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Elevator Repair Service: Arguendo

Elevator Repair Service: Arguendo video still

The go-go dancers of the Kitty Kat Lounge in South Bend, Indiana, claimed a First Amendment right to dance totally nude. Indiana law disagreed. So in 1991 the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court, and the justices debated the definition of dance, nudity in opera houses versus nudity in strip clubs, and whether erotic dancing is artistic expression or a crime. Now, the ever-provocative theater group Elevator Repair Service (ERS) revisits this landmark case—verbatim—and all the socially loaded questions it still contains. Their hilarious and intelligent Arguendo brings the Supreme Court oral arguments to the stage, along with an interview with an erotic dancer who wants to be able to earn her living.

Female Dancer: "I have conveyed the message of the nude female body and if I am clothed then it's not the same message at all."

Female Reporter: "How does the message change?"

Female Dancer: "Um, I don't know. It's hard to explain. It's really hard to explain."

We like to make our work out of text that gives us some interesting problems to solve. Text that comes directly from real people speaking has a kind of quality that I think you’re often going for in any kind of text that you perform onstage. You want it to have this kind of authenticity and you get that when you take on something that was just transcribed from speech.

In the case of Arguendo we're making a play out of the transcript of a Supreme Court oral argument from a Supreme Court case from 1991. The case is called Barnes vs. Glen Theatre and the issue in the case is the First Amendment

Justice 1: "Mr. Ennis. Nobody is stopping her from dancing! You – suppose you win this point. Dancing is expression. They have not stopped her from dancing."

It’s a case in which a group of exotic dancers brought suit against the state of Indiana. State of Indiana has a law regulating whether or not you can be nude in public so these dancers who wanted to dance naked were being told they had to wear pasties and g-strings or else be shut down.

Male Reporter: "Do you feel the message would be reduced somewhat if you had to wear pasties and a g-string?"

Female Dancer: "Yes."

Male Reporter: "And well why is that?"

Female Dancer: "Because I am not conveying the message that I have pasties and a g-string; I am conveying the message of the nude female body."

And so they took their case to court and it made it all the way to the Supreme Court since it was a First Amendment question. It becomes a conversation right away about high art versus low art. The justices try to sort out what the actual definition of dance is.

Justice 2: "What is performance dance? What is it?"

Lawyer: "What is performance dance is a question in this case."

Whether or not this counts as dance; does it deserve First Amendment protection. And part of the reason that the case is at the court to begin with is because it’s a difficult question.

Justice 1: "Does one have to analyze the Indiana murder law as valid or invalid under the First Amendment if the murder happens to be performed in the course of public performance dance?"

We don’t take the text that we have and rewrite them into plays, we take the texts and try to present them on stage and then the kind of conversation between the text and the form can happen on its own in some ways and create a kind of collision between that form and our form which is live theater.

We work on a kind of faith that when you throw things together and shake them up in some way, they will start to talk to each other; so we don’t want to try to invent ahead of time the things they’re going to say to each other, we really just want to find things.

It’s as if we’ve kind of thrown everything up in the air: all the words, all the people, and let it all land in a different place in a different kind of constellation.