Harley Young speaks with Leighlou Harper about the importance of inclusivity in performing arts

Leighlou Harper, who goes by her stage name Neon Flare, is a neurodivergent and chronically ill burlesque performer, aerialist, flow artist and cabaret producer.

Leighlou is challenging the traditional face of cabaret by prioritising marginalised artists, creating inclusive and welcoming displays of talent as part of Misfits Menagerie: A Vaudeville Variety Show. Each show is designed to showcase a spectrum of burlesque, cabaret and drag mavericks from across the UK. 

All of the line-up for Leighlou’s upcoming show identify as one or more of the following: plus size, neurodivergent, chronically ill, disabled, POC, and LGBTQ+.

I spoke to Leighlou to find out more about the importance of having full inclusivity in performing arts.

The biggest obstacle I have faced on my journey as a performer is people making assumptions about my abilities

Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get into cabaret, both producing and performing?

Most of my life and my career is rooted within the arts. I spent most of my childhood and young adulthood singing, dancing and acting in school musicals and charity events. 

I was obsessed with musicals such as Sweet Charity, Cabaret, All That Jazz, Chicago, and Moulin Rouge - productions all of which feature what is commonly referred to as a ‘Showgirl’. 

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Leighlou Harper, AKA Neon Flare Image: Leighlou Harper

I spent a lot of my twenties desperately wanting to be on stage but never feeling good enough. It wasn't until 2014, when I was accepted onto Contact Theatre's Future Fires Programme, that I truly started to flourish. I gained skills in project and events management, budgeting, and marketing - things they don't teach you on a performing arts degree - and from there I started my own theatre company. 

I successfully produced four community theatre performances between 2014 and 2016 until I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, which sadly halted a lot of my plans. I was later diagnosed with Endometriosis in 2018, which almost put a complete stop to my dreams altogether. 

After trying and failing to secure a 'proper job' that could work with me and my health conditions I decided to take the opportunity to tell my story on stage. This idea became 'In Her Own Words', which debuted at The Empty Space in Salford, on March 5th 2020. 'In Her Own Words' primarily explored women's stories and female empowerment, so I insisted on featuring Burlesque performers as part of that message. 

If Covid had not interrupted everything, I would have taken 'In Her Own Words' on tour and started my burlesque and cabaret artist journey a lot sooner. I officially began performing last October and decided to produce Misfits Menagerie as a celebration of that achievement.

What kind of obstacles have you faced on your cabaret journey?

The biggest obstacle I have faced on my journey as a performer is people making assumptions about my abilities. My commitment, my work ethic, and even my passion have all been called into question based on what people can see externally and what I choose to share on social media. I was forced to remove myself from a situation where I felt bullied and discriminated against, which is why I decided to create my own platform and opportunities that are entirely dedicated to people like me.

Have you or any of the performers on your lineup faced discrimination when performing at or booking to perform at shows?

Yes, I am aware of a performer who was told they could no longer be in a show because the venue was inaccessible. The producer did not ask the performer for their accessibility needs or offer an alternative solution. 

While I appreciate that there are a lot of venues that do not have accessible facilities, ultimately the performer will know best what they can and cannot do and will have determined this prior to applying for the casting. 

Sadly, a lot of producers will not even consider disabled artists due to a venue's accessibility restrictions and some believe that the work of chronically ill and disabled artists will not be of the same quality or calibre as an able bodied artist.

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The lineup for Misfits Menagerie: A Vaudeville Variety Show Image: Misfits Menagerie @misfitsmenagerieuk

Why is it important that we all strive to dismantle ableism and marginalisation, not just in the industry but in society as a whole? 

Ableism is the assumption that disabled people have less value in society or that we don't have as much to contribute. This perception leads to bias and prejudice, which often prevents people like myself from reaching our full potential and leaves us vulnerable to discrimination. 

Ableism, racism, homophobia and transphobia all come under the same umbrella in that they are taught behaviours. People fear and exclude what they don't understand and the only way to break that cycle is for everyone to communicate openly and respectfully and to take accountability for changing their own outlook.

What can attendees expect from Misfits Menagerie: A Vaudeville Variety Show?

Misfits Menagerie: A Vaudeville Variety Show is not just another spectacle, it’s a celebration of equality, diversity and inclusivity. 

The show will host a spectrum of Burlesque, Cabaret and Drag mavericks from across the UK who will tickle your funny bone, arouse your senses, and captivate your imagination. It will be a night of cackle-inducing comedy, live music, and titillating performances.

What does the word ‘misfits’ mean to you?

Growing up 'Misfits' were one of my favourite bands and, back in the 90s and 00s, being into Rock music was thoroughly uncool. I was seen by others as something different and weird. I felt misunderstood and disregarded simply because my interests didn't match those of my peers. I experience similar feelings today as a direct result of being chronically ill and disabled but in this scenario society is the bully. 

'Misfits', for me, still symbolises that I'm different but my intention is to use it as a statement of power and celebration. To paraphrase Marilyn Monroe: “It's better to be a Misfit than absolutely boring.”

How did you choose the lineup for the show?

I knew prior to posting the casting that I would prioritise marginalised artists. I asked for people to provide relevant information if they felt this applied to them and chose artists from that category first before selecting any other. 

Quality, style, aesthetic and entertainment value were taken into consideration after the initial part of the process. I am proud that 100% of the show's line-up identify as one or more of the following: Plus Size, Neurodivergent, Chronically Ill, Disabled, POC, and LGBTQ+.

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The cast of In Her Own Words from International Women's Day in 2020 - Eloise, Saskia, Francesca, Liz, Emma, Tasharelle and Leighlou Image: In Her Own Words

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to begin a career in cabaret who has a chronic illness, disability, is queer, or is from a marginalised group?

Seek out a mentor and go to classes and shows, if and when you're able. Talent comes in many forms, don't be afraid to discover your own.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a venue or promoter when it comes to being more inclusive?

Set aside some funds, fundraise or apply for funding to ensure the show/venue is accessible for both artists and audience members. When selecting a venue, choose one that caters to those with accessibility needs. Additionally, ask your artists if they have any specific accessibility requirements before making casting decisions.

How can people support you and the artists on your lineup?

Cast us in more shows and actively show your support for our community. Openly communicate with us about our access requirements or needs. Don't make assumptions about our abilities or our needs. Greet us at the venue entrance and show us around. Come to our shows to see our talent and abilities in action.

Where can tickets for the show be purchased?

Tickets can be bought here

On Saturday 25 November, Leighlou is running Misfits Menagerie: The Vaudeville Labs; an intensive day of workshops with some of the artists from the show on Saturday. This is designed for anyone interested in developing a career in cabaret or just trying something new.

A list of the workshops available and tickets can be found here.

More information about the show and the workshops can also be found on Instagram @misfitsmenagerieuk.

Follow Harley Young on X @Harley__Young

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