Saskatchewan’s stripper ban demolishes an artist’s free speech

PROVINCE by Paul Dechene


Who could’ve guessed that Brad Wall’s surprise reinstatement of the province’s striptease ban would have unanticipated consequences? Well, it has.

On July 10, at the Lyric Theatre’s Chautauqua Theatre Festival in Brad Wall’s Swift Current riding, a burlesque performer got a little political on stage. Her improvised monologue ran afoul of one festival organizer.

The performance was stopped and everyone came away feeling miserable.

According to Rosie Bitts, the Victoria-based burlesque performer in question, she’d been asked to fill in an opening slot after an act dropped out. Bitts says she was happy to take the stage for the extra performance.

“I said what I’ll do [is] a non-striptease dance, I’ll do a little bit of audience banter and then I’ll end with a song,” says Bitts. “And the non-striptease went over super well. And it was also a bit of an illustration of how ridiculous the laws are, because I actually did my non-striptease in what I would normally strip down to: my pasties and g-string.”

Bitts had already done two full burlesque shows at the Chautauqua Festival, so her near-nudity was not the problem. It was the between-song banter that alarmed Lyric Theatre president Denise Wall (no relation to the premier).

“I went into some audience interaction and banter, which is my favourite thing, and it’s comedic and it’s silly,” says Bitts. “And I started to question the ban on striptease in Saskatchewan. I talked about what, as artists, we always talk about — which is what is topical, what is happening right now and what’s just touched me and what’s just touched that audience.

“And I got about three minutes into it when Denise Wall came on stage and just shut it down.”

Dangerous Nipples

Bitts says her banter was just an improvised, comic poke at the Saskatchewan government’s rules. The main gag centred around her getting a male audience member to come up on stage and reveal his nipple. That exposed male nipple, Bitts pointed out, was completely legal. Her female nipple, however, has to stay covered whenever there’s alcohol present.

There’s an audio recording of the incident on Bitts’ website, and her routine seems just as lighthearted and well-received as she describes. But then, at near the three minute mark, you can hear Lyric Theatre president Wall come up on stage and say, “Hi, sweetie. We’ve enjoyed your dance so much; can we have a little more of the dancing?”

Bitts then responds, “Yes. I have a song but if you don’t—”

Bitts and Wall speak over each other for a few seconds that’s difficult to transcribe. But then Wall says, “We have support from different areas and I didn’t realize you were going to be doing this tonight.”

Bitts thanks the audience then says she’ll “gracefully leave [the] stage” and Wall thanks her for her performance and, sounding genuine, says Bitts’ dance was “amazing” before calling for an intermission.

But while neither woman comes off as angry or outraged, Bitts says that the incident left her feeling shocked.

“I’ve never had my words censored. I just couldn’t believe that that was actually happening. And it was such a kick in the teeth to have it come from a woman,” says Bitts. “For me, what it felt like was, okay, you know what, we’re happy to sexualize you within the parameters of what works for us, but let’s not talk about it. Let’s not talk about you having agency over your own body or what’s actually happening here,” says Bitts.

Hostage To Sponsors

In an emotional interview, the Lyric Theatre president defended her decision to stop the show.

“I felt uncomfortable that, you know, government support was being — we are supported by government; that stage is there because of government funding and local business funding, and we had hired her to go on stage and sing a couple songs for an opening act for the play. And it was not what she did,” says Wall — noting, however, that there was no contract for Bitts’ extra third show.

“People maintain that she has the right to change her routine even though we were the ones paying her to do it. [But we’re the ones who] fought so hard to have her plays in the festival twice. Because it actually was against the SLGA ruling,” says Wall.

According to Saskatchewan laws concerning striptease, a non-profit organization can only host a burlesque show once a year. Bitts, however, was hired to do two shows at Chautauqua before the Sask. Party government’s surprise decision to resurrect the stripping ban.

As a result, the organizers had to fight the SLGA to keep Bitts’ shows in the festival. And they succeeded.

“I was so pleased that that could happen because, I mean, the Chautauqua Festival has always pushed the limits,” says Wall of Bitts’ inclusion. But as for Bitts’ third show, she says, “[Bitts] was asked to go up in costume and sing a couple songs, but there was no talk of a dance or anything else. And she was asked to not push the boundaries. But she did. She decided to take the stage that was provided to her and use it for her own political rant. And whether or not the audience was liking it or not, I still maintain that was disrespectful and not the right thing to do.

“She said her point and I didn’t even mind that. But it was carrying on and I just felt like we had to get back to what it was that we had hired her to do. And then people are saying that I said, ‘Shut up and dance.’ And I said her dance was amazing and we wanted to see some more of it. And nothing I say is right, so—”

According to Wall, she stopped Bitts’ performance because she was concerned the political “rant” might offend sponsors. When asked about how political speech can be the first casualty when arts funding is scarce, Wall responded, “I feel like I had handcuffs on. And that’s all that I could act upon.”

“I just really feel that that’s what it was about,” she continues. “If we could find a billionaire who just loved theatre, then we could do anything we want at any time and it would be so liberating. I’m not putting the blame on that. It’s just, again, I acted without thinking and I’m going to issue an apology at some point, but I also felt like I had to defend myself a little bit. I’m totally sorry for interrupting. That was rude.

“But all I could think about was my responsibility to the bottom line of the theatre and how this place won’t be here if we don’t have that,” adds Wall. “So then wouldn’t that be the bigger tragedy? And not to mention the fact that our SLGA liquor license could be at risk, because we’d be done if we couldn’t have a liquor license. We’d be done within a year.”

“Incredibly Scary”

When asked about the pressure on event organizers to protect their funding, Bitts seems sympathetic and yet she says, “I think that’s a really scary place to be. I do understand it. I produce a lot of work aside from performing in it, so I understand the need to be aware. I think that when we’re kowtowing to sponsors to the point where we’re censoring the work we’re putting on stage or we’re censoring what artists can or can’t say, yeah, that’s incredibly scary.

“[If] everything becomes about the sponsors and their tastes and what they think is okay and we’re not going to ruffle their feathers, somebody’s going to have to stand up and say that art needs to be a place where free speech happens.”