Foreplay is the groundbreaking new play by a collective who have taken on the role of writers, devising scenes through improv. The play will be presented as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival.
Yes, the play is about sex but more than that delves into the human side of sex work thus becoming perhaps more of an analysis or conversation about the why and what rather than the how. The piece does pose a number of interesting and, perhaps for some, confrontational questions: What do you know about sex work? Have you ever been to a brothel? Does the idea make your skin crawl? Ever called an escort, or even considered becoming one? Do you know anyone who works as a sex worker?
Director Shannon Loughnane is not adverse to the obvious and freely admits that it was the “SEX!” in “sex work” that first piqued his attention. "Like most approaching the topic, my naughty curiosity outweighed my education," he explains. " But the more we waded into the minefield, the more I realised that to give in to that curiosity over maintaining a critical distance would be exploitative. On the flip side, to remain too detached was to be insensitive to the people involved, and would also make the play something anthropological as opposed to real or meaningful. It was a hugely confusing first couple of weeks, but I suppose that's what really drew me in: so many voices clamouring to be heard, and also, we noticed, to silence each other."
The piece was devised as a collection of ideas submitted by anyone who was perhaps qualified or interested. A general call out was made and interested individuals were asked to meet, informally, at a venue to put forward possible themes, storylines, characters, plots to the creatives. A developmental workshop followed. While this was a unique and exciting approach to story telling it also had it's challenges. "We were devising the work from scratch so we didn't have things like firm character lists until very far down the line, making it difficult to cast.," states Loughnane . "Also, the cast we did have were working simultaneously on a thousand other projects, so rehearsing was difficult. We also didn't have the luxury of being a university-affiliated theatre group, so room bookings were tricky. There were a few guerrilla rehearsals on campus where we ran from building to building, fleeing every time somebody noticed we weren't an architecture tute."
The fact that the play is not necessarily about sex but rather explores the human and the political and all the stuff in-between is a pretty significant message Loughnane wants to get out. "What we've had to be really clear about when spruiking the show is that Foreplay is not really a show about sex work," he states. "It's a show about discourse, hearsay, power, vested interests and how the personal is always political. It just happens to take sex work as its topic. This is a hugely important distinction for me. It's a story about how people grapple with one another, and how outside forces are used and abused to do that."
"The characters in this piece are only peripherally associated with the sex industry, which means none are experts, but they all think they are – for better or for worse. This is the significance of the work for me: 'sex work' as a political concept impassions these otherwise passionless people, but all they really know by the end of the play is that they're all human, and they all have issues. I like to think it's very humanistic, as well as being satirical: it's stirring, I think is the best word. Each of these people has their moments of being awful, of being hilarious and of being gut-wrenchingly human. And that's really to the credit of the fantastic actors, who have brought their all to this production."
For Loughnane, and most of the team members, this is their first production outside university theatre, which, he says, is daunting in itself. Add to that the hugely loaded subject matter they chose to focus on, and you have a recipe for anxiety. "There was a lot of angling on many fronts for us to rethink the show, to declare a platform etc. So I suppose the first and foremost challenge was to stay staunchly non-partisan about the whole thing, and to trust our own voices," he says. "We wanted to tell a humanistic story that didn't preach, that wasn't exploitative and that wasn't just a bland laundry list of ideas. The idea of 'information vacuums' and being misconstrued was scary to us at first, but in fact ended up forming a central plot pivot in the show, which is interesting. It's been a huge leap of faith in lots of respects, but I think the format of Foreplay is agitative without being prescriptive, moving without being mushy and funny without being fake. So I'm glad I was able to find that level of trust in myself, and in the wonderful cast."
Loughnane hopes the audience leave, in whatever sense, sensitised. "What I love about this show is that there are a thousand different opportunities to be touched by the drama you're watching," he explains. "And I don't mean simply empathising with the characters – some characters are intended to really piss you off. There are also a lot of subtle calls to action from the characters – from all viewpoints – that I suppose each individual audience member can choose to ignore, or answer. Like I said, this piece isn't intended to be prescriptive or to represent sex work from any particular angle: it's a discussion about all of our levels of engagement in each other's lives, and the world. I hope audience members come into the space with a level of openness, and leave with that openness expanding in a direction that feels right for them."
Foreplay is a deceptive little trickster according to Loughnane. "We say it's about sex work, but as soon as you meet the characters, you'll realise, as we did, that the discussion surrounding sex work is actually about millions of other things. None of these people are actually talking about sex work at all. What links them all together, however, is their sense of hunger: some for power, some for information, some for fame, some for human connection. But they're all hungry. And that's really the play's central tension: are these people going to let those hungers overpower them, and what happens if/when they do?"
There is a free exhibition open on Tues 18th Sep to Sat 29th Sep featuring Siobhan O'Brien & Andre Hillas. And Loughnane cites a few more things to whet the audience's appetite: "A political sex scandal, a pole-dancing class, a lot of sneaky wine (for audience too!) and a one-man tutorial on how to be sexy as a woman, but I'd like to think those aren't the most interesting parts of the show. Ironically, they are just… the Foreplay."
September 20 – 29
Melbourne Fringe festival