When you walk into the theatrical piece, Prurience, it will feel like walking into the kind of bare office-room where a group therapy session might conceivably occur. You will have to suspend disbelief that you are, in fact, inside the very swanky confines of the Guggenheim Museum’s restaurant, The Wright.
You will take a chair from a pile of chairs to sit on. What you won’t be aware of is who the actors are. The actors are among you. That is why there is no pictures of the actors with this piece. The only person you may recognize is the piece’s creator, the British actor, writer and performer Christopher Green. He plays the inefficient and slightly suspect session leader.
What unfolds is a tense mix of confessions, confrontations and questioning around the nature of addiction, sex, and pornography: it is the latter that is the linking factor that has brought everyone to the group.
The session has been set up by a commercial organization set up by former porn star-turned-therapist to help people beat porn addiction. It's cheaper than regular therapy, and deeply flawed because it's commercial.
Prurience asks, when it comes to porn consumption, where do personal questions of addiction and weakness, need and desire, intersect with what could be seen as a moral panic around porn itself? Are people being exploited by porn companies, and if so, how are they?
And you, dear audience member, are in the middle of it. You may be asked what your first experience of pornography was. You don’t have to answer, although there has been lots of sharing in Britain, where the play was first performed, and people sharing stories of reading porn magazines in the local park.
Other confessions tumble forth too. “One guy, who was so beautiful and well-spoken people thought he was an actor, said he’d been withholding sex from his partner for months,” Green recalled over lunch in the real restaurant before its therapy session makeover. Another couple made up with each other after a row they were mid-having.
The play, directed by Holly Race Roughan, was originally derived from a fascination with therapy Green maintained after attending an Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program around ten years ago, as well an addiction to a popular gay sex app.
Green had identified drinking had become a problem, he said, because he realized he couldn’t perform if he wasn’t “a little bit relaxed.” He was drinking half a bottle of port during one show, and that bottle was supposed to be a prop. There was another bottle of wine back in his dressing room. He wasn’t a mess, he said, he was high-functioning—"but I knew something had to change."
Green’s characters have included the country and western singer Tina C, and rapping pensioner Ida Barr. The multi-award winning has overseen many Christmas shows at London’s Barbican, written a host of radio plays for BBC Radio 4, and—as well as Prurience—has overseen other immersive theater productions like The Frozen Scream, co-written with novelist Sarah Waters, and Office Party.
Another turning point for Green had been the death of his longtime partner Ben from liver cancer in 2008. This reporter had first met both of them when Green performed as Tina C at the brilliant, and still-brilliant, London LGBT performance night Duckie. When Ben died, Green said he realized he couldn’t "mess up" any more. He had to "take things in hand, clean up, and step up."
Green said he hadn’t gone to AA much, but when he did attend had been ready to work and “motored through” the sessions he had attended. "With people’s speeches and proclamations, it was the most theatrical environment I had ever been in. It gives opportunities for people to grandstand and monologue which in real life people don't have. There’s also a firm and clear structure: someone is in charge, and people speak for five minutes each with their incredible stories.”
Green noted that he also had a lingering sense of shame around his sexuality, having grown up in “an insanely religious family.” His parents loved him, and made clear they supported him, even if his coming out was in conflict with their religious beliefs.
“The main thing they told me was that love was the most important thing,” said Green. "They also loved Ben very much, and were devastated when he died. They had never lost anyone close to them."
Today he sees his internalization of shame around his sexuality “quite straightforwardly, that if you grow up in that way of course you feel weird.” A lot of the radical queer art flowing through him and other performers at Duckie, he said, “was coming from a big place of pain, no matter how you own it. Tina was like a classic cover-up for me. She was female, American, high-achieving, with no self-doubt and no self-loathing—the very opposite to me.”
The idea of Prurience germinated at the end of 2014. Green hadn’t been to an AA meeting for years, and he wanted to write something about sex as he was emerging from what he calls an addiction to Grindr.
“I had a full-on phase of it which I enjoyed,” said Green. “It’s incredibly efficient, and I had a really good time. If you know a bit about yourself and what you really want you can really make it work for you. I think I did, but I was aware there was the possibility of addiction there. You grow up, denying the possibility of sex, then have 90 people available to you, 30 of whom will say yes. The question is, how do you cope with it? I dove down.”
Occasionally, he said smiling, he would admonish himself: “What are you doing? You’re just tired. Go to bed.”
He said he stopped using the app because he didn’t want to kick one addiction just to acquire another. “Addictions transfer,” he said.
Green fell in love again a couple of years ago. He knew he wanted another “proper relationship” as he had enjoyed with Ben. He met his partner, a Dane called Morten, in a supermarket in Copenhagen when he was squinting at a label of something in a supermarket, trying to see if it was gluten-free.
“It was in Danish, so I needed some help,” he said. Morten is planning to move to London soon, so the men can live together permanently.
Green wanted to bring Prurience to New York as it is such a legendary city of therapy; where people talk about therapy, and swap therapist details, openly. Therapy is one of the city’s key human engine oils.
Prurience aims to draw links between capitalism, consumerism and consumption, said Green. Porn becomes a metaphor, he added, for whatever it is and whyever it is we over-consume.
Prurience ratchets up the interactive element to a discomfiting notch. I sat in on rehearsals for the show inside the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Peter B. Lewis Theater in the bowels of the Guggenheim.
The scene being rehearsed was an intense one about one of the participants feeling used by the porn company that was sponsoring the group itself.
She delivered an impassioned speech, and went around to her fellow actors, beseeching them to stand with her. They did not. She came to me. I stood up. Another character gave a speech about loving porn unapologetically. After another row blew up, one actor turned to me to ask what was going on. I was speechless, but something tells me thoroughly therapy-ized New Yorkers will have a lot to say. They may even become the stars of the show.
Prurience is at the Guggenheim Museum, NYC, March 20-31.