If you’ve ever longed for naked Jedi, you’ll love this interview with Russall Beattie, the creator of “The Empire Strips Back”, a traveling burlesque extravaganza that will be premiering in Arizona on April 2nd!
TCF: The first question I’m sure you get all the time is, “how did you come up with the idea?”, but for anyone that grew up with the original saga, I think it’s rather obvious.
Russall: Definitely. That’s the thing. Everyone does ask me that, but to me, if you’re gonna parody something, you could parody the world’s biggest pop culture entity. That to me seems like a no-brainer when I was studying these parody shows. I had done a number of parody shows, but my first one was Star Wars.
TCF: This isn’t one of your newer creations then?
Russall: No, this was the first, but it’s also the biggest and it just keeps on going. The others are fun and different, but they’re not Star Wars, so that’s why I was kind of backing up that to me it was the most obvious and there’s a reason it is the most successful.
TCF: Have you always been a fan of Star Wars in general?
Russall: I have. I’ve been a fan of pop culture in general, so Star Wars, Star Trek, you name it. I’ve kind of consumed it when I was younger, and still to this day. But Star Wars very much I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid to the point people could always ask me what was the first Star Wars film you’ve seen, and I said, “Eh, I can’t actually remember.” It’s just always been there as a constant in my life. Yeah. It’s all blurred.
TCF: I have a magazine in front of me that I bought on the internet years ago called Wookieerotica. Now, that’s actually a creation of yours as well, right?
Russall: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I started working on Wookieerotica before the show. I was gonna do Wookieerotica, and then while I was making it and making the costumes for it and whatnot, I was like I should just do a show ’cause I’ve been doing burlesque for 20 years. I was like I’m doing all this work, why don’t I just make a show out of it as well. And so, they were kind of in tandem those two.
TCF: One of the things I think that sets the Empire Strips Back apart is the production quality. The costumes, the attention to detail, and it’s something that’s very noticeable in the magazine as well. Did you personally create the costumes or did you bring in teams of people to work on them?
Russall: Just depends. I’ve created some of them. I’ve pretty much designed most of them, what I wanted and whatnot. Then, I’m bringing different people to help me bring them to life. Take Jabba the Hutt in the show, for example. Jabba the Hutt is quite tricky because I wanted a life-size Jabba the Hutt, but touring a life-size Jabba the Hutt logistically is quite hard. I stepped in and designed what I wanted, and worked out how I was gonna make it so we could actually tour it. First from a logistic point of view, and then we work on it from a kind of creative point of view, as far as the look of it and how to kind of bring Jabba to life.
I designed it so his face would then pop up and become storage for other props. He would be inflatable with two skins. It would give him still a kind of look that he is real, but inside he would have a metal skeleton so Princess Leia could climb all over him. Then, we’d have another puppet of Salacious Crumb next to him, and then these big hookah pipes next to him as well, which actually puff smoke. But all that is designed so it can all kind of fold into each other, and not take up hardly any room in the truck because, on stage, what I just described to you is probably about 16 feet by 12 feet.
Once I designed that, I’ve been going talk to different manufacturers like welders and puppet makers and different skillsets to help bring those things to life. There’s a lot of thinking what goes into the props and costumes beyond the initial create aspect. The logistics are involved as well.
TCF: Watching the trailer, you get a small glimpse of Jabba the Hutt, and I was quite impressed because I’ve never seen a life-size moving Jabba the Hutt before. Especially on stage in a burlesque show!
Russall: Well, that’s the one thing I want to accomplish. I want to bring some of these things to life that have only existed on the screen. I wanted to bring that to the stage and really bring that wonder of what Star Wars is all about and reinvoke all those childhood feelings of experiences that you haven’t seen before. One of the things we have in the show is a full-size Tauntaun!
I wanted a girl to ride onto stage and in my head, I was like, “We can do this. We can do this.” Even though, it’s only ever existed as claymation form. We still figured a way how to do that. Obviously, we used the magic of theater where there’s a little bit of suspension of disbelief, but for us, we wanted to just get as close as we could to the world of Star Wars ’cause it would help us sell the jokes and set up the satire of Star Wars. A punchline is only as good as the setup. For us, the setup is to make sure there’s no time wasted in them using their imagination to think this is anything but an extension of the Star Wars universe while being an obvious parody of course.
TCF: There’s this fine line between satire and parody while keeping it accurate as possible. Have you had much trouble with the House of Mouse recently?
Russall: No. Not really ’cause everything we do we make sure it’s branded that this is a parody. I don’t think anyone in their right mind thinks this is an official Disney or Star Wars release. But also, it’s made by fans for fans even though it is a little bit naughty ’cause it is burlesque. It is quite a sophisticated take on burlesque as a night out.
It’s a tease is its truest sense, but there’s also more than just striptease. We have singing, dancing, a lot of comedy. That’s why a lot of people don’t expect when they buy tickets to experience how funny it is. We kind of just try to evoke the old kind of Vaudevilles and burlesque shows of old where you used to go and it was a spectacle. It was all on a big stage where most of burlesque these days don’t get that opportunity. They’re mostly on small stages, they’re in small clubs. When they are on big stages, they’re part of a festival where there’s not a lot of time to focus something you want to of lighting and stagecraft. Where, ’cause we have the same show, what we tour over and over again, and we tour our own lighting rig. We have the luxury of really buckling down on certain aspects of the show which don’t get a lot of attention in most other shows.
TCF: You’ve been doing this for a number of years and I believe the show started off in a very small theater originally, correct?
Russall: Yeah. 100 seat theater or club I should say. Wasn’t even a theater, it was just a music venue.
TCF: What kind of changes, improvements, and things have you experienced over the years with this particular show?
Russall: Well, the first round of costumes were made by me, my garage out of plumbing equipment. Plumbing supplies and PVC piping. I cut them into stormtrooper armor. And it worked. It was fine. It worked for what it was. And there wasn’t as much in the show back then, so it was fine. We decided we were gonna take another road because it was so popular in Sydney, so we’ll take it around the country, Australia.
Then, when we put on the big stages, we realized oh my God, this show looks so small and tiny. We did that for about a year and a half. Not consecutively, just every time we went out. And we had all this fan base, but the whole time I was thinking I could do this so much bigger, I could do this so much better. Yeah, when it came time to play one of our small stages again, at the end of the run, I packed up everything and I said I was gonna take it to the storage container to my business partners, but I didn’t. I went to the junkyard and destroyed it all. Threw it away. That kind of forced us to rebuild the show ’cause I felt like I was betraying what I could actually do with the show.
I have to put on the best version of the show at all times, and I still do to this day. If I see somewhere I can prove it, I constantly do every tour. I constantly make tweaks and evolve the show because the last version of a show should always be the best version of the show. Yeah, so we rebuilt the show, and it brought in a lot of people who have actually worked on the Star Wars films to help us. To build our R2D2, to build our Chewbacca costume and whatnot. A lot of the costumes and props actually made by people who’ve worked on the films.
That’s the kind of level I wanted. Obviously, we make our alteration ’cause R2 got custom aspects to him. He has strobe lighting built into him, and he can make it rain by shooting $100 bills up into the air.
TCF: When you were brainstorming ideas for the show either at the beginning or now, were there some ideas that you had that you threw out for being too weird or maybe the opposite where certain ones you thought “I don’t know…”, and then you were surprised how well they worked.
Russall: Well, yeah we had definitely some stuff in there that I’ve kept in there for a while, but some of it can age out. We used to have the Tuskan Raiders in there, but we just had also the show was getting so long that I had to make some cuts. We also used to have Jarjar Binks in the show.
TCF: Did Jarjar strip?
Russall: No. Well, he used to come on stage and take over the stage and just be annoying, and we played the song ‘Can’t Stop Me Now’. Then, the MC will be trying to get him off stage, and then he would come on with a double barrel shotgun and shoot him. We used to use a real shotgun with blanks.
I got to the point where I had to kind of stop using him. Just in the state of the world, having a shotgun on stage kind of wasn’t appropriate. Also, the audience now kind of grew up on Jarjar Binks and they love Jarjar. The kids who were once little kids when the prequels came out, Jarjar was part of their trilogy. Even though we mainly focus on the original trilogy with our aesthetics, Star Wars is for everybody. We felt like we’re betraying people’s [love of Star Wars ’cause at the end of the day, our show’s not political. It’s just two hours of escapism where everyone can come together and just forget the woes of the world and celebrate their love for Star Wars, and remind them what it was like to be a kid when they went and saw those films. ‘Cause those films are quite simple, and there was nothing else like them back in the day. That kind of love, you hope grabbed the attention of the world those films, and become what that is at the moment. The love for those original films is fairly pure and we try to retain that with the love for our show.
TCF: You’ve touched on this a little bit. This show has something for everyone. It’s not just women getting on stage and getting in and out of costume. It appeals to all the sexes.
Russall: Yeah. So, our audience is 60% female, and we get a lot of couples and a lot of big groups of people coming along. It’s a big, shared experience. It’s like an event that you build your night around. You go and meet up for dinner and then go to the show and then get drinks afterwards. So, it’s just a big celebration. When we came to America about six months ago I think it was, we were generally surprised on how much the American audiences took to the show to the point that we couldn’t even hear ourselves on stage at some point ’cause the cheers were so loud.
It’s just something that just lets you unabashedly enjoy your love for Star Wars without judging or without thinking about anything else and you just kind of get lost in this for two hours. I often say it’s kind of like a kid’s show for adults, and it kind of sounds weird when you’re saying it like based on a burlesque show, but I’ve got no other way to describing it. The same kind of simple entertainment you’d get when you’re a child when you go and see a show at the local mall or something like that. The nature of it is, yeah, it is a burlesque show so it’s not for kids, but there’s still the same beats are there. It’s something that you can easily charge as there’s something for everybody. Each acting like a rollercoaster, so we build the audience up at certain parts and we bring them back down in other parts. That’s just the nature of the show. It’s two hours well spent, and you get a lot for the ticket price.
TCF: Is there a particular favorite act or character of yours in the show?
Russall: Probably. It’s hard. It’s hard to say because we have so many acts which are all so different. The one that probably gets the most reaction of what people don’t expect is the emperor. I always love hearing people’s reactions to the emperor who’s never seen it before. And I’m not gonna spoil it here, but it, kind of … gets ingrained in people’s memories for sure.
TCF: That alone is a great tease. We’ll be looking forward to that!