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I have performed Phone Whore probably close to 200 times, if not more. I have performed it a lot, in packed 100-seat theatres and in the basement of a pub with three people watching. For a frowny, arms-crossed crowd in a women’s bookstore, and for a room that was half-full of sex workers. I have a lot of experience to draw from, in terms of assessing audiences, but the show this past Saturday night was something special, and by special, I mean, AWKWARD AS FUCK.
All’s well that ends well, and I am here to tell the tale. We pulled it back from the brink, and it was a nice, tight show, performance-wise. But it started like a smoldering trash heap, oh Christ.
To start with, my front-of-house volunteer, a bright-eyed young theatre person who had checked in with me on the two previous nights when he arrived 15 minutes before house opening… well, he didn’t check in with me this time. I texted him at 20 minutes to show: no answer. I peeked out the doors at 15 minutes to show—when the house was supposed to open—and he wasn’t out there. I couldn’t understand it, he had been talking the whole weekend about bringing his dad, and then the night before he said he was bringing his mum, too, they were huge theatre fans, “don’t worry about it,” he said. And he had just pushed the show on Facebook. What happened?
I came back into the theatre and said to my technician, right, if he’s not here by five minutes before show, we lock the doors and have the drunkest, most leisurely load-out in theatre history. I was fully ready to cancel. I had already clocked out. It had been a challenging weekend, and if nobody showed, not even my door person, that would be the perfect icing on the bad, bad cake.
As I was getting ready to lock the doors, I looked out one last time and… there he was, smiling and leaning against the desk out there, and waving out me. And there were people out there. Not just his mom and dad, but, like, three other people.
I turned to the technician. There are people out there, I whispered. We have to do the show. And then I whirled back around to the volunteer, with my eyebrows lifted significantly. Can you come in here for a second? He walked in, and his family followed him in. By yourself, I hissed at him. They can’t come in yet. He hastily gestured his family back out into the lobby, I gave him a quick pointed briefing about CHECKING IN with your BOSS when you arrive for your volunteer shift, and told him to let the audience in.
It was a small house—six people, including the volunteer and his mom and dad—but not the smallest I’ve ever had. Not noticeably more awkward until I started doing my normal pre-show crowd work. You’re Joseph’s mom? Oh, you are? Okay, and you’re also his relative? You’re his AUNT. Excellent!
I extricated myself from that as quickly as I could, and slid down the row to chat with the straight couple a few seats down. And how did you find out about the show?
“We saw the poster.”
It wasn’t as bad as that: they were visiting from Glasgow and staying at a friend’s flat nearby for the weekend. They had swung by the pub the previous night because they heard it was a good one with good entertainment upstairs. Nothing on this week except Phone Whore, so they looked me up and decided to come on closing night. “Yeah, when we googled it, a bunch of 4- and 5-star reviews came up, so we thought we’d take a chance.”
So, okay. At least 33 percent of the audience was informed about the upcoming work.
Joseph finally closed the doors and the first phone call came on. The audience missed the first laugh checkpoint, so I was prepared, but damn, they were quiet. So very quiet. It was the quiet of paying attention, not the quiet of “we’re hating this,” so I plunged on ahead, but still AWKWARD, and about to get more so. In between calls 1 and 2, my character talks about a couple of clients, including one guy, “he’s an ass men, he’s a real sweetie, a real Southern gentleman.” Whose name is JOSEPH.
FUUUUUU…. It didn’t even hit me until I spoke that paragraph out loud, and then I was like, oh. Right. I wonder if his family will ever let him live that down? I wonder if his family will ever talk about this play, ever, was actually what I was thinking, because they saw the whole thing. They stuck it out. His mom, dad, and maternal uncle were sitting right next to him and I did that full-out mommy-fucker call, and then of course Call 4.
I did say I survived, right? And so did they. Everyone in the house hung around for the Q&A; the energy was fine in there, good questions, etc. Afterward, though, I asked my tech how the show felt from up in the god box, and he said, “It was a good run, but I had to stop watching toward the end.”
What, the play?
“No, the audience. During Call 3, I started covering my eyes, and I hid behind the desk for all of Call 4.”
Folks, when the tech says it’s awkward, it’s AWWWWWKWARD.
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I don’t consider myself a diva. I suppose every diva probably thinks that they’re being reasonable, but I honestly try to be chill. I have to be, with all the traveling and fast load-ins and being my own roadie most of the time. Last night, though, after my second night of a three-night run, I found myself wracked with tears about my set furniture.
“IT’S NOT MY HOME ANYMORE,” I sobbed over the phone to UK Muse. “it’s not right.”
I didn’t expect this intensity of feeling, even though I knew things would be different. This is new furniture, see. I had commissioned it to live here in the UK, to be available for European performances of Phone Whore. The original pieces are still back in Montreal; I left them there because I just couldn’t justify bringing them all the way over, paying huge sums in extra baggage fees. In retrospect, I see that I could have paid slightly less than the cost of construction and skipped the heartache, but at the time it just seemed like the logical next step towards establishing my performance work on two continents. I needed two sets.
The carpenter who I had found through a friend of a friend seemed prompt and responsive; when I emailed to him that the chair, for example, really needed to be fattie-friendly, he didn’t even (metaphorically) blink. Tanner, the director of my fifth show nerdfucker, had been able to reverse-engineer construction plans for the pieces (the original carpenter had gone off the grid, so I couldn’t find her).
Now, Tanner had mentioned to me, early on in the process, that he tried to streamline construction a little bit, because there was lots in the chair that seemed like overkill, etc, and I didn’t object because I knew that the original pieces had been kludged together with no plan, only a directive: both pieces need to pack down and be able to fit in the trunk of a 1991 Toyota Corolla. So yeah, maybe there was a way to make them lighter weight, without compromising the structural integrity. I didn’t want to get in the way of that.
So I knew that it would be new furniture; everything was going to feel different. But at tech, when I started handling the separate components and feeling the splinters, it began grinding home to me. These are really new. The edges are rough, and catch at the bedspread I use to cover the chair frame. I couldn’t find the right foam for padding the chair, and so I am sitting on a whole new assortment of lumps and bumps and none of the positions that I normally hold during the show are comfortable or even work. I did not realize how much choreography for sitting and shifting had gotten burned into my muscle memory over six years of doing this show!
Wait, there’s more! One of the arm assemblages malfunctioned in two different ways at tech and during the show itself. Three of the four chair legs fell out of their slots when I lifted the chair up after the show last night to move it, in spite of latches on each leg that were supposed to prevent that.
And to top it all off, the two tables don’t stack up over/around the assembled chair anymore. That wasn’t ever specified in the design; that was just the way the original set worked out, and then I never thought to tell this new carpenter about it, because that’s the way the originals were. But when the dimensions and measurements got changed and streamlined, something got buggered, and now they don’t stack up right.
I know I’ll get used to it. I have to. The carpenter is going to make good on the malfunctions and the structural reinforcements. He’ll sand down the rough edges. I think I can stack up the furniture if I take the arms out after each show. I will eventually find the correct foam.
But last night it hit me, hard: this set, this stupid, simple set for a show that is supposed to be taking place in my living room, this set really WAS my living room. It is the place where I knew exactly what was going on, and I knew how far back I could lean, and in which directions. I knew what was safe and what was probably a bad idea. I knew how to slam all the furniture and props into place in under 12 minutes, and I knew that at the end of that frenzied 12 minutes, I could sit down in the chair and lean back, and Phone Whore would be home. And now I don’t even have that stability anymore. It’s all changed.
I will deal with it. Hell, I made this move of my own free will. I knew. But I didn’t really know until last night, after two shows of not being comfortable and breaking my own chair with positions that the OTHER chair, the REAL chair could take, I didn’t know how it would feel to my body.
Right now, it feels all wrong. And I am tired of not having a home, not even a fake one.
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It could have been one of many conversations that UK Muse and I have had over the past two and a half years, on Skype or in person, naked or clothed, doesn’t matter. We have managed to keep a spark alive across the Internet, with glitches and sound lag and all; and then right up close, under the same blanket, has its own powerful magic, too.
It didn’t matter where the conversation happened, but it would have been about sex, tangentially, kinda, not directly and unrelentingly, more kind of dipping in and out of fantasy or prophecy or just random wack-ass things that one or the other of us comes up with, off the cuff, to tack onto our games. It’s all seething underneath our public skins, I mean, I’m sure it does for a lot of people, but there really is something about the way that he and I talk together that feels like all of that filth is right there, just beneath the surface. All we have to do, one or the other of us, is poke it, poke a hole in it, and it wells up.
And so then one of us did poke a hole in it, with whatever comment, we went a little further, or we took a tangent, an unexpected twist on what we already play with, we just kept talking, stream of consciousness, and the words just slipped out of one of our mouths, and that’s when the other person said it.
“Is that A Thing?”
The answer that came next depended on what we were talking about; it depended on the feel of the air that suddenly both thickened and sharpened between us, a space where a previously undiscussed act or look or object or phrase appeared between us, and neither of us knew what the other would answer, neither of us would have had any clue, because from the very beginning we have surprised each other, from the very fucking beginning.
“Wait, is that A Thing?”
Rarely has there been a solid Yes, because it’s always a question, a possibility, that we didn’t expect until suddenly there it is. But also rarely is it an immediate, resounding slap down: “no fucking way.” Usually it’s a “Mmmmmmmaybe?” or an “It might be” or simply “I’m not sure.” We know that the hesitation alone is not enough to rule anything out.
“Whoa. Is this A Thing?”
In the space that follows this question, there is a real rush for me, pure adrenalin as we look into each other’s eyes. Suddenly, there is a little part of him that is a stranger again, or some place that I didn’t even know existed. We are both cautiously, simultaneously lifting our freak flags and making ready to set them out a little further. Or leaving them in place; that’s also possible.
The conversation is what gets us to this exciting spot. It’s not just one conversation, I guess, it’s an ongoing one that circles and loops and weaves its way through the other separate conversations. This simmering undercurrent is about who we are and what we mean to each other, what we like and what we positively crave and what makes us feel nervous because WHERE THE HELL DID THAT COME FROM and how it feels to watch each other closely in moments of release. Inevitably, because we keep talk talk talking—I mean, we go off the map on the regular—the conversation keeps going places we don’t expect.
“No, really, is this A Thing?”
The question has become less scary over time, and mostly just exciting. After two and a half years, I’ve learned to trust him in those wide-open spaces where neither of us knows. I know that he will tell me the truth, and I know that I can tell him mine, and we won’t flinch or say eww.
It’ll just be, more likely than not, some variant of “I don’t know, let’s find out.”
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A Facebook friend messaged me last week with a question. Actually, there were a few questions and a lot of self-questioning that roughly boiled down to “what am I?” Sometime this week I’m going to turn her question over (anonymously) to my FB network to discuss, because I’m still not always sure about my ability to handle advice moments online. Like, what do I know, I’m a loudmouthed pervert and a former phone-sex operator. Do you really want me giving you relationship advice?
But her question did get me thinking, about how do we know what we are, and where do labels come in, and where do we as adults learn more about interesting sexual things, and how do we do that in ways that are safe and exciting and move us along quickly to more satisfaction and clarity in our own sexuality, quickly, as in NOW?
That is one of the hardest parts about this line of questioning, wanting to take care of stuff now. The older we get, the more we are aware that time is passing and we don’t have forever; this deeply internalized existential fear is only exacerbated by the passage of time. Our tits sag more, the wrinkles begin, and WHO IS GOING TO LOVE US AND/OR WANT TO FUCK US WHEN WE ARE OLD AND GRAY AND DYING WITH WORN-OUT PARTS. So, yeah, go ahead and try to get empowered, but you are pushing against that for sure. It’s a biological clock that most everyone hears.
Lots of times we hope that finding our labels will help us get there faster. And they do help, in some ways. Labels can help us to narrow our search and filter possibilities. With a properly clear identity, we can find the right workshops and munches and FB groups; we can put down the right acronym in the online personals, we’ll be able to weed out the people who just Aren’t Right for us. Sometimes this label is literal, even. When I was just coming out in college as a lesbian, having that label—I mean, actually having a badge on or a t-shirt that said “lesbian”—felt like my easy way of signifying to others, sending out the beacon. It was a flare sent up to the skies: this is what I am, come find me. I want to get laid, or at least feel less alone.
Ultimately, labels in the realm of sexuality bring with them a whole set of assumptions, about what you do and don’t do, what you want and don’t want. It’s a way to shorthand it. We look to our labels as a way to convey the whole package, to convey us.
Except labels don’t always… let’s say they rarely work like that. To a lot of people, dom means hard, cruel master, with whips-and-chains on tap 24/7… unless it turns out to be a caring loving Daddy who checks that you’re eating well. Dyke means women only… but what if you occasionally like playing with dick? These are just two really high-profile labels, but all labels work like this. They are paradoxically useful and ludicrously inadequate for two or more people trying to figure out how to get down with one another in a mutually satisfying way.
The labels, the “what am I” part of exploring our sexuality, they’re an okay starting point, as far as looking up chat groups online, but you have to be ready to look beyond them, allowing them to be descriptive of where you are in this moment in time, rather than prescriptive of your sex life going forward. Don’t stop with the word or the badge. Get into the details, as deep as you can, as deep as feels okay in the moment. Talking will not help someone else finally “grok” you, but it'll take you down a better path toward that end.
So my first recommendation for my FB friend, and anyone worrying about “what I am” has to be: think about what you like to do, instead. Think about how you like to touch or be touched, where you want to meet, how you want to laugh or be silent, how deep you want to go and with what. It might take a little longer to explain, but it gives you more room to breathe.
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I am getting on that jet plane four days from today, heading over to the UK to try my hand at my particular brand of showbiz on that fair isle, to place my heart finally, firmly in the keeping of the love of my life, who I stumbled across 2+ years ago when I didn’t even know I was looking for anyone. And my feeling about this right now can be summarized as follows:
Four days is simultaneously NEVER GOING TO BE OVER and JESUS CHRIST THAT’S NEXT WEEK.
This confusing feeling of stretch-of-time and imminent explosion of everything I know, it makes sense, considering how major changes have always happened in my life: either there are slow, unnoticed shifts or there's a sudden eruption of consciousness-altering intensity. I highlight this with regards to my sexuality with my play slut (r)evolution. Hell, it’s right there in the punctuation of the title: is it evolution or revolution? The answer, of course, is yes.
This time around, at this particular point in my life, the same idea of gradual change versus sudden upheaval feels more… tectonic. I'm changing my location on the earth, the ground under my actual feet. People who study plate tectonics know how it goes. Sometimes pieces of the earth grind past each other. Sometimes they catch and stick, and the pressure builds and builds until suddenly one day they jerk past each other, destroying buildings and altering lives over head.
What's true is this: a life doesn’t happen all at once, and a seemingly sudden breakthrough is rarely that sudden. I’ve been building my performing skill set, my packet of offerings, for… well, not for decades, but definitely for years. I’ve been grinding through lines, and rehearsing for hours, and debating fine points of punctuation and delivery with my directors for probably the equivalent of DAYS. That is just the grind of the work. I will never bust through into stardom on Oprah's show. My accomplishments here are slow and uphill.
Ditto for my love life. I mean, not that it’s a grind, but where it is now is very much a function of all the little lists and humble presents and tense discussions and weekly skype-sex dates and pictures swapped. It is a relationship that has been sliding along nicely for a long time, but there was that sticking place, right? The same one that everyone in a long-distance relationship has to wrestle with at some point or another: when are we going to be able to stop this bullshit and move closer to each other, because we are agreed, yes? THIS LONG-DISTANCE STUFF IS BULLSHIT.
For the past year and a half, my own version of that sticking point—maybe it's everyone's, who am I kidding—has really been about just money and timing. Oh, yeah, and fear. Fear of not having my car, of not having any car, of losing some of the personal mobility that I value so much. Fear of not having enough money, for moving and staying and health care and everything. Fear of not being talented enough of a performer to drop the phone sex for good and be able to count on my wits and performance skills and goddamn teeth-gritting hustle. Fear of throwing in my lot with one lover, face to face, real time, because what if I had forgotten how to sail a relationship?
Thankfully, in the last few months those fears have started to resolve, or dissolve. I asked people to remind me—frequently—that I had made and survived big leaps before. I laid the groundwork, and started pounding the pavement for gigs way back in February and March. I talk with UK Muse multiple times a day, in silliness and in seriousness, and rejoice in knowing that it’s all there.
These have been the slow, gentle workings of my plans and dreams. The sudden shift, that comes next week. It’s still going to be an emotional earthquake of epic proportions, but I’m a decent psychological seismologist by now. I know it’s coming, and I’ve done everything I can to be ready for it.
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