“How do you stage a masturbation contest?” asked Hallie Cooper-Novack DRA ’12. “And not only how do you stage it, but how do you connect it to character? How do you make it real and not just a spectacle?”
If you thought “Spring Awakening” was racy, think again.
These questions are just some of the challenges that Cooper-Novack has encountered as director of Wallace Shawn’s “A Thought in Three Parts,” which will run at the Cabaret next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. The explicit, pornographic nature of Shawn’s play — a compilation of three shorter scenes — guarantees to shock audiences. But the depth of the play far surpasses its shock value. Its ideas prove especially relevant to dilemmas that we, as students and as people, find in our own lives. Shawn contemplates the relationship between sex and intimacy, our identities as animalistic, sexual beings, our greatest insecurities and our interactions with others. Ultimately, “A Thought in Three Parts” explores the struggle to navigate all of the above.
THREE’S A CHARM
You may know Wallace (or Wally) Shawn as the debate teacher in “Clueless,” Vizzini in “The Princess Bride,” or the voice of “Toy Story’s” Tyrannosaurus Rex. Also a playwright, Shawn published “A Thought in Three Parts” in 1976, when the idea of free love fueled many a heated discussion. Its 1977 premiere in London was considered so scandalous that the police and Parliament had to intervene. Its second and only other production thus far was in 2007 at the Rubber Repertory in Austin, Texas.
The first part, “Summer Evening,” details a married couple’s struggle to negotiate the role of sex in their relationship. “It’s this very frustrated kind of culmination of missed chances and misunderstood advances, mixtures of love and hate,” said Christopher Henry DRA ’12, who plays the husband.
“Youth Hostel,” the second part, leaves the least to the imagination. The cast and crew refer to it as “the naked act,” said producer Kate Ivins. The characters are thrown together by chance and consequently try to find some form of intimacy with one another. The play concludes with “Mr. Frivolous,” a character who confuses the audience as his lover while reflecting on a past relationship.
The intersection between sex and intimacy lies at the heart of the play, and Shawn raises this question in the hope of providing audiences with some food for thought. “[Sex is] still shocking after all these years — isn’t that incredible?” Shawn writes in the Afterword to “A Thought in Three Parts,” included on the Cabaret website’s description of the play. The voyeurism implicit in watching people explore the contours of an intimate relationship makes the play all the more poignant, and perhaps a bit awkward, to watch.
“You’re not sure whether you’re supposed to laugh or cry, and you kind of have to get over that initial hurdle of discomfort with the subject matter, which is odd considering that in our society, sex is everywhere, but it’s sex and not intimacy,” said Ivins.
Cooper-Novack also elaborated on the distinction between sex and intimacy, the central theme that connects all three parts of the play. “What is [sex]? It’s not the same as love, but it’s an extension of love. But what is that connection? And is it actually possible to separate those things entirely? Intimacy and sex are so deeply knotted together and yet not entirely one and the same,” she said.
Because the play portrays sex so explicitly, dynamics behind the scenes have been crucial. Cooper-Novack and actress Jillian Taylor DRA ’12 all cited the importance of the close-knit relationships between cast members, many of whom are classmates. Cooper-Novack, who has been fascinated by the play since she read it in high school, did not begin this production with a specific, concrete vision; rather, she sought to let the actors’ reactions and experiences shape the show.
Taylor plays Judy, one of the main characters in “Youth Hostel.” She described Judy as “a people pleaser” and a “naive” young woman who instinctively reverts to sex in order to please others. For Taylor, getting comfortable in Judy’s shoes has been a slow but sure process.
“Maybe today we take off our shirts, tomorrow we take off our pants. Baby steps,” she said.
Playing Judy has also had a profound effect on Taylor’s own views of sexuality, both in and out of character. Unlike any other production she has worked on before, “A Thought in Three Parts” has forced her to face her own identity as a sexual being and to contemplate the more animalistic aspects of humankind. Though “terrifying” at times, for Taylor, working on “Youth Hostel” has illuminated a different view of herself and her body.
“What I’ve learned is that there’s also nothing to hide from in being what I am — a human being, a member of the animal kingdom — somebody who has a face, a neck, breasts, a belly and a vagina, legs, feet and toes. Just like a lot of other creatures on this planet. It’s empowering that there’s nothing to hide behind and nothing to hide from,” said Taylor.
Henry has also found personal resonance with his work on the show. His role as David, the husband in “Summer Evening,” has forced him to move past his own experiences.
“Wallace Shawn pushes a rational thought to the extreme. I’ve maybe felt an inkling in my own life of not connecting to the person that I’m with, or of feelings of hatred for the person I love, but this takes it to another place,” said Henry.
SHOCK (AND AWE?)
Would you laugh? Cry? Scream? Squirm? Walk out?
The cast and crew of “A Thought in Three Parts” aren’t quite sure either. Cooper-Novack expects at least a few members of the audience to walk out, and she’s okay with that prospect because it “partly proves the point of the play,” she said. She has made sure to indicate the explicit nature of the play in all publicity and advertisements. Next to its description on the Cabaret website reads a short disclaimer, “PLEASE NOTE: “A Thought in Three Parts” contains nudity, strong language, adult content, and other enticements.”
Taylor echoed Cooper-Novack’s uncertainty about audience reactions while explaining that Shawn’s scenes will ideally force spectators to think.
“I hope that people will ask themselves the same question that I’m asking myself, which is ‘Why do I find this so shocking? What about the naked human body or the act of sex or the act of seeing people engage in sex is so shocking?’” she said.
Taylor has a point. We shouldn’t necessarily be shocked when sex is omnipresent not only in our society, but especially on a college campus. Yale is no exception: Freshman counselors line freshman entryways with condoms, and Sex Week 2012 has sparked both conversation and controversy. We are the generation that is “Youth Hostel.” Those characters are in their early 20s, struggling to get a feel for their relationships with one another and to find how sex and intimacy fit into the picture. They wrestle with the same questions that college kids encounter all the time: What is sex? And what does it mean to us?
“On college campuses people are definitely searching for love and for sex and at the same time. Or separately … I think that’s a source of many misunderstandings,” said Cooper-Novack.
Questions of sex and sexuality are commonplace at Yale, and the ideas that the play will raise are nothing new. What is different, though, is the way they are depicted in Shawn’s potentially shocking, visceral and visual display. Dashell Laryea ’13 believes that the play will likely not inspire productive conversations among students, but rather perpetuate a limited view of sex.
“Individuals might be able to see it and have a different conversation about sex, but most people will leave that play and have a surface level characterization of what sex is, or will only talk in a manner that doesn’t really get to the heart of what we should think about sex,” said Laryea, a member of Undergraduates for a Better Yale College.
He cited the note on the Cabaret website: “‘Other enticements’ has this nature of making something as personal as sex into a game, trivializing it and making it something that again separates it from the emotional weight we put on it,” he added.
Alternatively, the issues raised by “A Thought in Three Parts” may create a more open climate for discussion. Navy Encinias ’14 emphasized the importance of eliminating perceptions of sex as taboo and inappropriate.
“Sex is just as relevant to us as any other human issues that a play would explore. There’s definitely a fine line between being vulgar and inviting a conversation, but hopefully any play will ask itself that question as well,” he said.
So you can giggle, sniffle, or sprint out of the aisle. It’s up to you.
Although it may make us wince a little, Wallace Shawn’s “A Thought in Three Parts” will have something to tell us at the Cabaret next weekend. It will present us with raw emotion and instinct. We will see what makes us vulnerable, what we love and what we fear, what makes us human. The lyricism and image of Shawn’s work will be both obscene and beautiful.
“The best any piece of theater can do is nudge people a little,” said Henry.
At the very least, it just might make you think.