“I found the strip club where I worked to be like a micro version of the world we live in, with the exchange of money, hierarchies and greed, only in a much smaller sense,” Olga Sonja Thorarensen, a dancer and actress, tells me. Along with the theatre group Dance For Me, she will premiere ‘STRIPP’ August 24 in Tjarnarbíó as part of the art performance festival Everybody’s Spectacular.
I met Olga and Brogan Davison, her co-performer in ‘STRIPP’, at Tjarnarbíó after a long rehearsal. Rehearsals can often be quite demanding, they tell me, as each run-through can open up a three-hour discussion about heavy topics. “We often return home from practices with a headache,” Olga says.
Olga graduated from drama school in 2012 and afterwards started working with the Danish theatre group SIGNA on a piece in which she played the role of a strip dancer. After the project finished she found herself to be in debt, and after trying to pay it off by working a “regular” job she decided to give stripping a shot. She’d heard the job paid well so she started looking for strip clubs on TripAdvisor. A few days later, she showed up at one for an interview.
Olga danced to Madonna’s ‘’Justify My Love,’’ and got the job. When her bosses asked what her stage name would be, she decided on the spot that she would be called Donna. “Donna is another version of myself I created while working at the strip club,” Olga says now. After three months as Donna, she was able to pay off her debts. She kept a diary while working at the club, and afterwards decided to create a piece based on her experiences.
“I contacted Brogan about two years ago and told her my idea,” Olga tells me, “I thought it would be interesting to collaborate with her on this project since she had previous experiences with this kind of work.” The theatre group Dance For Me consists of Brogan and Pétur Ármannsson, who have garnered attention for shows such as ‘Petra’ and ‘Dance for Me’.
“This is our third project and it is similar to our previous work because we are staging reality, real stories and real experiences, all the while switching between fiction and nonfiction,” Brogan explains. “I thought the project sounded extremely interesting and I found the story exciting. We’ve had two whole years to work on this project and the more we research and go deeper into the subjects that this story deals with, the more complex I find to stage it.”
The production is a mix of choreography and performance, with both Olga and Brogan on stage. They wrote and directed the show, and use their own names while playing versions of themselves. Of the challenges in staging the show, Brogan elaborates: “In the project we are first and foremost dealing with Olga and her story, but in this case the story is quite complex.” Olga adds that the piece is a sort of platform for various political discussions, touching on issues relating to gender identity, power and the state—though with the piece they are not trying to come to a conclusion, but rather to ask questions and open up a discussion.
“We’ve been very clear about approaching the project as artists with humility, neither politicians nor specialists in gender studies,” Brogan says. “But we’re still conscious, aware and being critical of the systems of power in the world, we’re not being oblivious.” Olga continues: “We’ve chosen a broad context for my story. We find it much more interesting to look at systems of power in a larger context, rather than narrowing my experience down to for example a discussion about the legality of stripping.”
A regular day job
Olga says that working in the strip club didn’t have as much of a psychological effect on her as she would had anticipated. She saw it simply as a job, where she worked eight hour shifts and got to know her coworkers. “There was a friendly atmosphere in the staff room,” she reveals. “We helped each other with our makeup and putting on our costumes. We chatted about the customers and ordered pizza together.” The club was an interesting place, and Olga also sometimes felt like she was entering a fake world where everybody was playing a game. “But then there were these moments of reality,” she continues. “Like for example when each dancer had to clean the pole before dancing, which was always a funny and awkward moment. Spraying the pole with disinfectant and then wiping it off, and then starting the show. In the end, when the club was closing and all the lights were turned on was an interesting moment, it felt as if the fantasy was switched off and everyone became themselves again.”
But despite the vivid impressions Olga gathered at the time, she says, “we realize that stipping is a complicated subject and emphasize the fact that my experience isn’t everybody’s experience.” Brogan agrees: “I think it’s easy to simplify the whole thing and assume we´re talking on behalf of every stripper, but it would be madness to try to do that.”
“My family was quite open with my strip dancing,” Olga reflects. “I feel people tend to victimize strippers, especially here in Iceland where strip dancing is banned. I can understand it, the sex industry is a capitalistic system of power that can be very exploitive, just like many other industries. On the other hand, it’s always been considered empowering being a worker in Iceland and that’s how I saw the women working at the club, as hard-working.” She tells me that working in the club was an eye-opening experience. In particular, she would often feel pity for clients, and ponder how interesting it was to be badgering money from lonely people, usually men seeking friendship. Says Olga, “Working as a stripper didn’t change my opinion about the industry in any specific way, but rather made me more open-minded about it all in a broader perspective. I see a lot of flaws in this profession, but my experience in particular wasn’t that hard for me.”
In conclusion, asked what she’d like to accomplish with ‘STRIPP’, Olga says: “I’d like to tell this very personal story with humour and sincerity but at the same time address matters such as roles of women in modern society as well as on stage.”
‘STRIPP’ will be performed in English on August 24 and 25. Icelandic speakers can see the show in Icelandic September 2, 8, 11 and 16. Admission is 3,900 ISK. Buy tickets here.