“Money, it turned out, was exactly like sex, you thought of nothing else if you didn't have it and thought of other things if you did.” —James Baldwin
Theatre is not meant to leave audiences with simple answers. The role of the theatre artist is to challenge and provoke. It is a place where tradition, complacency, and conformity can all be openly defied. No idea, no person, no identity, no ideology, no institution, no thing is immune from the ruthless criticism and creativity of conscious thespians. The theatre is meant to be dangerous and it is our duty to make sure it stays that way.
Theatre artists are often excluded from cultural dialogue in the age of the internet. It is an unfortunate byproduct of the digital revolution. Nevertheless, it offers a platform to creatively discuss issues that plague the human condition. So, it would only seem natural that theatre director Hanne Larsen would use this forum to start a conversation about The Sex Myth.
“I wanted to create a space for voices that are not heard,” said Larsen as we ate Belgium waffles at a diner in Manhattan. “Straight from the horse’s mouth. I wanted to help give voice to people who need to be heard.”
The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies And Reality is a book by critically acclaimed author and journalist Rachel Hills. “One of my aims in writing the book was to obliterate the shame surrounding sex in Western culture. I wanted to show people they were not alone in their existential anxieties and to help free them of it.”
Hills’ book is a fascinating read and her work as a journalist is stellar. “People carry a lot of assumptions about other people when it comes to sex. No one ever really knows what another person’s sex life is really like. People are more complicated than that.”
I read Hills’ book in preparation for Larsen’s production. As an actor, I firmly believe in thoroughly researching a subject if I am to depict it accurately on stage. But this was research of a different sort. Initially, there was no script. There was only the concept of The Sex Myth. Along with the other seven ensemble members in the cast, I had to undergo an extreme self-analysis in order to bring life to this avant-garde production where everything from gender identity to anonymous sex is explored.
“If we want to change the culture, we need to change how we tell our stories.” And Larsen is doing just that. Larsen, with the help of assistant director Isabel Quinzanos Alonso, has created a theatrical production where marginalized people can be heard in a culture that holds itself to a heteronormative, Euro-centric, upper-middle class status quo. The ensemble of the play is the most diverse I’ve ever had the privilege of working with in all my years in the theatre. In fact, I’m the only cis-gender heterosexual male in the cast. It’s a true reflection of the rare beauty New York has to offer.
Intersectionality in its truest form is a difficult concept to depict in a single play. The limitations of Aristotle’s teachings are proof of that. Traditional Western storytelling demands that a plot and/or character be focused on a single objective and anything that deviates from the actions of obtaining the protagonist’s goal must be taken out in order to keep the story focused and moving forward; therefore, addressing all forms of social and political oppression at an appropriate level seems impossible under this type of structure.
But when we start to move away from this tradition and start to tell stories in a non-linear and non-conventional way, we open up the possibilities of what the theatre can do and what performance artists are able to achieve. While it would be a mistake to dismiss everything we have learned from Ancient Athenian theorists, it would be an even bigger mistake to not challenge what they taught us. If sex is to be discussed in an open and healthy way, we have to challenge what pre-conceived notions we have around it and redefine what sexual liberation looks like. So-called vanilla, monogamous sex can be liberating for some and be a prison for others. Being promiscuous can be empowering to one person and be self-destructive to another. Sexual liberation could be celibacy for an individual. To make a blanket statement on what sexual liberation looks like is to not take into account the variety of experiences people have from any spectrum that exists. Sexual liberation is relative. Having a narrow minded view on such a complex subject only serves masters in self-righteousness.
Or does sex have to be seen as liberating at all? Is it just an act like any other? Is viewing it as a path to liberation part of the myth behind it?
Larsen doesn’t seek simple answers to complicated questions. Her work tends to create more questions than answers, which can be both fascinating and infuriating. But it’s never boring. Talking about sex rarely is.
It would naive to say that sex itself and the way our culture thinks about it is a-political, but no side has a monopoly on its liberating potential. If sexual liberation is the goal, then myths and misconceptions about it have to be unmasked. And it is here where this avant-garde theatrical adaptation of Rachel Hills’ book plays an imperative part to opening up a dialogue about sex and what it can mean in the 21st century.
It is indeed a privilege to discuss the dynamics, contradictions, and paradoxes of sexual orientations and gender identities, but the conversation should not be so undermined when the concept of sex plays such a significant role in a patriarchal culture. Social expectations often dictate taste and no other entity is more guilty of commodifying sex than the media. From selling perfume to cheeseburgers, sexual exploitation in American media continues to sculpt our subconscious desires. While I loathe to agree with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, his charge of cinema being the ultimate perverted art form holds weight because, as he states, “Cinema doesn’t give you what you desire. It tells you how to desire.” Are our sexual tastes natural or conditioned? Again, The Sex Myth produces more questions than answers.
If I’ve learned anything during this rehearsal process it is that normalcy with regards to sex doesn’t exist. It never has. Sex hasn’t changed through time. The way we think about it is an ever evolving perception.
The Sex Myth runs August 16th through August 20th at the HERE Arts Center 145 6th Ave, New York, NY 10013. Tickets are available at www.here.org