A new wave of ‘nerdlesque’ style burlesque troupes like The Geekenders are taking the stage using pop culture to challenge views about women, identity and body image through performance
Sarah Rose // Features Editor
Before the doors open and a storm of spotlights and glitter descend on the Rio Theatre, 30-year-old Fairlith Harvey takes a moment to sit down and prepare. She muses on the past seven years of work as the executive director of The Geekenders, a burlesque troupe where the acts are as comedic and warm as they are sexy. “It’s like a club of friends,” Harvey says with a smile, her hazel eyes always finding their way back to the stage. Below her, Belle from Beauty and the Beast is getting ready for tonight. His beard has almost as much glitter as his delicate rose corset and lace stockings.
They’re grateful to rehearse here instead of the church basement they were in earlier. Vancouver has a limited number of available spaces, at high costs. But tonight, she’s just here to do what she does best: perform.
Showtime creeps closer and the last of the eager patron’s trickle in from the brisk November rain in search of a rare last-minute seat. A sexy stormtrooper and Luke from Star Wars come on to wet the audience’s appetite with a short comedy routine. “May the floss be with you,” the stormtrooper says in a final send-off before the stage empties and the band strikes a tune.
Bathed in garish fuchsia lights, Trixie Hobbitses offers a coy wink as she glides across the stage. Her 5’9” frame is like a painting of glitter and fishnets with a Harley Quinn-inspired diamond tattoo peeking out from her right shoulder. Trixie artfully peels off a handmade sequined aquamarine gown, offering expert shimmies and spins to the beat of the seventeen-piece big band (of Capilano music program alumni) playing “The Scare Floor.” Her mom claps along in her favourite seat, four rows back on the aisle. Of the hundreds of characters Trixie’s embodied in lingerie over the years, tonight, she’s Scully from Disney’s Monster’s Inc.
In the final bars of her number, the adhesive holding her pasties gives way unexpectedly, unpredictable in the way people and bodies can be. Bare chested, the spirited Trixie dances as Scully with the kind of confidence that only comes from a woman who knows she is anything but a monster. The routine concludes to a 410-seat full house of roaring applause that waxes but hardly ever wanes for the rest of the two-hour performance.
Before she takes the stage tonight as Trixie Hobbitses, Fairlith Harvey is the woman in the unicorn onesie and red glittering bra behind the scenes of Vancouver’s pop-culture burlesque sensation: The Geekenders. The Vancouver native never imagined when she left for New York that her ideas would transform Vancouver’s members-only burlesque scene.
At 18, Harvey studied musical theatre at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, the alma mater of Grammy-winning artists like Janelle Monae. A kindred spirit to her Dirty Computer alumni, Harvey brought home a dream of redefining what it meant to be a woman onstage.
In six years, The Geekenders shimmied their way from an underground club show, Geeks After Dark, to the shortlist for the Georgia Straight’s ‘Best of Vancouver’ for three consecutive years. This year, several regular cast members held best actor nominations from Broadway World Vancouver. Their overnight success in a city that had never seen anything like it before was unprecedented – and rare. Harvey runs a hand through her waterfall of pink and purple hair. “Every show could be our last,” she says. “That means we always try to make things as good as they possibly can be.”
For the last decade, as the conventional strip club fades, burlesque has had a quiet renaissance. At the same time, Harvey’s self-dubbed ‘nerdlesque’ shows have also emerged on the scene. She can’t say exactly what the magic ingredient is, but she knows the formula draws deep from the historical, political roots of burlesque. The Geekenders nerdlesque brand uses pop culture as the medium to explore identity through performance. “It’s a political act to love myself on stage,” Harvey says.
The Geekenders now have an agreement with the Rio to use the space, but Harvey adds, “we had to prove ourselves.” The proof came in the form of her first feature: a vaudeville style routine of the first Star Wars movie where she says The Geekenders had their lightning in a bottle moment. “We sold out four shows immediately, we had to turn away over 200 people at the door, ” she says, reminiscing.
Rio owner Corinne Lee credits part of the Rio’s rescue from looming development threats in 2018 to the diverse types of entertainment on her stage – and the relationship is symbiotic. Having the Rio as a bedrock proved to be a large contributor to The Geekenders success as a regular sold-out fixture. With independent single-screen theatres in Vancouver having all but vanished in the last thirty years, having a dedicated performance venue is crucial.
Other performance companies creating nerdlesque style shows like the Alberta-based Fanchix face similar struggles. Despite the show’s success with both adult and all-ages entertainment, the Fanchix’s demand for venues showcasing adult-only performances is driven by a need for freer expression. Fanchix founder Sessla Tygur explains how, “sometimes the venue or event organizers will enforce their own preferences of policies on to the overall act.” Personal discrimination is also a challenge for many of the Fanchix members who enjoy performing as ecdysiasts at conventional strip clubs. “It was very heartbreaking to have some of the Fanchix not be welcomed to perform at those venues, as they were being censored for their body types in many cases, not even their ability to perform.” Tygur says.
Both The Geekenders and Fanchix feature performers of all sexualities, genders, races and body types as a rule. Today, The Geekenders have a roster of over 300 performers, and every show will feature at least one new performer. Harvey wants audiences to see themselves and the characters they love in a way they haven’t before, “R2D2 is just a little garbage can, why can’t it be a girl?” Harvey laughs, “just being a person is performative.”
The Geekenders embrace the art of burlesque as something more than risqué entertainment with fishnets and nipple tassels. For Fairlith Harvey, burlesque is about what isn’t visible. Following the haze of work around tonight’s show, she’ll come home to read an email about an audience member who spent the opening number loudly complaining about her weight. “I don’t apologize. I don’t quit. I want to give the women in the audience a mirror where they see someone who looks like them, who loves her body,” says Harvey in an online reflection she penned about the show. “I am brave, because I know that every time I get up on stage, I will be hated by someone.”
Harvey’s sentiment is echoed by Fanchix’s Sessla Tygur, who says that the request she most often receives in her inbox is for more ‘actual’ plus-size models. “They are by far the most difficult to recruit for, because many of them are hesitant to believe how gorgeous others find them to be,” Tygur said.
While larger professional theatre companies are slow to embrace change, the success of nerdlesque has become a catalyst for evolution. Part of this includes The Geekenders commitment to payment for all artists – no matter what. “The movement of independent theatres paying their performers has inspired bigger theaters to follow suit,” she says. The semi-professional musical performance group Theatre Under the Stars in Stanley Park previously paid performers nothing for up to two month runs. Now, they pay an honorarium
After years of eighty-hour a week schedules, Harvey is transitioning into a less intensive position and now works with Kitty Glitter, her creative partner. Her long-term vision includes increasing arts tourism to the city, maybe one day having The Geekenders’ own theatre, and starting a family. Until then The Geekenders are branching out with shows in Whistler and an interactive performance piece called Alice In Glitterland that debuted at the Fringe Festival this past spring.
As the cast prances out to the final funk arrangement of The Lion King, dozens of performers in lingerie and glitter flood the stage for a final bow. Amidst the standing ovation and deafening chant for an encore is a group of friends stripping down restrictive identities to reveal themselves—each an instrument in a big band harmonizing to a pitch that’s all their own, dancing to the sway of their own tassels.
“I want everyone to leave my shows having changed for the better.” Harvey smiles, “I just love warmth.”