WHORE – Storytelling About Sex Work

Lifewise Merge Cafe, 453 Karangahape Road, Ponsonby, Auckland

30/05/2014 - 30/05/2014

BATS Theatre (Out-Of-Site) Cnr Cuba & Dixon, Wellington

25/09/2014 - 27/09/2014

Production Details



charlatan clinic’s confronting new work ‘Whore’ in collaboration with Printable Reality, begins 29 May performing at Lifewise Merge Cafe in Karangahape Road, Ponsonby.

‘Whore’ delves into the lives of six characters – ‘Rent boy’, ‘Refugee’, ‘Illegal migrant’, ‘Married woman’, ‘Underage sex worker’ and ‘Transgender’; played by Lee Ah Yen Faatoia, Rebecca Parr and Geraldine Creff – who have written about their experience on the charlatan clinic blog. 

Melissa Fergusson has met with Auckland sex workers and conducted interviews to gain insight and understanding, for the purpose of honest storytelling. She is fascinated why society thinks ‘Whore’ is a dirty word. Fergusson says “Sex work is heavily stigmatised and misunderstood in society. Hopefully my play brings truth, and challenges perception.” 

Lifewise Merge Cafe will be converted into an intimate theatre space, seating up to 60 people per show. There will also be a photo gallery of the making of ‘Whore’, and audio interviews about sex work at the venue. 

‘Whore’ is proudly supported and sponsored by Lifewise, Splice, Printable Reality, NZ Stage, The Makeup School, Paper Bag Princess, NZPC and Four Eyes Media. 

Tickets $10 – Door Sales Only
Whore season: 29 May (VIP) 8pm, 30 May 8pm, 31 May 8pm, 1 June 8pm
Lifewise Merge Cafe, 453 Karangahape Road, Ponsonby.


Married woman/Refugee: Rebecca Parr
Rent boy/Transgender: Lee Ah Yen Faatoia
Underage sex worker/Illegal migrant: Geraldine Creff

Makeup Artists: Sarah Wright & Jemima Kean
Videographer: Tim Butler
Stylist: Chloe Swarbrick
Photographer: Veronika Gulyayeva
Producer: charlatan clinic & Printable Reality  



A strangely dislocated experience

Review by John Smythe 26th Sep 2014

There is no contesting the commitment of the charlatan clinic team to their ‘Project Whore’.  Playwright Melissa Fergusson interviewed Auckland sex workers by way of developing the six monologues that comprise her script. The three actors, who play two ‘whores’ apiece, took part in Auckland’s annual Sleeping Rough event as part of their research.

The support crew welcomes us, stamp ‘WHORE’ in large letters on our arms and gives us ‘Do I look like a whore?’ stickers to wear. Presumably this is optional if you are assertive enough. Either way it orientates us to the idea of being labelled and judged by appearances. Fair enough.

Following the screening of part of their YouTube clip, abruptly curtailed (I expect it was made for their crowd-funding campaign), the six monologues play out with little variation in placing and pacing (more of which later).

The characterisations, however, are impressively varied. Because they believe in their characters, so do we, although we are likely to perceive different realities beyond those they’ve constructed for themselves. The comprehensive range of ‘whores’ exhibited for our delectation, the juxtaposition of subjective and objective realities, and the reveals of how they came to be selling their bodies, are the dramatic positives of the piece.

Rebecca Parr kicks off with ‘Married woman’, whose black eye belies the account she offers of wedded bliss with her bi-polar boyfriend whose dependence on meds she works to supply. Happy to claim the title ‘breadwinner’, despite their living rough and not having enough to eat, her persistent declarations of love for him engender appropriate concern.

Later Parr becomes the ‘Refugee’, who doesn’t do love but services multiple men a day to feed her addiction to drugs. There is no hope in her story.

Second up is Lee Ah Yen Faatoia’s ‘Rent boy’, who reveals quite a lot about the family – if you can call it that – circumstances that brought him to the streets. While deeply felt, a great deal of what he has to say is unintelligible because of Faatoia’s habit of gabbling whole sentences as if they were one word, and being reticent anyway because of the undeclared shame he feels. When he snorts from a small plastic bag does his voice does lift so maybe he could do that earlier …

His second character is called ‘Transgender’ in the programme although this is a desired state, not yet completed. She is the only one to claim a love of hot guys and hot sex.

Given humour is one of humanity’s strongest defences against adversity, one might have expected it to surface somewhere – in this character especially. But the whole show is pretty well devoid of it, which helps to render the eighty minutes unremittingly bleak.

Geraldine Creff’s exotic ‘Illegal migrant’ has been duped in to coming to new Zealand by a Facebook ‘friend’. She sees her status as a prostitute as temporary and aspires to a ‘normal’ middle class life. If her papers were in order she would doubtless be working in a high class brothel but she’s an over-stayer so has to work on the street. Her strategy for learning English is one of the few delights of the night.

In total contrast, Creff completes the sextet as ‘Underage sex worker’, whose sexual experience started way too early in life. It’s a well-observed characterisation except that she too gabbles and is semi-intelligible much of the time.

Sure it’s very likely this is the way it really is, out there on the street. But given the non-naturalistic premise of the monologue convention itself, and our inability to say “I beg your pardon – could you repeat that?” (we are talked at rather than with), there is no validity in claiming authenticity as the excuse for being semi-comprehensible.  

The major problem with the whole production, however, is that all three actors deliver all six characters in the same stop-start rhythm: speak – think – speak – think – speak – think – speak … for eighty minutes. Apart from being totally unrealistic, especially when people are speaking their thoughts and/or saying stuff they know backwards (no-one makes a new discovery in the process of telling us about themselves), it sucks the play dry of any dramatic shape.  

If the actors have done this of their own volition, the necessary directorial intervention is sorely lacking. But because it is endemic I can only suppose this comes at the behest of writer / director herself. It’s as if she thinks each thought, feeling and idea expressed is a precious jewel that deserves to be presented on its own velvet cushion to be fully appreciated. The result, for the audience, is akin to being a passenger in a car that is stuck in low gear and bunny-hopping down the highway, turning what should have been an interesting and insightful journey into a strangely dislocated experience.

Comments

Hannah McQuilkan September 26th, 2014

Yes, I saw the show in Auckland and agree with this review. I too was underwhelmed by what i thought would be an interesting and informative night out. I also felt that the characters were all too similar in that they were victims to their circumstance. I would have liked someone to be interviewed and included in the performance who had chosen sex work and was empowered in it, enjoyed it, I know those people exist. So i felt the monologues as only presenting one side and that got pretty boring pretty quickly.

Make a comment

Valid, engaged, under-developed

Review by Cherie Moore 31st May 2014

WHORE is a collection of six monologues – stories about street sex workers in Auckland – performed by three actors at Lifewise Merge Café on Karangahape Road. Writer and Director Melissa Fergusson was prompted to write the piece by a friend who is a social worker and an ex-sex worker. With her help, and the support of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, Fergusson met with sex workers who are also homeless, to hear their stories. WHORE is a creative elaboration based on those conversations and people’s lives.   

Merge Café is the perfect venue for this piece. It is in the heart of K Rd, and the culture of these pieces really belong here. In 2010, Lifewise closed its soup kitchen, and opened up Merge Café. Merge serves the general public, as well as the homeless. If you don’t have money to pay, you do a shift in the kitchen in exchange for being fed. The aim of Merge café is to give homeless people an opportunity to learn skills in the catering/hospitality area, and also to give choices to those who usually have very little choice in their life. Unlike the soup kitchen, Merge Café serves a range of food, and espresso coffee, and people can choose what they’d like to eat, and what table they’d like to sit at. Other than the incredibly low prices, there’s not much to distinguish this café from any other. 

Walking in to the venue, I am greeted by Fergusson and have WHORE stamped on my arm in black ink. I’m also pinned with a badge – “Do I look like a Whore?” – and offered a free condom. The seating is half church pews, half bench seats, in an intimate sixty seat end on configuration. The show goes up a little after 8pm to a packed house.

The first monologue is ‘Rent Boy’, the story of an ex-convict, now sex working straight man who sleeps with men for money. This first piece sets the precedent of what we will hear in each story: that drugs are a huge part of this world; each characters states what they think sex is. For Rent Boy, “Sex is cheap. It’s what you make of it. Sex is money.”

In the second piece, ‘Immigrant’, we meet a lithe Russian woman who has lost everything including her hope for something better. To her, “Sex is overrated. It’s my income. I don’t do love, I do drugs.”  

These first two monologues are hard to focus on. The actors are very physically active, and while it’s clear that’s because they are trying to portray drug dependency, it comes across more as put on gestures than truth. The writing is at times clunky, and actor and text rush through major beats and shifts without honouring them, so the work feels fragmented in its form. While this fragmentation is often a reflection of the state of mind these characters are in, from a craft perspective it’s not solid enough, and so the audience can never be fully engaged with the characters. These are issues that plague the work as a whole and continue from beginning to end. 

The third monologue is ‘Illegal Migrant’. It is more still and has a different energy quality to the first two pieces, so the show suddenly settles in. While her mixed accent makes it difficult to pick where this character is supposed to be from, Geraldine Creff makes good use of her environment, and takes her time with the text. She overworks her props and her use of a notebook becomes unmotivated and unclear, but the majority of the time I believe her. This is the turning point in the work; as with the first two monologues, ‘Illegal Immigrant’ is lost and unhappy, but she does have hope and dreams. This moves us to the last half of the work, with three monologues of characters much more at peace with their circumstances.

‘Married Woman’ starts with a wide-eyed and startled Rebecca Parr; a start not really grounded in anything that is clear to the audience. However, she settles in to this piece well, and it becomes very compelling. This monologue is the best written in the work. It highlights the cycle of abuse present in this world, and the dependence on others and on substances. Parr’s portrayal of a woman so desperate to be loved she is content with being pimped out by her husband is really good. She is the only actor in the piece whose vocal work stands up in the venue. 

The final two monologues of the piece, ‘Underage sex worker’, and ‘Transgender’ are full of energy and life. They are well played by Creff and Lee Ah Yen Faatoia, although their vocal work lets them down at times. With these two characters we see people who enjoy their work, who are making the most of their situation, but are perhaps only ever focussing on the moment at hand.

The last half of the work is better crafted than the first, but the overall shape of the piece needs work. The actors rarely have a reason for entering or exiting, and the change of seats in between monologues feels unnecessary. In a site-specific venue it’s important to craft something that doesn’t highlight the inadequacies of the space, and unfortunately WHORE overcomplicates what could be a simple and beautiful creation of one world.   

While I think the piece has major flaws in the writing and execution, I am really struck by the fact that these are the stories of real people who are just down the road, and while my black ink WHORE stamp will eventually rub off, that label for them will be imprinted forever in their bodies.

One of the most compelling experiences of watching this work, for me, is watching a woman in the audience watch it. I know there are people from the homeless and sex work community who are there to watch, and seeing them see this is great.

I think the premise of the show is fantastic, and Merge Café is the perfect place to stage it. These are stories that should be told, and a community whose voices should be heard. This work is valid, and it is engaged with the community it is portraying. My disappointment is that it wasn’t done better. My hope is that this is a work in progress that will be further developed after this season and crafted into a great piece of theatre for people to be transported and changed with. 

Comments

Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council
Waiematā Local Board logo