This was the first play I was seeing in over a year and upon entering the theatre I was asked to sit on stage. Maybe I would have accepted if I were attending the play alone. But! I was waiting for ‘the other person who attended the play with me’ or what the majority of you would refer to as ‘your date’.
Don’t get me wrong. ‘The other person who attended the play with me’ wouldn’t be opposed to sitting on stage during a play. I just figured bringing someone I’ve been ‘hanging out’ with for only a month to a play described as ‘a meditation on the nature of human intimacy’ seemed risky enough without the added voyeurism.
As you can probably tell by my choice of words and excessive use of quotations, I have my own ‘intimacy issues’ to work though. And after watching Sex Play, safely from a seat in the proscenium, I realized I am far from alone in my plight.
Sex Play, written by Charly Evon Simpson, was created by The Pack Theater. The Pack was created by Artistic Directors Jenny Reed and Sam Sheppard. They describe themselves on their website as a ‘female-led collective of theater artists and designers in NYC who make highly collaborative new plays that elevate underrepresented stories.’ According to Sheppard, who also worked as Sex Play’s Intimacy Director (Yes! That’s a thing!), Sex Play was meant to bring attention to “nuanced and modern relationship structures; celebratory, pleasure-oriented queerness that centers women and nonbinary folx of color in interracial relationships.”
“We wanted to make something that could lean on the strengths of theater: poetry, metaphor, real bodies in space, and highlighting the effort and vulnerability involved in live, physical acts.” Having seats on stage wasn’t a spacing issue, it was building in a level of consent. To witness or be witnessed. “That feels important in this time, as we're collectively questioning what bodily autonomy and agency look like (for performers, but also as humans living together in the world).” says Sheppard.
When I saw performances as a child, there would usually be one dancer or actress that would stick out to me as my favorite. Usually that person was the tall one with long hair. The one I could see physical parts of myself in. No one in Sex Play shared my hairstyle, my smile, my physical characteristics, not even my sexual orientation, yet I saw myself in all of them. I admired every character’s story and could not pick a favorite. Sex Play could’ve been called Everything Carolyn Is Currently Thinking. It was as if the characters, Nic, Ella, Serena and Paloma, brought My Sex Project to life.
Nic (Kelly Bartnik), a super strong, powerful choreographer, struggles with sharing and being heard by their partner, Serena (Ianne Fields Stewart). Serena spends her days doling out advice as a relationship/sex therapist yet struggles with her own self love, making requests of her clients that she herself can’t do. Clients like Paloma (Claire Jamison), who at the start of the show, finds herself a single, puddle of sadness, recognizing the importance of getting comfortable with herself, the importance of being ‘well-fucked’, but also recognizing how much she wants the simplicities of someone to fall asleep with. Someone like Ella (Nia Calloway), a confident dancer who while unsure of the outcome of a new relationship, decides it is something she’d like to pursue. Nic, Serena, Paloma and Ella questioned the roles of themselves and their lovers, but Kelly, Ianne, Claire and Nia acted their indecisions with complete confidence.
The next day as I did a deep dive into the bios of the cast and crew, it was clear this was a group who was more than their talent. These were more than credits. The projects of the cast and creative group of The Pack were reflective of the issues of our time and the values we question today. I was instant fans of their work and their causes.
Future runs of Sex Play are still in conversation as the cast and The Pack embark on other projects. Sheppard explains, “It may be another year before we're able to come back together, but we're also looking into expanding some of the themes of the show into new creative mediums.”
Whenever and however Sex Play does return, it should be required viewing for anyone about to navigate the dating world, anyone feeling unsatisfied with their own sex rituals, and anyone questioning what is their current definition of pleasure. No, it didn’t solve all the questions I have. I didn’t leave ready to give myself fully to ‘the other person who attended the play with me’ or never see that person again. But it made me feel less crazy. It made us feel less crazy. It started a conversation that continued on the steps of Union Square as the rest of Saturday night passed us by. We left it up to them to watch. I hope they did.