One man drove 100 miles from his rural home for the secret privilege of wearing pink ruffled panties in a place where no one knew his name. Another, a muscular young military vet, paid money to be beaten with a belt. A third, a perpetually tanned middle-aged client, seemed to love talking about himself at least as much as the semi-clothed private dance he requested. Through it all, the woman providing these various services in a nondescript building off W. Lake Street saw vulnerability — her clients’ and her own.
For three years, Colleen Kruse was “Inga,” a costumed fetish worker at a sensual-massage parlor. She has written a stage show about how the experience of catering to others’ intimate kinks helped her to face her own issues, including childhood sexual abuse and alcoholism, and get sober. But don’t expect a lurid confessional or step-by-step replay.
“I want those details to remain in the theater of the mind,” she said. “This show is more about how as women, we aren’t taught to explore anything but vanilla sex, so when something more bizarre is visited upon us — often without our permission — we don’t know what to do. In this environment, the clients have to ask permission for everything, and they can’t touch you. Which gives you more power.”
Kruse is in an unusually apt position to describe what such work is like. She is also a seasoned stand-up comic and former talk-radio host with the creative storytelling chops to hold a crowd spellbound on far less provocative topics.
She said she was at a low point in her career and her life, perpetually drunk or hung over and unable to land even a waitressing job, when she went from answering phones at the Lotus Center for Renewal (a pseudonym she concocted for an earlier version of the show) to booking one-on-one clientele herself.
For some, she became a sort of untrained therapist, learning secrets that wives and girlfriends never heard because she provided a safe zone far removed from the men’s public lives. Along the way, she made friends with co-workers, including one woman who was a single parent and supporting her dying mother.
While Kruse had a gym bag full of the kind of trappings you’d expect — bikinis, seamed stockings, fantasy ensembles — her go-to look was business casual, which teased the psychology behind the everyday and the forbidden.
“When you’ve got on thigh-high stockings under a pencil skirt, all it takes is an inch of flesh and they really think they’re seeing something,” she said.
The original version of the show premiered at Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis two years ago and was showcased off-Broadway last summer. The show’s director, David Mann, worked with Kruse to reshape her monologue.
He said one of the hardest parts was deciding which stories to tell. “She has hundreds, so we had to decide which three would give the broadest view of the really varied clients,” said Mann, a former actor who has done one-man shows himself.
Another adjustment was making the show be as much about Kruse as the men.
“In the original she stays a cool remove away, but you have to care about the narrator, in a way everyone can relate to, so we include her journey from alcoholism to being sober as a big part of the story,” he said. “She really puts herself out there — you see her heart and soul.”
Kruse said she hopes that the show will eventually be bought by a cable or streaming network and become a sort of “Orange Is the New Black” of fetish work. It has drawn attention from Hollywood heavyweights including top agent Ari Emanuel (Rahm’s brother, on whom the character Ari Gold of “Entourage” is based) and director Bennett Miller (“Foxcatcher,” “Moneyball”), who attended a show in New York and gave some notes.
Although Kruse said she has few regrets, the job is not one she plans to revisit.
“I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad it’s over,” she said. “It made me feel forgiveness, for myself and for others.”