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Getting Naked at the DOC NYC Festival

November 15, 2017


Anybody who knows me knows of my love for the New York City burlesque scene, so I was thrilled to attend the premiere of director James Lester’s fantastic documentary Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story at the DOC NYC festival this week. (It screens again on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 9:45 p.m. at the IFC Center.) I spoke with James about his quest to honor such fabulously talented artists as Hazel Honeysuckle, Gal Friday and the Schlep Sisters (Minnie Tonka and Darlinda Just Darlinda).

Do you remember the first time you saw a burlesque show? It was in 2008 at the old Galapagos in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was an accidental show. I was meeting a friend, and as I got in, a band onstage was air-playing “Free Bird” and then these two trapeze girls descended from the ceiling wearing skimpy tank tops. One said “Free” and the other said “Bird.” It was wild and hilarious and neo-burlesque ironic. I didn’t even know what it was, but I fell in love with it.

What did you love so much about it, right off the bat? I loved that it was sexy but not exploitative. I loved that it was funny and theatrical and it was making fun of itself.

When did you start working on the documentary? I had done a scripted series of webisodes featuring burlesque performers, and when I ran out of money because we were self-financing it, I was in limbo. I bought one of those cameras you can hold in the palm of your hand in 2010 and kept filming the performers. Then I got the idea to make a documentary when I saw how many performers the city had and the scope of all the different venues.

Why did you choose to focus on Hazel, Gal and the Schelps? What I realized as I was doing it was I didn’t want to do a history of burlesque. I wanted to do a character study, and to do that well, you need arcs. I gravitated to those who had the most struggle, whether it was internal like Gal — because I could tell she was going through an artistic and personal transformation — or with Minnie, who was going through a physical struggle with her health. With Hazel, a new performer, I could see she had a struggle underneath the surface about who she was and whether she was being accepted in the scene.

Was it difficult having established personal friendships with these performers to decide who gets the most screen time? It was at first, and the most difficult footage to lose was with Perle Noire, who gave me this great, raw interview. But you have to separate yourself from the friendships. It became very clear once I handed the film over to my consulting editor, Meg Reticker, who has cut The Wire and True Detective. Having her in there was very helpful. The performers are so professional so there was rarely, if ever, a moment when it felt like they were whining about screen time. They trusted me to do it right, and I trusted them to be themselves.

What do you hope people will take away from the film about burlesque? I hope people will see these women are artists. They’re craftspeople, and they work their tails off. My father is a jazz musician, and this world felt similar to me: They work at night in clubs and don’t make much money.  These women work eight hours a day on an act that’s going to take three minutes. I’m hoping what I show makes it clear who these ladies are.

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