, but also pay attention to Kat’s costume as well. No, she didn’t fashion it herself in the tradition of Clayton Brown in Lab’s production of The Legend of Georgia McBride two seasons ago. [That’s a feat which is unlikely to ever be equaled or exceeded.] But she did have a hand in developing her costume.

Like most burlesque performers, Kat makes her own costumes, and she has an entire room in her house that’s devoted to the costumes she’s making for future acts and performances.

So it was second nature for her to add the finishing touches, flourishes and jewelry to her costume for Dis!

“Lab provided the skirt, but the top’s mine; actually, it was handed down to me by another performer in a burlesque group I work with in Orlando. And the wig’s mine too. I had to sew in the starfish so it wouldn’t fall out.”

You have to give it her. Kat certainly looks the part of a sea siren princess who’s traded her tail for a pair of svelte Blake Lively appendages which, no matter how comely, “just aren’t as great as she thought they would be.”

But giving up that which makes you the unique person you are to please someone else comes with a price.

Dis! is a very witty female-empowering show. It looks at the ways society has programmed us and it’s a reaction to the awakening that we don’t need rescuing any more. We want partners more than princes.”

Hallmark romance movies be damned.

September 5, 2020.


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