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 aging 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 deliver 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.”
Langley’s Angela Bell, meanwhile, plays Georgia, a character who, the actress says, has an astoundingly similar personality to her own.
“In my private life shock value is very much my thing,” said Bell. “She’s (Georgia) got a particularly gregarious, outgoing but obnoxious personality. She has no filters and neither do I.”
She puts up a tough front, but Georgia has done the most for the other girls, although she takes pains to hide the ‘den mother’ aspects of her personality, explained Bell.
For her part, the Langley actress admits, she is a bit shy in some ways and playing the role of a stripper offered the chance to shed a few qualms — as well as a few clothes.
Unlike the other characters who are already backstage when the story opens, Georgia makes her entrance from the street and changes into her costume on stage.
“That’s where the subtle nudity comes from,” she said.
“We’ve all got our embarrassments. I’m critical of my physical self,” said Bell.
“But I’m not really nervous about baring my breasts.”
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.
Kaitlyn Busswood was looking for a way to spread her theatrical wings when she auditioned for the Emerald Pig production.
The 22-year-old Aldergrove resident plays Pink Champagne, a young Polish woman who has been in the country for 10 years.
Somewhat hostile toward the other women — all of whom have at some point slept with her husband — Pink Champagne has her eyes firmly on the prize, said Busswood.
For her, stripping is just a step on the road to becoming a movie star.
But she isn’t using her body in a demeaning manner, the young actress said.
“It’s the way the world works, and she figures she might as well use what she has.”
That’s the case with all the women, she added.
“They choose to do it because they get the money to live the life they want.”
More than a show of skin, the play offers plenty of food for thought, she added.
“Yes, it is titillating, but it’s not just that.
“I hope everyone takes home a deeper message.”
“It’s very emotionally gratifying,” agreed Bell.
“I can see people talking about the show, going for a drink after.”
A Certain Class of Women is at the Act Theatre, 11944 Haney Place in Maple Ridge, from April 17 to 21 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $22. Call 604-476-2787.
Story by Monisha Martins, with files from Brenda Anderson