Lights flash like laser beams. AC/DC’s Highway to Hell booms so loudly that the chairs in the theatre seems to move in time to the music. Onstage, a female Boba Fett performs a strip routine with actual flames. A female Luke Skywalker enters, bends over seductively and twerks along to a Nicki Minaj song as she scrubs her Landspeeder.
The crowd – a mix of couples, tie-loosened workmates, tipsy sci-fi hobbyists and burlesque aficionados – have gathered for a single, united goal: to watch their favourite Star Wars characters drop trou, don nipple tassels and swing lightsabers to a selection of pop hits and film-score highlights.
The Star Wars burlesque parody show The Empire Strips Back has been packing out Australian theatres since 2011, when it opened in Sydney and swiftly became a word-of-mouth phenomenon.
Its creator, Russall S Beattie, conceived the show as a fun break between more serious, artistic burlesque seasons, hoping for a three-night run and modest ticket returns in Newtown. The show went on to consume Beattie’s burlesque business, cropping up in capital cities across Australia and playing for an estimated 50,000 people. Now, after a lot of what Beattie describes as “red tape”, The Empire Strips Back is poised to take on the United States.
The show has given thousands of Australians their first experience of burlesque. My own date to a 2014 performance at Newtown’s Enmore Theatre leaned over and asked me what exactly happened at a burlesque show. After a dominatrix Darth Vader performed a suggestive routine set to the Imperial March, I think she had her answer.
Burlesque has always been an art form that’s in on the joke (it originates from the Italian “burla” – ridicule or mockery), which makes it an ideal vehicle for parody. It grew out of the Victorian “extravaganza” style, which took serious opera and literature and applied broad comic satire (usually with music) that played to the masses. These days, burlesque continues to skewer social power and sexual politics by demystifying the body and our hang-ups about it via its two most enduring elements: striptease and comedy. Given this, the Empire Strips Back makes it seem perfectly natural to consider a scene where Jawas de-metal a sensual C-3P0, revealing her true female form.
Australia has rediscovered its soft spot for burlesque, especially when combined with its close cousins, cabaret and circus arts. Burlesque experienced a renaissance in the early 2010s alongside a renewed interest in vintage, rockabilly and pinup fashion, creating a space for alt-performers – mostly women – to work outside traditional performance spaces.
Now you’ll find sex-tinged, revealing variety nights at the Sydney Opera House every summer (take this year’s Limbo Unhinged, for example), and they remain spotted through our major arts festivals (Briefs, a circus-cabaret-boylesque night, was a highlight of this year’s Sydney festival) as well as fringe events and shows at alternative venues including Sydney’s Red Rattler and Melbourne’s Butterfly Club.
In this landscape, The Empire Strips Back fits right in. Australian audiences kept Star Wars in cinemas for five years after its October 1977 release, and there is still a thirst for the films as well as merchandise, cosplay and conventions.
When Beattie realised The Empire Strips Back had staying power, he “destroyed the show and built it from scratch”, building up his behind-the-scenes team with craftspeople who worked on some of the later Star Wars films (the costumes and props can cost up to $30,000 a piece).
“The best way to sell a gag is to set it up correctly,” Beattie explains. “And the best way to set up our gags is having the characters closest to [what] people know them from the movies.” The Stormtrooper chorus line remain from his original show and have been joined by a full-size Jabba the Hutt and a rideable Tauntaun.
The Empire Strips Back has been able to flourish owing to Australia’s generous parody laws, and the production will land in the US in June – thanks to its legal similarities around fair use of copyrighted creations. “We can’t go to New Zealand,” Beattie says, and the UK only became a touring possibility for the show three years ago, when the country first defined copyright parody protections in legislation.
Overseas, Beattie expects to rely on Star Wars fans for success and promotion. Everyone knows Star Wars, even if they haven’t seen the films. It’s a strategy the Disney corporation itself relies on to drive engagement, and Beattie’s team, complete with a female Luke Skywalker expressing her journey through cheeky choreography, seem poised for continued success.
“[Star Wars fans] don’t see this show as a separate thing any more,” Beattie says. “They see it as an extension of the universe.”
• The Empire Strips Back is showing at Perth’s Regal Theatre on 2 March and 3 March, and Melbourne’s Palais Theatre on 9 March