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Hager to perform one-woman show,
'Naked In Alaska,' at CCRI this month
Sept. 10, 2015
That Valerie Hager has had to work hard to get comfortable in her own skin may come as a surprise considering that, as an actor, she regularly lays the most vulnerable parts of herself bare on stage in front of strangers. And before some major life changes, that could be taken literally – Hager worked as a stripper and exotic dancer for many years.
"I had always felt like an outsider as an adolescent; I struggled a lot with body image and eating disorders and was always trying to figure out how to carve my way into the club," she recalled. "And then I stumbled upon crystal meth."
What follows is a full-circle tale of the woes of rock bottom and the wonders of redemption. Local audiences can hear Hager's story in her autobiographical one-woman show "Naked In Alaska" at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 18, in the Bobby Hackett Theater at the Community College of Rhode Island's Knight Campus in Warwick. She also will present a workshop at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 17. Both are free and open to the public courtesy of funding from the Charles Sullivan Fund for the Arts and Humanities.
Bert Silverberg, a professor in the Performing Arts Department who first saw the show at the New York Fringe Festival, was impressed by Hager's blistering honesty and "phenomenal" performance. Talking with Hager after the show, he felt the approachable actor and educator would be a perfect fit for an audience at the college.
"She's very honest, and doesn't make any excuses for herself. From an acting and movement standpoint, her performance is really outstanding," said Silverberg.
Hager's show traces her life through her struggles with eating disorders, addiction and her eventual recovery and sobriety. She spoke candidly of what she considered to be her rock bottom, noting that she was lucky that it wasn't as dire as some of the stories she's heard throughout the recovery process: "I was sitting in the beat up car of my meth dealer/boyfriend at the time, coming down off meth. I had a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror, and I thought that I was looking at the devil in my eyes, they were so black and haunting.
"I had this whisper of a thought. If I kept going like that, I was going to die," she realized. "The next day, I found myself at a [Narcotics Anonymous] meeting, and I've been clean from crystal meth since."
Admitting she had a problem and seeking help was a major first step, but it was by no means the only hurdle Hager had to clear. Wild behavior in her teenage years had gotten her kicked out of high school; undereducated and underemployed, she could only find minimum wage work.
"I was trying to figure out how to live and be a productive member in society," she said. "But I had racked up thousands of dollars in traffic tickets and fines, and I was having a hard time understanding how to be responsible."
This is one of the places where Hager's story takes an unlikely turn. Her best friend worked as a stripper, where she made good money and still managed to stay clean, living on the straight and narrow despite an unorthodox profession. "She was so fierce," recalled Hager. "I looked up to her so much. And she just basically said, 'Look, this is what I do. Come with me.'"
Despite the intensely personal nature of the show, Hager said the universality of the emotions goes beyond the immediate experiences it describes to connect with audiences of all stripes.
"It's not a therapy session, it doesn't stay in the 'Valerie's World' box. The whole show attempts to reach beyond one story, to talk about how we belong, and the lengths we'll go to in order to belong," she said. "It talks to the outsider in all of us ... desperately just wanting to do anything to be validated and loved. ... That's the heart of the show."
Hager has a background in performance that stretches far beyond her experiences dancing. Her father, renowned mime artist Jerry Hager, often incorporated her in his performances as his silent sidekick, Punky the Clown.
"That had a huge impact on how I've evolved as a performer," said Hager. "I remember watching him and experiencing a piercing feeling in my heart – thinking that's something I want to do."
Over the years, she's studied improvisation with the Upright Citizens Brigade, The PIT and Second City, performing her own improv work throughout Los Angeles. She has also studied dramatic acting with many renowned teachers, appeared in film and TV and now teaches others across the country the art forms she holds dear.
She will teach the Sept. 17 workshop, "SOLOfire: Freeing Your Life With Solo Performance" alongside her husband, Scott Wesley Slavin, who is also a director. She said that the workshop will help attendees take a deep dive into their own past using writing prompts, movement work and other exercises in the hopes of unleashing a small autobiographical story for each attendee.
"It's for anyone – writers, actors, anyone – you could not have an interest in ever being any of those things and still take the workshop," she explained. "What I'm most interested in is helping people tell their story. Helping them unpack their past – the good bad and the ugly – transforming it, rewriting it as a narrative and then into short performance pieces. Shining a light on it and letting people know that it matters and can be made beautiful and never does it need to be shut away in the dark."
No reservations are required to attend the workshop or the performance. Learn more about Hager online.
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