Lit Fest: Literary Burlesque, The Naked Truth
3rd Telluride Literary Arts Festival, May 20-22, 2016, features eclectic events for lovers of books and poetry. Award-winning author Peter Heller is special guest. Panel discussions, a major poetry prize, bird forays, activities for kids – and the ever-popular, sold-out Literary Burlesque, Saturday night, May 21, 8 p.m., Burlesque 2016 features the original quartet of “Burl Gurrls”: Amy Irvine, Kierstin Bridger, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, and Ellen Metrick. Doors open at 7 p.m.; the event includes a cash bar. Tickets are $15 dollars in advance (through the Ah Haa School for the Arts or Between the Covers Bookstore) or at the door – if not sold out ahead of time. “The Rapture,” a dance party, follows immediately after the performance.
Leave your trench coat at home. But come with an open mind.
This is the razor’s edge between love and hate, fear and mystery, protection and vulnerability, hope and despair. It is the raw, cutthroat gulp where poetry meets performance, no holds barred. Where neo-burlesque meets personal memoir. Where fiction flies like a dove from a magical hat, landing as fact in the truth-is-stranger-than…department.
This is Literary Burlesque, a key happening at the 3rd annual Telluride Literary Arts Festival. The event takes place at the Ah Haa School for the Arts, Saturday night, May 21, 8 p.m.
“Burlesque” is the best Telluride has to offer when Telluride is being naughty – which pretty much defines its wild and wooly past. The daring, often funny show, conceptualized by award-winning author Amy Irvine, this year brings the Fab Four back together (plus a guy) to perform work that leaves them (metaphorically) stripped bare and very vulnerable. Layers peeled back, what shines through are tender hearts, tender words, unguarded souls – and yes, a little bit of skin. The 2016 theme: “O, Sister, Where Art Thou?”
How did Literary Burlesque came about?
Amy addresses (undresses?) the answer to this and other questions about the phenomenon that is this must-see show.
“A little over three years ago, I gave a reading in New England with two women friends and it happened that all of our works were very personal and quite revealing. I had become a fan of Telluride Theatre’s burlesque show, and so it wasn’t a stretch to see how we were performing a kind of burlesque too. I came back to Colorado and sent out a note to my most loved and admired poet friends: Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, Kierstin Bridger, and Ellen Metrick. Everyone had to roll it over in their palms to get a feel for how it would look; Kierstin went so far as to challenge the idea: how could we pull this off in an empowering way? Wasn’t burlesque a tradition of exploiting women? I responded that this was precisely why it appealed: How do we reclaim ourselves in spaces that have been reserved for exploitation?
“The women jumped on board and within just a few months, we performed at the 1st Annual Telluride Literary Arts Festival. Included in that show was Craig Childs as our emcee, a role as challenging as ours. It required that he establish the traditional male lens through which women are seen, so that we, with our work, could push against it. Collin Sullivan performed that task last year; this year, Craig is back in our ranks. And this, our third year, promises to be our most electric and revealing yet.”
Please talk about the theme:
“”O, Sister, Where Art Thou?” is a nod to the Cohen brothers’ film by a similar name and also to Homer’s ‘The Odyssey,’ which served as the inspiration for the Cohen brothers. Our show, though, is the female journey, a more vertical, rather than horizontal trip, meaning we are excavating layers of self, plunging as deeply as we can go. In many ways, our Literary Burlesque is less of a hero’s journey and more of an anti-hero’s journey, a true descent narrative not unlike the one Dante depicts in his ‘Divine Comedy.’ The theme grew legs following a conversation with Daiva Chesonis, the driving force behind Lit Fest. We talked about how our emcee, Craig Childs, is more of an orator then a reader when he’s on stage. And suddenly I saw us beneath a white tent, with a southern Baptist preacher trying to save everyone’s souls. I described this scene to Daiva and my image of us as ‘jailbirds’ who break free, the way George Clooney and his merry sidekicks break loose from the chain gang in the ‘O Brother’ film. Daiva promptly quipped the ‘O Sister’ title. I then emailed the idea to the rest of the original Burl Gurrls. Kierstin Bridger came back with a stunning Margaret Atwood poem about Sirens, told from the female perspective. And thus a show was born. “
Is it all about playing, ahem, the woman card?
To a large degree, yes, although not in the shallow, misogynistic way Trump uses the phrase. It is simply that we have few epic journey narratives written by women, save St. Teresa de Avila. But the male construct is everywhere: Odysseus, Jung, Dante, and the escaped convicts in the Cohens’ ‘O, Brother.”‘ Don’t get me wrong, I cherish those stories. But what does it mean for a woman to face her own sirens of seduction? What obstacles might thwart her on her way home? And where is home anyway? Yes, we are proudly pink. Every year we show up with writing that is distinctly personal, yet when each woman reads her words, there is this staggering sense of a collective experience – many of which are distinctly feminine. For starters, we are all 40-50-something mothers! Among our ranks, we have written about sexual trauma, eating disorders, and the joy of being in our bodies anyway. Some of us are newly divorced and widowed. All of us are wildly wounded, but we are also wildly in love with the world. For us, this show is an exercise in radical intimacy and vulnerability. I know Craig is included in terms like this because it is his experience as well.
Why do you think your show caught on so big? Is it in part because you are all so beautiful (inside and out) and so brave? Because you are such positive role models?
“The first year, it was clear the audience had no idea what they were in for. And frankly, neither did we. But the audience trusted us and went along for the ride. That trust allowed us to brave depths in ourselves from which we would rather run from screaming given the choice. And it doesn’t hurt that we also get pretty sexed up before we take it down to bedrock. I see this kind of bravery as transformative, rather than heroic. I am in awe of the Burl Gurrls for this reason. They are some of the bravest women – and men, our emcee – I know. As to the point of role models, let me offer this example. My beloved niece came to the first show and afterwards, she began writing her own stories. Then she came to the literary burlesque class at Ah Haa that grew out of our show. That is just so satisfying.”
Do you think the fact that Literary Burlesque is sexy also helps fill the room?
“Hell, yeah! Sexy and playful and funny, even political. All of these elements were part of traditional burlesque, so we have not forsaken the past in our literary efforts; we have embraced it. And I want to add one more point that I trust will feed our continued success. In years past, themes of shame and trauma were more apparent in certain levels of our writing, along with the way we presented ourselves. This year, there is a new kind of ferocity and a lot more playfulness, inner words, and actions. We have all grown as artists and as humans. Personal growth is sexy, no?”
For Kierstin Bridger, author of the recently release “Demimonde” about Telluride’s prostitutes of yore and their show world, reinventing Literary Burlesque every year, becomes halfthrill, half terror.
“Generating new material is always exciting, but performance anxiety coupled with a bare bones rehearsal schedule for very busy people is never easy. There is a reason the women in the cast far outnumber the men – Craig Childs and last year Colin Sullivan. It is because while it is about us, about women, we like to play off the male energy. The man on stage becomes the foil to our subversion. Burlesque is playful… And we are seriously playful. Costumes and props become the performative layer that unites us in creativity and voice. As far as a woman majority cast goes, it is easy for western women to become complacent about our hard won rights and fight for equality. Literary Burlesque reminds us all that the struggle is still alive on the political stage, i.e., there is a mysoginist throwback candidate blustering for power as we speak. We also share deeply personal matters that take a toll on our sense of liberty and freedom of expression. Our bodies are powerful tools – sensuality and sexuality and are part of our feminine arsenal and we don’t mind using them if – beyond the physical incarnation of our sex – we have something deeper and truer to say. And we do! ‘Oh Sister Where Art Thou’ is a perfect theme this year. The sisterhood is strong. It asks us where we are in our lives after a year. What has heat for us now? And how can we express that burn against the constraints of three acts, against the trope of an ancient epic poem, ‘The Odyssey’? How can we embrace burlesque this year? We all have singular answers to that question. We are trembling and raw with anticipation!”
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