I can't quite recall what prompted me to see a thing called Monorotica a few weeks back. I think sometimes I like to break out of my comfort zone in all things – fashion, reading material, theatre. Sometimes this has lead to my wearing some pretty awful shirts and reading some pretty awful literature, simply because I wanted to break out of my norm.
The idea of erotic monologues wasn't something that had ever really occurred to me as appealing. Wouldn't this be like hearing someone read out loud from the pages of Penthouse's Forum section? (If that old relic still exists). (I just Googled. It does).
Still, wearing the occasional bad shirt makes you appreciate the good ones. Just as reading bad literature makes you appreciate the good stuff even more. So maybe some cheesy erotic theatre would make me appreciate the kind of theatre I'm naturally drawn to.
I was a little surprised to find that Monorotica's preview season was not bad at all. It was pared back theatre relying on performance and writing and little else. No elaborate set design, no sound design, just words and ideas delivered by actors who were relaxed and comfortable with their material. One of the greatest pleasures of going to the theatre is seeing performances by unknown actors that really impress.
The preview season was a mixed bag. Some of it was full-on and pulled no punches. At other times, there were laughs to be had. Contrary to my expectations, this was not a Mambo Banana shirt or a 50 Shades Of Grey. This was actually pretty good.
Which is interesting because Theatrerotica is a new production company, and this was its first production. The driving force behind Theatrerotica, it's creative director, is one Steven Jinanai. Jianai has film and stage credits as an actor, but this is the first time he has taken on the added duties of producer and director – no mean feat given that he also wrote parts of Monorotica as well as performed in it.
With the premiere season of Monorotica coming up at the iconic Butterfly Club, Australian Stage had a bit of Q & A action with Steven Jinanai.
When, why and how did you come up with the idea of forming Theatrerotica?
In early 2013 I went to a sex positive retreat – a weekend of workshops on everything from kissing to rope bondage, tantra and BDSM. It made me realise there is a lot of positive events and performance taking place in and around Melbourne with respect to sex. Melbourne has a certain maturity around sex and it was a pleasant surprise to be around a great bunch of people who were openly discussing sex in all its beautiful manifestations.
Soon after I began attending some spoken word and erotic reading events realised that, although sex is celebrated and featured in every other art form there was very little in the way of sex positive theatre taking place.
Writers were reading their erotica to a captivated audience and, as someone with a theatre background, I couldn’t help thinking just how much better an actor could perform those words. No offence at all to the writers – I see it as a natural progression – they were reading their work from the page – my actors have memorised and perform it with the truth it requires. It makes for a much steamier and expressive experience.
There's plenty of burlesque theatre out there – do we really need a theatre company dedicated to erotica?
Yes! What we do is very different from burlesque. Melbourne is producing some amazing burlesque right now but I wouldn’t class it as theatre. Theaterotica has sourced erotic writing from around the world and has a cast of talented actors giving truthful performances. I think audiences would agree that Monoritica will get you hot under the collar but it will also make you think.
Tell us about your first production, Monorotica.
Monorotica is a mixture of monologues, poems and songs about sex. We have attempted to cover as much of the sexuality spectrum as possible from vanilla to hardcore BDSM with some humour in between to keep it light hearted.
Monorotica had a short preview season. How did that go?
It was a huge success. The preview season was all about testing the genre to assess how well it would be received. I was very proud of my courageous actors and just how funny some of these works are and how confronting others are. The feedback so far has been very positive.
It's a reasonably unusual concept. How did you feel as producer and director of that first show?
I was quietly confident that I was onto a good thing but I was still freaking out a little as opening night approached. Sexuality is a moral minefield in this country and there is still a high level of variance in our relationship to society’s and indeed our own sexuality. Having chosen all of the writing myself I was conscious that some of the pieces could take people out of their comfort zone at the same time as not being interesting to others. So a lot of my thinking was centred around balancing the kink with the vanilla, and providing enough flavour in between to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
As for directing – I made sure I cast phenomenal actors who are capable of working autonomously. We discussed the basics and then I left them to create something within those initial constraints and when they came back with something I simply tinkled at the edges – they made my job easy with their high level of commitment and professionalism.
Will this season be a re-run of the former season, or is it a completely new show?
It's mostly a new show. Three monologues and one song from the first show will be included in the premiere season. We are rehearsing an additional five pieces for the Butterfly Club season.
You've drawn on the talents of several writers and many actors for this project. What was the selection process like? What were you looking for in the writing and the actors?
It was quite difficult to find the writing. There is a lot of very good quality erotica, but it’s written for the page not the stage and cannot be easily adapted. The first cut was taboo topics. Then it had to be the right length, contain the right amount of explicit content (a lot of it wasn’t explicit enough!), not be dialogue heavy and also be relatively easy to stage (one well written submission featured a warm water fountain that was being used to bring a women to orgasm).
Another very important constraint – no ‘floral’ descriptions were acceptable – anything that attempted to describe pubic hair was deleted immediately and words like “throbbing/pulsating” coupled with “member” definitely didn’t make the cut. Descriptions of emotions or feelings were also removed – its the responsibility of the actor to portray those qualities.
Perhaps the difficulty in finding the right mix was a function of how little history we have in featuring sexual content in the theatre.
The casting process was also challenging – the biggest problem was finding actors with the right level of courage and a sex positive attitude. It’s quite a different thing to consider yourself sexually open and actually putting yourself out in front of an audience. To test the actors’ metle at the audition I asked them to cold read an explicit section of one of the monologues and then asked them what they thought of it – this was pretty effective in sorting out where people were at.
The first season was pretty varied in style and content. Do you aim in any way to make the production gel, or are you content to produce a show with many personalities, as it were?
That is very much intentional and I feel it’s the only way these monologues can be presented. Monorotica is catering to a wide range of tastes – we all have different expressions of our own sexuality, therefore a production of this kind has to be varied.
I didn’t want the show to progress from the least explicit to the most, or contain any other progression of style or content, because that’s too predictable. I’d much rather audiences are left wondering what’s next instead of knowing. It is also essential to lessen the impact of the pieces by separating them.
There were some pretty hardcore pieces in the last production, but also a fair amount of humour. How important is humour to you when producing these erotic monologues?
I found the humour an essential element in the production. We are too serious about sex. So it was mandatory for me to give audiences the opportunity to have a good laugh at something sexy.
That’s what this project is all about. I want to encourage the free expression of sexuality and begin a conversation. Laughter is a great way to break down barriers and creative a feeling of inclusion. If we can laugh about the same things we are creating a space for wider communications and acceptance of the themes presented.
In addition, I realised early in the development of the show that humour would be hugely important to the cast. Laughter is one of the few ways of providing audience feedback in real time and is a classic ice breaker. It gives the cast behind the curtain a huge boost when “they’re cracking up”. It helps them maintain confidence in the production and nail the more explicit pieces.
You're no stranger to the stage, but how is the experience of appearing in your own production? Wouldn't it have been easier to pull back and just focus on the writing and directing?
Absolutely! Yes and I’m hoping to do that this time around. It was the plan to begin with. But I was a victim of circumstance and to actors either overcommitting or losing the wherewithal to go through with the challenge. I had three actors pull out in one day – and this was before rehearsal had even started. So I called on a couple of talented friends to help me out and stepped in to perform a couple myself.
When it comes to erotica, it's very easy to get it wrong. I offer the bafflingly successful 50 Shades Of Grey as an example. When you're immersed in a production like this, how difficult is it to make sure you don't step over that fine line and make something that might make audiences cringe, rather than engage them?
This was probably the thing that made me lose the most sleep – 50 Shades was such a success.
Seriously though I just made sure I read as many pieces as possible, so I knew I had the best writing I could find in the limited time, and when I had my shortlist I just kept on reading them and assessing every single aspect of what they were saying.
I was certain that if the writing was good and the performances were stellar then the subject matter would pass the test – for the simple reason I outlined above – we are catering to wide tastes here. If the right theatrical ingredients are there people realise that what may not be their cup of tea may be perfectly suited to the person sitting next to them…
What do you think are the differences between porn and erotica?
At the risk of generalising I’d say porn is androcentric… (with the exception of the sub genres such as slow porn and feminist porn) and that erotica is gynocentric.
Another blatant generalisation – erotica appeals to female bodied individuals porn male bodied individuals.
Interestingly – a significant majority of erotic writers are women and 80% of the actors who came forward for this production were women.
What's next for Theatrerotica? More monologues or something different?
I’m keen to see how the next season goes. There are many more monologues that could be brought to the stage.
I’ve been toying with the idea of a series of one act plays and eventually producing a full length erotic play.
We’ll have to see how Melbourne handles this season first though!
Who is going to like your show?
I am – along with anyone that likes to see edgy theatre that will make you laugh and perhaps expand your understanding of your own sexuality.
Is there a line from the show that best captures its essence?
“Every man and every women and every intermediately sexed individual shall be absolutely free to interpret and communicate self by means of any sexual practices whatsoever.”
Monorotica plays at The Butterfly Club 18 – 23 February, 2014. Details»