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Stripper’s hard-knock life unfolds in ‘Naked in Alaska’

Valerie Hager 'Naked Alaska'

Valerie Hager in "Naked in Alaska"

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‘Naked in Alaska,’ Aug. 30-Sept. 2, Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee. $10. (773) 428-9977;

Updated: October 1, 2013 6:07AM

In 2009, after 10 years of living in Los Angeles, Valerie Hager was on the verge of admitting she was just another out-of-work actress. She was ready to give up. Instead of throwing in the towel, she somewhat crazily decided to move to New York City and give it one last shot.

It was after the move while unpacking “boxes and boxes of stuff” that she landed on a gold mine of an idea — mining her own colorful past to create a one-woman show.

The old axiom “write what you know” paid off. For 10 years, Hager stripped for a living in clubs in Tijuana, Los Angeles and Fairbanks, Alaska. And that was only after surviving her troubled teen years.

In those boxes she encountered photographs and dozens and dozens of journals that took her back in time. “There was this period of my life I had locked away and forgotten about,” Hager explains in a conversation from her New York home. “In that moment, I realized in order for me to step into the potential of my life, I would have to tell the story of that earlier part of me. And I was going to have to get really honest.”

The story of these years unwinds in “Naked in Alaska,” which is being presented by Legendary Hearts Productions as part of the Chicago Fringe Festival. Hager portrays more than a dozen characters that danced in and frequented the clubs where she worked. It’s quite a story. And, yes, Hager knows her way around a stripper pole; it’s her only prop on stage.

Hager’s problems began as a teen. Her parents had split up years before and had remarried, setting up two families between which she bounced.

“I just never felt at home in either place,” she says. By 14, Hager took a dark turn down a rabbit hole of drug addiction (crystal meth) and eating disorders (bulimia).

At 21, newly clean and sober, but broke and owing $4,000 in parking and traffic tickets, Hager took up a friend’s offer to work at a strip club. In the show, an evening that begins in innocence and excitement over making some easy cash seduces her into a career that tests the limits of friendship and her will to survive.

Hager is the first to admit stripping saved her but there also came a time when she knew she had to get out; that moment came one day in a “clear moment of consciousness,” and with the support of both her parents.

“I finally saw myself as I really was,” Hager explains, “and what I had allowed myself to become. I realized if I didn’t change, I would either completely lose my mind or do something really bad to myself. I feel lucky that before I totally go over to the dark side with no turning back, I seem to get these moments of clarity that set me straight.”

Hager, who now also teaches acting and improv, admits writing the piece was not easy. She didn’t simply jump back into her old life and the words flowed. It was in a writing class that a breakthrough occurred.

“There was something about telling the truth in this safe little group that started to feel liberating and risky in a good way. The more detailed and honest I got with the parts I was keeping secret, the more enlivened and awakened I felt. I began to see the part of me I had forgotten. The fierce part, the risky part, the rebel who paved her own path. And I’m a much more grounded and wiser person for it.”

Mary Houlihan is a Sun-Times free-lance writer.

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