Luna Black rehearsing a burlesque act on the back of a motorcycle
Luna Black is set to do a burlesque act on the back of a motorcycle on stage at the 418 Project’s “What is Erotic?” performance.
(Via Kenneth Adelman)
City Life

An erotic, sex-positive performance in Santa Cruz that might leave you ‘feeling a bit spicy’

“What is Erotic?” That’s the question The 418 Project has asked and kind of answered since 2005. Now, with the pandemic receding but “plastic sexuality” still pervading mainstream culture, the 2022 edition promises an expansive show in a big, new venue.

It sounds like a board game at a bachelorette party. Or a writing prompt in a cringey “Saturday Night Live” skit. Or a conversational dirty bomb designed to ruin a Thanksgiving dinner.

Wallace

“What is Erotic?”

It’s a simple question with a complicated answer, probably many complicated answers. But easier to address is the meta-question: What is “What is Erotic?”

That’s the name of an annual event in Santa Cruz that goes back to 2005, an eccentric but defiantly high-spirited variety show hosted at The 418 Project generally featuring dancers, actors, comedians, musicians, monologuists and other various exhibitionists, all intent on exploring the bedeviling question that makes up the event’s name.

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The show will take place on three consecutive nights, Friday through Sunday. This year’s production marks a new era at WIE. It’s the first show since the pandemic shutdown, and it’s the first in The 418’s new performance space, the former Riverfront Twin movie house on River Street.

The spirit of the show, however, will be largely unchanged, said WIE’s artistic director, Laura Bishop.

“To me, there’s a lot of plastic sexuality in this culture,” she said. “There’s a lot of monetization of sex, and a lot of sex-based content in media. And this is a sex-positive performance and production, but it’s meant to create a conversation. It doesn’t answer the question ‘What is erotic?’ It asks. And it allows people to ask in ways that are deeply personal to them.”

In the past, that openness has led to a dizzying variety of expressions, from fire dancing and burlesque to opera and circus arts. The show remains open to any would-be performer with an idea and a willingness to cultivate and hone that idea into a compelling performance piece. The finished pieces are, in fact, the result of a long collaboration between the performer and The 418, which has experienced people available to consult in a number of performing arts, from choreography to physical comedy.

Antoine Watkins rehearses a roller-disco dance for this year's "What is Erotic?".
(Via Kenneth Adelman)

“There’s a five-month mentorship associated with the performer’s experience,” she said, “where people can bring forth material that — sure, it’s sexy — but it’s also vulnerable, deeply personal and very intimate.”

The show — a fundraiser for the nonprofit 418 Project — features altogether about 25 performers, many of them in solo pieces. On the other end of the scale, one theater piece features 11 performers.

The most recent WIE production took place right before shelter-in-place orders were issued in early 2020. That show was in The 418’s former spot on Front Street, tucked alongside India Joze, in a building now shuttered and readied for redevelopment. The new space in the former movie house (most recently the site of the since-closed DNA’s Comedy Lab) gives the show’s producers more room to operate. As a result, said Bishop, this year’s performance will feature things impossible or impractical in the former space, such as roller disco.

“We have 22,000 square feet and multiple theaters,” said Bishop, “so, yes, this will be our largest production. It looks kind of like a little version of the Greek Theatre in Berkeley.”

In deference to concerns about the ongoing pandemic, WIE will not only institute social-distancing measures, but it will also offer a livestream option for those who want to see the show live but don’t feel comfortable showing up in person.

Of course, behind the question “What is Erotic?” is another, more specific one regarding this production: What is the show’s approach to an honest and explicit expression of sexuality, namely nudity, sexual language, and sexual behavior on stage?

Bishop stressed that WIE is restricted to those 18 and over. She said the difference between the terms “erotica” and “porn” is that the former brings an element of contemplation and reflection to sexuality, and the latter resists such introspection.

“This is not ‘What is Pornography?’,” she said. “It’s ‘What is Erotic?’ We very much feel like our job is to put forward content in a way that audiences can feel safe experiencing, but also uplifted and inspired and maybe even left feeling a bit spicy and juicy. To put it on stage thoughtfully is really not dangerous. This is not a show where there are sex acts on stage. This is a show where people are expressing and experiencing what is erotic to them.”

Travis Wycoff and Kylie Webb performed an aerial duet in 2015's "What is Erotic?" program at The 418 Project.
(Via The 418 Project)

The show’s cast is also drawing from a wider segment of the public than in some years past. “This is the first year where people are using their (preferred) gender pronouns in the program,” said Bishop. “The show contains a significant number of non-binary folks, and it also contains more men. After (the #MeToo movement), we had no men. And this year, we have a lot of men who are really doing some, if I may say so, delicious things. So the men are back. A lot of queer people are feeling comfortable to get out there and express their sexuality. It’s the artists who are leading the conversation.”

“What is Erotic?” takes place Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at The 418 Project, 155 S. River St., Santa Cruz. Showtime is 7 p.m. each night, with a livestreaming option. Ages 18 and over only. Tickets are $25-$125.