Pictured above (left to right): Tess Hermes and Sam Schak
Photos by Steve Rogers Photography
Shameless Dames is a brand-new women-directed and led improv show running through June 3 at the Institution Theater in Austin, TX. It features a co-ed cast and a rotating bill of local performers. Ashley was invited to see the show and share her thoughts.
Hey, Jerry Lewis: go fuck yourself.
I know, it was two whole years ago that an aging king of comedy decided to tell the world that over half of all humans aren’t funny when they’re being “crude.” But though that particular brand of ignorance may not be #trending right now, we all know that some people – possibly many, possibly pretty powerful and influential people – think women aren’t funny. They think that people with vaginas should not only keep their focus on quietly and majestically popping out babies, but also daren’t pop off a joke or three about their baby-making parts in public.
Fortunately for us, there are plenty of folks who aren’t afraid to loudly disagree, and you can count the cast and creators of Austin’s own Shameless Dames among them. Inspired partially by the rising popularity of female-led programs like Broad City and Girls, Shameless Dames is a currently-running improv show centered on the unbreakable friendship between two young women. Each show features two different female leads, with a supporting cast of women and men, and each lead embodies the “shameless” concept in her own special way. As a feminist who is a newcomer to live comedy, but who loves to laugh, I found the show totally invigorating. As I watched these characters go about their day – taking a birthday trip to a sex shop, riding a packed bus, picking up women at a bar, and attending awkward family dinners – I found them refreshingly imperfect but totally confident, unconcerned with poise or propriety, comfortable and, above all, playful with their bodies.
Two of the show’s leads (left to right), Aspen Webster and Torrey St. George
In one memorable scene, both leads are on stage, simulating sex — one topless, in her bra, receiving oral sex from a woman she picked up in a bar, the other strategically hidden behind a pizza floatie with her male friend-with-benefits. The scene is exuberantly funny, displaying not just the exciting parts of sex, but also boredom, intimacy (or intentional lack thereof), and mundane realities like getting munchies and UTIs. Underlying these performances is a shared vulnerability. The audience may be confronted by the display; the performers are shedding their clothes in addition to their inhibitions. Watching the scene play out, I felt more like a participant than a viewer, sharing an inside joke with the performers.
I wanted to know more about the process behind a performance like this, so I asked the cast and directors about their inspirations and motivations for Shameless Dames, and what, if anything, they thought about how people might respond. Tess Hermes and Sam Schak, the directors of Shameless Dames, met on the set of Fuck, It’s Hot, an Austin-centric sketch comedy show that pushed against the boundaries of how sex is portrayed (or, more commonly, ignored) in improv. “Improv, generally speaking, looks to capture many facets of real life, but I have not seen an improv show that has handled sex, especially in this blunt and real way that we are trying to do,” said Schak. “To us, not only sex but sexuality, especially female sexuality, is such a huge part of life. Whether you’re not having it or having a lot, sex is a part of daily life in so many ways: you need to spice things up with your partner, a politician is restricting access to contraception, an ad for porn pops up [when you’re online], etc. We wanted a ‘shameless’ show about sex.” The cast members I spoke with agreed wholeheartedly: all of them were excited to be able to play out and have fun with the aspects of their sex and dating lives that they felt are funny and important, but often go unseen.
The frank depictions of sex in Shameless Dames did turn out to be as funny as they were novel, but I was equally impressed by the show’s focus on female friendship. “All improv theaters focus on relationships,” says Schak. “Relationships can’t help but be established in most scenes: the way you talk to someone in a scene, your body language, your physical touching. This is not the first female lead-focused improv show, but it might be the first one to focus on sex, smoking pot, and realistic dating. This is a women-first show. We wanted a co-ed cast but the women are high status.”
The full cast of Shameless Dames
That’s the real magic of Shameless Dames for me: it paints a crass, but lovingly open-minded picture of the relationships and sense of humor that are so vital to my experience moving through the world as a woman. Though some people may come and go through our lives as briefly as the shitty roommate who insists on asking for a grocery list while you’re post-coital in bed, many of us find ourselves relying on our friends to take the edge off of a shitty situation by making us laugh, or acting as a sounding board for our harebrained ideas. The performers in this show bring that spirit to life, almost to a fault – at times, the chemistry and banter between “Nicole” and “Eloise,” were so strong that I was briefly concerned that the supporting cast members might have to fight to keep up. Fortunately, the supporting characters were golden; I especially enjoyed the stoner roommate who couldn’t get through a single stanza of his spoken word poem without several bong hits, and the perpetually inopportune text messages from pro-Prop 1 PACs.
Despite my enthusiastic enjoyment of the show, I could see how some people might be made uncomfortable by it. Not everyone is used to witnessing women enjoying themselves and their bodies, in the living flesh and in all their variety of shape and size. Many don’t seek out the opportunity.
“I want our audience to be both men and women,” said Schak, when I asked her about the people who might be alienated by such a display. “I think it will speak to women. I think it will give men a head’s up as to what it’s like behind closed doors. Plus, I want everyone to see the status of our women. In the show, the women call the shots, get head, and walk away.
“Other comedy audiences want to make everyone happy. We’re making ourselves happy and I think people love watching that.”