Two fears for everyday Americans are: 1. showing up to work completely unprepared; and 2. finding yourself naked in front of a large group of people. Many people would spend their entire lives perfectly content not experiencing either one of these things. For dancer Kathleen Hahn, however, the combination of these two nightmare scenarios is titillating. “The two worlds coming together just really gets me going,” she says, “I love both of them so much. Bringing them together is just so exciting.”
Even more incredibly, Hahn has found other people equally thrilled to compete in The Great American Strip-Off! — “A burlesque, improv competition” — for its first year. “I’ve gathered together contestants from the burlesque, dance and comedy world in Asheville to compete against each other in what I hope to be a sexy, silly competition,” Hahn says. The shows start Thursday, Jan. 5, at The Magnetic Theatre.
While the concept of improv burlesque is common in larger cities, this is the first public one in Asheville, and Hahn has crafted her own format. “There are four contestants each night, they each come with their costumes planned, but that’s all that’s planned,” she says. “There are three different rounds. They choose a random song [and] a prop from a hat. Then they do a striptease to this randomly selected song and prop. Each of those four contestants do the first round, then the audience votes.”
The second round has three contestants performing in similar way. The third and final round has two contestants. “There are nine performances, three weekends. It’s a different cast every weekend,” Hahn says. “The same cast performs Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The winner at the end on Saturday, whoever has won the most competitions, wins the prize money.”
Burlesque and improvisational comedy are not as dissimilar as they may first appear. “Burlesque and improv go well together because of structure,” Hahn says. “With improvisation, it’s nice to have some structure so you’re not all over the place.”
The very term burlesque derives from the Italian burlesco meaning “mockery.” The primary definition of burlesque in a dictionary is “an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation of something; a parody.”
“The history of burlesque shows were satirical plays with satirical comedy,” Hahn says. “Then, they would have the dancing girls come on. Comedy was always a part of burlesque from the beginning.”
She continues, “That’s what attracted me to burlesque. I’m a silly person, but I also like expressing sensuality, sexuality. I like the multilayers of humor to [sexiness]. It feels fuller to me and it’s just more fun.”
Asheville has both a relatively strong burlesque and comedy improv scene. Not only are there comedy improv teams, but Asheville institutions such as LaZoom enshrine silliness in the city’s culture.
Two Great American Strip-off male contestants, Glenn Reed and Joe Carroll, come from the world of improv comedy and are game to participate in “boylesque” — the term for men performing burlesque. “With improv,” Hahn says, “You have to get out of your own way. Glenn and Joe are both pretty expert at comedy improv. They will no doubt entertain.”
She adds, “Improv helps you to be less self-conscious, less contrived. It definitely builds confidence” — something that will be needed in spades by the contestants.
But there’s a serious side, too. Given the national discussion about sexual assault and sexual harassment in the past year, Hahn must take steps to ensure audience members understand what she calls “proper etiquette” of burlesque participation. “We are in such a lucky place that we get to watch these beautiful dancers take their clothes off, so we need to praise them and respect them,” she says. “This is different than if you were walking down the street and you see someone you think is hot and you say something about her butt. That is not the appropriate time to hoot and holler at a woman. But this is a special space and place where we are giving you permission to look at these beautiful creatures and applaud them.”
Hahn continues, “You’re getting to see these beautiful bodies because they have chosen to share that with you, for this moment in time only, or until the next time they choose. It is an art form, and you respect the artist.”
It is a tribute to Asheville’s open nature that a town this small would be able to host a show like The Great American Strip-Off! for a monthlong run.
Local artists taking part in the shows “are just really charismatic performers,” Hahn says. “No matter what crazy song they get or ridiculous prop they get, they’re going to be entertaining.”
WHAT: The Great American Strip-Off!
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St., themagnetictheatre.org
WHEN: Thursday, Jan. 5, through Saturday, Jan. 21, Thursdays-Saturdays at 9 p.m. $21 advance/$24 at the door. Adults only