Casting the Spell That Is 'Night of a Thousand Stevies'
If the phrase “Stevie Realness” means anything to you, chances are you’ve been holding onto a ticket to this year’s Night of a Thousand Stevies for weeks, if not months. Affectionately referred to as “knots” by its loyal revelers, the Night is a celebration of all things Stevie Nicks. Every year the event features a diverse roster of upwards of 20 acts, each of whom create one-of-a-kind performances based on Stevie references ranging from the iconic to the ultra-esoteric.
On Friday night, N.O.T.S. will celebrate its 21st birthday with its largest and most eclectic lineup yet, at the Highline Ballroom in NYC. To celebrate this impressive milestone, Blog Stage spoke with N.O.T.S.’ founding producer, “Empress” Chi Chi Valenti, to learn how a one-off club showcase in 1991 featuring four performers became one of New York City nightlife’s most beloved Springtime traditions (selling out 700+ capacity venues) and what she and her team look for when putting together their bewitching and ever-growing talent roster. Gypsy, if you’ve remained this long, read on for more Realness.
Longtime Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac fans are no strangers to the waxing and waning of those acts’ perceived hipness by the general public, and it bears reminding that back in 1991, Ms. Nicks’ career had seen brighter days (for more info check out her episode of Behind the Music, it’s a doozy). “At the time, she was not exactly what one might call a ‘club icon,’” laughs Ms. Valenti, a striking blonde with a penchant for gossamer who could easily pass for a Nicks family relation. “It was quite the opposite.”
As one of the founders of Jackie 60, a storied weekly party that brought no shortage of glitter to the pre-gentrified gutters of NYC’s Meatpacking District from 1990-1999, it was Valenti’s job to consistently come up with new themes. “When it first started, it was just going to be a one-off meant to showcase local drag performers who did some kind of Stevie homage,” she recalls. Although the inaugural event featured only four performers, Valenti only had to look around at the wildly diverse crowd the show had attracted—many of whom had never been to a Jackie 60 event—to see that the Stevie theme was a hit. “[These fans] showed up and made it very, very special, to a point where we said, ‘We’re going to do this once a year.’”
Over the next few years, word of N.O.T.S. spread within the downtown club scene and the lineup grew, with performers like Dean Johnson and Justin Bond taking the stage in their finest leather and lace. With the advent of email in the mid-90s, Valenti found herself receiving requests from performers from all over the country wanting to take part in the festivities. “We started having to think of what these people should send us, and it’s funny, it actually hasn’t changed that much,” Valenti reveals. Early ad-hoc casting methods only hinted as what was in store for future installments. “It was still mostly drag performers and they would send these videos. We would sit and watch them and we saw in that process how major this was going to become," she continues. "When you start seeing somebody living in a town of 200 people doing Stevie Nicks drag in their basement and sending you a tape of it, it’s just too wonderful.”
Up until three years ago Vallenti and her former Jackie 60 cohorts would hold local physical auditions for NYC performers in the East Village at places like CBGB's Gallery and the Rapture Café. They were only abandoned due to the fact that the majority of new applicants were sending along videos or other media kits with their initial inquiries. Valenti, a self-described “long-time computer enthusiast and enthusiastic virtual communitarian,” embraced and encouraged the evolution towards web auditions for niche-themed showcases like N.O.T.S.
“The internet has really made it possible for us to accept submissions from all over the world. We had a performer last year from London who had never even been to the event. We’ve had people perform here from as far away as Australia, which is major that someone would come that far,” she says admiringly, “But I totally understand. I travel really far to go insane events and dress up for them.” Valenti's favorites include the Society of St. Anne's Mari Gras march and the Vampire Ball in New Orleans.
Shortly after New Year's, Valenti and the N.O.T.S. team announce the year's theme and send out an email to interested applicants with submission requirements. Whether talent sends a Vimeo file or a VHS tape, only one thing is required: Total. Stevie. Realness. A word to the uninitiated: don't even think of trying to perform Nicks' 1981 white-winged dove anthem, "Edge of Seventeen." That sacred track is saved for the "Battle" of a Thousand Stevies, the show's rousing finale wherein performers and audience members swarm the stage in an epic dance-off in the wee hours of the morning.
It should also be noted that the re-emergence of Ms. Nicks as pop culture icon (her new album hit stores Tuesday), compounded with N.O.T.S.’ reputation for inspired creativity (it was the basis for the film Gypsy 83), has made competition increasingly fierce for the relatively few spots available to first-time performers; legacy plays a substantial role in Valenti's casting process. “[Each year] we try for six new performers or elements, and the rest are all returning performers from all different eras. They may be back for the first time in 10 years or they may have done the show every year.” A sampling of recent additions to the N.O.T.S. lineup includes aerialist Bella Luna and puppeteer Basil Twist and his “Little Stevie” marionette.
“I think that it brings something special and keeps the show in the moment to have it be all of these generations,” Valenti continues, noting how interest from a younger generation of Stevie fans forced her team to move the show to an 18+ venue to accommodate demand. “I would say the audience includes four decades of people, and so does the performer roster. Just as the audience might be 19 or 20, there’s also amazing people who come in who are in their 60s, that are like, trannie pagans from New Jersey. That’s another thing that makes it a special show, the people in the audience are just as ‘on’ as the people onstage.”
The 2011 edition of N.O.T.S. had more total submissions than any previous year (with over 40 first-time applicants) and Valenti was once again floored by the talent on display in the submissions she received. According to Valenti, “It’s not a contest of ‘do you look the most like her’ or ‘do you sound the most like her.’ It’s more about a body of work, and what you’ll bring to Stevie.” Performers across all disciplines are encouraged to tap into their inner Stevie Realness. “We take every kind of performer. We have a butoh company opening this year!”
Click below for a video of Butoh Stevie Realness courtesy of Vangeline Theatre.
With the real Stevie Nicks playing two shows in the Tri-State area this week, one question Ms. Valenti can’t seem to escape is, “Will this be the year that Stevie actually shows up?,” to which she laughingly replies, “We’re just doing our own vision, you know. We can never wait for her. Logistically it would be challenging, let’s leave it at that.” However, Valenti doesn’t close herself off to the possibility that the witchy woman might send an undercover audition tape and sneak herself onto the N.O.T.S. stage the legit way. “That would be genius, wouldn’t it? Or if she sends it and we’re like, ‘Oh no, she’s way too kararoke.’”
At first mention it may be hard to believe that Valenti and company have been treating New Yorkers to two-plus decades of Stevie Realness, but seeing performers old and new top themselves year after year with increasingly out-there material, costumes, and inside jokes (always in earnest, of course), it becomes clear as one of Ms. Nicks' own crystal visions that N.O.T.S.’ most enchanted days may still be yet to come. Perhaps no one is more surprised and flattered than Valenti herself. “To think that this would be the show out of all those 450 themes at Jackie 60 that we’d be doing 21 years later, I never could have predicted that,” she admits. “Like the Stevie fandom, I think this will go on who knows how long. She's eternal.”
Photos by Kevin Tachman, courtesy of the N.O.T.S. Flickr page.
N.O.T.S. 21: The Wild Heart will be held May 6 at 9 p.m. at the Highline Ballroom, 431 W. 16th St., NYC. For more info, visit www.mothernyc.com/stevie.
Submissions for next year’s event will accepted beginning Jan. 2012. Keep an eye on the NOTS Facebook Page for more info.
Stevie Nicks’ new album In Your Dreams is available in stores now.