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Arts & Entertainment

Photos: Behind the scenes of Star Wars-themed burlesque show, ‘The Empire Strips Back’

Isa Musni dances as Princess Leia during a rehearsal for ‘The Empire Strips Back’ at the Great Star Theater in Chinatown, San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, July 5, 2022. | Juliana Yamada/The Standard

From binging on spin-off series to writing fan fic, there are many serious and not-so-serious ways for Star Wars fans to engage with George Lucas’ famed sci-fi universe beyond the franchise’s 12 feature films. 

But the burlesque show “The Empire Strips Back”—which for the record bills itself as a “parody production” with no sponsorship, endorsement or affiliation with Lucasfilm or its parent company Disney—may be one of the more unique (and sexier) facets of Star Wars fandom. 

Back in San Francisco for the first time since the start of the pandemic and now playing at Chinatown’s Great Star Theatre, the show is both tongue-in-check and sensual. Or, as the show’s creative director Russall Beattie puts it: “very serious about being silly.” 

Beattie first came up with the concept for a Star Wars-themed burlesque show back in a Newtown, Australia bar about 10 years ago. Since then, the production has toured the states and California (with two previous stints at SF’s Warfield), but the pressure is on to perform in San Francisco again, which one could say has a special relationship with the force.

The Presidio has been home to the franchise ever since Star Wars creator George Lucas moved his legendary production company, Lucasfilm, to the decommissioned Army base, and Yoda is a permanent fixture of the fountain outside the film company’s headquarters. The Palace of Fine Arts is said to have inspired the dome-shaped head of R2-D2, and the origins of Star Wars stretch back to nearby Marin County. Lucas penned the first drafts of Star Wars in San Anselmo and the redwood forests 300 miles north of Lucas’ Marin County Skywalker Ranch were the filming location for the alien landscape of Endor.

“Being in the city of Star Wars… there’s a lot of expectation,” Beattie said over a Coca-Cola at the Great Star. Thankfully, San Francisco has shown a lot of love for the production in the past. In fact, Beattie noted, the city has always drawn the show’s strongest market.

The last two times we’ve played here, I think it’s the most standing ovations we’ve ever had in a show,” Beattie said. “We couldn’t hear the music over the roar of the audience.”

In addition to the city’s affinity for galaxies far, far away, it stands to reason that our progressive politics and longstanding love affair with all forms of sexual expression factor heavily in the show’s popularity here, Beattie observed. 

The Empire Strips Back gave The Standard a behind-the-scenes look of a stripped down dress rehearsal. Expect a fully animatronic R2-D2, a sexy squadron of Stormtroopers and a life-size Jabba the Hutt puppet among a cast of aliens, jawas and more.  

Beattie hopes that audiences not only have a good time. He hopes they walk away with a new appreciation for burlesque as an “open,” “progressive” and “inherently feminist” art form.

The show, he says, is “meant to show striptease not as gratuitous but actually appreciate the human form and the lines… and also make it fun and sexy.”