Peter, a trim young soldier complete with dog tags, is onstage at Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, pondering the correct spelling of the word "caduceus." Sombre quiz-show music plays over the speakers as Peter is informed that a caduceus, which traces back to Greek mythology, is a staff with a double helix of entwined snakes.
"C-A-D-U," he begins. And then, with an impish grin, "ampersand, tilde, question mark."
"You spell exquisitely," says Sherwin Tjia, founder and host of the Honeysuckle Strip Spelling Bee, as the crowd of 80 roars in rowdy approval. A visibly tipsy Tjia manages to tap at his laptop and switch to a soundtrack of raunchy R&B, since the penalty for misspelling a word at this particular spelling bee is removing a third of one's clothing. After three rounds, two winners are declared - best speller and best striptease - which should make Peter's competitive interests fairly obvious.
A slightly more cerebral variant on burlesque, Tjia's Strip Spelling Bee began in Montreal in March of last year. Although it attracted immediate attention, Tjia says it took a few attempts to "work in the kinks" and tweak the pacing. After its Buddies debut last week, Strip Spelling Bee joins Slowdance Night on the list of events that he has successfully imported to Toronto.
"I didn't expect that so many participants would get completely naked," says Tjia, a medical illustrator and graphic novelist who enjoys creating quirky events for quirky hipsters in his spare time. Contestants get to decide if they want to keep their underwear on or not, and a strict no-booing policy and ban on audience photography help to generate a safe and inclusive atmosphere. Indeed, some of the biggest cheers of the evening went to Adam, a guy whose non-gym physique can be best described as beautifully average.
Unlike Peter, many of the other 12 contestants desperately tried to keep their clothes on, despite facing words such as "flibbertigibbet" and "bouillabaisse." "This was for the best," says Laurie, who won as best speller, "since I'm very good at spelling and very bad at stripping."
Tjia compares Strip Spelling Bee to events like Toronto Roller Derby, the Pillow Fight League and various burlesque troupes. And given the saucy language and queer-friendly atmosphere, Gay Bingo is another obvious comparison point. One of the evening's highlights - other than seeing a leggy Tjia host the event in drag - is the filthy language employed when a contestant asks for their word to be used in a sentence. An otherwise unprintable Tjia riff concluded with "I was a victim of detumescence."
While Montreal is a great quirk incubator, Tjia is envious of Toronto's professional approach to indie culture, which invariably leads to websites, merchandise and TV deals. Not that he harbours any animus - Tjia was born in Toronto, moved to Montreal 10 years ago to attend university and feels that both cities have a similar sensibility.
Until Tjia decides to go pro with Strip Spelling Bee, however, he must continue the great Canadian tradition of offering modest game-show prizes. Laurie (the best speller) and a woman named Troy (who was declared the best stripper) each received a bottle of red wine, a CD featuring the sound of cats purring for more than an hour and a DVD of Tjia's friend sleeping in a sexy tank top.
As for the other 11 brave contestants? As Tjia notes, they may have lost, but the audience most certainly won.
Special to The Globe and Mail