In Context: Stray Cat Artistic Director Ron May on Tucker Max, Ashley Madison, and SEX WITH STRANGERS
AUTHOR: RON MAY, STRAY CAT THEATRE ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
I’m on Facebook a lot. I tend to be a colossal smartass: my posts are rarely safe for work, I have a total potty mouth, and I also have a running gag of posting what people have called my “guy on scruff” posts. They are interactions I have with guys on a “dating” app, interactions where *what* people say to me—unsolicited—is so completely off the rails, I can’t help but poke fun at it. I have been making these posts for probably two years or so now, always followed by the hashtag #single4life.
Several months ago, one of my Facebook friends saw me in the real world and said, “I just LOVE your Facebook scruff posts. You’re like a gay Tucker Max. It’s so great!!!”
Now, Tucker Max is relevant in a few ways, here:
- He is arguably the closest real-life equivalent to the character of Ethan in Sex With Strangers.
- This person probably thought what they were saying was a compliment, but if you don’t know Tucker Max, this is a guy who has made a living off of getting drunk, having sex with women, and then writing detailed, graphic blogs about the encounters. He subsequently became a best-selling author (just like Ethan in the play) and multi-millionaire. And he’s easily one of the most hated men in the world. He’s also been made a celebrity by those who loved what he was doing.
I’m not here to moralize. But I have *never* posted anything personal about anyone, so that comparison really threw me for a loop.
It begged the question of what story I was telling about myself. We all have an online persona, one that possibly speaks louder than we do in real life. People—whether we like it or not—make all sorts of decisions about who we are and what we’re like by the things we “like” in social media, what we say, how we say it. I have never stopped to wonder if I was projecting a personal narrative that I wasn’t even aware of. And, what was more worrisome: for those who read my posts and somehow made the same “Tucker Max” link—and look extremely negatively on it—why would I want that to be what people think of me?
I’m also fascinated by the recent “Scarlet Lettering” so many on social media seemed to do when the Ashley Madison leak happened. People couldn’t wait to condemn anyone whose name appeared in the leak; it’s as if we had somehow suddenly astral-projected back to some puritanical moralism.
I wonder for those men. How do you rewrite your narrative when you have a social scarlet letter tacked onto your back, one that’ll be available for an eternity if someone Googles your name or email?
How do you revise your personal narrative once it’s out there?
So much of our lives is available online now, whether we like it or not. Sometimes whether we *know* it or not.
Sex With Strangers is a play that peripherally deals with all of these kinds of things.
Martha Lavey, Artistic Director of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre, said of Sex With Strangers:
“The play speaks acutely to the contemporary landscape of technological communication and how those new platforms impact both interpersonal relationships and the construction of authorial identity. The play captures many of the complexities of our public/private self, humanizing those abstractions by telling the story of a man and woman who are trying both to further their public selves as writers and to engage their private selves as lovers.”
That’s a much slicker way of saying some of what really drew me to the play and, I think, what is drawing so many audiences to this play nationwide.
It’s so very sexy.
So very smart.
So very, very surprising.
Watching two mentally and physically attractive people who are in a sort of crucible of this snowed-in retreat, pressurized by the fact that they are a generation apart (late 20s and late 30s) and the collision of their attitudes toward both sex and their shared profession (they’re both writers) is as exciting as anything I’ve read in years.
Sex With Strangers is not a performance art piece about cell phones and how digital communication has just ruined the human spirit. I don’t think it has. And I don’t think this play is swimming in that idea pool.
Where it lives is in the questions:
What is intimacy?
What are the rules of intimacy now?
What are the implications of being able to know about someone’s private life via their online presence before you get to know them as a potential intimate partner?
And how reliable is that online self?
Is it more trustworthy than the person you meet face-to-face?
Laura Eason’s beautiful spiderweb of a play tackles these questions head on and provides no easy answers.
What it will leave you with as sexually and intellectually provocative a two hours in the theatre you’re likely to have this season.
It’s gonna be hot.