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Pushing the Envelope

ae erotic‘What Is Erotic?’ makes its seventh run at The 418

ll through history, artists have been pushing us to examine our views of what is and isn’t erotic, with subjects ranging from the relatively tame (Francisco Goya’s “La Maja Desnuda”) to the extremely challenging (Mapplethorpe’s photography, Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?”). Santa Cruz keeps this tradition alive via “What Is Erotic?”a festive and daring fundraiser for The 418 Project. Themed “In the Boudoir,” this year’s event—the seventh overall—hits The 418 on the weekends before and after Valentine’s Day.

The fun, bawdy character of “What Is Erotic?” will be evident right from the Pre-Show Erotic Salon: Staying in character, the actors will playfully interact with audience members. Moondance O’Brien, one of this year’s performers, reveals that the show’s cast and crew refers to the members of this “welcoming committee” as “fluffers.” “Some people might be feather ticklers; some people might be reciting poetry; some people might be offering spankings,” she explains. Other performers will hand-feed chocolate-dipped strawberries to audience members. All such interaction is consent-oriented, but O’Brien ventures that “the majority of people who come to this show have a sense of what they’re going to experience. They’re pretty eager.”

Among the segments of this year’s show are a behind-the-curtain striptease, a 12-person burlesque piece, and a dialogue from Eugene Ionesco’s play “The Bald Soprano.” Longtime “What Is Erotic?” performer Steve Engle will appear in the last of these, which, he explains, depicts a playful flirtation between two extremely proper English people. “Underneath, there’s this seething lust going on, but it has to stay under this British exterior,” he says. “So the way that comes out in the body language is very fascinating.”

Engle, also a co-director of this year’s event, says he’s seen performers undergo profound changes in the six years that he’s been a part of “What Is Erotic?” “Every time, it becomes an internal journey about them being up there and being seen for who they are. Even the most mundane pieces that will appear to the audience like, ‘That was easy to get up there and do that,’ over the years I’ve just witnessed people go through such transformations in the course of getting there. It’s a thing of spectacular beauty—very heartwarming to see people come out of their shells and realize that they are beautiful, and they are erotic.”

This year, that element of transformation is particularly evident in new performer Rebecca Cowen’s piece about her experience with her ex-boyfriend, a paraplegic. “It’s powerful and beautiful, and a subject that does not get talked about very much, around sexuality and physical disability,” says Misha Bonaventura, co-producer and co-director of the show.

Bonaventura also mentions that a cast member performing under the name of Madrone will present a piece about her blossoming sexuality. “She’s actually living it right now: around the stages of being closed down and then opening up, and how she’s been in the past, where she is now, and where she wants to be.”

ae erotic2The 418 Project’s annual fundraiser seeks to answer the burning question: “What is Erotic?”O’Brien, who will be singing her song “Real Slow” at this year’s show, has witnessed first-hand the type of transformations of which Engle and Bonaventura speak. “I guess all art has the ability to be a rather self-inquiry, self-transformative type of experience, but I think especially this one, because it asks the question, ‘What is erotic?’” she observes. “Just asking the question starts a process within each person: ‘What is erotic to me?’ which is totally different for everybody.” This, she feels, is what makes the show interesting: It encompasses all the different ways in which people are turned on. “It’s thought-provoking,” she offers. “People will walk away asking that same question: ‘What of that was erotic for me? What wasn’t?’ It’s like a really good movie: The conversation doesn’t end when you walk out of the movie. It inspires conversation, curiosity and self-inquiry. I think that’s kind of why we’re here.”

O’Brien herself has been transformed by her involvement in “What Is Erotic?” “I’m a mother of a three-year-old, and this process has really helped me get my sexy back,” she says. “It’s given me an avenue to reclaim other parts of myself that aren’t just a mom—[but] a thriving woman in this world.” She adds that since going to the first meeting, she’s begun writing profusely. “My word processor is loading up with stories now. It’s a giving of permission, because it can be such a taboo subject that being around a group of people that are maybe more in touch with it, or certainly accepting of ideas, kind of generates the support for following your own passion and ideas with it.”

This is exactly the kind of atmosphere that Engel hopes to foster as a director. “I see my role pretty heavily as giving permission,” he states. “For instance, typically, with a group of friends who are dancing together, I need to give them permission and to drive them in the direction of letting them really have a good time, really enjoy that caress and that touch and really enjoy themselves and these beautiful bodies we have. And that’s where the juicy eroticism is coming from.”     

This permissiveness also includes the freedom to frankly discuss erotic matters. For instance, one piece in this year’s show features an incredibly intimate description of the female orgasm. “There are parts of [the female orgasm] that are pretty mysterious [to males], and it’s so beautiful to have a direct channel into some of that stuff that’s going on,” Engel says. He adds that “What Is Erotic?” has inspired groups of people all around Santa Cruz to actively, openly discuss sexual topics, including some taboo ones. “Especially among the cast, there are beautiful dialogs and discussions that occur,” he says. “Recently, a performer was talking about something that involved female ejaculation, for instance. And during the feedback from that, someone said, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting.’ And we had this whole discussion about that. We could actively dialogue about that here in a public place amongst men and women. It was fantastic.”

“What Is Erotic?” invites the audience to be a part of the candor, excitement and fun. As Engel puts it, “This is a chance to really be in a room with a bunch of people and witness a few of those journeys that people have gone on and given one take on the answer to the question. And it’s vastly entertaining.”

“What Is Erotic?” begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 10 & 17 and Saturday, February 11 & 18; plus 6:30 p.m. February 12 & 19 at The 418 Project, 418 Front St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25-$30 sliding scale, $20 opening night only. For more information, call 466-9770 or visit whatiserotic.net.

Photo: Kyer Photography

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