Play Time: On BDSM as Theatre

by Mr. Yours Truly

It is often something you hear about kink, that it’s all just make believe. That it’s roleplay. And for some people, I’m sure that’s what it is.

I’m sure a lot of people, from those who just picked up 50 Shades and want to experiment with a spanking or two to those who caricaturize the Dominatrix and sub personas and want to live in their own fantasies, do think of kink and of D/s relationship dynamics, at some level or another, as pretending.

But to some of us it’s a lot more than that.

Now, of course, those who want to participate in their kinks full time are few, and there aren’t a great number of people who want what they construct in the bedroom to influence their lives in a particularly significant way. In many ways it’s like yoga, which for most is just another form of exercise and which has its own modern commercial culture, but then there are people who specifically believe that certain poses and postures open you up to different personal states and enable you to access different features of consciousness. For some it’s a diversion, for some it’s an element of religion, and there are a lot of ways to be involved without necessarily being a devotee. With kink, too, you choose your own level of involvement, or perhaps your own level of involvement chooses you.

In the same way, though, that these things exist separately from their cultural or personal application, they also exist with or without a degree of artfulness and artistry, and it is that condition which can dictate an awful lot about the character of kinky play.

For all of us, I think, or at least for those of us who take it seriously, there is an element in kink of trying to get in touch with the truth of a kinky interaction, whether or not that interaction is “real”. To whatever extent a person wants their torment or subjugation at the hands of their partner to be legitimate and immovable, to whatever extent they want their play to have veracity, there is always the desire for it to have verisimilitude. In other words, whether or not these things are actually real, we certainly want them to feel real.

With this, of course, there is a spectrum. Some people only want to get in touch with the truth of that feeling on the grounds that it is absolutely real, and others, just as seriously, want to experience that truth only in complete opposition to reality, and there are many points of compromise in between. Whatever our position on this spectrum, we all seem to agree that kink takes place within an artificial construct, where we determine boundaries and consent, and then we decide, according to our preference, how we want that play to be characterized.

For me, there’s no better cultural parallel for this than the theatre. There are some who want to see Shakespeare at The Globe, with Elizabethan elocution and costume design, and there are some who want it reinterpreted in a modern setting. There are serious people who forgo Shakespeare entirely and look for fresh new approaches to the form of theatre itself. There are moody, minimalistic plays that focus entirely on dialogue and eschew action and setting, and there are snazzy, bombastic musicals and grand, dramatic operas. There are comedies, there are tragedies. There is modernism and post-modernism. In short, there is a whole, dynamic world of what can take place on the stage, in which there is an incredible variety to suit a range of tastes and preferences.

What are we to make, then, of the sets and the scripts and the props and the beats? Obviously, as anyone who has ever staged a production of anything will know, these are entirely up to the creative persuasion and means of those who produce the play, and there’s another world of style and sensibility that determines how what will be done will be done. What the script looks like to one person will not be what it looks like to another, and what comes from their collaboration determines how the content of that script will be interpreted and expressed.

But what of the players? Are they all such puppets locked in rote execution of a spectacular scene? This, I think too, misses the point. Not only does an actor want to find the “truth” I was talking about in what they put into their performance, but that relationship to that particular truth is not a fixed and arbitrary thing. It may change, subtly or otherwise, from night to night over a series of performances and how they get there each time relies very much on what they are able to get from night to night from the other people in the scene. Ask an actor how many times they’ve been surprised by what unfolded onstage, in spite of all the planning, all the intentions, all the rehearsal. Human interactions, even staged ones, can be marvelously unpredictable.

Which is to say nothing of ad libs, or improv. There can be amazing things that happen in a world where skilled and creative actors either take or are given liberties to make it up as they go along. Do the parameters that govern these constructions dilute or diminish them because they are artificial? On the contrary, they allow a freedom and fluidity that creates space in which things can happen, they transport that creativity to a territory in which new things can be explored.

But let’s take it back down to the core of the question, that of the distinction between the person and the persona. I, for one, am the first to be in favor of people finding common personal ground with what their sexuality involves, at whatever level that makes sense for them, but with this, again, there is a spectrum. For some people, there should be no distinction, they want those roles to really be who those people are, and for others it is the height of roleplay, in which the fantasy is pure and under which circumstances they can allow themselves to be and say and do things because that’s what their character can do. These are attitudes about a their own relationship to the truth, in addition to the relationship they prefer the scenario to have.

It’s hard to call any of these approaches more valid than the others because their goals and aims are different. They both attempt and achieve different things. One is more vaudeville, one is more opera. One is more classical, one is more modern. And there is good and bad in all of these things. We all have our own preferences and some things mean more to us than others, but we should try to appreciate them all. Because everyone who participates gives something of themselves to these things, whether it’s exactly like them or just like the best them or very much like a different them entirely. We each have a range, we each have a certain range of talents, and we each have desires and aspirations for who, what, and how we want to play. It’s only the snobs that stratify them too strictly.

What it means to be a kinky person, as someone who is involved earnestly in kinky practice and the craft of it all in addition to the spectacle, is the same thing it means to be an actor. If you’re any good at it, and if you belong with it as it belongs in you, what’s important is how well you do whatever it is that you do, and how meaningful and special you make it by being the one to do it.

© 2018

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