Finally available online this month, Thank You for Supporting the Arts—a 2018 documentary about legendary Portland stripper and artist Viva Las Vegas—has been resonating with audiences since its debut four years ago at a loosely defined cast and crew screening.
“Clinton Street [Theater] was filled with strippers weeping,” says Viva, aka Liv Osthus. “It was so meaningful to me because they felt seen through the single-mom story and the parent story, carrying all those weights and still showing up and thinking your work is good.”
With a title bearing Viva’s onstage catchphrase, the film makes her 20-year case that stripping is art. It interviews everyone from her parents to exes to Gus Van Sant, and lays bare a Portland renaissance woman who’s authored memoirs, sings punk and French medieval music alike, and has beaten breast cancer to perform into her 40s. We caught up with Viva to discuss Lutheranism, eschewing pandemic stripping and her singular love for Mary’s Club.
WW: Your whole career hinges on vulnerability and audience connection, so how did being a documentary subject sit with you?
Viva Las Vegas: I’ve been approached many different times over the years by reality TV shows, or whatever, but you can smell from the outset that they’re not wanting to tell a sincere story. So I was really appreciative that [directors Carolann Stoney and W. Alexander Jones] didn’t have a story premeditated.
I’ve read that you say you’re “culturally Lutheran.” What does that mean?
I was raised in a Lutheran minister’s household, and while I can’t espouse all the doctrine, anything you think of as stereotypically Lutheran is what I grew up with: casseroles, forgiveness, Christmas hymns…also, a really strong need to be a social worker, to take care of each other. I am very much a product of that religion, that milieu.
Do you remember the first time you said “thank you for supporting the arts” onstage?
It was definitely at Magic Gardens that first month or two of dancing. That line is from PBS, growing up in the Midwest in the ‘90s and watching that all the time. So it was just a way of dealing with feeling awkward about the exchange of money, like why are they tipping me? “Oh, it’s for supporting the arts, for public broadcasting.” That made me feel more comfortable.
Are you still as interested in convincing people stripping is art?
It does get tiresome to have those discussions over and over, but I think people are more open-minded now than they’ve ever been. In the 1990s, postmodernism reigned. I felt much more like fighting for flesh-and-blood art in a climate that I felt was denatured of sincerity and feeling.
Any memorable converts?
Oh, hell yeah! That’s a scene in my book. I was invited to lecture at [Portland State]—a philosophy course on aesthetics, pretty nerdy. There was one frat guy, baseball cap, very loud: “Oh, hell no, it’s not art.” And I was like, “I’m working after this lecture, come on down.” And so he came down to Magic Gardens and had a drink and watched what I was doing and was like, “It absolutely, unequivocally is art.” So that was a standout. But I’ll never convince my dad. I’ll never convince my brother. Many of the dancers I work with are probably like, “Viva’s crazy—it’s not art, it’s commerce.” I’m doing this “mercenarily.” To each her own.
Did you do any distanced or virtual stripping during the pandemic?
Nah. I even waited until the masks came off because I like to stand up there and talk.
When the film ends, you’re enthusiastic about stripping for the foreseeable future. But that was four years ago. What’s today’s temperature?
If you asked me two months ago, I would’ve been more conflicted. But going back even for a shift or two [at Mary’s Club], I just love it. I love seeing those women in the dressing room, trading stories. I’m probably more jazzed than I was 10 years ago. Would I like something more to materialize as a financial stream? Yes. But communing with my people in that space is just very special. If Mary’s didn’t exist, I wouldn’t be going to another strip club. They’ve had my back through cancer and single momhood. I don’t know where else I could get that.
SEE IT: Thank You for Supporting the Arts streams at vimeo.com/ondemand/tyfsta/594929112. The film is also now available on DVD and Blu-ray.