Unless you have an erotic fixation with jazz hands, few things are less sexy than the average musical comedy. At first blush, this might make a musical about porn sound like a terrible idea, two great tastes that just don't go well together, like semen and Starbucks.
But if your goal is to examine porn as a business first and a fuck fest second, as The Civilians have done in their new musical Pretty Filthy, then the resolute asexuality of the Great White Way is an asset. It tempers the corporeality of the subject, making it possible to explore everything from gay-for-pay straight boys to MILF porn without getting a triple X rating or discomforting the entire audience. More importantly, toning down the sex makes it easier to focus on the work. Pretty Filthy offers audiences the chance to see porn as just another sector of the entertainment industry trying to cope with the disruptive effects of the Internet.
Pretty Filthy got its start in 2010, when Center Theatre Group commissioned The Civilians to make a show about Los Angeles. After they landed on the idea of looking at the porn industry—"the other Hollywood"—The Civilians spent months interviewing more than 100 people in the business, from agents to directors, from porn actors to porn stars. The result loosely follows the story of Becky and Bobby, two middle-American kids who move out to LA to work in porn. But the real stars of the show are the minor characters that emerge from the wings to give monologues so real they feel like DVD extras from Anal Sluts 4.
Right after Pretty Filthy's first preview at the Abrons Arts Center in Manhattan, I sat down with playwright Bess Wohl to discuss porn, writing, and the relationship between a playwright and her subjects.
VICE: When you started this process in 2010, did you have a sense of the show you wanted to write?
Wohl: We knew pretty quickly that we would have to focus primarily on straight porn, because the gay world is so separate. Then we also learned that the intersection of race and porn is really complicated. So we realized that doing a show about the African-American porn community would be a whole other show as well. We tried to incorporate some of those ideas, but it really became about straight white porn more than anything. Because we were looking at Porn, capital P, it was the one that felt like it would have the most breadth.
You had a staged reading in LA in 2011. How has the show evolved since that point?
Wohl: When we first started, the idea was to make a fictional musical, where the interviews would just be inspiration. So the first version was a musical comedy, with a romance and much more plot then there is now, and almost no direct address to the audience.
But Michael [Friedman, who wrote the music and lyrics] and I began to feel that we had all this incredible material, and because it all felt fictional, the audience wasn't getting the benefit of the real things the people said. So the process became leaning more and more into the documentary feel of it. Our goal with this last version was to make people feel like these are things that were actually said.
And they were. Though I still have to ask—to what degree, exactly, were the characters based on specific people? Are any of them composite?
Wohl: They are mostly based on real people that we met. There were places where we would base a character on a real person, and then find a piece of material that somebody else said that was also in that vein, so there was some blending and reassigning. But I feel good saying all of them are based on real people that we met.
There are a few moments in the show where characters ask if they can be in the play. It brought up a question for me about how they feel about the process. Was the relationship between you, the playwright, and your subjects hard to navigate?
Wohl: These people have been, depending on your point of view, exploited a lot in society. We thought a lot about whether we're exploiting them. We're not paying them. What are we offering them? More "exposure"? But is our theatrical exposure different from the way they're exposed in their professional life? What are the nuances of that?
I think that's why we leaned into the reality of it, because we felt like the answer was to let them speak in their own words, and give them their own voice. That felt like a way of putting them on stage without taking advantage of them.
As a writer, the way you position the material, the way you cut it and edit it can make someone sound really smart or really stupid. So I was very wary of ever positioning something in a way where someone sounded less articulate or intelligent than they really were, or something that got an easy laugh from the audience, That would be exploitative. At the same time, a lot of the material makes the audience laugh because it' s about sex, and also some of it is really funny. So I walked that line of letting it be funny, without playing it as a comedy.
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