Thursday, February 25, 2010

"What the @$%&?"- Provactive Play Rocks Stanford

“Is theatre still relevant?”  This question seems to come up constantly whenever theatre artists gather, be it at a bar after rehearsal, or Starbucks before- we always question whether this art form which we dedicate our lives to still matters in the 21st century.  I’ve pondered this question over many a beer or coffee, with many fellow artists- and the answer always seems to be elusive.  Just a few nights ago, I was reminded of why I continue to work in theatre, and the amazing power this art form still possesses.

I was fortunate enough to be the Stage Manager for our In the Rough reading of Trista Baldwin’s strikingly modern new play American Sexy.  The piece finds four college students on a road trip to Sin City, who take an unexpected, and ultimately devastating detour to the Grand Canyon.  The vividly drawn characters brought to mind many people I went to college with: Lexi- the intellectually vacant and over-sexed party girl, Jessica- the aimless young woman whose only aspiration is a wealthy marriage, Darren- the unimpressed ladies’ man, and Andy- the sexually (and socially) frustrated outcast.

At the first rehearsal, Trista spoke of the inspiration for the piece, which came from her own experiences as an educator and the students she met in that atmosphere.  Her play examines the sexual debasement of modern America; the female characters often refer to each other as “slut,” “ho,” and casually engage in graphic sexual conduct onstage with the men and each other.  “Sexting,” the act of sending pornographic photos/videos of oneself or others, is a major element of the piece. Lexi and Jessica’s lack of respect for themselves, and the resulting lack of respect given them by the male characters is highly disturbing, and very realistic in today’s world.

On Monday evening we presented this reading at Stanford University to an audience of Professors, PhD candidates, and other highly intelligent friends of the university.  This audience was of an older generation, far removed from these characters and the world of this play.  I had the opportunity to watch the audience from the stage, as I was reading the stage directions.  These people were absolutely appalled by this material.  With each casual sexual reference, and pornographic stage direction their jaws dropped further and some of them simply shook their heads in disbelief.  What disturbed them seemed not to be the graphic nature of the material itself, but the fact that it was based on truth.

The post-play discussion that followed was the most in-depth and longest discussion I’ve ever witnessed at similar events.  Our audience was provoked by this play, they were riled up, and they spoke passionately about the topics of the piece.  They even went as far as to argue whether this had a place on the stage, saying the material was “in the toilet.”  Fearless, Trista dove into the issues at hand, asking whether the material pushed the audience away.  David Goldman, of the Stanford Center for New Plays observed that the play was Brechtian in some ways- and seemed to push the audience away intentionally so that they might judge the characters from a distance.

The reactions to the play were across the board, ranging from acceptance of this as an accurate depiction of modern American youth to downright denial that this is where our society is, and where it is going.  Late in the discussion, when asked what reaction she desired from this piece, Trista looked at the group smiling and said, “I’m loving all of this.” 

This reading reminded me of why the Playwrights Foundation does the work that we do, and how relevant and immediate theatre can still be. The conclusions that the audience took away from this piece were varied, but they left the reading engaged and in some cases, enraged by the play.  This is what theatre should be, and is often not- engaging, enraging, primal, vital, immediate and important. 

-Kirk Johnson
Institute Coordinator
Asst. to the Producer

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