April 17: To more fully answer the question of whether or not theaters can present nudity or "semi-nudity" without running afoul of code enforcement, here's a blog about the successful staging of Naked Boys Singing at Theatre on the Square and Phoenix Theatre.
"I'm so glad I didn't get arrested tonight," Katie Angel half-joked over the noise of the DJ at Kat's Pub, the Camby bar where she'd just finished performing the night of April 11 with her burlesque troupe, Angel Burlesque.
It was like any other Angel Burlesque show — if on a smaller-scale than some of its big fundraising extravaganzas — except for a couple attendees. The Indianapolis Department of Code Enforcement was on the scene to determine if Angel Burlesque's act can be defined as adult entertainment.
It's not an idle question: If it's determined to be adult entertainment, then it can only be performed on a "regular" basis in adult entertainment businesses, such as strip clubs or adult bookstores, which are carefully regulated and required by law to be located more than 500 feet from any residences.
And such a definition could have a chilling effect on the fledging local burlesque scene by knocking troupes off of just about all the stages and venues where they have performed over the past decade — almost none of which are defined as adult entertainment businesses. Or it might not. Such is the vagueness and flexibility of the code and the laxness and inconsistency of its enforcement.
In any case, the can of worms has been opened. The answer, relayed Monday by the city to NUVO: Yes, Angel Burlesque can be defined as an adult act because it meets the requirement for "semi-nudity," which the code defines as "a state of dress in which clothing covers no more than the genitals, pubic region and areola of the female breast, as well as portions of the body covered by supporting straps or devices."
At issue is a letter the bar's landlord received in late March from the city (as a neighborhood in Decatur Township, Camby is under the administrative authority of Indianapolis). It cites Kat's Pub for two violations. One pertains to a window sign posted without the required permit. The other is the reason we're writing this story.
It cites the landlord for violating Section 732-216 of the city code: "The establishment of an adult entertainment business shall be prohibited if the business is located within 500 feet of a dwelling district."
The letter to the landlord spells out the penalties: If Kat's Pub were to present adult entertainment within 500 feet of anyone's home on a "regular" basis — note that the term "regular" isn't specifically defined — it would be subject to both administrative fees of $215 per scheduled visit by the city, and then lawsuits with fines up to $2,500 per violation, plus court costs.
But there are at least six burlesque troupes in town, you might say, and they've been performing across the city for roughly a decade, since the first neo-burlesque troupe, Bottoms Up Burlesque, hit the scene. Angel Burlesque says it has performed in nine venues since its founding in 2011. How have they gotten away with it?
It's time for more fun with code enforcement. Here's how not to get away with a burlesque show:
1) Do a show in a part of the community that might be hostile — or rather, might be home to a single hostile person who will notify the city.
As Adam Baker, the Director of Communications for the Indianapolis Department of Code Enforcement puts it, "code enforcement is strictly a reactive agency," and will only address a violation if "people tell us. That's the way code enforcement is designed." And so, as Baker reports, the department was alerted to the performance only when someone in a Camby neighborhood sent a letter to the department complaining about an ad for the performance she received in a Money Mailer. Baker emphasizes that the department "is not a Gestapo," roaming the city looking for infringements. But it must respond to all complaints — and then assess the legitimacy of those complaints based on the letter of the code.
Angel says her troupe has drawn attention because of its ambition to reach new audiences. "We're really trying to push into the mainstream," she says. "We're trying to reach a wider market beyond supportive family and friends."
2) Show a pretty lady in a state of semi-nudity in your advertisements.
Code enforcement issued its citation to the landlord of Kat's Pub weeks before Angel Burlesque's performance took place, based upon the titillating nature of the bar's advertisement for the show. While the department says that "by definition, burlesque does not mean adult entertainment," the confluence of burlesque and a less than fully clothed woman on a poster was enough evidence for the city to make its decision.
However, that was a preliminary decision, according to the department, which, according to Baker, says it "tries to get everyone on the same page" in any situation, seeing if "there's room to be worked" or if "there's a variance that can be applied for." When NUVO spoke to Baker last week, he noted that the bar "wasn't in violation right now"; the business had been assessed for two violations pertaining to the show but had until April 11 to abate said violations.
3) Try to do your show more than once
in the same venue.
As Baker puts it, with respect to Angel Burlesque's show at Kat's Pub: "This could be a one-time performance; that's another way that would not be considered an adult entertainment business." So the solution for a burlesque troupe: One and done. Or maybe two. Maybe even monthly?
The trouble is that a business needs to present adult entertainment "regularly" to be defined as an adult entertainment business — and "regularly" is not defined by the code. Not that the code doesn't get more specific; it does define, for instance, exactly what "nudity" and "semi-nudity" entail (nudity includes "human male genitals in a discernibly turgid state even if completely and opaquely covered").
But "regularly"? That's up for debate. And that ambiguity likely led to the cancellation of monthly, First Friday performances by Angel Burlesque at Deluxe at Old National Centre, which was contacted by the code enforcement in 2012, responding to a complaint similar to the one made about Kat's Pub.
"When we found out about it, we were under the impression it was only a one-time thing," Baker says of the complaint. He notes that the venue was never issued a citation for the performance. Live Nation, which manages Old National Centre, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
4) Put on a show without a thorough
understanding of the city code.
Katie Angel and the rest of the members of Angel Burlesque were under no threat of arrest Friday night. But they thought a police officer would be attending their show — they were, in fact, plain-clothed code enforcement inspectors — and were more than a little nervous going into the performance.
The owner of Kat's Pub, Chad Alvey, complained last week to NUVO that the city "didn't even know what a burlesque show was," that they "didn't know what the public indecency law was." The public indecency law has nothing to do with the adult entertainment code, according to code enforcement's Baker, but Alvey wasn't clear on the distinction.
In other words, Angel and Alvey had an unclear understanding of the city code and the way that it's enforced going into the performance. But the city expects performers and venues alike to familiarize themselves with the law: "At the end of the day there has to be some kind of responsibility on the individual or performer to follow through," says Baker, adding that "we do what we can, up front, to try to educate."
One key question: Should Angel and Alvey have been expected to know the adult entertainment code? Angel Burlesque performed a show at Kat's Pub in February, which didn't result in a citation of the venue. Alvey booked the show after seeing troupes like Rocket Doll Revue performing in venues around the city that aren't certified as adult entertainment businesses. Here's an excerpt from NUVO's 2012 cover story on burlesque that gives a sense of the scope of the local burlesque scene (with the caveat that much of the information is outdated):
"Bottoms Up makes their home in Radio Radio and the Historic Melody Inn, while Creme de les Femmes can be found anywhere from Birdy's to the Casba's underground bar. Rocket Doll Revue are regulars at White Rabbit Cabaret and now The Sinking Ship; Pur Company can be found just about anywhere there's a party when they're not doing their regular gig at Room 929; Angel Burlesque is equally at home on Crackers' comedy stage or the eminently respectable Deluxe room at Old National Centre. And Hasenpfeffer is White Rabbit Cabaret's troupe-in-residence."
In short, burlesque troupes have historically performed at venues across the city — venues open to the public, shows that were widely advertised and featured in local press — without running afoul of the code enforcement. And because burlesque isn't specifically cited as an adult entertainment act in the code — and semi-nudity and nudity have been historically been featured on local stages that aren't housed in adult entertainment businesses — then wouldn't those troupes have a reasonable expectation that their performances were lawful and appropriate? Which brings us to...
5) Perform as a burlesque troupe outside
of a theatrical setting.
Katie Angel doesn't want to have to resort to calling Angel Burlesque's performances "theater" because she rather likes the term "burlesque," with its rich tradition rooted in vaudeville, variety shows and other populist entertainment of the first half of the 20th century. "There's something special about saying burlesque," she says. "There's something so beautiful about burlesque that it's so female-positive; it connects us to our foremothers."
But it's only when Angel Burlesque has ventured beyond a theatrical setting that it's drawn the attention of the city: First at Deluxe, which has a rock club feel, then Kat's Pub, an unprepossessing bar in a strip mall. There's evidently safety in presenting burlesque as a legitimate theatrical performance, with all the trappings of high art — in the same way as obscenity charges have historically been defeated by making the case for the legitimate cultural value of a particular artwork.
Not that Katie couldn't make the case for Angel Burlesque's importance to the city in other ways. When she spoke to NUVO by phone last week, she was getting ready to cut a $2,000 check to Indiana Equality Action, from funds raised during its Bourbon Boylesque event at the Athenaeum last month. Angel Burlesque also hosts an annual fundraiser for the Indiana AIDS Fund, and has given money to the Julian Center and Planned Parenthood.
She also emphasizes the "emotional benefits" afforded to troupe and audience members by a performance. "They're what motivate me to run Angel Burlesque," she says. "They go on stage and they feel so confident and they feel so beautiful, so powerful. Where do you get a chance to put yourself out there and receive that kind of positive reinforcement from the audience?"
To be sure, Angel Burlesque defines "burlesque" as the "art of the tease," and it's this reporter's impression that some of the troupe's performers do achieve a state of "semi-nudity," as defined by the code, by the close of their performance. But such strict restrictions on performance involving nudity and semi-nudity have been successfully challenged.
For instance, a 2001 performance of Naked Boys Singing, which involves the full-frontal nudity of adult male performers and has played locally, was shut down by the city of Provincetown, which cited similar zoning laws that prohibit adult entertainment businesses within 500 feet of protected areas.
But to quote from a document from The First Amendment Center, "According to Provincetown Banner, Judge Gordon Piper found that the town could not prohibit the owners of the Crown & Anchor Inn, a privately owned hotel and 'entertainment center,' from staging live nude performances. The judge noted a footnote in the bylaw that attaches adult entertainment to the category of retail use and ruled that the inn did not fall under the town's definition of a retail establishment."
The city plans to inform Kat's Pub of its decision later this week, and, as Baker says, "start a dialogue" with the club to see if there's common ground to be found. Kat's Pub owner Alvey says that while he plans to fight citations assessed by the city, he's unlikely to continue booking Angel Burlesque if he loses a court case or sustains substantial fines.