'The Empire Strips Back' reminds us that the art form’s satirical roots run deep.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, a group of scantily clad resistance fighters squared off against hordes of sexy imperial soldiers. Or something like that.
The Empire Strips Back is a burlesque parody of the second (or fifth, if you acknowledge the existence of Jar Jar Binks) film in the Star Wars series. It premiered in Australia in 2011 and since has sold more than 100,000 tickets.
For many audience members, the show marks their first brush with burlesque, a theatrical form with roots in social satire.
“From its earliest days, well before the striptease was developed, it was an art form targeting the structure of society,” says Mercury Stardust, founder of the Wisconsin Burlesque Association. For well over a century, burlesque performers have slyly poked fun at the social and cultural mores of their times.
And shows like The Empire Strips Back – which comes to the Riverside Theater on April 13 – seem poised to bring the art form to a broader audience.
“I wanted to make it as accessible as possible,” says the show’s creator, Russall Beattie. To that end, he spared no expense on the show’s set design, lighting and costuming. “The guy who made our Chewbacca costume worked on all of the Wookiee costumes for the prequels. He spent six months applying hairs to the costume one by one.”
The end result is a live show that looks like a bona fide continuation of the Star Wars series. Except that many of the characters end up taking off their clothes, and they crack jokes while doing it. “If you can get people to believe in the world of the show, and buy into the joke,” Beattie says, “the punchline is even better.”
Empowering or Exploitative?
We asked a pair of performers, a variety show impresario, and a women’s and gender studies academic to weigh in.
Burlesque performer and founder of the Wisconsin Burlesque Association
“Performers are the director, costume designer, choreographer, writer and actor of their own pieces. There is no longer a someone else pulling the strings in modern burlesque. That’s an agency over our own bodies that many of us have not had in our entire lives. We get to reclaim the love for ourselves in front of people who are cheering and loudly supporting us.”
Founder of the Milwaukee-based vaudeville show Dead Man’s Carnival
“Modern burlesque has more philosophical depth than the 1960s bump-and-grind aesthetic it mimics. In a way, it is returning to its roots as satire. Except now it questions itself as much as the pop culture it traditionally poked fun at. Some people come out for the thrill of a skin show, but I think they get more than that.”
Ph.D. candidate in history, and master in women’s and gender studies, UW-Milwaukee
“From a feminist theory perspective, burlesque offers an opportunity for performers to subvert or challenge objectification. Importantly, burlesque performers are not simply the object of the paying customer’s gaze – the performers knowingly return the gaze, acknowledging that the audience exists. The dance form can promote body reclamation, sex positivity and body positivity both to and with the audience.”
Local burlesque performer
“It is an art form that anyone can relate to, because it embodies people from all walks of life. … It gives performers the chance to be this being that they may not be able to express on stage. And it gives spectators the knowledge that sensuality doesn’t come in just one form.”