It’s all in the title: it tells you who’s doing what, and how they are doing it, but even so, despite this simplicity, it’s still mysterious and strange. Naked Girls Reading is a group, an event, an idea; it’s exactly what it sounds like and has found success and support across the States, spreading from its inception in Chicago in 2009 to Canada and throughout the world.
An offshoot of burlesque, Naked Girls Reading is still quite different (we teased it in our introduction to burlesque some months back). Founded by noted burlesque performer Michelle L’Amour, the event came to Toronto a couple years ago, and springs up every few months for an evening of sexy literature, of entertainment, and intrigue.
In late April, I attended for the first time. The sun was still shining in the early evening, and food and alcohol was being served at this intimate club in Kensington Market where tables and couches were set up in front of a small, whimsically decorated stage—the theme after all was Fantastic Beasts.
It’s easy to be unsure though about what is going to happen if you’ve never been. In what was described as a rather frequent occurrence, one man inquiring about what was happening at the bar that night reacted with shock, confusion, and excitement. He was immediately disarmed, especially when talking to one of the performers working the door who was moments away from stripping down.
The event began. “Welcome to Naked Girls Reading,” announced Red Herring as she and her four collaborators disrobed on stage. Indeed, there are no pasties or G-strings here, and there is no slow reveal or tease. The audience, a few dozen or so, applauded, and so began a two-hour show that educated and titillated, combining two everyday things in a manner equal parts casual and bizarre.
“It’s an inherently absurd thing,” says Lisbon Maginot. “It’s a bunch of women on stage, hair and makeup done, with jewelry and beautiful shoes; everything to the nines. And then no clothes. There is something inherently weird about that.”
Lisbon, who has been performing burlesque for a few years now, took part in the inaugural Naked Girls Reading in Toronto and has been to all but one since. She sat down following the most recent iteration, which she and Red featured alongside performers Taliya Cohen, Beaver Galore, and Queenie FoxHound. It saw a recitation of Tolkien, an academic reading about the myth of the Chupacabra, and a passage from what could be generously described as unicorn erotica.
“There is something about both aspects that will appeal to you,” says Lisbon referring to the literature and the nudity. It’s a balance between “sexy and silly,” she explains, adding, “I feel like the audience members, even if they think they are coming for just one aspect, end up enjoying both.”
As opposed to burlesque, where the performer is moving around on stage and feeding off the energy of the audience, NGR is something more static. Each reader takes turns presenting a selection, then there’s intermission, and then they go at it again. The readings reflect the user, and range from the informative to the strange, and tend to involve very little participation from others, save for laughter or gasps.
“I usually have one completely outrageous, ridiculous, over-the-top, pushing-the-boundaries-as-much-as-I-can porn reading. That always the goal,” Lisbon says. “I always try to have one of those, but also try to pick a classic.”
Each show is a little different, she admits, and it’s harder with NGR than burlesque to read the audience. Often people will approach the performers after and say how they enjoyed it, but only though audible reactions do the performers really know how the night is going.
“I usually end up gravely insulting at least one person at every show; I’m terrible because I like that,” she says laughing in an amused way. “I like anything that twists people’s expectations around.”
Lisbon admits to a nerdy side and a love for the classics, but simultaneously seeks out that which will push the boundaries. Her initial foray into burlesque, and later NGR, was to challenge her own hesitations and do something out of her comfort zone. Lisbon confesses that she, along with everyone else at that first show, were nervous, but since it has become second nature. What struck them, and what happens to the audience as well, is that by the second half, everyone sort of forgets the naked part—or at least it becomes completely natural.
Lisbon is resigned to the fact that what she and others are doing won’t really change the world; that is, those who are coming to the show aren’t the ones who need their attitudes or perspectives towards women altered. At the same time, Lisbon and others are there to entertain, not exorcise or present some sort of catharsis. They’re not therapists, and aren’t too interested in hearing about transformative experiences or sexual emotions.
“It’s mostly just fun,” says Lisbon. “It is weird, and I like pushing buttons, and as a performer I love to entertain people and hear people laughing.”
For those who have yet to experience Naked Girls Reading, it is surely worth checking out. The next event in Toronto takes place in June 20, the theme of which is Island Pirates. That means there will be a lot of jokes about booty.
“Right now I’m going through pirate romance novels,” explains Lisbon of her preparation. “I usually go through the romance section even though it’s all really porn. So far I haven’t found anything that is sufficiently awful, yet. To my standards of awfulness.”
“There is one about vampire pirates,” she teases. “So there is some real potential.”
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. You can follow him on Twitter @MrAnthonyWrites.
Photography courtesy of Angela McConnell.