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Michael Lynch History Grant Proposal

Last updated May 5, 2012 - 12:05am by sarah beth

Operation Snatch’s Queer Performance Art and (Sex) Working Class Politics

Sarah Mann (Athabasca University)

Dr. Margot Francis (Brock University)



Since 2001, The Scandelles, recently renamed Operation Snatch (OS), have made queer history across Canada with envelope-pushing burlesque and cabaret performance. OS’s most notable productions, Under the Mink, Neon Nightz, and Les Demimondes regularly sell out, and the troupe has a longtime relationship with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. They have been featured in queer and mainstream news media, promoted queer and sex workers’ community events, and co-founder Alex Tigchelaar (“Sasha van Bon Bon”) achieved national recognition with her syndicated 1999-2009 sex advice column and organization of Toronto’s “Take Back the Dyke” and “TO Stonewall” events. Despite this, a systematic history and theorization of OS in the contexts of queer culture, prostitution legislation, and cabaret as a dramatic genre hasn’t been produced. We propose to document OS’s untold history and their contributions, as artists uniting sex-positive feminism, queer activism and sex worker advocacy, to Canadian and queer culture.

Our project considers Operation Snatch as “queer world-making” situated within cabaret as political speech (Vogel 35). Cabaret and burlesque, OS’s primary performance modes, are traditionally political genres, revived in North America and Western Europe as feminist productions since the 1990s. “From its inception,” writes Shane Vogel, “cabaret has functioned as a crucible not only for artistic collaboration but also for counter discourses to dominant ideologies.” (34) In its content, cabaret makes space to interrogate gender, race, sexuality, and nationality, and is defined by resistance as much as by its vulnerability to regulation (34-35). OS’s carnivalesque productions, in particular, foster libidinal and political engagements with their audiences, simultaneously declaring and critiquing queer and sex working identities.

With potential decriminalization, sex workers face the possible co-option of their political advocacy by mainstream consumer industries, a concern shared by many burlesque artists (Nally 630). Here, we will explore how cabaret’s historical aesthetic might suggest ambivalence about the future, looking “back” because the way forward is unclear (632-33). Cabaret revival is also often performed in contested spaces like newly ‘creative’ and ‘queer’ neighbourhoods, where some sex workers, many who are also queer, are targeted for displacement (e.g., see Mann). Thus, cabaret’s “staged ‘transgression’” can both build political communities and place actual transgression at risk (Vogel 33).

OS’s performances engage with these contradictions. Their “Creative trafficking” video, for example, breaks the nostalgic conventions of burlesque while critiquing the poor working conditions and fetishism of queer culture produced by the ‘creative class.’ Shown most recently in gentrified queer neighbourhoods in Toronto and Montreal, the video is an example of OS’s complex interventions in working class politics and queer performance art.

Objectives and Audience

This project is conceived as a participatory study, in response to sex workers’ critiques of alienated knowledge production about sex work (Wahab 626). We will forground oral history interviews with OS founders Tigchelaar and Cat Nimmo, highlighting their own political insights into their performances. Guided by Stéphanie Wahab’s recommendation to develop a critical “collaborative” research process (629-30), we will engage with participants in reciprocal learning to reconfigure the unevenly distributed skills of academic research and sex worker community-building. Hence, we aim to employ a sex worker community member to assist with designing, conducting, and reviewing semi-structured interviews with OS. While both researchers are active queer and sex working community members, another sex worker’s insights may help to foster rich associations among history, text and community. Additional research will be undertaken via a review of OS’s performance recordings, archival news media clippings, and scripts and research on the Toronto burlesque scene at the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

This research will be documented through the following:

▪         An online photo gallery which juxtaposes OS’s history of cultural production with sex work-related legal and cultural developments in Canada;

▪         A program or playbill for distribution online and at upcoming performances of OS’s Les Demimondes, with production information and a written history of the troupe adapted from interviewee’s transcripts;

▪         An open-access scholarly article, theorizing OS’s performance record in the contexts of Canadian queer culture, prostitution legislation, and cabaret;

▪         Finally, we will donate interview transcripts and archival news media clippings to University of Manitoba’s Sex Work and Missing Women Database for other researchers’ use

Through dissemination in cultural, online, and scholarly venues, this project is expected to reach sex work and sexualities scholars, sex workers, and the general community.



Mann, Sarah. “Creative Class Struggle.” Briarpatch Magazine. Jul/Aug 2010: 22-27.

Nally, Claire. “Grrrly hurly burly: neo-burlesque and the performance of gender.” Textual Practice 23.4 (2009): 621-64.

Vogel, Shane. “Where Are We Now? Queer World-Making and Cabaret.” GLQ 6.1 (2000): 29-60.

Wahab, Stéphanie. “Creating Knowledge Collaboratively With Female Sex Workers: Insights From a Qualitative, Feminist, and Participatory Study.” Qualitative Inquiry 9 (2003): 625-642)