“Small and feisty” is not the sort of self-description most would expect of a nonprofit, but The Red Umbrella Project is not the sort of nonprofit most would expect. RedUP, as it’s also known, is a four-year-old New York City organization with the not-so-small goal of “amplifying the voices of people in the sex trades.” Its aim is broad, but its tactics are specific: provide sex workers with free media training and advocacy workshops, and create spaces for us to tell our stories in print, via podcast, and on stage.
I’ll admit now that my interest in their work is more than journalistic. I first heard about the Red Umbrella Project two years ago, around the time I began working full-time in the sex industry as a professional switch. I’ve always been interested in writing and performance as both a participant and observer, so I followed along with the organization’s work. I watched from a distance as the group grew more prominent outside of New York City sex work circles. This past summer, I tried to attend RedUP’s memoir writing workshops in Brooklyn but somehow my schedule never lined up. Finally, at the beginning of September, when their literary journal Pros(e) & Lore had an open call for contributors, I took a chance and submitted a pitch. To my surprise (and rather embarrassing level of excitement), it was accepted. I begin working on it this week, with their help and guidance.
I’m eager to get involved in person and jumped at the chance to attend one of their readings. Every month at Happy Ending Lounge—a massage parlor turned swanky bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan— other sex workers share their experiences as part of a performance series called The Red Umbrella Diaries. The next reading is November 14th, at a much larger venue. The group is moving to Joe’s Pub in order to pull in an audience of two hundred and allow space for the documentary crew that will be recording the performance for a feature-length film.
Currently in production, the film will follow seven sex worker storytellers as they share their poignant, hilarious, troubling, and joyful personal tales next month. The cast is a handful of charismatic unknowns whose diversity is practically unprecedented on the screen. Among the stars: Ceyenne Doroshow, a Black transgender woman from Brooklyn who wrote her story as a cookbook on scraps of paper, while she was in prison on a prostitution charge. She is a commanding presence in the trailer, pulling laughs from the audience with ease before telling the camera that “not every sex worker wants to be this ditzy airhead that doesn’t wanna stand up for something.”
Doroshow is joined by fellow Brooklynite Dominick, a man who colorfully describes his jobs in the sex trade as “Guido stud for hire” and “kept boy of a drunken English society decorator.” He’s not the only male sex worker in the film. There’s also Sailor, a jack-of-all-trades and current worker who fills the “average next door beefy furry cub” niche of gay escorting. Two exotic dancers are also included in the cast. There’s sweet-and-unassuming-looking Page, “a second generation stripper from California,” and the aptly named Essence Revealed, a beautiful Bajan from Boston, Massachusetts who teaches burlesque. (“I say I’m a stripper. I don’t say I’m a burlesque performer, ‘cause it’s stripping.”) The cast is rounded out by “brown and proud […] femme-crip-working-class survivor” anna saini and RedUP Executive Director Audacia Ray, who is a former worker herself.
Backing up these captivating but untested performers is a crew of filmmakers with long Hollywood resumes. Producer and Editor Chris Fiore’s previous documentary, John Henrik Clark: A Great and Mighty Walk was nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury award, and Director David Kornfield (Director) has won several Emmys. Further, the same production company behind the independent hit Martha Marcy May Marlene, Act Zero Films, will be in charge of distribution.
There’s only one issue unresolved: funding.
Audacia Ray, who is also acting as the project’s ethical guide and community outreach coordinator, is in charge of fundraising for the project as well. She’s currently “pursuing sponsorship and grant opportunities that will help to meet the budget needs of the film,” but, true to the grassroots nature of her small and feisty organization, she’s also launched a Kickstarter campaign.
Contributions to the all-or-nothing $15,000 goal are the only way to buy tickets to the November 14th reading. The campaign runs until November first and, as of October 21st, it’s still $2344 short of the goal. The minimum pledge is only one dollar, and perks include film credit, access to a downloadable version of the film, and subscriptions to Pros(e) & Lore. Most importantly, donors will be helping to project sex worker stories to a larger audience. As anna saini notes, “The more that we can get our stories out there, true, honest stories about what it means to be a sex worker—that’s the clearest path to humanizing us.”
If there was ever a time to join me in supporting and working with RedUP, it’s now. What are you waiting for?