Dancing! Comedy! Chlamydia!: Chatting with Meghann Williams + Gigi Naglak of Chlamydia dell’Arte
Founding members of Philadelphia’s Flashpoint Theatre Company and BFFs Meghann Williams and Gigi Naglak aren’t your typical gum-noshing, tube-socked, whistle-blowing, drawstring sweatsuit wearing gymnasium professionals who taught you sex ed. For one, most sexual education programs do not include a fan-dancing segment. But that’s what you get with Chlamydia dell’Arte, Meghann and Gigi’s collaborative brainchild; a burlesque-based sex ed variety show. With all the finesse of Gypsy Rose Lee and the walloping sex-positivity of Dr. Ruth, Chlamydia dell’Arte has had its first run at the 2009 Philly Fringe and has successfully shimmied through Philadelphia, D.C., New York, and Vancouver. This year, Chlamydia dell’Arte makes its return to the 2013 Fringe Festival with a re-vamped piece sure to titillate and educate audiences alike. Loins burning and minds whirring, FringeArts had to ask Meghann and Gigi all about the new shows and the ever-entrancing world of sex ed burlesque.
FringeArts: Where and when did your interest in burlesque begin?
Gigi Naglak: I was working as a sound operator for the Queer@HERE Festival at HERE Arts Center in New York City in 2001, and the final show I worked was a variety show by a performance artist named Tigger. I remember the very day we teched his show—it was June 18, and my niece had been born in the wee hours of that morning. Anyway, that was a burlesque-based variety show, and the performers ended up being pretty famous in the burlesque world—Tigger, Julie Atlas Muz, Dirty Martini. I LOVED what they were doing, especially the way they let this be more than just a striptease—it was a whole world of interdisciplinary performance that intrigued me.
Meghann Williams: For me, it began the first time I watched Gypsy. I was obsessed with that musical as a kid, most especially the last third where Louise becomes Gypsy Rose Lee, learning from the aging strippers and embracing this new person she has become. I love the old school burlesque world where it’s equal parts comedy and skits and commentary and boobs.
FringeArts: What’s it like to be a part of the rising excitement around the burlesque scene?
Meghann Williams: I feel like we are at once part of the burlesque scene but also decidedly outside of it. The neo-burlesque world is very different than the world of Chlamydia dell’Arte; we purposely chose to craft our shows in the older, more vaudeville-inspired style.
Gigi Naglak: I agree, we’re a little outside the burlesque world as most people conceive of it, in part because we rarely perform as solo burlesque artists. But, I think it’s really cool how burlesque has started to influence the main stream.
Meghann Williams: I love how fabulous and creative neo-burlesque performers are, but I personally find it uncomfortable to so transparently frame an entire show through the male gaze. I observed that the neo-burlesque scene tends toward a male comic emcee and then strip strip strip.
Gigi Naglak: Anything that helps to destigmatize conversations around sex and sexuality, to call into question our American puritanical view of sex is a good thing. Theater could benefit from the spontaneity and energy of burlesque. Theater has in so many cases become commercialized, boring, and safe. Time to shake things up a bit, or maybe create the off-off-Broadway movement of the 21st century. Burlesque has a place in that.
FringeArts: How did you first get the inspiration to perform Chlamydia dell’Arte? Do you remember the initial conversation you had together about doing the show?
Meghann Williams: I remember it quite clearly. Initially, we wanted to do a fan dancing show. We both thought that would be incredibly glamorous and lots of fun but the idea went exactly nowhere. We started brainstorming a traditional burlesque show mostly because Gigi is an awesome dancer and I . . . am also there, so we wanted an opportunity to showcase her dancing and my wisecracks. Brainstorming burlesque led to brainstorming a show name and Gigi joked, “Oh, I know: Chlamydia dell’Arte: A Sex-Ed Burlesque,” and we both sort of looked at each other with eyes wide as saucers and that was it—off to the races.
FringeArts: How has your background in theater prepared you to teach sex ed?
Meghann Williams: Well, theater people love sex, so . . . haha! I think “teach” perhaps isn’t the word. Even though we would love it if someone came out of our show with some greater sexual knowledge, the aim is far more in line with making a safe space to think about gender and orientation and arousal and STDs and pregnancy and masturbation and body image and celebrating sex and recognizing the darker side of sex, like, you know, rape culture in America. We want to open dialogue. We want to encourage conversation. It certainly helps that G and I are people who like to talk, are very open with strangers, and don’t mind getting into the tough stuff.
Gigi Naglak: Actors are at heart storytellers, and that’s what we want to do with Chlamydia dell’Arte. I think the best educators do the same—they find the story. I was a peer sexual health educator in college, so I have some experience in sex education. Both Meg and I have long been activists in women’s issues. We are active in the LGBQT community.
FringeArts: Could you tell us about the structure of the performance? How do you decide what to include and throw out?
Meghann Williams: First, we just brainstorm ideas for skits and dances and songs, constantly reminding each other that none of this has to be good right away or that we need to do everything. We also always keep in mind that we may make another Chlamydia dell’Arte show in the future and maybe some of these ideas are “not yet.” Once we have a decent list of ideas, we go through them and look at what topic each addresses and sort of pare down the list from there. Since it’s supposed to be variety and there are only about ten bits in each show, we don’t want to do three BDSM pieces.
The best part of plotting out the shows is building on each other’s ideas. For example, G suggested that in this Chlamydia dell’Arte we do a historical striptease—women’s undergarments from the turn of the twentieth century until now. I LOVE THIS. Building on that, I suggested we do it to Cher’s classic hit “If I Could Turn Back Time.” Now we’re trying to find large temporary tattoos of roses for our asses, because, you know, the video for that song cannot be denied. It’s a fucking classic.
Gigi Naglak: What Meg said! Creating this show is a truly collaborative process. Even when we start off independently, it’s always when we add the other person in that a given piece really comes to life.
FringeArts: How has the show evolved since its first run at the 2009 Fringe Festival?
Meghann Williams: This will be the third complete Chlamydia dell’Arte show—it’s the same structure, the same basic theme, but all new material. The original show has gone through some changes in the process of touring it to DC, New York, and Vancouver. After we did the original show, we were commissioned by Flashpoint to write and perform a Chlamydia dell’Arte holiday show. That was a blast because we got to work with Amy Smith as our director on the holiday show and believe me, there is not a more supportive director in town.
Gigi Naglak: I trust the show more and more—I believe that it has value in dialogues surrounding art and sex and human connection. I think as performers and creators, Meg and I have found our groove. We know this piece inside and out, so when it comes time to write new material, we’re always already halfway there.
It’s interesting to get older as we’re writing this, too, and to imagine how this would have been different if I was performing this at twenty-six instead of thirty-six, and how it will be different when I’m forty-six. Since we will continue to change, and the world will continue to change, and policy concerning sex and abortion and gay marriage and so on will continue to change, I can’t imagine that we’ll run out of material any time soon!
Meghann Williams: Gigi and I are best friends and started doing a show so we could work together on something other than a bottle of wine. Even though it’s still nerve racking every time we bring new material to each other, it’s a singular high to be onstage telling vagina jokes with the person I trust and love most in the world.
FringeArts: How have audiences connected with the mission of Chlamydia dell’Arte? Any surprises?
Gigi Naglak: When we started this project, we hoped the show would make people talk to each other, and we’re thrilled to see that it does. That’s the amazing power of comedy, right? You start laughing your ass off, and then you’re able to let your guard down. It’s a great opportunity for human connection. It’s particularly excellent to get feedback from our audiences and to get them participating in the projects. For each show, we interview people and put those interviews together in video interludes. Some of our interviewees are people who came to see the show and then wanted to be a part of it. SO COOL.
Meghann Williams: We are so lucky to have had supportive, enthusiastic audiences everywhere we’ve performed. I’ve noticed that we connect a lot with women ages thirty-five to sixty—that’s kind of our base, but we’ve been told the show is also a great first date. The biggest surprise is how many times our own immediate families have seen the show. The only thing my mom doesn’t like is the cursing, which I find kind of hilarious. Daughter taking off her clothes? Fine. Daughter deep throating a dildo? Fine. Daughter saying “fuck”—OH HELL NO. Funny story: when my dad first saw the original show, I was nervous because of the aforementioned deep throating a dildo. I asked him how he felt about it and he said, “You know, Meg, if you put a dildo in a room with that many people someone’s gonna suck it.”
Gigi Naglak: The audience response has been phenomenal, and I second what Meg said about how meaningful it’s been for me to have our families be so supportive. A couple of years ago, we traveled down to Northern Virginia to perform a very low-tech version of the show in my cousin’s basement for my aunt and a few of her friends. My aunt was suffering from cancer at the time, and she had not yet seen the show. She just loved it. That was such a shit time for my family and me. Illness is just impossible because you don’t know what to do. This was a way I could help, and my awesome best friend and artistic partner was there with me, totally wiling to be a part of this, too.
Thanks, Meghann and Gigi!
Chlamydia dell’Arte: MORE Sex-Ed Burlesque
$15 / 60 minutes
947 East Passyunk Avenue
Sept 10–12 + 17–19 at 8pm