Let’s Talk About It

An Exploration of Sex and the New American Theater

Why is sex on stage still a taboo? Why is it that when a play has a realistic depiction of sex it becomes a huge issue? Why are we as theatre artists still afraid to approach this in our work? Those were some of the questions I asked myself about the work I was doing, so I decided to explore the taboo of sex on stage in the work I was creating.

In the summer of 2014, my company, Kid Brooklyn Productions, commissioned a modern adaption of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde called Encounters. I asked nine playwrights to write a scene that explores how we address and see human sex and sexuality on stage. I wanted them to feel like there was nothing off limits, and they went with it. As we were creating Encounters, I considered some of the recent work I have seen on the New York stage and its depiction of the subject.

Two actors on stage
Alton Alburo and William Barnet IV in Encounters IRT Workshop. Photo by Hunter Canning.

This was new territory for me as a director; in creating these scenes, I wanted to bring someone in to help create the realism of those moments.

a man sitting on a couch on a stage
Thomas Jay Ryan and Heather Alicia Simms in The Correspondent. Photo by Ruby Washington/The New York Times.

Some theatre companies have fearlessly approached the topic—consider the Amoralists’ production of The Pied Pipers of The Lower East Side and HotelMotel, the New Group’s work on Thomas Bradshaw’s Burning and Intimacy, and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater’s production of Ken Urban’s The Correspondent. I wondered how these artists approached the topic and created the work. Ken Urban is one of most fearless playwrights writing today; his play The Correspondent that premiered at Rattlestick this past season included a very realistic sex scene between two characters. There were also honestly explored sexual scenes in his play-turned-film, The Happy Sad. I asked Ken why he decided to include sexual scenes in both these plays:

For both plays, seeing the act (or aftermath) of sex was integral to the storytelling. I would never put it on stage just for titillation. I’m in rehearsal every day with the actors and director because I respect how difficult it is. And if they are going there, then I owe it to them to make the writing as strong as possible in supporting the sexually explicit scenes. In The Happy Sad, I was writing about two couples who were exploring open relationships and it would be unfulfilling if that frank discussion remained at the level of abstraction. If the characters are being naked about their feelings, I felt there needed to be a physical representation of that on stage. It gets me in trouble though. I knew what I was going to get by including the graphic sex scene between a fifty-year-old man and the young man in The Correspondent. I was going to be crucified by many critics who were uncomfortable about seeing a man of their age doing that. And I was. But for Philip’s journey to be complete, for him to accept that the young man is his dead wife reborn, he has to map her body onto the young man’s and that is something the audience needs to see. I’m biased, of course, but I thought the sex scene was thrilling and intensely emotional. Joan Rivers, rest in peace, loved it, so fuck the rest of them.

I was interested to hear from other theatre artists about the process of writing sex into plays or portraying sexual scenes on stage. Mariah MacCarthy is a playwright who does not find anything off limits in her work. Over the summer, I saw a reading of her new play, Safeword. Part of the KB Lab Reading Series, Safeword delves into some very dark and realistic sexual themes, but it is totally truthful in its portrayal of sex and sexuality. I asked her where this play came from:

Sometimes I write a play about doing a thing instead of actually doing the thing. Safeword was one of those plays. Also, I think it's important to actually show sex onstage and not shy away from it (assuming that's the author's intention). I think the people we become in the moment says a lot about us, and it's important to learn about those people. And generally, in theatre, we don't! Most of the sex you'd see on an average Off-Broadway stage represents, like, 0.000001 percent of what actually happens during sex. During sex, people request nasty things and say stupid shit and put fingers in each other's mouths and change positions and have to move a leg or an arm in a way that kills the moment and make ridiculous noises. Most of the time they don't just get under the covers and quietly thrust a couple times and call it a night, which is what you'll generally see if you're watching “sex” onstage. And if they do, that's kind of sad and maybe the play should be about how sad that is (but it never is). And I think it's important to show how terrible people can be during sex, too.

So, once the scenes are written, it has to be staged, and that leads to another area of exploration. In commissioning Encounters, I did not want to do what other productions of La Ronde had done in the past—namely, blackout during the more intimate moments. I wanted to let the audience see what happens in those private moments and let them be the voyeurs with no barrier. This was new territory for me as a director; in creating these scenes, I wanted to bring someone in to help create the realism of those moments. David Anzuelo is an actor and fight/sex chorographer, who has helped stage scenes of a sexual nature in numerous plays. I have worked with Dave several times in the past, and he came in to work on Encounters with us. Doing this work, you need to really trust your collaborators, and there is no one I trust more than David. I asked him how he approaches creating these scenes:

As a sex-choreographer, I must be extremely clear. Casting brave actors who are comfortable with their bodies helps immensely. I try to inspire an atmosphere of trust and safety, first and foremost. Once the story of the scene is relayed to the actors, we can start to choreograph. I always let them work fully clothed at first, then encourage them to start to try it with less and less clothing. I always suggest the actors try full nudity (if it’s called for) well before tech. The first time we have the actors work nude, I always ask that everyone but the director, stage manager, and playwright clear the room. We keep the room as comfortable as possible temperature-wise and keep the door locked, so there won't be any accidental intrusions. I work slowly and with great politeness. I keep asking if everyone is doing okay. I always let the actors take a break or stop if needed. I give lots of positive encouragement and thanks when the actors make progress. The delicacy of the work is especially necessary if the scene depicts acts of sexual violence. That requires even greater care and safety than does more loving depictions of sex.

Four performers on stage
 From left: Daniel Gerroll, Austin Cauldwell, Ella Dershowitz, and Déa Julien make a pornographic film in Intimacy at the Acorn. Photo by Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

Creating the comfort with yourself and your fellow cast mates is something that helps the audience feel more comfortable with what they are seeing onstage. As an actor, David appeared in the New Group’s staging of Intimacy by Thomas Bradshaw, a play that really dives into sex, not only in its depiction, but also in the themes explored in the text. David had one of the plays most talked about moments. How did he do it? What was it like for him? David explains:

Working on Thomas Bradshaw's Intimacy at the New Group was one of the best theatre experiences I’ve had. Thomas is such a smart and warm person and it was great to have him around during the rehearsal process. It was directed by Scott Elliott who is one of my favorite New York directors. In the show, my character masturbates to gay porn. I was asked to actually do this, not simulate it. The play is about moments of sexual intimacy that everyone has and, of course, masturbation is among them. It was exactly that kind of focusing I had to do to be able to pull my underwear down and arouse myself to full erection in front of hundreds of strangers. And I had twenty seconds to get it up. Daunting? Yes. 

The audience reaction was interesting to say the least. One night I heard a man shout “Yes!” Another night a woman said “I'm so disgusted, but I can't stop watching!” And on another night [after the show] a woman asked me if I used an ice pack to make my erection go away at the end of the scene.

Where is the future of the exploration of sex in the American theatre going next? Today theatre artists have more freedom to explore sexual themes than ever before.

For plays like Encounters and Intimacy, it is the actors who have to bring these scenes to life; they are the ones who expose themselves emotionally and physically. In casting Encounters, I needed a cast of talented actors who were fearless in every way possible. What would actors think when I sent them the script and an offer to do the play? I wondered what went through an actor’s mind when he or she got the offer to do this work. I asked the wonderful Lindsay Austen, who played Annie in Encounters, what getting the script was like for her:

I was sent both of Charlotte Miller’s scenes that I had been asked to do, and I instantly wanted to sign onto the project. Charlotte wrote two incredibly rich scenes about a twenty-something named Annie, navigating her way through meaningless relationships. The first scene is a failed sexual encounter with a guy she just met, and the second scene is a breakup scene with someone she’s been having a lackluster affair with. Both scenes show how empty she feels with such honesty, but they’re also funny and pretty frank about the sexual dynamics. The sex wasn’t superfluous; it was an integral part of the story and moreover, it was a story I wanted to tell. I say this because there is nudity in the first scene, and until that point, I hadn’t done nudity before. I had an agreement with myself long ago that if the writing was strong, the nudity was justified, and the story felt authentic to me, I would do it. Yet, I didn’t need to remind myself of that agreement; I loved what I read and saying yes was immediate and instinctual.

Where is the future of the exploration of sex in the American theatre going next? Today theatre artists have more freedom to explore sexual themes than ever before. Where the taboo nature of the subject is still there, it brings excitement to the work. Audiences are more open now than ever.

My co-director on Encounters, Courtney Ulrich, put it well:

People like to be voyeurs. The movies are completely saturated with sex, but it still seems safe, because existing in a different time and place than the action protects us. Theatre is live and we are all in the same room, therefore equally complicit in the act. I think we also have a yearning to see things that are real, and we are tired of denying sexuality. As a lot of the shame and taboo around sex fades, we want to see ourselves represented. We want to see theatre where life is happening.

So let’s continue to be voyeurs, isn’t that what the theatre is about? Let’s keep talking about and exploring sex in the work. Just how realistic must sex scenes be to make a dramatic point? Are there limits? What have you seen, directed, acted in on stage that either didn’t go far enough in its depiction of sex or perhaps went too far? People do it everyday, so let’s do it on stage!

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I'm reading David Savran's Breaking the Rules right now, about the Wooster Group, and I was surprised to learn that in "Route 1 & 9"—the deconstruction of Our Town where everybody mugged in blackface—the final act included a sequence of filmed, unsimulated sex...I think between Willem Defoe and Libby Howes (though you have to connect the dots to figure out exactly what the content of the video was). They called it porn, but it's not, necessarily. It brought up some funny dialogue between the Group's play and Wilder's ("That ain't no way to behave!"), and seems worhwhile within the context of the piece. Even the blackface makes a kind of sense...read the chapter, it's thorny.

I just think absolutely everything comes down to context, 1, and to audience, 2. Did Intimacy play to the right audience—off-Broadway subscribers paying $70 a ticket? Sometimes it's hard to be subversive about something as entrenchedly taboo as sex on stage in that environment. All the reviews and think pieces will get stuck on the barely-disguised shock. Personally, too, I have a much higher tolerance for anything involving gay sexuality onstage—I guess that makes sense—but also, I'm after a more nuanced, subtle, and complex examination of sex onstage than just "sex is rough, it makes people sad even though it's supposed to make them happy." Some of the best, most erotic and difficult sex scenes in theatre are those that don't involve any nudity at all—I'm thinking of Cock, of course, but also Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare.

This is a big topic, and I think we should all talk about it.

As an actor who hasn't seen the stage in way too long, I love the idea of exploring sexuality in a script. Were I single....However, I am a Pro Domme who explores sexual fantasies regularly, with a very discreet "audience." I loved Annie Sprinkle's show where she showed her vulva, vagina and even her cervix (?). That's bravery, on the front lines of demystifying human anatomy.Granted some may think hiring me or any Domina for fantasy fulfillment is just another form of porn and kink that should stay hidden and private. I keep that "persona" separate from the rest of my work in the world. But as a performer, I want my clients/audience to see that we are healers, bringing the spectator into the here and now. I don't pole dance or anything else thought to be "sex work" and my experiences are mostly one-to-one. I think it would be fantastic to see deep secret fantasies worked out in a script on stage. If for no other reason than to expose the healing side of Domination.

Interesting that this post has elicited almost no comment. That actually speaks volumes in itself about the uncomfortable nature of the topic.

A provocative topic to respond to. My initial gut response to the article is: Defecation is also an activity that is part of the life experience and I don't necessarily want or need to see it on stage. Yes sex is one of the most intimate acts that takes place between two [or more] people. Because of this, and because as the article states, theatre is live so the audience is complicit in the act, then it needs to be handled [no pun intended] with utmost care, including the reason it is put in the play. I did not see any of the plays mentioned so i can't offer any 'first hand' response to the depiction or relevance of the sex scenes involved. I think relevance is key, and the discernment of that may at times be questionable. I once saw a play where a character was giving someone a blow job [simulated and the actor turned upstage] and still my response was "really? do we need to see this? Is it really necessary? Personally I didn't think it was in this particular case. My response to the situation noted in the article of the actor masturbating on stage is similar [call me a prude, I don't give a f ---]. I'm a little hard pressed [no pun intended] to imagine a script that really necessitates that visual activity because it is going to draw attention [duh!] and cannot help but venture into the land of titillation. I also find most sex scenes in movies gratuitous. An example of a sex scene in a movie that I remember being relevant, sensual, vulnerable, and 'right' was in COMING HOME with Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. One of the most erotic, uncomfortable, moving, vulnerable and dramatically relevant sex scenes I recall from theatre was between the two men in the play BENT, and their clothes were on. So go figure. Another sex scene I saw [on video at Lincoln Center didn't see the show live] that was VERY disturbing, in your face, and yet I have to admit relevant to the content and theme of the play was in BLASTED. It was a a violent act of sodomy. The play itself truly blew me away [very dark in terms of its particular focus on an aspect of the human condition]. For those of you who read these comments and are in the NYC area, if you didn't see this play go and watch the video at Lincoln Center. The fact that a a playwright in their 20's wrote it truly amazed me. It was one of the few times my buttons were pushed BIG TIME and yet I recognized the theatrical and social relevance of the piece. So it all comes down to the play itself. I saw the play COCK, and there is a scene with the man and woman having sex. It was staged in such a way that the actors are simply circling each other closely and communicating via dialogue [not touch] AND they were fully clothed. The scene worked well, was funny, awkward, sensual. Nudity was not needed to draw attention away from the internal dynamics occurring between the characters. This is really the core issue. In terms of the play [playwright] and its presentation [director] where and how do you want to draw the audiences attention. It HAS to be in the larger service of the play. The answer to those questions are uniquely individual. Hopefully the discernment of those involved in writing or mounting [again no pun intended] a play is up to the challenge.