Friday, May 31, 2013

Performance Anxiety

My current work has me thinking about theatre (and, oh yes, it's theatre, not that pedestrian "theater" as the plebs refer to it) in a very practical way. We will be staging a dramatization of some of the collected ethnographies and I'm in charge of the logistics. This is a little weird for me, for although I was in summer musicals at the camp for nerds I loved (Brigadoon; need I say more?), my most consistent thespian role was Janet at the local Rocky Horror Picture Show floorshow (Friday nights only) during most of high school. Despite, or perhaps because of, my nontraditional involvement in performance, I lack the technical know-how. My friends, the theatre geeks, would despair. Luckily I'm in the position to be receiving really solid advice about budget estimates, commissionning playwrights, set design, etc. It's exciting and a new way for me to think about presenting ethnographic data, in part because it is such an activist thing to do.

Over the course of my dissertation work, it was difficult not to make a connection between a BDSM "scene" and theater. Goffman's theory of the performance of identity was an easy, if obvious, link between social science and BDSM. Some scenes would be orchestrated down to the finest detail while others were improvs and sometimes even stand-up routines. There is a qualitative difference between scenes performed in private and those which are done in public. Although I talked to people often about what their private scenes were like, I really only have firsthand knowledge of my own. For me, it was the difference between experience and performance.

Although the socials, the pool nights, the study groups, the demos, all served to tie the community together, the foundations of the Texas subculture were the parties. A truly good scene at a party often attracted an audience. On the part of the players (another term borrowed and repurposed from theatre), the goal was often to transcend the audience. Top space and subspace became the connection between the individuals playing. The energy of the audience, in the form of attention and even arousal, was added to the dynamics of a scene. However, there were very clear demarcations between player and observer. It was verboten to enter another's scene uninvited, an offense worthy of expulsion.

As part of my research, to go the whole-hog participant-observation (the favored method among cultural anthropologists), I felt it was important to experience playing in public at least once. It was a much bigger deal than I expected. I felt... exposed... gazed upon... even a bit objectified, in ways I didn't expect. It became more than an experience; it became performance.

I have a bit of a split personality when it comes to being the center of attention. Most social situations, I avoid it like the plague (although if you get me started on my research, I won't shut up, as evidenced by this blog). But when I was dancing, there was something powerful about being worshipped, for lack of a better word. Now when I dance (for fun, not profit), I don't mind being a spectacle.

But to get back to BDSM, I think it is a postmodern theatre based on individualism. People sample the scenes they watch, rarely staying for a full performance. The line between actor and audience is rigid during a scene, but in five minutes, the watchers could become the watched. In some cases, this becomes a bit competitive, sort of, "My scene was more hardcore than yours" one-ups-man-ship that I found a little off-putting (for what it's worth, this pissing contest usually happened between male dominants; submissives had their own version - my marks are more prominent than yours, I withstood more pain). Other times, people would be inspired by the scenes of others and the energy became synergistic.

The props may be extensive, but the staging was usually very minimal. I am interested to learn more about the community in my new city, as the little I've seen, based on the gay male leather conference I went to, suggests a more sustained interest in costuming and setting. My first Texas party reminded me strongly of the performance art parties I attended in New Orleans, probably before I was old enough to appreciate them. Performance, if not specifically theatre, has been part of the air I breathe for most of my life, in large part due to the environments I moved in.

In my (admittedly limited) experience, the most powerful theatrical experiences involved the actors inviting the audience to be vulnerable with them. Moments of erotic crisis are certainly a window into another's life we do not often witness outside of our own realm of lovers (however extensive or limited that might be).

As my work-theatre project progresses, I am interested in the types of restriction that will inform this performance. Although the subject matter and audience and methodology is radically different, a shared goal between the worlds is transformation. In BDSM the transformation is focused on the players while in activist theatre (at least this one) is the transformation of the audience. I am inclined to think the former is more democratic but perhaps the effectiveness is diffused. I hope, much like a poet writing a sonnet, the limitations of a conventional theatre production will cause us to stretch creatively within structure.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

How the other half lives

As you, faithful reader, may remember, when I worked in the sm scene in Texas, I worked predominantly with the het/pan group and a women's group. There was a relatively small but distinct set of gay men who did not necessarily mix with the other groups on a regular basis. As much as I wanted to know more about them, my gender was an issue (not an insurmountable one, as there were many female "bois" who took part in many, but not all, of their activities). However, my time in the field was limited and I felt others had captured the ethnographic experiences of at least some, if not these, leathermen (see particularly Peter Hennen's Fairies, Bears, and Leathermen).

There were two main reasons gay men did not play at the pansexual parties that I identified. First, the gay male tradition is based solidly in leather, whereas the pan groups were predominantly kinky in orientation, with smaller offshoots that practiced the leather lifestyle. The differences between kinky heterosexuals and leatherfolk can be summed up in how each perceives the activities they engage in. One leather individual told me, "Men work - boys play" (the subtext being that real men are leather, boys, and those less serious, are somehow engaged in something more frivolous). Leather is more grounded in tradition and protocol while kink is more idiosyncratic. This is not to say that leatherfolk were always serious but they often carried themselves with a sense of propriety. This attitude did not always mix well with the laissez-faire approach to kink often found at pan parties.

Secondly, penetrative sex was not allowed at some (but not all) of the pan groups. In other posts, I have discussed the implications of this for how women's orgasms define (or rather do not define) sex in these settings. This injunction also served to deter gay men from playing in pan spaces as penetration was seen as an integral part of most play. Based on my reading and casual conversations with leathermen, it is not as easy to tease apart play(work) and sex as it was in the het community (as arbitrary as that distinction might have been).

For all of these reasons, I had very little experience in this subset of the community (some would even argue its own community outside of the larger kinky umbrella). So when a new acquaintance asked if I'd be willing to volunteer for the area's annual major gay male leather conference, I jumped at the chance. She was going to be out of town but I could volunteer on behalf of the local LGBT group.

Logistically, it was a tad frustrating. I started my volunteer shift after the registration table had closed and therefore could not get a badge. I spent a good portion of the night reassuring well-meaning men that, no, I was in fact supposed to be there, despite my obvious cleavage and girly dress. There were other female volunteers who didn't get asked, so I really do think it was my badge-less state.

Last year, the silent auction was situated around the play space in the ballroom. The woman who put me in touch with the organizers went on at length about the things she had seen during her shift there. A lot of it sounded pretty similar to my experiences, although horses and kittens were replaced with puppies. To my disappointment, the silent auction this year was set up in a hallway with no view of any action. Without a badge, I couldn't even go check out the setup.

However, I had a little glimpse into the gay male leather world. Or perhaps I should say, the 99.9% gay male leather world. Not counting the female volunteers, I saw a handful of women participating, including an incredibly hot Ms. International Leather and a member of a transmasculine leather group. I was feeling pretty tricked out, with my newly (half) shaven head and my trusty black boots. Despite my femme-ness and my cis-ness, the men were welcoming in ways I didn't have the chance to experience in Texas. I am not sure how much that has to do with the differences in local culture, my role as a volunteer, or my physical location on the outskirts of the convention.

One of the striking things I noticed was the lack of cowboys. I guess it's hard to pull that trope off anywhere but the West (or Texas), but it is one of my favorite hyper-masculine typologies. The other thing I noticed was that these men are *fit*. It's hard for me to say on average whether the people in Ohio are smaller than Texans because it varies a lot depending on ethnicity in both locales, but in general the white people here weigh less than their counterparts in Texas. This is not to say that the leathermen I knew in Texas were all bears, as there were some very lean and muscular men there as well. But here (in the Midwest of all places), most of the men looked fighting-trim. It puts me in mind of the fact that beauty is (usually) performed for the male gaze and therefore those performing beauty fall under the same hegemonic ideals, whether male or female.

Mostly, however, being there made me miss my leather and kinky friends. I saw some insane latex/steam punk crossovers and more leather bow ties than I could shake a stick at. The smells, the costumes, the arcane equipment, the easy laughter, and the erotic charge. I am not sure those translate well through text. And although I had never met any of those people before that night, I felt, just a bit, "these are my people."