Larry Pontius

Larry Pontius

Rogue Artists Discover What’s Sexy for Songs of Bilitis

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Stephen Elrod and Chris Rivas in "Songs of Bilitis." Photo courtesy of Rogue Artists Ensemble.

“We tend, as a group, to pick the thing that’s the hardest,” says Sean T. Cawelti, artistic director of Rogue Artists Ensemble.

The company has drawn attention for its hyper-theatrical work — especially D Is for Dog, which won the 2011 puppetry Ovation Award for its production at studio/stage and was revived at last summer’s Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Rogue Artists’ style combines multi-media, puppetry, masks and movement and an intensive rehearsal process in which everyone is involved every step of the way. The ensemble membership is more design-oriented than the actor-dominant memberships of many LA companies.  It has taken on its biggest challenge to date with a dramatization of Songs of Bilitis, a series of erotic poems purported to have been written by an ancient Greek courtesan — but in reality the writings of a French writer named Pierre Louÿs.

Sean T. Cawelti, John Nobori and Katie Polebaum.

When Louÿs published the book in 1894, he claimed the poems had been recently discovered, and were being translated for the first time.  He even included a biography of Bilitis.  The work itself is erotic, sensual, and, taking a cue from Sappho, about lesbians.

For about 10 years, the fabricated work entered into the canon of ancient Greek poetry, with only a few suspecting the truth.  Katie Polebaum, the D Is for Dog playwright who also adapted Bilitis, says people were ready to believe because the quality of the work was so high.  “No one ever asked, like, “˜where’s your source materials?’”

Cawelti, who is also directing the piece, says the initial response to Bilitis matched the spirit of the time. “It was during the big archeological craze.  And this was when dinosaur bones were being discovered and everyone thought they had an ancient civilization under their house.  So people were fired up about discovery.”

John Nobori, the associate artistic director and sound designer, offers another possible reason. “I think part of it too is that it seemed so outrageous at the time that a man would create this character, out of whole cloth, who was not a man.  So maybe one of the reasons no one questioned the veracity was that no one thought it was possible.”

Aryiel Hartman and ensemble.

Songs of Bilitis was commissioned and first workshopped at the Getty Villa in 2012.  As Polebaum researched the work and Louÿs, she couldn’t find the reason why he created the fabrication.  So that became the focus of the play.  She explains, “What we see on stage is the act of the creation of the text.”Â  On stage, Louÿs is writing the work while on a bender in Algeria.  He meets and begins living with a prostitute named Meriem.  “In the play, you see the start of this overseas adventure that he’s having and this moment of inspiration.”

Nobori continues, “The audience is seeing on stage our depictions of Pierre in his room creating and writing the work with the people in the real world, and that’s alternating with the depictions from the work itself.  These fantastical renderings of the Greek world.”

As the character of Louÿs begins to lose himself in the work, the real world and the fantastic begin to collide and merge.  Cawelti cites this fusion as a part of creating art — “the switch that happens in your creative process when the thing you’re creating becomes more real than the world you’re living in.”Â  And that creative confusion, that inability to separate from your work, becomes a challenge.  “There’s definitely a moment in the piece where Pierre is lost at sea.”

Perhaps it was the seductive nature of the work itself.  With Songs of Bilitis, the company is exploring eroticism and sex on stage, something it had never done so directly. The material challenged the company in unexpected ways.  “We’ve done pieces before that have had”¦ things like this.  But nothing to this extreme.  We’ve never done anything with any degree of nudity,” states Cawelti.

Chris Rivas and Estela Garcia.

“I believe what is sexy was a huge question,” Nobori adds.

Polebaum asks, “What’s sexual when you’re by yourself versus 90 other strangers, when you’re breathing and existing in the same space?”

Cawelti adds, “What’s sexy, what’s pornographic, what’s sexual, what’s sensual?”Â  Each was a question the group tackled as the work developed.  Mistakes happened.  Cawelti remembers, “At the Villa, we absolutely had a moment” which prompted a reaction of “”˜oh goodness, too far.’  We felt that exquisitely.”

A scene set in a temple with priestesses initially contained explicit nudity.  “The scene became instantly really uninteresting,” Cawelti says with a shrug.

Polebaum agrees. “Once you get over the initial, “˜Oh my gosh, someone is totally naked on stage,’ where do you look?  It’s distracting, you can’t really pay attention.”

Now, the priestesses wear very gauzy material, masking the nudity underneath.  Cawelti says this works much more effectively.  “Because you don’t see hard underwear lines, and they are moving a very free way, the audience feels this sensuality and eroticism.”Â  He compares it to another art form, “So much of it is like a great burlesque strip tease.  As someone is taking off their dress, a piece of fabric is flying in, so you are just seeing a few inches of skin as the dress is coming off.”

Open and honest conversation was the plan of action.  “In a show that has a lot of sexual energy,” Cawelti explains, “touch becomes a big thing.  When characters are touching, why they are touching.  How much”¦?”Â  A system of codes was devised in order to communicate to actors what was happening physically.  “When I tap you twice on your thigh, that’s the big thrust, when I pinch you on the thigh, that’s when I’m coming.”

Stephen Elrod, Aryiel Hartman and Steve Madar.

Nobori takes a moment to ask Cawelti a question. “Do you feel like you understand more now what sexy is?”

Cawelti nods and replies, “I do.  Sexy is softness.  Sensuality occurs in the moment right before the touch.  It’s almost about not touching.”Â  Also, “Because the play is about a lesbian, most of the nudity is women.  And that becomes something to balance, so we don’t enter into the territory of objectifying women.”

And with the balance comes the famous Greek phallus.  In some of the fantastical scenes, the long and oddly shaped phalluses appear.  Cawelti smiles, “We have some phalluses that are pool noodles.”Â  During a recent four-performance run at South Coast Repertory, the bold sexuality was met with surprising reactions.  Cawelti laughs, remembering, “There was one gal who was hysterically laughing the whole time.  Any time a wiener came out, she was hysterical.”

Another particular challenge of the show is the sound design.  Nobori explains that with the live microphones, “there’s a lot of live sound manipulation” — which he does manually during the show, creating echoes or vocal distortions.  All of the chorus members are wired for sound, all routed to an intricate system.  As they create sound, it’s blended with pre-recorded material.  “It’s a very complex show in that way, but it’s also really fun, because it’s never the same every night.  Just little tweaks in the way someone says one line each night — I get to amplify that, echo it, turn up the feedback.”

The danger of using live sound appeals to the team.  As Cawelti explains, “Something that is coming from the actors and the chorus in real time is like the story coming from Pierre in real time.  And it feels like it is all from the imagination.”Â  And, of course, “you do understand watching the show that these things are happening live.  There’s a pact you make with the audience that there’s an element of “˜something could go wrong.’ There are a lot of moving pieces, and it does become a roller coaster ride.”

Chris Rivas and Estela Garcia.

While the show might be erotic (Polebaum says, “I hope everyone goes home and gets laid”) and the work features Greek poetry and imagery, the Rogue artists feel the work connects to the modern world.  For Nobori, “I feel like there’s something about the show that will get people thinking about what their legacy is and make them think about what they have created in the world.”

Polebaum connects the work to our increasingly busy lives, she says. “We get bogged down in our own shit and then we kinda miss the rest of the world happening.”Â Â  Songs of Bilitis is about “what happens when you get a little too lost in your own head.”

Nobori concurs. “Everybody gets all wrapped up in their work and the things they project out in the world.  It can so easily become to the detriment of who they really are, what they really want to be in the world.  I hope that seeing our show will give people some pause.”

Songs of Bilitis, Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles 90057. Previews Thursday 7:30 pm. Opens Friday. Thu-Sat 7:30 pm. Through March 30. Tickets: $25. www.bootlegtheater.org. 213-389-3856.

**All Songs of Bilitis production photos courtesy of Rogue Artists Ensemble.