LET’S TALK ABOUT PORN: Christopher Green’s “Prurience” Makes US Debut in New York City

20180317_381_Altman_PrurienceGuggenheimWhat is “prurience”?  The dictionary definition is “a strong, often excessive interest in sexual matters”. “Prurience” is also the name of the award-nominated, interactive theater piece written and directed by Christopher Green and co-directed by Holly Race Roughan, now making its US debut at  The Wright Restaurant at the Guggenheim.  From the beginning, the audience at New York City’s legendary art space realized that this engrossing show, cryptically described as “an experiential entertainment about porn”,  was anything but an ordinary night at the theater.   First, there’s the setting: a twelve step meeting dedicated to support and help those with addiction to pornography, via “The Prurience Method”.  In the style of a true twelve step gathering, the attendees sit in a circle and wear name tags.  Then, there’s the piece itself.  Were the participants of this “meeting” all “real” people, or were some of them actors?  And just how interactive was this going to be?  Were we going to be treated to actual porn?

As soothing meditation-style music played in the background, audience members filled out their name tags and made their way into their seats.  Everyone was also requested to write down their expectation of the meeting and to put it in the “expectation bowl”.  More about that later…  First, we got to meet our facilitator for the evening.  Our “leader”, Chris, was part 80’s-style talk show host (albeit more Sally Jessy Raphael than Morton Downey Jr.) and part New Age guru, complete with ponytail and an non-threatening, almost ethereal aura.  His soft-spoken but unflappably linear delivery of self-empowerment mantras was the equivalent of verbal hand-holding. Put another way, he was exactly what you’re picturing him to be.  Whether Chris was instructing the audience to take a nourishing deep breath or teaching us the est-y “Prurience Song” (Yes, there was one!), our self-help sage never lost his cool, no matter how intense the meeting became.  And at times, this meeting became pretty damn intense. The evening kicked off with the request, “As always, let’s start by thanking the people around us for coming to this meeting… and end tonight by thanking yourself! You’ve done a great thing by deciding to come here tonight!  So come on, honor that!”— to which the curious but wary audience proceeded to applaud themselves.

So, back to the “expectation bowl”.  Some of those audience expectations were read out loud:
“To learn a few new sophisticated dirty words”
“To bring some fresh fantasies home to the bedroom”
“To learn something new.”
“I will release myself of guilt”
and…
“I have no idea!”

20180317_419_Altman_PrurienceGuggenheim20180317_368_Altman_PrurienceGuggenheimIt was then time to share stories, which anyone was invited to do.  The topic was: “Our first experience of pornography”.  One woman recalled going out on a date with a guy who took her to the movies, only to discover that the movie was rated X and that her date turned out to be the star of the movie.  A middle-aged guy told about how his first foray into “porn” was with the topless women in National Geographic at age 13, while another guy spoke about discovering his father’s secret porn stash (not to be confused with “porn stache”…) as a child.

For anyone who has ever been to a twelve step group, a great deal of Prurience rings true: the seemingly reflexive retorts of “Thanks for sharing”, the cliched platitudes, the occasional emotional outburst, the inevitable over-dramatic attendee who makes the night all about himself or herself, etc. The show is a reminder why the twelve step group phenomenon has always been so ripe for exploration (and exploitation) in TV and movies… as well as an easy target for parody.  At various times, Prurience did seem like a sitcom-style spoof of the New Age phenomenon. Throughout the night, there were glossy (or, more accurately, laughingly overproduced) video appearances by the Prurience Method founder Amelia Atkins, a former adult video performer and director who now encourages people to fight their addictions through self-empowerment.  The video segments alone were worthy of an Oscar nomination for “Best Comedy Short Film” if there was one.  However, things started to take a dramatic turn in Prurience when one participant, a 20-year old man, revealed that he had become damaged from porn addiction, to the point of being suicidal.  To the older men who shared their stories earlier, it was a stark contrast between the “forbidden fruit” attitude about finding Daddy’s dirty magazine collection and the overstimulated younger generations– where porn is readily available, free, and even portable thanks to our smartphones.  In this young man’s case, too much was…well, too much.  The audience got acutely affected when he lamented, “I want to meet real girls and have real sex.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to”. As compared to the cavalier attitudes by some of the twelve steppers who shared, this story  left the audience quite speechless.  Mercifully, shortly afterward it was then time for a break… and in the words of our facilitator, “Just a trigger warning: For those of us who are still living with sugar, there are cookies!”  Hopefully, the audience enjoyed the cookies, because Prurience got way more intense after the break…

At this point, attendees may have started wondering how much of Prurience was real and how much was scripted. If there was a proverbial fourth wall, it floated around as ominously as the Ghost of Pornography Past.  Audience members started looking around at their fellow attendees trying to figure out “Is he or isn’t he an actor?”.  And, to the credit of the creators of Prurience, we never really do learn until that fourth wall evaporates.  In the performance I saw, the wall got broken quite unexpectedly, which hit the audience like a bullet.  But believe it or not, that still wasn’t the end of the mystery of what was “real” and what wasn’t.  (This may be the only production you’ll ever see where programs are given out AFTER the show is over!)  The renegade structure of Christopher Green’s piece is actually quite appropriate for the subject matter of Prurience: Pornography is indeed fantasy and is indeed entertainment for some, albeit a taboo one.  However, the performers in porn are real people.  Porn’s effect on culture is also real.  And, as the characters in Green’s piece make clear, addiction to porn is indeed real as well.  Just as the line between entertainment and reality blur in real life when it comes to pornography, so does that line in Prurience.

Whether or not the audience met their aforementioned expectations that night, one thing is clear:  If the object of theater is to provoke and to challenge as well as to entertain, Prurience succeeds with flying colors.  While it is at times hilariously funny, there are very serious themes explored within: not just about porn addiction but also the larger issue of opportunistic mass marketing which feeds into ALL dependencies– as well as opportunism that masquerades in the form of “self help” (A glaring clue is the Prurience Method merchandise table, complete with DVD’s and books adorned with the face of– guess who?– Amelia Atkins!)   Up until I saw this play, the most challenging show I had ever seen ever seen was Tennessee Williams’ oft-debated The Two Character Play, in which the audience never knows if  the titular two characters’ situations and stories are real, or if they are rehearsing for a play themselves, or if it’s a combination of both. In other words, that play was a real mindf*ck.  With Prurience, Christopher Green has now toppled Tennessee Williams…

20180317_412_Altman_PrurienceGuggenheim20180317_372_Altman_PrurienceGuggenheimPrurience continues through March 31st at 8PM at The Wright Restaurant at the Guggenheim at 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York City.  For more info, call (212) 423-3575 or visit www.WorksAndProcess.org.

(Photos by Robert Altman.)

 

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