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Frankly Free Speech: Burlesque at VAC Will Celebrate First Amendment

"Burlesque is there to make short performances and have a good time, but you can learn and teach."

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David Crellin gets a kick out of the fact that his stage name, Armitage Shanks, is also the name of a U.K.-based urinal manufacturer.

"It sounds very regal," he said, "but it's a bathroom fixture."

For years, Crellin has traveled the world as a circus, cabaret and burlesque performer (he picked up the name "Armitage Shanks" in a British loo). While playing Lord of the Manor for Sublime Boudoir at the Alder Manor in Yonkers, N.Y., the Seattle-based performer opened up about an upcoming gig in Garden City—"Art vs Freedom: A First Amendment Cabaret."

The show, which will serve as the season finale of Frankly Frankie Burlesque, is set for Friday and Saturday, May 19 and 20 at the Visual Arts Collective. True to its title, Art vs. Freedom aims to explore the limits of what's allowable on stage in Idaho—a conflict torn from the headlines.

As Armitage Shanks, Crellin will play the censor who has learned of shenanigans at the VAC. The representative of an oppressive regime, he has come to quash immorality as it appears in performances by locals Juniper Rose and Lilian St. ArDust of the Red Light Variety Show. Puppeteers Jodi Eichelberger (of Story Story Night) and Jaime Nebeker of HomeGrown Theatre will also play parts alongside opera, pole dancing, aerial silks, comedy, belly dancing and more.

What starts as a tale of free speech crushed under the wheels of moralism is quickly upended as Shanks becomes infatuated with a drag queen. That, Crellin said, is the moral of the story.

"What you perceive as immorality is not necessarily immorality: There's humanity," he said.

The performance is aimed at ongoing legal conflicts in the Gem State over whether alcohol can be served in the presence of material defined by the state as obscene.

Idaho statutes governing liquor licenses and obscenity stipulate no wine, beer or hard alcohol may be sold in conjunction with sexually explicit live performances—with the exception of businesses that do not specialize in showcasing explicit live material. In the past, those laws have been leveraged against movie theaters, a New Meadows restaurant (see Page 6) and VAC itself, which, along with ACLU-Idaho and Frankly Frankie Burlesque, successfully sued Idaho State Police for First Amendment rights violations in 2016.

A grant from the Idaho Commission on the Arts paid for the script and Crellin's travel expenses. The commission had no comment.

For Crellin, the court victory over ISP informs only part of his performance. His transformation from censor to reveler meant the cabaret's tone could move past what audiences already knew.

"Let's spend half the time just celebrating the thing," he said.

A change of heart for Crellin's character wasn't always the plan. Green Zoo musician and playwright Thomas Newby wrote several drafts of a script for the cabaret, the first being "an exploration of the psychology of the people who end up as middlemen in the Trump administration." That changed when Crellin and Anne McDonald (a.k.a. Frankly Frankie) asked for revisions scaling back the character's authoritarianism.

Successive drafts did just that, morphing the story of the censor into a secondary narrative of the show—in the process, taking a back seat to individual burlesque and other performances.

"We were working from a few things Frankie wanted to talk about and the elements the performers wanted to bring out," Newby said.

Conceived of in a state of shock after the election of President Donald Trump and in the wake of her successful lawsuit against ISP, McDonald wanted to bring themes of free speech and morality to the stage along with the oversized character of Armitage Shanks. She knew she "wanted to do something politically based, but also not just preaching to the choir," she said.

Ultimately, Newby's rewrites prioritized entertainment over politics and current events so the show would have "no airs to it."

"Burlesque is there to make short performances and have a good time, but you can learn and teach," he said.

For McDonald, organizing the cabaret meant walking a tightrope across a gulf of closely held political views and the needs of catering to a general audience. Her medium—burlesque—offered an elegant solution, where just last year it had been the source of a problem.

"Showing the naked body and the nearly naked body is a political statement," she said.

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