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Chip Walton on R ratings, Venus in Fur and theater's "collective masochistic consciousness"

"You don't have to tell me about masochism, I'm in the theater," says Vanda von Dunayev, one of the characters in Curious Theater's current production, Venus in Fur, by David Ives, which tells the story of a playwright-director attempting to adapt Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novel Venus in Fur into a play. Curious Theater's producing artistic director, Chip Walton will be participating in Rated "R" on Stage, a panel discussing sex, violence and nudity in the performing arts tomorrow evening. In advance of this discussion, Westword spoke with Walton about Venus in Fur.

See also: Emily K. Harrison and Erin Rollman on Peggy Jo and the Desolate Nothing

Westword: Talk about the panel and your involvement in it.

Chip Walton: I'll be honest with you: I didn't really have a hand in organizing the panel, so I'm really just a participant, which, frankly, is kind of nice for me, because I'm often on the organizing end as well as the participating end. As I understand, it's about how provocative content and sometimes risqué content plays into the cultural sector in a way that's kind of vis-a-vis the R rating of the movie industry or the parental warnings on HBO or whatever. I think for us, the interesting thing about it, and I say this in a good way, I think our work is normally R-rated. For some organizations, that may be an exception to the rule. For us, that may just be our rule.

The panel is being described and advertised as a discussion of gutsy, provocative art. That's sort of literally embedded in our mission. I think for some organizations that may be a step outside their normal comfort zones, but for us, it's kind of right on bulls-eye.

What's the rationale for thinking about theater in the context of a rating system?

I'll tell you what I always say. It's not an exact or perfect analogy, but I think there's some value in thinking about it along the same sort of spectrum of network TV versus cable TV. I know that distinction has gotten seriously blurred over the last ten years or so. But I still do think there is a certain kind of cultural consumer that's for this because the level of the work they produce tends to be deeper, more difficult, more challenging than what you might see on CBS on any given Tuesday night.

I think there is a similar spectrum that exists in the performing arts community. I don't think one is better than the other, but I think it's important to recognize that there is that distinction and for the patrons to recognize what they're getting and what it is that they want.

What I always say about Curious, which is a wonderful thing, and it's absolutely true, I never hear from my patrons, "That play was too tough. I wish you'd give us a break." What I hear is, "I don't know if that play was a Curious play. It didn't really challenge us enough."

I think there are other people who are like, "That's not what I want. I just want to go and really be entertained," which is an important function of the performing arts as well, as opposed to have to work as an audience member. At the Curious, the R rating is less about sex or nudity or profanity. It's less about anything like that, and it's more about really sort of challenging provocative content.

You all don't actually rate your plays, do you?

The one complaint we sometimes get is about profanity. It's funny. I think part of it is a generational thing. I'm in my mid-forties, and I think some of us grew up in a linguistic world that was perhaps a little more permissive. What we do try to do is try to communicate with audiences in advance about what they're going to see. If someone really has a problem with full frontal male nudity, they know before they get to the show that it's in the show. If they want to self-select out, they have the opportunity to do so. We don't ever put a rating on it. We just try to be open and communicative about what people are going to see.

Talk about Venus in Fur.

Keep reading for more from Chip Walton.

Chip Walton on R ratings, Venus in Fur and theater's "collective masochistic consciousness"
Courtesy of Curious Theater

It's a really fascinating play because it's got so many different layers to it. I think one of the things that really has been interesting to have dialogue with our audiences about is that I think a lot of people view the play through a very personalized, very individualized lens.

For some people, it is a play that is highly erotic, controversially sexual. For other people, it's incredibly interesting on a historical/literature front. There is a play within the play, and it's all based on the book Venus in Fur by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. For people who are really literary, there is this interesting historical angle. For other folks, it's very much about gender roles and gender-power dynamics. Then there's a fourth category as well, which is about hardcore theater aficionados. There's a whole cat-and-mouse game around the director and the actor in the audition process. How do power dynamics play into that? It's one of those plays that really gives an audience a lot of different points of entry.

One of the characters in the play is a playwright who has adapted a von Masoch novel into a play that he is also directing. The set-up to the whole play is that he's been in a day of auditions where he has seen nothing that comes even close to the kind of actors that he needs for this role. He's packing up to leave when this actor shows up ridiculously late and kind of forces her way, if you will, into an audition. Then that audition takes a series of twists and turns -- some of which I think are unexpected and some of which I think are kind of foreseen by the audience. I've had several audience members say to me: "I knew where it was going to go, but I had no idea how we were going to get there."

Deleuze looks at the writings of Sade and Masoch and looks at the differences between a sadistic and masochistic aesthetic. The masochistic, for Deleuze, is this idea of mise-en-scene and high staging and these frozen moments in time. How do you all approach those questions?

As a side note, this is the most produced play in professional regional theater this season. I think there are a lot of people who are discovering the same things we are about masochism. It's kind of a freaky thing that there's a collective masochistic consciousness that's emerging in the theater. There's a joke in the play where the actors say, "Oh, you don't need to tell me about masochism. I'm in the theater."

One of the things we discovered are how many parallels there really are. The practice of masochism in BDSM is highly theatrical and highly staged. They even call it a scene.

In BDSM, in advance, you set the scene, you have the roles, you have the characters, you have an improvisational process that happens within that scene. That was one thing that I think we definitely didn't know starting out was how similar, in some ways, obviously not in every way, that those things are. The playwright, David Ives, not the playwright in the play, but the actual playwright of the play, I think he exploited that in a variety of different ways to really good effect.

Talk to me about your own thoughts on the power dynamics between directors and actors?

The whole audition process and the dynamic of director to playwright to actor is what we live with every day. We had a couple of people who came in and saw early previews of it. They'd say, "Wow. Is that really what it's like in the theater?" It was interesting and important to remind ourselves that even though this is our everyday life, for a typical audience member that doesn't work in the theater, it's fascinating, and it's totally different.

In a good process, there is a fair amount of electricity in the rehearsal room between an actor and a director. Hopefully, it's not as sexually charged as it is in this play. But there's that kind of electricity that happens, and I think that comes through in this play. I think in the audition process, it's tough. It's why I retired from acting. It was just too hard. It was too much. So these actors, they put themselves out completely. They lay themselves out there for a two-minute audition. Then there's somebody sitting on the other side of the table that for whatever combination of reasons has the power to decide, you're who I want. You're who I don't want. You're good. You're bad. I don't want to see you anymore. Leave the room now. I'm going to stop you before your audition is done. It's pretty brutal, actually. But it's sort of like second nature to us.

The Rated "R" On Stage panel runs from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 3 at the Curious Theater Company, 1080 Acoma Street. Venus in Fur plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 14 at Curious. For more information, go to the Curious website.


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