in Theatre

What’s your definition of dirty, baby?

There exists a clever book by Jack Morin, Ph.D., called The Erotic Mind: Unlocking the Inner Sources of Passion and Fulfillment. He interviewed his “Group” of 351 people about what he called their “peak erotic events.” These are The Group’s most memorable sexual transactions or encounters, whether real or imagined. The group contained men and women of all ages and sexual persuasions. He then categorized these peak erotic events by type, and found patterns that occur by gender and by sexual preference. He distilled his analysis of The Group’s sexual desires into four major components, or what he called cornerstones:

1. Longing and anticipation. Example: a woman has an ongoing fantasy about a popular baseball player, even though she’s never met him.

2. Violating prohibitions. Example: a man has sex with another man in a train car.

3. Searching for power. Example: a woman fantasizes about being a prostitute and being ordered to have sex with various men.

4. Overcoming ambivalence. Example: a modern liberated woman finds a traditionally masculine man both arousing and distasteful.

And Morin claims that each person’s peak erotic event contains one or more of these components.

Now I’ve already claimed that a sexual component is a prerequisite in any sort of dramatic work. To be more specific, people go to the theater because they need to be entertained, and sexuality is a critical component of that need. But — and this is critical — the sex must be presented in the context of the four cornerstones above, or people won’t tolerate it. Theatrical sex outside of the context of the cornerstones is merely pornography.

If you tell an actor, “Play this scene sexy,” they’ll be lost. But tell an actor, “Where’s the violation of the prohibition in this scene?” or “Where’s the searching for power?” And then the scene will pop to life, because asking the question re-introduces the sexual component into the scene.

Time for a practical example. I just closed a production of “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” at the Chance. In this production I played six characters: a frustrated father, a hen-pecked husband, a lovelorn eighty-year-old codger, a nightmare date, a pitchman for a law firm, and a convicted murderer. Now let’s take a look at the text for the convicted murderer scene. Yours truly is playing Trentell:

MRS. WHITEWOOD
Our speaker today is a gentlemen by the name of Mr. Kevin Trentell. Mr. Trentell is an inmate here at Rayford and is currently serving seven consecutive life sentences. So without further ado: Mr. Trentell.

TRENTELL
My name is Trentell. I am a convicted mass murderer. I’m going to be locked in this shit-hole the day I die. — And I’m single. That’s right, single. Oh sure, once was like all of you. Good job, latest stereo equipment, drank bottled water. But no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t seem to find my significant other. Sound familiar?! Then came New Year’s Eve. I got an invite to this party, but I couldn’t get no date. So I went alone. All of my friends were there, all my married friends. All kissing and cuddling and calling each other cute names like “sweetie” — “pumpkin” — “pooh bear”… Well, I couldn’t take it any longer! I SNAPPED! I GOT OUT MY AK-47 AND BLEW THEIR MARRIED ASSES STRAIGHT TO HELL!

What you laughin’ at, boy?!

BRAD
I wasn’t laughing!

TRENTELL
You a wise-ass, motherfucker?! You think it’s funny I’m pushin’ fifty with no soul-mate?!

BRAD
Please don’t talk to me!

TRENTELL
And what about you, lady?!

SUSAN
Can I go home now?

MRS WHITEWOOD
No.

TRENTELL
You want to end up like me? No one to share your golden years with?!

SUSAN
God, no!

TRENTELL
Then listen Up! Cause I got some friends on the outside, my age, who are still single! Wanna hear about ’em?

SUSAN BRAD
I can’t take it! No! No! Please
I can’t take it!

TRENTELL
I know a guy in his fifties who recently took out his one-thousandth personal ad! And I know a woman, forty-five years old, she’s been on the same diet for fifteen years. You’re all waiting for Mr. and Ms. Right to come along, aren’t you’s? Well I got news THEY AIN’T COMING! YOU GOTTA COMPROMISE A LITTLE, YOU DICKHEADS! Alright, you and you! Up here! Now! Now! Now! Now! Now! What’s your name, boy, and what’re you looking for?!

BRAD
It’s–it’s Brad. I’m 34. I’m looking for a nice Christian girl who shares my values and wants to stay at home and raise my children.

TRENTELL
AND YOU?!

SUSAN
Susan — thirty-ish. I’m looking for a Jewish man who will let me continue my career as a corporate lawyer!

TRENTELL
WELL, MOTHERFUCKER?!

BRAD
You wanna get married?!

SUSAN
YES!

MRS. WHITEWOOD
Another match! Another match! Oh, thank you, Mr. Trentell. And thank you all for participating in another “Scared Straight To The Altar” program!

So in this scene, there are no obvious sexual references in the text. Fortunately, subtext is the actor’s friend. As I constructed the scene, I went through the four cornerstones in Morin’s book, trying to let those cornerstones influence the choices that Trentell made. Trentell went for the sexual component: he was the implacable Bad Boy who overcame his ambivalence about killing people, and darn it he was happy to have overcome that ambivalence — because killing turns him on! Killing is horny!

Sick stuff to be sure, right? No way this subtext could possibly play in the heart of Republican California, right? I’m going to get booed off the stage, right?

I tell you this, and you can buy it or not: the audience ate it up. At the end of each show, every single person out of the fifty or so who came up to me commented only on Trentell, and not one person commented on any of the other five characters I played. And some of those other characters were quite lovely — the old lovelorn man’s scene was gentle and pretty, I thought — but after the show, no one in the audience gave a rat’s ass about it. The only character anyone cared about was Trentell. One woman in the audience came up and grabbed my hand and stroked it: “You are so funny,” she cooed. And another who had seen the show several times told me, “Trentell’s now a verb around our house. I’m gonna Trentell you!” And she grabbed me.

Do not fear the sex! People want the sex! They need it! Use the cornerstones! Play the sex!

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