How honest is too honest? How daring is too daring? These are the provocative - in more ways than one - questions posed by the octet of scenes comprising fuckplays, produced in tandem by Working Man's Clothes and The Thursday Problem.
fuckplays seeks to push the envelope not so much in terms of audience acceptance, but of the New York theatre scene’s support for edgy material. The idea for this festival originated from Eric Sanders, artistic director of The Thursday Problem. He thought about the places a theatre company could take a festival devoted to exploring an honest, sincere look at the many aspects of sex and sexual life and proposed the idea to colleague Cole Wimpee, one of the journeymen wearing multiple hats (as actor, director, and writer) in the several of the evening’s various short plays.
"Sex isn't about the act of sex," Wimpee explained. "It's about ideas and expectations, the disconnect between the physical act and how it affects people emotionally and mentally." Though there will be some nudity during the production, he avers that what will stick with the audience are the sexual frankness with which the characters interact. "The most shocking things are not what you see, but what you hear, the emotional things."
Sanders, a creator and co-producer of fuckplays, thought the idea had an enormous amount of potential. "Porn and sex have merged so much in pop culture," he said. "This is a topic that inspires a visceral reaction, and we can really go there and push that." "Off-Off-Broadway is the perfect place for something so intimate," Sanders, a creator and co-producer of fuckplays said. "This show is not about shoving sex in anyone's face. We're about having fun, not offending. We're merely showing extreme examples of things that happen every day, often in private."
Jared Culverhouse, an actor and member of Working Man's Clothes was also excited by the plays "theme" but not at first. "I was reticent initially, he said. But when my immediate answer is no, I start thinking about it, and there's a little voice in the back of my head going 'Yes, yes, yes.' Fear is a great motivator."
Culverhouse, Sanders, Wimpee, director Isaac Byrne and playwright Bekah Brunstetter joined forces and commissioned entries from more than fifty playwrights to submit a play that somehow communicated what sex means to them. "There's a broad spectrum of sex in today's world," Sanders said. "There were so many diverse, awesome plays." Culverhouse concurs: "The creative response was breathtaking." So much so, in fact, that the group upped their total number of plays selected from six to eight. Each play contains two to five characters, and runs anywhere from five to fifteen minutes, addressing such issues as fetishism, submission, and violence.
The number - and caliber - of playwrights who responded are a testament to this crusade for honorable, honest storytelling. "People I barely knew approached me, wanting to participate," Byrne said. "The material they submitted covers everything: terrorism, Icarus, cannibalism, necrophilia, even Dickens' A Christmas Carol." The final eight selected included Brunstetter, Sanders, and Obie-winner Kyle Jarrow.
It is a heavily stacked deck, to be sure, but Byrne, a 2006 NYIT Award-winner as Best Director for Brunstetter's To Nineveh insists their work is "not about shock value. We want to ask the question 'why.'" According to Wimpee, who directs the Greg Romero-written "Sharpen My Dick," "there's a thin line between pushing boundaries and doing something just for ourselves. Our stories come before shock value."
And possess probing questions, too. "This show is great because it even forced me to ask questions of myself. I think I'm open to things, but how open am I really?"
Clearly everyone involved had a lot to say. More challenging, however, was being able to say it. Many places were turned off by the title - Smarttix.com refused to let them run the ad with the name fuckplays, suggesting that even artistic freedom has its limitations. "I couldn't believe that even New York City would do this," Culverhouse said. "If not here, then where? They're still leaving it to someone else to pick up the slack." Sanders said "there is a misconception that New York is edgier than it is. Off-Off-Broadway still doesn't push the envelope."
During my interview with Byrne, Culverhouse, Sanders, Wimpee and actor Michael Mason, I checked my company and saw one glaring common trait: an overriding passion for work that matters. Our interview took place in a bar the day after St. Patrick's Day, yet no one around the table ordered a beer, or seemed hung over from any revelry the night before. These are men in their mid-twenties, who, when taking the type of taboo material that has been the source of frat boy humor since, well, there have been frat boys, are trying to elevate it to open the eyes of its audience, and perhaps, raise the game for all of downtown theatre. They speak - almost in sync - of how the quality of material currently offered to mass audiences appeals to too low a common denominator, and as they do so their dedication and integrity are as apparent as any bare body parts that might initially cast doubt on fuckplays.
Remember: Albee, Kushner and O'Neill were all controversial in their day, too.
fuckplays runs at the Ohio Theatre through Sunday, April 1st. Then it moves to Galapagos Art Space in Williamsburg, where it will play every Friday through the end of April.