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An Interview With Sherwin Sullivan Tija, Promoter Behind the Notorious Strip Spelling Bee Coming To Buddies In Bad Times Theatre

The Strip Spelling Bee is one of Montreal’s most notorious-and hilarious-evenings, and they’re bringing their show on the road to Toronto. The magic happens at Buddies in Bad Times on Thursday, May 6th, and we talked to promoter Sherwin Sullivan Tija about slowdancing, bedroom decor, and plowing indiscriminately into trees.

Where did this idea spawn from?
Two years ago, when I first started to organize events, I did this Hipster Spelling Bee. It was kind of a mix between a regular spelling bee and one of those quiz game shows. Anyway, my girlfriend at the time invited her friend to come, but her friend scoffed, saying that the only way she’d come to a spelling bee is if there was stripping. And when I heard that, a lightbulb lit up in my head. It took me a while to come up with the rule-set, and to figure out what a good number of contestants was, but after the first couple of bees, I think we have it down to an elegant and raucous night that clips along at a good pace.

How naked does it get?
It depends on the contestants. Our primary desire is for the strip-spellers to feel safe and comfortable. After three strikes, you do have to strip down to your underwear, but anything more than that is up to you. In the ones we’ve had, however, we usually get several people who are “all in,” so to speak.

What word has stumped people the most and therefore provoked the most stripping?
To be honest, all the words are a bit of a blur. I’m usually drunk up there, and my co-host usually gives the words. But in the days leading up to the bee, I will spend a few hours picking the words for the night, and i will deliberately choose words that might be kind of tricky. My favourite kind of word is the word that sounds easy, until you hear the definition. Like the word “gneiss,” which is pronounced “nice.” It’s a kind of igneous rock.

So….what attracts you most in a person – the brains or the body?
I need both. It’s like – a bird needs two wings to fly. But most importantly, I like someone who has a great heart. Someone who isn’t afraid to like things in this world. Especially when it’s cool these days to be derisive of almost everything.

What can one expect if they attend this night?
You will definitely smile. Hopefully laugh. The event is actually extraordinary. Every time I do it I am newly astonished – first of all that people will even compete in this, but also how some people will come prepared to strip – like, they’ll wear fancy lingerie and stuff underneath their regular clothes. There’s an element of costuming in this. What I didn’t expect when I first started doing this event is that some people don’t WANT to win. One person deliberately spelled a word wrong because he WANTED to strip. As someone who likes to compete, that blew my mind. But I know now that he was competing in some other way.

Tell us about yourself Sherwin – what decor is in your bedroom?
I have a large room that’s covered in bookshelves and books stare at me from every angle. I got a lot of stuff. It’s hard to describe, really. I have piles everywhere. I wish I had piles of lovely fresh laundry, but sadly, that’s not the case. Mostly it’s piles of books, magazines, papers, unfinished projects.

What are your favourite films?
This is easy. Gummo. My Own Private Idaho. Me and You and Everyone We Know. The Matrix. But really, I’m a huge videogame fanatic. Grand Theft Auto 4 is seriously a gorgeous game. Even just driving around in that game is suffused with beauty. Most people hate that game because they’ve heard so much bad about it, and I wish I could show it to everyone, so they can see it the way I do.

What songs do you put on when you want to dance? Embellish melodrama?
One of my other events is a Slowdance Night, where we play slow songs all night long. And I like to listen to the playlists to those evenings on my iPod. I don’t really like to dance fast. I prefer slowdancing. One of the great ironies of my life is that I started Slowdance Night because I love slowdancing, but being the organizer, and being up there, adjusting the sound and announcing every song so that people can find it in their dancecards – I don’t get to do much slowdancing myself.

What pisses you off?
Frankly, so MUCH pisses me off. Every day I see something on the internet, or read something, or hear about something that just makes me grateful that global warming is going to wipe us all out. But you can’t get angry over everything because then you’re just going to be this puffed-up angry person all the time. What I do try to do, though, is take all that anger and let it fuel all the things I have to get done. Getting angry is like revving your engine, but when I pop myself into gear, I want to steer towards something I want to get to, rather than plowing indiscriminately into a tree.

Your perfect Saturday in Montreal is….
A perfect day would be a day where I got to pet a cat, take a nap, work on my graphic novel, read the internet, kiss someone, laugh a lot, watch a hockey game, eat some french fries, play a delightful video game, get a cheque in the mail, and go to a party at night where I know everyone. And it’s actually a costume party, and you can tell that everyone tried.

Should people be intimidated to compete in the Strip Spelling Bee?
I won’t lie. It’s intimidating. If you sign-up to compete, you stand up there with bright lights in your face and a microphone and we’re playing some stressful suspenseful music and you’re expected to spell this word you may or may not have ever heard before. At the first wrong letter we ring a bell, the bright lights turn red, and then brassy striptease music comes on and you’re expected to take a THIRD of your clothes off! That’s fucking intimidating. I certainly wouldn’t do it. But maybe that’s why I orchestrated things so I wouldn’t have to.

Don’t miss it! Buddies and Bad Times, Thursday May 6th at 8:30
$10 cover

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