Eleanor O’Brien’s naked truth

The mastermind behind Portland's "Come Inside" sex & culture theater festival puts her finger on what people really want: stories about sex

Eleanor O’Brien is a visionary: the leader of a movement, a prophet of her own religion. She is a theater artist yet theatre is almost secondary to her mission, a tool in her toolbox, a means to an end. Starting Monday and continuing through October 14 Dance Naked Productions, O’Brien’s decade-long act of will, will present Come Inside: A Sex & Culture Theater Festival. A “collection of sex positive performances from across the spectrum of sexual identity,” it’s the culmination of ten years of exploration, education and dedication. It will feature acts from the other side of the country and the other side of the world. Artists from Seattle to Brooklyn to Australia will bring various forms of music, stand-up comedy, burlesque, confessionals, open mic, and award winning theatre. For the next two weeks, the Portland theater scene is going to be dominated by everybody’s favorite topic (whether we admit it or not): sex.

Eleanor O’Brien, making Dancing Naked work.

Come Inside is only the latest step in one woman’s sexual expression odyssey. Eleanor O’Brien comes from a distinguished acting pedigree. Her grandfather was classic movie star and Academy Award winner Van Heflin. Her mother is queen of Portland theater and Artists Repertory company member, Vana O’Brien. Eleanor herself is an actor of singular intelligence, charisma and emotional availability. And yet, way back in the Aughts she turned her back on conventional or “straight” theater. Doing theatre about all the big or important or serious themes, big or important or serious ways no longer interested her. What do people really think about? What do people really care about? Her answer to herself was what she thought the truth was for other people: sex.

So she took it upon herself to make theater about that. But not just about sex. “I’ve always been really curious about people’s stories around sex,” she says. “It’s a place where we hide. It’s a place of disconnection. There’s this idea that sex is private. So we don’t really talk about it. And so a lot of stuff gets hidden in shadow. And we make assumptions or we make up stories. Ever since I can remember I’ve wanted to know people’s real truth about their sexuality. And I want to talk about it in detail. When people talk about TMI, I think there’s no such thing. I love the details.”

Dirty Lola, Oct. 4-7.

And sex as subject for public sharing is nothing new to O’Brien. “When I was a teenager I got cast in the show Teens and Company for Planned Parenthood and it was a show all about sexuality and teenagers. We wrote our own pieces and we toured that show for a year. I think that planted a seed that storytelling is a really important way to teach and share information.”

For a while, she went the traditional route: undergrad at Pomona and then an MFA at the University of San Diego. After a stint at the Old Globe in San Diego, she made her way to New York City. While she was making a go of being a theater artist in the Big Apple, she had a revelatory encounter with what would become her mission in life. “When I decided that I wanted to write a solo show, the story that everybody in my solo show class was interested in was my failed attempt at being a dominatrix. So, I shaped that story into a solo show(GGG: Dominatrix for Dummies).” Good Girls Guide toured Canada and in the process of touring, O’Brien got to meet “all kinds of people and have them share their stories with me. I think because to hear somebody’s story creates a safe space to share your own, right? So, I had numerous conversations about people’s predilections and interests.”

Later, O’Brien read a book, Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, “which was basically masturbation material. It came at a time before porn and erotica was readily available. The imagination in this book is really potent. I’d never heard anybody admit to any of it. Like fantasizing about animals and family members — taboo, dirty stuff. It was so exciting to read. Like, ‘Oh, other people think about these things too.’ No one ever talks about it. And I thought, What would happen if you put that onstage? This idea of holding up a mirror to nature that never gets held up.”

Ren Lunicke, Oct. 3-7.

So O’Brien set out to do exactly that, and Inviting Desire was born. Monday, October 1st, the opening of the Come Inside Festival, will mark the ten-year anniversary of the day O’Brien sent her first $50 entry fee to the Fertile Ground Festival. “I pitched this idea that I was going to make Inviting Desire. I cast a group of women(Iliana Herrin, Mary Rose, Tonya Jone Miller, Emily Wisteria, Allison Tigard, Tori Paddelford). I had the idea that we were going to turn My Secret Garden into monologues.” Instead, Inviting Desire turned into something more compelling and relevant. “I was using the devising techniques that I had learned in (Sojourn Theatre artistic director) Michael Rohd’s summer camp on how to make theater. We created that show based on sending out surveys and asking women about their sexual fantasies.”

Much of O’Brien’s cast also wrote their own material out of their own sexual fantasies and experiences. “We ended up having a piece about calling your lover “Daddy”, about BDSM, about the Minotaur rape, a fantasy about an orgy at a yoga class — there was some edgy material.” (Interestingly enough, the artist responsible for the yoga piece was dubious about doing it for Come Inside’s ten-year anniversary gala. “She’s a mom now.”) And Dance Naked Productions premiered its first iteration of Inviting Desire in 2009 at that first Fertile Ground Festival. “Fertile Ground gave me a venue and a vehicle and a format to do that with low stakes. So I’ve done Fertile Ground four times now. And I’ve figured out, okay, you open up the second week of the festival and then you run the show so you get the boost of Fertile Ground.”

Inviting Desire had several iterations with several different casts, including a touring production. It was during this tour that O’Brien had another revelation that would bear fruit only later. “I remember we went to Winnipeg. It was the first stop on our tour. Tonya was doing her piece and I’m sitting on the square block and the square block is shaking. I can hear it hitting the floor because I’m so nervous about what this community will think of this show because it’s so graphic.”

Tonya Jones, Oct. 11-14

Despite her revolutionary fervor, O’Brien was still scared of rejection, still frightened by other people’s judgment. “I remember when I created the touring show, the phrase I had stuck in my head was, ‘I want to polish this like a jewel.’ I think it was because I didn’t want to get attacked. Like somehow having a polished piece of theater would prevent people from calling it pornographic or dirty. I could protect it with aesthetic. I don’t worry so much about that anymore. I’m less afraid.” This clarity was earned. After that very performance in Winnipeg, O’Brien had an encounter that let her know she was on to something. “An older woman came up to us after the show and she says, ‘Thank you. Thank you. We need this so badly.’ I would say ninety percent of the reaction I get for my work are people saying thank you.”

Doubt her? Don’t. That first Inviting Desire sold out its run and her audience has stayed steady ever since. Clearly, there’s a need being met. “It’s been fucking lucky so far. People do show up. The ecstatic dance community has formed the basis of my fan base. And they bring their friends. The sex positive community has been a big support. People who are interested in sexuality. Fertile Ground has helped too. People have come see my shows that I don’t think normally would.” In other words, Dance Naked has achieved the Holy Grail of small theater: generating an audience that isn’t substantially dependent on the theater community to keep it alive. Let’s talk about sex, indeed.

A few years ago O’Brien put aside the Inviting Desire model. “I loved doing it but it was an incredible amount of work. It was five nights a week for a couple of months kind of rehearsal. That felt unsustainable, to finance that and find rehearsal space and all that.”

Woody Schticks, Oct. 10-14.

So O’Brien switched to a new concept. “In 2014, when I did What Is Erotic? — it was the first show where the format changed; I invited people to come to me with their ideas of what they wanted to create. And I would curate it and help them develop the idea. What Is Erotic, Revelations and Sex We Can all followed that format where they’re not necessarily actors, they could be regular people, most of the time they are, but they have some burning story that they want to share and I help make it theatrical.”

In 2015 O’Brien toured another solo show through Canada, Lust and Marriage. “That was me wanting to do a show about polyamory that wasn’t about the trauma of it or the failure of it but how it could be successful. Originally, I didn’t intend for that show to be autobiographical.” But life wasn’t necessarily cooperative. O’Brien’s marriage ended while she was touring the show, the play itself changing as the circumstances of her life changed. “It was a really hard show to do. And the ending changed as I toured. It became more and more ambiguous what happens to them at the end. But I didn’t want to say they break up. I didn’t want to ruin the dream of a happy polyamorous ending.” (It is a peculiar irony of life that there can be a thousand divorces and a million break-ups and no one ever thinks to question the validity of monogamy.)

After Inviting Desire O’Brien started conducting open mics, inviting everyday people to come up and share their stories — or whatever else they might want to share. “Maybe they had erotic poetry or they play the violin in a really sensual way or they do stand-up around the topic of sex. I wanted there to be a venue where you could go and share with a supportive audience. This last year I started doing it regularly, on its own, not necessarily after a show. It has become my favorite event. I freaking love it. I just allow the evening to unfold however it unfolds. I don’t stress about it. It’s intimate, it’s dear, there are a bunch of regulars now, that show up. People are getting braver about sharing. At first I said it didn’t have to be original material. You could read somebody else’s piece if you wanted to. That hasn’t happened. No one’s done that. It’s all been original material.”

The open mics were a natural and necessary progression. It had been years since that first Inviting Desire, and when looking back, O’Brien notices a distinct evolution. “It’s funny because I just watched the video of the touring version of Inviting Desire and I see how much my aesthetic has changed since then. Because that show is very theatrical. There’s a lot of presentational stuff. What I noticed when I watched it was that to me, the theatrical effects rob the piece of its authenticity. It feels theatrical. Now when I direct a piece when I am going for stark honesty. Whereas in Inviting Desire, there is a fair amount of arousal but it’s sort of at a ten, right? It’s like (in high pitched squeal) ‘I’m SO turned on and I’m having an ORgassmmm…!’ and I think I was afraid because of the subject matter being so incendiary that I had to package it in a way that felt safe because there’s a distance because of the theatricality. What I notice now with my shows is I’ve stripped away a lot of that and made it much more breaking through the fourth wall and talking to the audience. I still want it to be theatrical. But some of the techniques I was using, like where we all say a phrase and then we move and a phrase and we move, or you break up a story into three different parts, etc. I do a lot less of that now. I’m less afraid of just putting someone on stage and having kind of an honest story about their sexuality.”

Valerie David, Oct. 10-14.

So what used to motivate Dance Naked has evolved to its present-day goal. “Ten years ago, my intent with Inviting Desire was to see if I could create material that was arousing. I don’t think that’s my intent so much anymore. My intent now is to open up the topic of sexual expression and learn about people through their stories.” What you won’t see a lot of this year is O’Brien herself. She’ll perform at Come Inside’s opening gala but not at the rest of the festival. “I want to highlight what other people have done and not what I’ve done. So much of the path I’ve been on is less of me and more having other people tell their stories.”

“There’s a story about a woman overcoming cancer and finding her sexuality again (The Pink Hulk, by Valerie David). There’s a woman coming from LA with a piece called Tough Brown Leather (Tonya Jones). She played football as a kid and dealt with abuse as a female football player and the story of overcoming that through the metaphor of football. There’s a show called Fish Girl (Siouxsie Q and Sean Andries) about a woman who’s a sex worker and her being a mermaid is a metaphor for her being a sex worker and how men fall in love with an idea of who she is.” There’s more. There is also Sex Ed A Go Go, a “talk and variety show hybrid that is one part sex Q&A and one part Go-Go revue” hosted by one Dirty Lola. Or catch ZE: Queer as Fuck (Ren Lunicke), “a oneperson, genderqueer, kinky, femmesexual, polyminded, gay-divorcee, PRIDE parade through the real life of Michelle/Ryan. (Whew!) And of course, Schlong Song by Woody Shticks — a piece that promises “stand-up storytelling, hip-hop heroics and emotional nudity.” Taking It Up the Notch features Shirley Gnome singing obscenely honest songs about human nature. There is even a piece by a straight white male, David Rodwin, F*** Tinder (A Love Story), about his broken heart and the sexual/romantic journey he went on afterwards. “So, they’re not erotic, per se,” says O’Brien, “It’s eight shows from around the world that celebrate sexual expression.”

Besides that there are also a few one-time only events during the festival. There is a play reading, Tip of the Tongue by Allison Moon. Sexology! The Musical, a performance by Melanie Moseley. And Stand-Up Smut, an erotic open mic.

The variety, depth and breadth of these acts are testament to O’Brien’s perseverance and street cred in the sex-positive world. More and more people are picking up what she’s laying down. There is, in fact, a need that she is meeting. For the past ten years, Dance Naked Productions is the only theater company that has met that need, a need for people to share their humanity around sex. “The act,” her website says, “of allowing yourself to be seen as a sexual being, without apology, is transformative. It’s healing, it’s powerful and it’s necessary.”

And there it is. Dance Naked Productions’ wet dream come true. Real people. Real stories. Real sex. “I think that people learn through story,” O’Brien says. “They learn about possibilities.” And that is what Come Inside promises more than anything else. Two weeks that are long on story, talent, daring, verve and courage — and short on pornography. But it’s all about sex just the same. Come Inside 2018.

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Come Inside opens with a gala Monday night, October 1, at Alberta Rose Theatre and continues October 3-14 at CoHo Theatre. Information on performers, schedule, and tickets is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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