The women of the Cabaret Circus strut onto stage to the guitar licks of Sweet Child of Mine.
As the director cues the lights, each is perched on a bar stool, looking appropriately nonchalant as a stripper, waiting for her turn in the spotlight.
Lori Watt is immersed in her character Lil, the ageing protagonist peeler in A Particular Class of Women, a play that squashes stereotypes about striptease.
She pouts her lips to apply blood red lipstick, teases her hair and adjusts her corset to reveal just the right amount of cleavage.
“Being an actress, it’s a fabulous thing you can experience all these different things, but not actually live it,” Watt says.
Written by Janet Feindel, who spent 10 years as a stripper, A Particular Class of Women is a revealing composite of life in the skin trade.
It was inspired by a 1985 court case in Ontario, where a stripper was raped at knife-point. The presiding judge paid little attention to the crime because the victim “was from a particular class of women whose profession it is to promote lust.
“The judge somehow used that in his summation to be lenient to the rapist,” says a visibly indignant Watt.
“That’s atrocious. Whatever profession a woman is in, a woman saying no is a woman saying no.”
As the co-founder of The Frolicking Divas, a women’s theatre production company, Watt was drawn to the play not only for of its content but its realistic look at the lives of these often marginalized women.
“You see a side of the women that is private and personal. You get an opportunity to know them as human beings and not as objects,” says Watt, a New Westminster resident whose character Lil has just been fired by the strip club manager for being too old.
Lil, at 42, is a mother figure to the younger strippers. She advises them on how to court the bikers and admonishes them to cover up off stage.
“She is all tough and really that’s not true,” says Watt, who has given Lil a thick Quebecois accent that allows her to delivery stinging lines with panache and flair.
“The accent is another mask. I think it’s part of her costume, the person that she presents to the public.”
John Stuart, who is sharing directing duties with Simon Challenger in this Emerald Pig Theatrical Society production, has made the rehearsal space in Pitt Meadows a safe haven.
The windows are blacked out and all the actresses are allowed to ease into their roles. As a result, the atmosphere in the rehearsal space isn’t far removed from a dressing room at a strip club.
“If you have been around strippers, they are very open about their bodies,” says Stuart, who allowed each of the eight actresses to chose their own costumes.
“As the rehearsal process has gone on, they have become not only comfortable with me, but more comfortable with their characters.”
While perfecting the monologues for each character, Stuart focused on intent.
I want them to figure out why are they are telling us this, he explains.
To prepare for their roles as authentic exotic dancers, the cast met with a former stripper who worked with the playwright in Toronto and made an excursion to real strip clubs for research.
“There is a prejudice in the population when it comes to this profession, but most of the women you talk to took this job because they could make a lot of money,” says Stuart.
“It was a means of support for themselves or their kids. They don’t hate the job, they love the job. These are normal women who just happen to be strippers.”
Honest, funny, sexy and sometimes crude, the characters in A Particular Class of Women are roles actresses often covet.
Lisa Marie Marrelli wasn’t familiar with the play when she auditioned for it but knew its content was “truthful” and fact-based.
“For me that’s the biggest thing in acting. I like to do something completely opposite to who I am and something that’s real,” says Marrelli, 30, who took a hiatus from the acting world after university where she majored in theatre.
Angel, the woman she plays, is the clown of the cabaret but hides dark secrets.
“She hides a lot of her sadness through the clown, which most clowns do,” says Marrelli, who admits as a competitive dancer she was always curious about stripping.
“Quite frankly I am a very sexual person. So it’s pretty easy for me to pick it up.”
Marrelli’s Maple Ridge cohort Lauren Campbell however wasn’t so quick to shed her clothes but she fell for her character Luv as soon as she read the script.
“I am big on not judging until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes,” says Campbell, 26.
“I feel like these women just get a stigma that is not fair.”
As a character Luv could probably be deemed as Campbell’s polar opposite. An actress, who studied at the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria, Campbell describes a typical suburban upbringing, catholic school, dances classes et al.
“I enjoy playing characters that are just so completely different from me,” says Campbell, who lives in Maple Ridge.
“I live a very privileged life thankfully and always have. Luv is just very strong. That’s what really draws me to her character. This is a role of a lifetime.”
A Particular Class of Women plays the ACT in Maple Ridge from April 17 to April 21. Tickets are $22. For tickets, call the ACT at 604-476-2787 or visit actmapleridge.org.
• Talk Back Tuesday: On April 17, join the directors, cast, crew and special guests for a frank discussion after the play about society’s views of this “particular class of women”. Heather Halliday, a program coordinator at Cythera House and Tamara O’Doherty, a professor at SFU, will be on the panel.
Lil – Lori Watt (New Westminster)
Marky – Emily Nadeau (Vancouver)
Petal Rose – Amy Starkey (North Vancouver)
Luv- Lauren Campbell (Maple Ridge)
Angel – Lisa Marie Marrelli (Maple Ridge)
Glynis – Emily Wilson (Port Coquitlam)
Georgia – Angela Bell (Langley)
Pink Champagne – Kait Buswood (New Westminster, Burnaby)