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Last night in Edmonton, my Fringe friend was admiring the constellation of buttons that spreads like a neon-colored Milky Way across the ceiling of the Deerinator. She was able to identify a few of them, and I pointed out others that were more obscure. I don’t often spend time enjoying the collection—it’s there with me whenever I drive—which I guess is why I remembered the back corners. “Back there I put… shrines, I guess you’d call them?”
She craned her head back to look while I described Heather, the woman who had first given me space to perform (and whose boots I inherited and have been wearing pretty much non-stop since 2009). And in the other corner, I said, was the shrine to Vee Anne, my Fringe friend and regular New Orleans billet who passed away in 2014.
These were the two women I knew as my peers, I said. Women of a certain age who were pushing ahead and directing their own shit. When they passed away, it just felt lonelier out here. These were my colleagues, I said, and I miss them.
As I told my fringe friend during the drive last night, these women remain the two performing women that I’ve spent the most time with, and we spent a lot of time talking about making our own way as non-traditional female artists (women of a certain age, doing performance work of a definitely if not explicitly feminist kind). I had talked with Heather about budget planning long before I went to school about it. I talked with Vee Anne about intellectual property and gratuitous shock value in theatre. It was something, to be able to have those conversations.
Naturally my fringe friend and I began sharing our own experiences out on the Fringe as women, especially as women of a certain age (in Fringe theatre, as in film and other performance spheres, women reach that "certain age" far earlier than men do, whatever the actual number of years). And I felt a visceral sense of relief to be talking about it again, as if my rib cage could loosen a little. I could be open about this.
Because, see, none of this gets discussed very much out in public. No one wants to be the one bringing sour grapes to the Fringe banquet. But naturally I have opinions about sexism on the Fringe; I am developing other opinions about ageism on the Fringe, and where those two intersect. The precarity of Fringe performing, combined with the fact that women tend to be pigeonholed and overlooked out in the rough-and-tumble marketplace of the fringe, makes this an important subject of discussion for any two or more female performers to have. Such conversations will not happen by themselves.
Frankly, any conversations about how we survive, how we struggle, are never going to be carried by the Fringe platform. The festivals do not have anything to gain by disseminating information about how inherently challenging, not to say problematic, they themselves are. They don’t benefit by talking too overtly about structural inequities both inside the system and outside as well. They need us artists to keep thinking that we have a chance, the same chance as anyone. I’m not saying that the fringe festivals are actively holding us down or oppressing us; I’m just saying the system thrives on the myth of the noble bootstrapping artist, and talking about individual experiences as manifestations of systemic inequities would detract from the mythos.
I still don’t know how that’s going to change, but these are the things that Heather and Vee Anne and I talked about with each other. The first step toward solving the problem is the same as it always has been: admitting that there is one. Then you find other people who are seeing the same thing, or at least are willing to believe that what you’re seeing and saying is true. I need this shared experience, now more than ever, and I’m so grateful when I find it. Rare though it is, it’s such a simple thing:
No, you’re not making this up. Yes, this is harder than it should be. No, it’s not fair. Yes, tell me.
NOTE: the #fringefemme hash-tag was created in 2009, I believe at the Edmonton Fringe, to lift up solo female playwright/performers. Time to revive that shit.
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He doesn’t let me into his life, not even in a bullshit, made-up sort of way. When I ask him what he’s been up to since we last talked, he always says, “nothing much, just working.” Which, fair enough. That’s what a lot of people do. But he knows that I travel—with only the vaguest sense of why—and so he asks me what I’ve been up to. This is a tricky question.
The answer either needs to involve young boys—I mean pre-teens—or young barely legal men, and stories like that are not the tricky part. I’ve done variations on both themes, but with this guy I never know which he really wants, and he’s not telling. THAT is the tricky part.
More often than not he will switch up on me, after I’ve been going along at a good clip along one track, getting deeper and deeper into the narrative, such as it is. We’ve really developed this scene for six or seven minutes, and then suddenly he’ll say, “So what else have you been up to?” And that’s my cue, that we are jumping tracks, which means that I now have two minutes to start from ground zero, develop the plot, and get him to come. It feels as though he’s trying to jam two full-length feature films into a sexy three-minute trailer.
I feel more than a bit manipulated. The part of me that wants to keep people happy, this is the part that will let him go on and on and over the time limit, because he hasn’t come yet. He knows this, and at least partly believes that it’s entirely my responsibility, because he often demands it of me, in a way that is no less urgent for being entirely irrational: “Make me come, make me come!” If we’ve had to interrupt the story and start from the beginning again, well that’s okay. People change their mind.
But that other part of me is keeping one eye cocked at the timer, and it’s clear very quickly that he’s going to go over. I have no problem giving him the two-minute warning, and then telling him I have to go once he hits the upper limit of his over time (1 minute over). But it’s always work I’d rather not do, that I shouldn’t have to do if he hadn’t dropped onto a different track when the original time package was almost up.
I want him to choose, because my choosing is so rarely right. I can’t tell if I’m actually making the wrong choice all the time, or if that’s just the way he likes to operate. Why shouldn’t he? I mean, he gets a nice long appetizer followed by a quick and dirty main course, and more of that than he actually paid for. Sounds like a deal to me!
I finally told him in our most recent call, told him to choose for himself. He responded by saying, “Which one turns you on the most?” (because lately he’s been getting into me coming, SIGH). I had to bite back a sharp retort—NEITHER ONE TURNS ME ON, YOU IDIOT—and instead said, no, sweetie, you choose, I like ‘em both, but it’s more important what you want. Also, I added, because I was really sick of going over time with him, we need to pick one and stick to it. I always end up going over time with you, and I can’t do that.
“Oh,” he said, as if that problem had genuinely never occurred to him.
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I know that my callers are possibly/probably/definitely lying, depending on what we’re talking about. The more illegal or messy or “extreme” their fantasy is, the less likely it is that they are doing it in real life. I have to behave as if I believed my callers, just for better phone acting—I don’t want to sound skeptical or second-guess them, obviously—but that’s never really a problem. Some guys make it extra easy for me to think they’re lying.
Like the Sniffer. From the first call I took with him, I never believed in the existence of Wanda’s, his favorite brothel. I do think brothels exist. I just don’t believe that some brothel in the nearly rural South is just coincidentally staffed by a lot of the types of women that the Sniffer happens to like—older, very hirsute, chubby-to-fat, willing to stay “stinky”—types that are not commonly sought after out in the rest of the world. I doubt that he could walk in on a slow Sunday, as he says he normally does, and just pick out two or three stinky, hairy ladies who are willing to give him a free pass to eat out their well-fucked pussies and have them piss on him. There’s too much “that’s not the way the world works” in there.
So I’m used to having to stretch my mind to accommodate the Sniffer’s universe in it. I didn’t think he could lie any harder. He didn’t need to. Just stop there, sir. The tissue of untruth is getting might see-through. But no. He went ahead and put down another layer of bullshit.
He claimed, with all sincerity, that a work-from-home fraud protection representative called to check on some charges on his bank card, specifically the charges that my phone-sex company had processed, and when the Sniffer told the lady what those charges were for, and what he talked about during the phone sex sessions, he said that she not only did not hang up on him, but asked him questions about his fetishes and listened to him jack off toward the end of the call.
He said she sounded fascinated. I said, I bet. He said, “She kept asking me for details and so I gave them to her.” I said, Of course it sounds interesting. I bet she hasn’t really run across anything like this before. Meanwhile, my mind drifted to all of the non-sex phone workers I’ve heard being angry—and rightfully so—about dudes being sleazy at them during a work call. All of them would shut that shit down; none of them would consent to sit there and listen to a man jerking off. They don’t get paid enough for that. Hell, I barely get paid enough for that. Another lie.
But as I agreed and nodded and encouraged him to talk about this phone encounter that almost certainly does not exist, I realized that it’s not just his kinks that he wants indulged; he’s also got a fairly detailed fantasy about how other people feel about these kinks.
That is, by talking about the abundance of stinky, hairy, and charitable sex workers at the local brothel, or pretending that some random older lady checking on his credit card activity would be so interested in his kinks as to give him free phone sex, the Sniffer is creating a fantasy world where his kinks are common. He’s mixing up the bits where he’s special and unique with a world where he is welcomed as a sort of sexual connoisseur, where he could have his choice of lovely (by his standard) ladies with which to frolic, where he could randomly run into women who share his thing, who celebrate it.
Some people thrive on being an outsider, but most want to belong. Apparently even the Sniffer.
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