“It’s Mardi Gras, under a tent, with the women in charge,” said Caitlin McLeod, Stage Manager for the Charlottesville Lady Arm Wrestlers. CLAW, as it’s called, is a flurry of sights, sounds, costumes, grit, glory, cowbells, whistles, cheers, jeers, alter egos, and the occasional airborne condom—all for a good cause. What started as a joke between friends has now blossomed into a collective of hundreds of members who raise thousands of dollars for female-focused and female-led nonprofits with every match.
CLAW is currently run by a team of organizers—enthusiastic theatre types—who bonded over their love of the silly and absurd. Sidney Lyon is the official Wrestler Wrangler and unofficial “Officer of Fun.” Claire Chandler emcees, donning a new persona with every event. Her most recent was MC HRC, a Hillary Clinton sendup; her next will be a camp counselor of Camp CLAWnawana. Arcadia Rodriguez-Ruiz, also known as DJ Cadybug, handles each wrestler’s intro music and also DJs the after-parties. Founding member, Opal Lechmanski, covers merch and finances. Rounding out the crew is Caitlin McLeod as the all powerful Stage Manager.
Although it’s now a serious operation with over 50 people involved in the production of each match, CLAW’s beginnings were nothing more than silly shenanigans. Back in 2008, while getting drinks together at the local Blue Moon Diner, the two co-founders, theater-maverick Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell and salon-owner Jodie Plaisance, decided to cure their boredom with an old fashioned arm wrestling match. Tidwell won handily, but Plaisance demanded a rematch. Round two ended in a similar defeat, yet Plaisance did not give up. In order to increase her chances of victory, Plaisance began weight training alongside Tidwell. Of course, jovial smack talk soon emerged between these friendly rivals.
Assuming the names Prim Reaper and Mojo the Underdog, the two concocted a fantasy arm wrestling league and began inviting friends, fellow weightlifters, and everyone in between to their fake, but increasingly popular, league. After a long strategy session back at the Blue Moon, the official CLAW organization was born. Since then, the time-killing joke has evolved into something of an alternative circus that generates five-figure donations for area nonprofits every year.
Out of the hundreds of community wrestlers affiliated with CLAW, eight are selected for each match. The matches themselves are relatively straightforward on paper: the wrestlers progress tournament-style until a winner is crowned, but the sequence of events isn’t always as linear as you might expect.
“The audience can affect change,” said McLeod, “If an audience member or multiple audience members want to pony up the dough, they can bribe a judge, or bribe the ref, bribe the MC to get somebody to win, to get somebody back in the game, to get somebody kicked out, to get somebody to start hula hooping.” For example, at a recent match, the resistance-minded audience kept the lovably notorious Killeranne Conway (a send-up of Kellyanne Conway) from advancing to the next round despite her win just minutes before. As even the all-powerful Stage Manager McLeod admitted, “What the audience wants, the audience gets.” Of course, all that pomp and circumstance would be ephemeral if it weren’t for the larger goal. All of the “clawbucks” that the audience uses to initiate generated bribes translate into sizeable cash donations for local charitable causes.
The upcoming match on August 19 at Champion Brewery supports Brave Souls on Fire, a woman-led nonprofit that helps victims of PTSD through slam poetry and creative expression. “Each of our shows has a different kind of tone because each organization brings its own attitude and its own way of being to it,” said McLeod, adding, “We’re only half of the equation.” CLAW is especially excited for this event to have a performance-based nonprofit join them on stage, their first in years. Sidney Lyon explained, “There is a very physical component to the whole thing. We do have a champion at the end of the night. However, it is very theatrical. So it’s great to have people who are comfortable on stage and can also integrate whatever unique things they do outside of CLAW into the show.”
Each nonprofit beneficiary has the option to either put up one of their own staffers for the match or adopt a CLAW wrestler to compete on their behalf. In addition to providing onstage entertainment, the beneficiary is also tasked with recruiting a raucous entourage, occupying the ringside VIP section, and supporting their chosen performer through corresponding costumes, choreographed schtick, strategic bribes, and all-out noise. “We can do CLAW great on our own,” said McLeod. “We can do theatrical and be silly, but when the group is able to provide their board and their most important people, then they get really excited about it. And that is when we can make a lot of money and raise a lot of awareness.”
Beyond the financial take-home, the nonprofits often experience an unexpected benefit: unbridled abandon. “It can be an incredibly cathartic experience and they have to get themselves up on stage to realize that,” noted Lyon. In fact, non-theatre types can prove to be surprising crowd pleasers by sharing the id-like characters hiding within themselves. “When a wrestler really commits to a performance, they crush it.”
At a match in 2015, one of the quieter types from Cville Pride transformed herself into the Ruth Bader Ginsburg inspired, Notorious RBG. Using nothing more than glasses, a lace collar, and a glass of wine, she put the audience in stitches over her improvised objections and ended up winning the much coveted Crowd Favorite trophy that night.
Each CLAW event is an example of reaping what you sow. That is, the more each beneficiary puts into the planning, the execution, and the schtick, the more they get from it in cash and exposure.That’s what sets CLAW apart from the typical nonprofit fundraiser. After all, why would an organization opt for the tired schmooze-and-booze when you can choose an evening of riotous make-believe?
Photography by Tristan Williams