ted witzel is a smart guy, so we asked him to talk about what he’s thinking about and what he thinks we should be thinking about – as theatre makers, as artists, and as queers. here’s ted:
i take it as a good sign when people on a show i’m directing hook up.
i mean, as director / fearless leader you can usually see it coming miles away. we are, after all, in the strange and complicated business of watching a group of people’s interpersonal dynamics and trying to identify and articulate minuscule shifts in their energy. (well—let’s not kid ourselves into thinking we’re some kind of specially gifted diviners of people’s erotic intentions—more often than not it’s pretty obvious what’s going on).
and i’m usually happy about it. aside from worrying that thing might end badly before the run is over and i’ll have a pair of stage lovers who are more george & martha than romeo & juliet. which hasn’t happened yet.
“don’t shit where you eat” is the going maxim. i.e., don’t fuck up professional relationships by fucking your colleagues. erotic relationships are sloppy, untidy, brimming with all kinds of squelchy emotions that might end up spilled all over the floor, right?
but i take it as evidence that the room is fertile, that there is a creative buzz among the group, that there is an excitement among a group of collaborators that won’t be contained. because for me, there is something inherently erotic about the act of creating collaboratively.
thus far, i haven’t participated. it’s not a moral stance, just a practical one. maybe it’s a bit different when you’re the one leading the room—it might create a shift in the group, some kind of perceived inequity or nepotistic dynamic that i’d rather avoid.
but that’s not to say that my working relationships aren’t rife with unspoken erotic undercurrents. i think most people’s are, whether they recognize it or not. maybe my taste for particularly dionysian material renders this energy a little more visible in my rehearsals, but i don’t think it’s all that unique.
the notion that there is something erotic in the creative process is nothing new. plato articulates it in symposium. eastern cosmologies associate the sexual chakra with creativity.
i’m a touchy director, i think. i figure out physical action on my feet, sometimes by substituting in for an actor to try to make sense of the mechanics of an image i’m trying to create. how the legs and arms all fit together in a roll, or just how to manage a body someone’s trying to lift over their head.
—and here would be the appropriate moment to clarify that there is absolutely nothing erotic whatsoever about the ways in which i make physical contact with the bodies of my collaborators, but i think it would be a little bit dishonest.—
as a culture, we like boundaries, categories, labels, and definitions. they give a comfortable sense of certainty and let us know where we stand. but eros is slippery, it doesn’t have edges you can grab onto, no defined area you could put a fence around. eros has the power of erasing the carefully etched lines we use to sort people in our heads. to make things simpler for ourselves, sometimes it seems easier to pretend it’s not there rather than wade into the mire of acknowledging its existence and sorting out its implications.
when eros infiltrates our other relationships—like those between friends, between colleagues, between strangers, or (god help us) teachers and students—we become panicked. and most of the time, the implicit eros that runs beneath these dynamics never manifests in sex, nor is there any intention to make it manifest. but it frightens us, because of the potentiality it represents. so we control it and conceal it with shame and silence.
in today’s climate, with our increasing consciousness of rape culture and the myriad ways in which people in positions of authority (especially professional power) have proven inclined to abuse their power & privilege, we have become highly regulatory about touch in the public domain. in professional situations, physical contact is discouraged, and in most workplaces, i don’t see this as a bad thing. at the very least, it’s the simplest way of protecting people from unwanted advances.
where it gets tricky is in those lines of work where physical interactions are essential to the job. in theatre, our jobs are highly physical. touching each other is part of our business. often, to make corrections, or to explain an action, we touch. breathe here. release here. resist here. grab like this. lift like that.
we’ll swear up and down that this touch is completely non-erotic, no way, not a chance, it’s absolutely and positively “pure” of intent. but there is a certain erotics of collaboration that can never be totally absent from this dynamic. the idea that something must be absolutely non-sexual to be considered “pure” is itself problematic, and speaks to a kind of entrenched protestant assumption that erotic energy can simply be stripped from any exchange that isn’t explicitly sexual. in the dynamics of collaborative art-making in particular, dynamics under which we are almost constantly working in theatre, i think it’s a fallacious assumption.
a director i know was describing his experience with an actress 10 years ago—an actress he’s never slept with, or wanted to (as far as i could tell). the language he used to describe her work was entirely sensual: “she was beautiful, supple, powerful, it vibrated through her whole body…”
it’s incredibly sexy to watch an actor step fully into occupying a role; to watch a kind of connectedness and power emanate through their body, to feel the force of inspiration possess them. you get to know someone quite deeply by watching breath and thought and energy move through their body. and then there’s the added intimacy of offering notes / corrections / feedback—you’re both working through one body to communicate something.
jamming ideas with designers and other collaborators has an exciting buzz to it, jumping onto the same creative wavelength and riffing off each other’s imagery and ideas, moving towards a common creation. the exhilaration is like flirting with a new lover, staying up late smoking spliffs and drinking cheap wine on a fire escape. the question, “is this an idea we’ll regret tomorrow or is it brilliant?” hums in the background.
with some of my closest collaborators, there’s always space for a work session to get sidelined by a few hours of talking about orifices before we get back on track. even last weekend’s dramaturgy session in stratford started with a two-hour car ride in which we alternated between complaining about safe art and talking about sex.
i find the people i enjoy working with most incredibly sexy. male or female, straight or queer; it doesn’t matter. it’s not about actual sex, but it’s erotic. i have art-crushes on most of the people i create with. it’s their minds, their ideas, their skill, their jokes, their passions that make them sexy to me. and often, it’s also their physical beauty. people i work with become more attractive to me as they invest their passion and energy into our shared work. there’s a kind of attraction that vibrates between us. if i’m not feeling it, i question whether i should be working with them at all. i don’t think i’ve ever had a successful collaboration that hasn’t had some kind of erotic undercurrent to it.
sure, it’s completely “platonic,” for all those past collaborators reading this who are suddenly feeling bashful about having been under my director’s eye. —though i’m not sure that the word “platonic” ought to be very reassuring. it’s a colloquialism that has come to be used in the sense of “non-erotic” but actually plato’s use is a bit different. he’s describing a kind of eros with an aim that is non-reproductive, but it is eros nevertheless.
i think we’re kidding ourselves in assuming that the erotic can or should be eliminated from our creative partnerships. it’s precisely that energy that lifts the task of making work from “gig” to “passion.” and it makes for better art to have everyone committed, excited, seduced by each other in service of the thing you are all making.
eros makes us anxious, because it’s disorienting. our feelings become difficult to define. our sense of relation to one another squirms and wriggles, impossible to pin down. eros dizzies and disinhibits. but it’s right there, in the centre of that dislocation, that we sometimes manage to transcend our expectations and transport ourselves to new dimension, beyond the limitations of what seems impossible. the most exciting, daring ideas that have come up in rehearsal have come on days when the rehearsal hall is vibrating with a kind of creative energy that i could only describe as erotic.
we’re loath to name it as such, because our cultural understanding of eros implies an expectation or even a desire that it be consummated. which, in the kind of creative eroticism i’ve been trying to describe, isn’t necessary; though it doesn’t upset me when it happens between people i’m working with. i’m not even sure it would be useful to name it when it appears in the room. naming can be a mechanism of control, and this kind of energy is productive precisely because it defies control, it liberates, it eliminates assumptions—one might well kill the vibe by describing it.
(or maybe i just did).