Write something that would be illegal to do to an audience. Bonus if it’s something that is morally right but legally wrong. Don’t let it be boring, this isn’t a law class- don’t get into the weeds. Keep it human. Keep the play going longer than you’d planned. Deal with the consequences.
SEX WITH THE AUDIENCE, by Matthew A. Everett
The problem is, the more I thought this particular notion through, the more I realized I couldn’t script it. Not like a traditional play. I found I didn’t want to make the audience feel they were in peril, by pointing a gun at them or verbally abusing them or shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. I also didn’t want to dull their senses by altering their consciousness with drugs or alcohol. Theater for me is more about bringing people together for a common human experience they don’t get in their daily lives. So if I was going to transgress the law in any way, I’d want it to be in service of greater intimacy.
When my plays have been performed in the past, guys whose characters were meant to be intimate with each other onstage, often simply kissing, had to work hard to allow themselves to let go of their basic heteronormative programming. One of the nice side effects of a production like that is the guys were much more physically comfortable and affectionate with one another off-stage. They were much more relaxed and comfortable in their skin. I guess I just wanted to push that further – both with performers, and by extension the audience.
They say that a flaccid penis on stage is art, but an erect penis is pornography. The shame around the human body and sexuality is kind of ridiculous, and the source of all kinds of unnecessary tension and heartache. One of the best shows I’ve seen in recent years was an intimate little show, a scrappy theater company taking over an abandoned building and presenting the human body, and human intimacy in an inviting, non-threatening, almost fun way – rather than anything serious or clinical. It was reveling in human connection between the performers, in all levels of dress and undress.
This concept would seek to extend that intimacy between performers and audience further. Ideally it would be in a small, arena style space, with the audience on all sides, able to see each other as well as the performers. There would be two classes of the audience – those who wanted to simply watch, and those who might want to participate. Watchers basically remain in their seats and nothing more is required of them than a little civility and the price of admission.
The performers would essentially be improvising around a common set of actions. The ideal cast would be a rotating stable of men and women – straight, bi and gay – of all shapes, sizes, races, ages and physical abilities. We’re not casting a porno here where everyone looks like an underwear model. The cast reflects the makeup of the audience. The cast would be interviewed about preferences in terms of both their fellow castmates and types of audience participants. An equal opportunity performance, if you will. It’s not prostitution, though technically these people would be having sex for money. No one’s forced to perform sex acts with anyone they don’t want to. And if there’s a situation that looks like it’s getting out of hand, there will be security on hand.
But let’s say everything’s healthy and consensual and no one needs to be escorted out. How does the audience that wants to potentially participate get included? First, everyone on both sides of the equation is going to have to be tested for STDs. All the necessary precautions are going to be taken – condoms, IUDs, the pill. I imagine the release form for something like this would be ridiculous but set that aside for a moment. Just like the cast, the audience would make its preferences known in a pre-performance questionnaire, at the time of ticket purchase, long before the show. No “day of” tickets for sexual audience members.
So the theater has to coordinate, based on the audience they know they’re going to have, which performers are going to match up with the widest array of the audience preferences. My feeling is that you’d want to make sure that all the potential sexual audience members would be notified ahead of time if they were going to be called upon to join the action. And of course, in the moment, they can feel free to decline. There would be backups and alternates.
The most obvious backup would be the performers simply engaging in sex with one another. And in fact, they’d probably lead off with this each performance, in order to set the audience of all types at ease. So everyone knows what they’re getting into.
But the idea is to connect. It’s not just sex acts, but intimacy. Full penetrative sex may even be a rare occurrence. There’s all kind of ways to enjoy the human body and give another person pleasure. And they can be as clothed, or not, as they prefer, and as visible or shielded, from the audience as they prefer. At all times, someone’s going to be in full view. And at all times, there’s going to be a variety of sexuality on display. It shouldn’t just be for straight people or for gay people. People should be (you’ll pardon the expression) exposed to things they haven’t seen before and might themselves never do.
(I’d been thinking in terms of a largely “vanilla” repertoire, but you could also repurpose the template for people who are into leather or bondage or whatever other things aren’t even crossing my mind right now. The point, however, is always consent, and mutual pleasure – so animals and children are out, for instance. I can’t believe I just had to make myself type that as a clarification. Also, we’re not endorsing proven risky behavior so no barebacking. Again, I can’t believe I just had to make myself type that, but you can take this idea and twist or push it to all kinds of extremes I personally wouldn’t endorse because that’s not what I’m after.)
I want this to be a celebration of shared intimacy between people. Now, of course, I can imagine this all going horribly wrong in any number of ways – pregnancy, stalking, you name it. Let’s hope that by setting the right atmosphere, the right sense of community, we attract the right performers and the right audience and the idea accomplishes its goal, which makes sexual relations a healthier thing in general. To get the performance rolling before the sex gets started, maybe people tell jokes, maybe people sing songs, maybe people dance together. Anything to break the ice. Maybe the performers and the audience need to take themselves on a collective date before they expect anybody to put out.
It’s going to take a pretty special performer to sign on for something like this and execute it without crossing lines, or encouraging and allowing others to cross them. The rehearsal process is probably a lot of talking and a lot of shared boundary dismantling between people. If the ensemble can break down those barriers among themselves, they’ll be better able to set the audience at ease.
Anything I’d script in this regard would just be hokey. The actors will just have to engage each other and the audience in the moment, after a rehearsal process in which they work through all the possible scenarios they can think of, good and bad, on how things might go. After a couple of preview performances, a lot of real world adjustments would no doubt need to be made. An actual audience in the mix always teaches the producers and performers the many things they hadn’t anticipated in the closed world of the rehearsal room.