In the fall of 2019, I was sitting at the Green Beanery with theatre director (and dear friend) Rebecca Ballarin—hereafter called Rebecca B—when she mentioned an exciting new British play she had discovered. Apparently, the cover depicted a young woman looking at her vagina with a hand mirror. I was intrigued.
Cut to: months later, me gripping the copy of Rebecca B’s play she let me borrow.
If someone had a camera in my bedroom, here’s the scene they might have witnessed:
Me, sitting very still, jaw clenched, turning the pages at a steady pace until I’d read the entire play from cover to cover.
Me bursting into tears.
Me throwing the play against the wall.
Me panic-breathing into my pillow for five minutes.
Me slowly picking the play back up again.
Me crawling to my laptop and submitting the play to the Toronto Fringe Festival lottery.
I put both mine and Rebecca B’s name on the application, without telling her, or even inquiring if the rights would be available.
Luckily, we did not get in.
Isley Lynn’s Skin A Cat is a wild sexual odyssey of a young woman trying to “lose her virginity” the way the media, family, and friends have told her she’s supposed to. The only problem: she has vaginismus, a condition that causes penetrative sex to be extremely painful, if not impossible. This is the only play I’ve ever read that depicts this common problem (current research shows close to 1 in 3 people with vaginas live with a chronic vulvar/vaginal or pelvic pain condition).
Nobody talks about it.
I certainly wasn’t talking about it.
And I have vaginismus.
It was exhilarating and terrifying how much I related to the lead character, Alana. Putting on the play felt like the vehicle I needed to, hopefully, encourage people to open up about this—the physical pain of vaginismus, as well as the emotional pain that comes when the world at large makes you feel alone, or broken, or “crazy.” Putting on a play felt somehow less scary than, say, going up to random people on the street and talking to them about my vagina (a social experiment I am tempted to try in post-pandemic times).
Reading the play, I experienced the combination of panic/nausea which, I’ve come to understand in my short time as an artist, means I’m on the right track.
Naturally, the play demands a ton of intimacy. And not, like, “cute” intimacy. Like, “five-page-long anal sex scenes and whole chunks of stage directions describing specific types of masturbation” intimacy. Some of these scenes are humorous, some very sad, and all of them totally unflinching. And these scenes are a big part of the reason Rebecca B and I loved the play so much. It is through the moments of intimacy that Alana’s emotional journey really comes to life, as we watch her, with varying degrees of success, navigate her relationship to sex and her body.
While, in theatre, it may seem we never see painful sex depicted on stage, we also rarely see any sexual interactions getting negotiated in all their messy, humorous and/or frustrating glory.
We need those stories.
Putting on the play felt like the vehicle I needed to, hopefully, encourage people to open up about this—the physical pain of vaginismus, as well as the emotional pain that comes when the world at large makes you feel alone, or broken, or “crazy.”
When we knew we’d be presenting the play virtually at Pat The Dog’s Femme Folks Fest earlier this year, with Rebecca B as director and me playing Alana, a part of me was relieved. I wouldn’t be in the same room as the audience or my scene partners. I’d have a screen as a buffer. I was safer, more protected from giving a “truly vulnerable” performance.
But then I realized: while I wouldn’t be learning any particularly complicated physical maneuvers, I’d still have to play all these complex intimate moments.
I’ve watched a fair amount of Zoom theatre this past year. I’ve watched it on the couch. While eating dinner. While making dinner. On the floor. Sometimes, my screen was just inches from my face while I took in the actors’ performances. That very well could be how the audience was experiencing this play. Knowing this made me feel even more exposed than, say, simulating masturbation on an actual stage.
In Skin a Cat, I’d be performing some of the most intimate scenes I’ve ever explored as an actor, all into the most focused platform short of an extreme close-up, with no “emergency exit” for my face. And it kept me up at night.
Leslie McBay, our incredible intimacy director, sent individual emails to the cast —Liam Lynch, Neta Rose and me—prior to our first rehearsal, asking if we had any anxieties we wanted to share with her before we dove in. My response was something like, “very excited to work with you and freaking out about having so much sex directly into my camera HAHAHA thanks for asking see you monday!!!!!!”
Really, though, the anxieties were larger, less glib. Would people think those were the noises and the faces I make in real life? What if said noises and faces were too over the top? What if they weren’t over the top enough? Have I even had this specific type of orgasm? Would it be obvious to everyone I haven’t? Would everyone question why someone so sexually inexperienced got cast in this role?
The spiral was endless.
And then something kind of magical happened during our short rehearsal process. Gently and purposefully, we started asking different questions. And I started sleeping (marginally) better.
Liam noted at one point that we didn’t have to play to “the back of the house”—we had more capacity to explore the physicality of intimacy in a more specific and subtle way.
When a sexual interaction was exploratory vs. goal-oriented, how might everyone breathe? Where might they send their energy? And, perhaps most importantly, why?
We discovered Alana sometimes held her breath when anticipating a negative sensation, but laughed when experiencing a positive one. She angled her body when flirting with someone, and tensed her shoulders when feeling violated.
Leslie steered our understanding of the context of each scene, then choreographed all the moments of intimacy with such creativity and subtlety, finding ways to tell the story to which everyone had consented. We looked at each character’s energy and intensity, and how we could use the tools available to us through Zoom, i.e. tension, breath, and small movements, to tell the story of each scene. And the choreography itself was a buffer. When we knew exactly what we were doing physically, there were no surprises, no secret anxieties waiting to surface.
We were free.
During the longer scenes intimate moments (recall: five-page-long anal sex scene), there was so much space to play, we could even make eye contact with one another on our screens and sync up our breathing, “checking in” with each other—reminding ourselves that, although not doing the choreography in the same room, we were still very much in scene together. This felt incredibly intimate in and of itself; knowing us performers were doing this weird vulnerable thing in a weird vulnerable way, and that we weren’t doing it alone.
In the latter half of the play, Alana has an extremely long and incredibly fake orgasm with an older partner. This was one of the moments that gave me the most Zoom anxiety beforehand.
Would I get the right amount of “oh”s, and “yes”s? Would my face be insane?
(I definitely didn’t and it probably was).
As we worked, I realized that wasn’t all I was anxious about. This is a moment in the play when Alana is desperate to be loved the only way she knows how. Playing the emotional stakes, stripped of the distance between stage and audience, felt terrifying; and very much like, you know, intimacy. And I think it made me a better actor.
Also, apparently, using your hair to cover parts of your face is a completely acceptable move in such moments (thanks Leslie!).
When I sent my very professional email to Leslie at the beginning of our process, my self-conscious anxieties covered up what I was truly afraid of: inviting the audience into my space, and my performance, so closely. But ultimately the thing that kept me safe, the thing that kept us all safe, was actually doing just that. Learning how, and remembering why. We got to tell the story, the right story, that of a woman who spends years desperately trying to “fix” herself for other people and finally comes back to herself, and realizes she doesn’t have to perform being something she is not.
We got to tell the story—the right story.
This was the story my panic and nausea from two years ago had indicated we absolutely needed to tell.
In the end, Skin A Cat asks us to consider who we could be and what we could do in the world if we released ourselves of our secret sources of shame—if we choose to show up exactly as we are. And that’s something I’m so grateful I got to explore, from the relative comfort of my own home, with a group of profoundly thoughtful and brave artists.
I’m not confident anyone who saw the show will be able to look me in the eye if ever we meet in person.
But I’m really proud of what we created.
As part of our closing rituals at the end of each rehearsal, Leslie asked us to bring to mind one thing we wanted to leave in the “room” and one thing we wanted to take with us into our outside lives. One thing I kept wanting to take with me was vulnerability. And the courage to just show up and keep practicing it, purposefully and imperfectly.
Maybe this whole process was practice, really. For the days when we can all be vulnerable in person again. For “real theatre”, or “real life.”
I don’t know. It felt pretty real to me.