Friday, August 20, 2004

Hey, Mr. Producer! (I’m Talking to You, Sir!

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #241, August 20, 2004)

What do you get when you cross a leatherman and a show-tune queen? You get your humble columnist. Sometimes I view the world through leather-colored glasses and sometimes through the lens of musical theater. When I combine these two ways of seeing the world, things can get interesting.

I’ve seen (or been part of) some really good leather fantasies over the years. (Just to remind you, the word “fantasy” in a leather context connotes an erotic skit—see last issue’s column). But I’d like to see the concept taken to the next level. I’m talking about more than skits here—I’m talking about a full-blown leather musical revue.

This stage production I’m proposing was inspired by “Fantasy,” the Omaha-based festival of fantasies that was created and produced for several years by Dustin Logan and Bob Ewing. “Fantasy” was a revolutionary idea for its time: an evening of fantasy performances for the sole purpose of entertainment, not as part of a competition.

“Fantasy” was thoroughly enjoyable, and I miss it. Hence the desire to not only bring it back, but to take the concept and make it big, and accessible to a broader audience as well. I have had this idea for a long time. For now it’s just a closet (you should pardon the expression) musical revue, but I dream that one day I’ll actually see it on stage. Read, and fantasize along with me.

The show starts with a big opening number in which the cast of characters invites the audience into their somewhat dark but fascinating world. What follows touches on as many different fetishes and scenes as can be crammed into an evening in the theater.

After the opening the show dives right into “It’s Raining Men,” a watersports number for the yellow-hankie crowd—simulated, of course (wink wink).

“Electrician Blues,” performed to the classic naughty blues song of the same name, includes both TENS-unit and violet-wand play (on a dim or dark stage to enhance the spectacle). The same performer later sings “Dentist Blues,” as made famous by Bette Midler: “You thrill me/When you drill me/And I don’t need no Novocaine today!”

“The Teddy Bear Picnic” is sung and danced sweetly and innocently by a stage full of hunky, furry bears. Here’s a sample of the lyric: “Beneath the trees where nobody sees/They’ll hide and seek as long as they please/’Cause that’s the way the teddy bears have their picnic.”

A tango number: A spotlight shines on the bare back of a man wearing black leather pants and a harness. He starts to slowly revolve to face the audience, and we see that it’s—Dan Chouinard! (His accordion is attached to the harness.) Chouinard plays “Kiss of Fire” (including the lyrics “If I’m a slave, then it’s a slave I want to be!”) while a couple performs a combination of tango and fireplay. (Chouinard and the dancers are brought back later for Tom Lehrer’s “The Masochism Tango.”)

A comic number: “I Want To Be Happy (But I Won’t Be Happy/’Til I Make You Happy Too),” from No, No, Nanette!, sung by an eager-to-please top to a jaded bottom. Following this is a non-comic dance interlude to the same song, featuring something I’ve always wanted to see onstage: an all-male synchronized dance line in full black leather and boots with taps on them. (Which leather company will get all the publicity that will come from supplying the leathers for the dance line?)

Whipmaster Robert Dante shows off his amazing whipping skill and technique, including his famous black-light whipping.

“Treat Me Rough,” originally a mapcap comic number from “Girl Crazy” by the Gershwins, is reworked with slight changes to the lyrics to be a sensual, sultry number in the style of 1930s Berlin.

A gay-male version of the 1964 hit by the Shangri-las, “Leader of the Pack,” is sung and dramatized by a male doo-wop group in black leather.

Another amazing dance number: synchronized flogging, combining flogging with tap dancing or Irish or American clog dancing (clogging while flogging!). Then the lights go down for something I recently saw at a run: flaming floggers, a combination of flogging and fireplay.

No revue is complete without a tear-jerker. In this case it’s Al Jolson’s classic “Sonny Boy,” reworked for the continuing age of AIDS (including a safe-sex message, of course).

Sung by either a boy or a slave, Cole Porter’s “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” includes the formerly-censored lines following “My Daddy, he treats it so well”: “He treats it, and treats it, and then he repeats it.”

And finally, the big finish (known in the trade as the “eleven-o’clock number”): “Leatherella,” in which our hero wants to go to the run but is forced by his Wicked Daddy and Stepbrothers to stay at home—after polishing all their leathers and boots. Fairy GodDaddy appears and produces a complete leather outfit and a Harley to go to the run. After meeting the Handsome Titleholder, Leatherella is forced to make a quick getaway on the Harley, which at the stroke of midnight turns into a unicycle (or a Segway—whichever would get more laughs). Next day the Handsome Titleholder comes calling with the boot that Leatherella left behind. You can figure out the rest.

Where to find the people to make this dream a reality? To quote a Stephen Sondheim lyric from Follies (with added leather emphasis): “Hey Mr. Producer/I’m talking to you, SIR!” You don’t suppose there are any theater producers in the leather community, do you? Or directors, choreographers, actors, dancers, technicians, set designers, costume designers, etc.? Or any angels/backers out there to finance it?

I can see it now—it opens in the Twin Cities and goes on to play Chicago (with an excerpt as the opening number at IML), Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York before becoming a Las Vegas perennial at the newly-opened Caesar’s Dungeon (built just for the show).

For now, it’s just my fantasy. Could it be a reality someday? To paraphrase Bloody Mary in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific: “You got to have a fantasy/If you no have a fantasy/How you gonna have a fantasy come true?”

Friday, August 6, 2004

Fantasy Land

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #240, August 6, 2004)

Fantasy is to the leather community what community theater is to the masses. A leather fantasy is a skit built around leather/BDSM themes and usually, but not always, performed as part of a leather contest. It is the leather community’s theater. I have seen some that were splendid, many that fell short of the mark, and more than a few that were utterly embarrassing. Generally, what made them embarrassing was that they were done with no regard for basic acting, stagecraft and storytelling practices.

My colleague, Robert Davolt, recently wrote an essay (Myth #48 in his “Myths & Mysteries of Leather” series) that was critical of the entire concept of fantasies. While I can’t argue with what he wrote (Argue with Robert Davolt? Are you kidding?), I submit that a little community education could go a long way toward raising the entertainment level of leather fantasies.

Prepare to be educated. Here are some helpful tips for those contemplating the presentation of a fantasy.

It’s theater. This is the time to dust off your high-school or college or community theater knowledge. You didn’t get the theater gene? Then get someone who’s theatrically literate to help you. You need to know at least the elementary rules of stagecraft to present a fantasy that works.

This time it’s all about you. Keep the focus on you, the contestant. I once saw a fantasy in which a gentleman was escorted to a barber’s chair, where his body disappeared under a barber’s cape and his face disappeared under lather. Then the barber exhibited his shaving, bondage and flogging skills. If I were judging I would have given the barber high marks—but it wasn’t his fantasy. The contestant was the invisible guy in the chair who didn’t really do anything. Moral: Keep the best lines for yourself.

Faces are more interesting than backs. There are few fantasies worse than five minutes of uninterrupted flogging during which nothing else happens. The only way to make a more deadly fantasy is to have both flogger and floggee keep their backs to the audience for the entire five minutes. If you must do a flogging fantasy, consider positioning yourself and your co-stars in such a way that the audience can see your faces and your facial expressions.

It’s supposed to be entertaining. Five minutes of unremitting flogging is not entertaining. Think of television—quick cuts for attention-span-challenged viewers. On stage it isn’t possible to be quite that manic, but one rule of thumb I’ve heard (thank you, J.D. Laufman) is this: Something—the music, the lighting, an entrance, an exit, a prop—should change every fifteen seconds.

Say it with music. Use music to support and enhance the fantasy’s action. Consider changing or varying the music throughout the fantasy rather than having one song or one droning rhythm track the whole time you’re onstage. And please, please be sure the soundtrack tape or CD is of good recording quality and has smooth edits and transitions between selections. If you don’t know how to make a good mix, find someone who does and let them help you.

Try not to say it with words. Microphones for spoken dialogue during fantasies can be a production headache, and voiceovers on the music tape or CD often turn to indecipherable mush. And what about those in the audience who are hearing-challenged or non-English-speakers? If no one can understand what is being said, the point of the fantasy can be lost. Consider instead telling the story without words. If you absolutely must use words, do the necessary planning and testing to make sure they will be understood. (See one contestant’s success story below.)

The biggest prop wins. I have seen it time and again—the elegant minimalist fantasy loses out to the ham-fisted one because the latter includes a 10-foot rope spider web, a 12-foot condom or a 15-foot gallows. (This is known in the trade as a “wow factor.”) But big props have to be designed, constructed and transported to the theater or bar where the fantasy is being performed. They cause all kinds of headaches for the contest production staff who have to move them onstage for the fantasy and offstage again afterward. Contestants who have to ship big props for long distances are at a disadvantage compared to contestants who are relatively close to where the contest is being held. Consider building props that look big but are lightweight, collapsible and portable.

Or consider using other “wow factors” like good storytelling and presentation. At this year’s Mr./Ms Olympus Leather Contest, contestant (and writer) Toni Pizanie’s fantasy consisted of standing on stage and reading a piece she had written—the story of how she came to be on that stage that evening. No big props, no throbbing music, nothing changing every fifteen seconds. Just words—but she was charming, spoke clearly and had a good story to tell. And she had that audience in the palm of her hand. (It helped that she also had a good sound system at her disposal.)

Use simple lighting. Find out what kind of stage lighting flexibility will be available—you may be limited to “on” or “off.” (If you’re lucky you’ll have a spotlight to work with.) The time to discover this information is while you’re planning your fantasy, not when you get to the theater or bar to present it.

The contest production staffers are your friends. Treat them nicely—their efforts are going to make you look good onstage (or not). Make their job as easy as possible, and your job will be easier, too.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Rehearse before you get to the venue and, if possible, rehearse on the stage where you will be performing the fantasy. Don’t think that not rehearsing will make the fantasy look “spontaneous”—not rehearsing will more than likely make it look amateurish.

Prepare for the unexpected. No lights? No sound? Missed entrance? The show must go on, so make contingency plans. This also applies to other people appearing in the fantasy who become ill, props that are lost in shipping, soundtrack tapes that are mysteriously erased—have understudies and alternative props available and carry duplicates of soundtrack tapes or CDs. If you ship props or costumes, plan ahead so that you ship them with plenty of time to spare.

It’s not a scene, it’s a fantasy. It’s not about you getting off onstage, it’s about you entertaining the audience (and, if you’re lucky, getting them off). Keep your priorities in perspective here.

Finally: Know what reaction you’re trying to inspire. International Ms Leather 1995 Pat Baillie once explained to me the effects a good fantasy can have on an audience: it can “make ’em hard” (or, based on gender, “wet”), “make ’em laugh, or make ’em think.” You get extra points for doing two of the above; come up with a fantasy that does all three and you stand a good chance of winning the category, if not the contest.