Archive for Creating A/Broad
So, it's a little over a week since the first-ever Atlanta Smut Slam (a big shout-out to Write Club ATL for helping make it so awesome) and a little less than a week before the first-ever DC Smut Slam (link to FB event page). I am taking this narrow little window—less a window and more an arrow slit—as a good time to refresh my attention to the ethics of hosting this show.
Ethics and dirty stories. Those are not words that maybe go together, but they have to, for me, because even though the Atlanta show smashed box-office records for the Slam, it was stellar, the Fuckbucket was full... for all that, one story caught me by surprise, and now I'm examining entire chunks of Smut Slam protocol to accommodate it.
Honestly, I feel fortunate to still be in a space where I can be surprised, surprise being one of those awesome but usually awkward moments for learning. Two years ago I would have gladly dispensed with more learning moments; two years ago I was still writhing from a public protocol fuck-up; hell, I hadn't even healed from that properly until this year. Even now I feel like, oh god, learning to host, especially for an open-mic event, is the PITS, because you're not just fumbling or falling and then getting off the stage, you are anchoring the stage for other people and your fuck-up has the potential to destabilize everybody else, including the audience.
Nowadays I feel pretty good about hosting. I've gotten positive feedback from various sources, audiences and tellers and judges alike, and was starting to feel comfortable in it. Not phoning it in, just maybe I was getting a little too sure? Everyone was on the same page, we all understood what was going on, we understood the rules, and the bit about consensuality, especially that bit, that was just obvious, right?
It sure seemed like it. Since the first Smut Slam in February 2011, we've never had anything told from a Smut Slam stage that veered very close to consent issues at all. Okay, there have been a few tales of drunk/blackout sex over the years, told from the point of view of the person blacking out, but that's it. (Maybe that, too, is a little grey? I know I sure get uncomfortable hearing tales of blackout sex, no matter from whose point of view.) So, all the fine print about consent was moot. Everyone got it. Except that wasn't true last week, when someone told a story that was about their first sexual experience as a very under-aged minor, and how they pursued an adult to get that experience.
<sigh> Even when I write this, I am reminded of other rules of Smut Slam: "what is told at Smut Slam, stays at Smut Slam" and "if it's not your story, it's not your story to tell." I will not tell the story in question, but I had to give at least the general outlines, for you to understand why I am even getting worked up about this.
Current US law says that consent is absolutely not possible at that age, but the teller clearly saw herself as consenting. We certainly can discuss that, how the perspective makes all the difference. If someone had gotten up and told the story from the point of view of the adult man in this scenario, my path would have clearer—interrupt the goddamn story and try to recover the show—though no less challenging to implement. Her story was from the other side, and childhood expressions of sexuality are tricky, tricky beasts.
This is the discussion that I steeled myself to unfold, immediately after the slam and in the days since. I hashed it out a little with the Atlanta judges panel; they mostly came down on the side of, "well, that's the risk of an open mic. Audiences need to take care of themselves." Still feeling uncertain, I checked in with my friend and colleague Dave Pickering (of the awesome storytelling series Stand-Up Tragedy). Dave said more clarity on the rules might help, and then if I felt I should, I could cut short the story with a burst of music or something. "I think if you spell out the rules and someone breaks them you are absolutely allowed to interrupt," he said. But he notes, "It's tricky as that's her experience. And it's kind of not for us to deny it. Clearly the dude involved was acting heinously but her experience and desire shouldn't be invalidated."
I was grateful to hear from Dave and other hosting friends about their struggles with this sort of thing, but in the end, it all comes down to the lines that I decide to draw around this, which may (almost certainly will) change again. For now, I'm going to figure out a way to tell audiences that subject matter might come up that is challenging, and try to say it in a way that doesn't drag the energy down. I'm going to write the rules out a little more clearly, with regard to what consent actually means for Smut Slam (no stories involving sexual contact with animals or minors, unless it's consensual between two minors). I'm going to get these clarified rules out everywhere, and emphasize them at the point when people put their names in the bucket. I will even have a piece of music ready in the horrible horrible event that I decide I need to "pull the plug."
Most importantly, I'm going to prepare myself to provide audience aftercare. I do it for Phone Whore all the time, in the form of a post-show Q&A; surely there is some way to do it here, to bring up problematic spots after the fact, in a way that doesn't drag down the energy. I need to be ready for anything with the Smut Slam, because it is an open mic, and that will always be the challenge with open mics: People bring what they bring. It is not all cut and dried, black and white.
Sometimes there is grey.
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The aesthetics of the Smut Stand, aka a philosophical treatise on not giving a fuck about “photogenic”
There is no part of the touring cycle that is pure bliss, in my experience; there is no time in self-produced theatre that does not have some hideous thing attached to it. Working up a show, there's the brute-force memorizing, the frantic stuffing into your brain the shit you just finished and are kind of sure is shit. Out on tour, for me at least, the challenge is sleep deprivation, fueled by an intense FOMO, a constant sinking feeling that there is something else that I could be doing to promote. (This is actually true. There is always something else, but I only have 24 hours in the day, so at some point I just have to unplug and let it go.)
At the time of writing, I am in that weird moment where I'm not even done with the current tour—I mean, I'm still struggling with postcards for the New Orleans Smut Slam and maybe not having a venue in Atlanta, and nailing down exact dates for DC—but I have to be looking ahead at next year's tour, and the year after. The question is not metaphorical right now: where do I go from here?
There is a lot to think about, and I have to be a hard-ass, seriously! I used to go wherever people said "please come here!" without regard for whether I had proper space and producer support on the ground. After one too many shows with four audience members in a badly lit room at a sex club, I started getting pickier. And pickier. Starting next year I'm instituting a strict minimum guarantee, like, everywhere that's not a festival. I don't care if people are already my friends, it's too damn stressful.
And the festivals? I'm starting to develop a pretty good sense of whether a festival is going to pan out. I know for next year and the year after, which ones are getting me back and which ones can't even cover my admission fee.
There are strictly geographical considerations as well. I'm driving around North America again next year, and there are ways to make that easy, and ways to make it hard. I can't zig-zag, like I'm doing this year from Houston to Nashville to New Orleans; that's a lot of wasted gas. Things need to go in a loop as much as possible, no backtracking, unless the performance fees justify it. If I am venturing off that loop, I have to try to clump, that is, arrange appearances relatively close together, make it really worth my while to venture out.
And then I have to consider WHY I want to go. Money is an easy call, usually, but there are non-monetary reasons sometimes, too, and those need to be weighed in the balance as well. Do I have a large enough fan base there that hasn't seen me perform in a while? Is it a city or festival where more than one person, independently, has told me that I "need to go," and what were their reasons for urging me there? Is it a place where I might be head-hunted (Edinburgh), or where I have my own professional reasons for wanting to break into?
I get out my maps and my spreadsheets and my long-term visioning notes, and I try to stay hard-headed, because damn it if my tender, heedless heart isn't back there all the time, saying, "But people want to see you. But your shows are important. If you make an impact on one person's life, that's enough reason to go somewhere, isn't it?"
NO. No, it's not, stupid heart. That can only be an excuse after I make a mistake. That is not a forward-thinking, tour-planning reason at all. Sorry, heart. Sorry, ambitious soul. Sorry, person in Los Angeles or Nebraska who may really need what I have to offer. I have to survive, otherwise there are no more shows for anyone. I have to thrive. Everything else goes second to that.
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It was gonna happen here at some point, and it happened last night: a group of lads came out to slut (r)evolution, on the strength of my massive rack and 30 seconds of interaction out on the smut stand. These were not the sort of guys whom I would normally have told about my shows out there, but one of them snagged a brochure from under my typewriter, so I had to give them my full pitch (which basically boils down to "I DON'T DO STAND-UP, THIS IS DRAMA/STORYTELLING WITH FUNNY BITS").
Honestly, I didn't think they'd come out. My encounter with them was down on Cowgate, near Free Sisters; why would they stray way from booze and free comedy and sports on the huge outdoor movie screen and hundreds of drunk women, to buy tickets to a storytelling show with an earnest, butch, middle-aged fat lady? (Tits. It's the tits.)
When I came in from my warm-up for slut (r)evolution, Annie (one of the venue managers) tracked me down and warned me that the lads were there. "They don't look like your crowd, but one of them said he knows you." (He had told me out on the smut stand that he had seen me back in May on Brick Lane in London. I don't think that counts as knowing me, but whatever.) And when I rushed into the performance space at the top of the show and sat down, my line of sight was directly between the shoulders of two of these lads. They thought I was talking to them, of course, and tried to interact with me for at least a minute there at the beginning. When the fourth wall finally materialized for them, they shifted their energy to laughing and snorting and squirming and putting their heads in their hands and whispering to each other every time I said something sexual. Which in slut (r)ev is a lot. I have to say, even the crowd of 16- and 17-year-olds who came in a couple of weeks ago, they were so much better behaved about their discomfort. These lads were acting like 11-year-olds.
In the sex club scene, I was able to scan the room to see who else was there: three other people, all of whom had purchased smut from me at some point during the fringe. They were firmly on the sex-positive, kink-positive side, in other words; I knew this both from having written smut for them and from their reactions to the play. But their obvious enjoyment was being heavily battered by the lads' juvenile and disruptive assholery, and there was nothing I could do. In Phone Whore, at least I could have talked to them directly; in slut (r)ev I just had to keep going in my own little world, which meant completely ignoring the lads (they were right in front of me!) and still pouring in everything for the non-lad portion of my audience. It was one of the hardest performances I've ever done, but one of the other patrons afterward, a theatre student from the states, told me that I didn't break character for a moment.
About 40 minutes into it, during the second-to-last flashback scene, three of the lads got up to leave, kind of skittering toward the door with lots of snickering. I wondered why the fourth guy didn't go, and really wished he had; during the last flashback, the Burning Man scene, he was plainly texting them. That was around the time when I could hear his friends, right outside the door, laughing and talking. Please don't let them come back in, I prayed silently to whatever front-of-house people were hopefully out there. They did not come back in, but they just kept being lads right there.
All while I was acting like clothes pins were being attached to my tits, my mind was whirring. I was incredibly angry, and wasn't sure what to do. But when the lights dropped at the end and I could still hear the lads outside laughing, I sucked in my breath and decided. As the lights came back up and "my people" were applauding, I gestured to them and said, "please, stay there for a moment." I tapped the remaining lad on the shoulder and said, "come here," and then strode over to the door and flung it open. Annie was there, plainly in the middle of keeping the three other lads away from the door. They were all standing there grinning, with fresh drinks in their hands.
And I said it. "You were all being super assholes in there. SUPER ASSHOLES." I turned to Annie and said something about them being douchebags throughout, and then said to them, "No, really, you were really assholes in there. You should leave."
I then went back in to talk to the remaining three audience members, who had witnessed my umbrage, and I apologized to them and said that my post-show spiel doesn't normally go like that, and the theatre student said no, they needed that, they were totally being assholes. I was still a little embarrassed, like, maybe there was a more professional way to challenge them? Whatever. I invited "my people" to wait for me downstairs while I packed up, we could have a quick drink, if they wanted. They all agreed and left the room, and then Jenessa (my tech) and I hustled to clear out the space.
Jenessa said she understood why I did it—she just was sorry that I didn't get to do the usual awesome post-show speech—and so did the rest of the FOH staff. I wondered if any of the lads would be civilized enough to come back and apologize; I didn't think so. We were standing there in the hallway talking quietly about it, when Annie looked over my shoulder and said, "Oh! They're back." All four of them were standing behind me, loud and still with beers in their hands and talking loudly over each other with words of apology. Annie asked us all to step out into the mezzanine of the foyer, where the lads just kept going, going on about "unreserved apologies" and "we've never been to a fringe show" and "we didn't know about the etiquette" and "we didn't know it wasn't a comedy" and "we talked to the other audience members and apologized and they all loved the show." They really wanted absolution, and I really couldn't give it to them, although I did listen, and then basically said thank you for coming back to apologize, told them that there were any number of shows down in Cowgate that would be more to their taste, and left to go change.
As it turns out, the American theatre student had kinda ripped them a new one (a third one?), and I think the lads had been shamed by that, because she's quite pretty and young, and as UK Muse said, when I told him about the incident, "young men don't like to look stupid in front of pretty young women." Whatever the cause, the lads had left by the time I had changed out of my costume and came downstairs. All three of the other audience members had stuck around, though. We had a lovely drink and wide-ranging conversation out on the terrace; it was a good ending to a very weird night.
I'm glad that the other audience members had my back; if they had not been so invested, by virtue of being smut customers and obvious fans already, that could have ended differently and the show would have felt much worse. I think I did the right thing, in any case; as the American theatre student said, "People like that never get called out. They always get away with it."
Last night, they didn't.
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