Safe Sex (1996)

Safe Sex poster

Having no script, and no actors, Safe Sex is a show created by the audience. Before you run screaming away, listen to director David Diamond: "No one will be asked to do anything they don't want to." Relax.

Until Diamond calls for volunteers. Then giggle nervously, looking around the room. Wait. Shift in your seat.

Is that one? Yes! And another? Yes, they're sproinging up like jack-in-the-boxes now. Phew. Mop your brow. Aren't they brave? Aren't they great?

Listen to the stories they tell, amazing, true stories told charmingly, with blushes and stammers and beauty. Laugh with recognition - or maybe it's empathy - at their descriptions of a time they had to negotiate safe sex: "So I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm struggling with the condom, and..."; "I don't usually sleep with men, but there we are in the hot tub, and things are getting, you know..." Relax some more. Begin to enjoy yourself. Begin to enjoy the people around you. Contemplate getting up there yourself. Who knows? Anything could happen, right?

Well, not quite. Diamond keeps pretty close tabs, not on the what but on the how of the evening, using a technique called 'rainbow of desire'. The idea behind it is that in emotionally difficult moments, a person has a whole set - a rainbow - of fears and desires at work, and that these fears and desires can be represented by physical images, by bodily poses.

On the brave volunteers go, enacting a brief scene from one of the stories: The female character, the one fumbling with the condom, wants "hot, emotionally-rich sex." Her male partner, who can do without the emotionally-rich part, pauses to question her sexual history. "Freeze," calls Diamond. "What is a desire your character has right now? Don't say it. Show it."

Now it's your turn again. "How many people relate to this desire," Diamond asks. Hands go up. "How many could be it?" Hands go down, but a body pops up. Another brave one, hopping down to the stage and adopting the pose of the desire. And the circus of fears and desires is on as the characters work through a progressive matrix of interactions with these human manifestations of their feelings.

The result is a series of poignant moments and hilarious ones, vividly illustrating the morass of conflicting emotions that burble up around two people in bed. Interestingly, neither of our characters adopted a pose that bespoke sexual desire - although they readily admitted to feeling it when audience members offered to fill the gap with I-Want-to-JumpYour-Bones and If-You-Let-Me-I'll-Lick-You-All-Over poses.

There's a didactic intent behind the whole project that works best when Diamond doesn't point it out. Rainbow of Desire is designed to show - if we are a truly creative audience, and we are, we will see, we will notice, we will interpret on our own, without the pop psychology tour guide.

It may be a truism to say, as Diamond will with little provocation, that prepackaged entertainment- recorded music, movies, and television- has robbed us of the sense of belonging and worth that making our own entertainment once provided. But it is a whole 'nother thing to feel what we've lost, to feel the beginnings of community forming in a roomful of strangers over the course of two short hours. Even if you haven't leaped on stage - and maybe you have - you've grown fond of the people up there, and the people next to you, shouting things out. You've been part of something.

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The Evolution of Safe Sex

About seven years ago David Diamond was in Rio de Janeiro at the International Festival of the Theatre of the Oppressed. During a conversation with Augusto Boal, originator of the Theatre of the Oppressed, David asked if Boal had ever taken a workshop technique called Rainbow of Desire into a public performance setting. Boal's response was, "No, but this would be very interesting. If you ever try it, let me know how it goes."

Later, back in Vancouver, this conversation led to an experiment called THE CREATIVE AUDIENCE prepares for the holidays. It was the first time Headlines took Rainbow of Desire into a theatre. The project was a critical success. People who came to the event loved it. Hardly anyone came, though. David thinks that the title was too scary.

Much later Havana opened its doors with a small theatre space in the back. A great space for experiments. About a year and a half ago David wanted to try a public Rainbow of Desire event again. Learning from the previous experience he decided to focus the event on a more popular issue. Safe Sex . Once again, people loved the event and this time they came. We had such a good time with that run of Safe Sex that we have decided to do it again in 1999.

The Rainbow of Desire explores our own internal voices that complicate our relationships with other people. The exercise explores internal voices of fear and desire of one of the audience members (volunteered). The exercise is not a psychoanalysis of an individual, but rather an exploration of the group consciousness as the particular relationship offered becomes a symbol for the entire audience to investigate layers of complexity around a certain issue.

I decided to incorporate more design into this run than the last and hired Bernadette Houde to do this. The reason? A desire to theatricalize what is essentially a workshop process. My hope was to create a fun space in which the exploration could happen. Bernadette did a wonderful job creating a "tacky boudoir" atmosphere inside the black box of Havana. The event starts with sexy tango music and a series of light cues. Very different than previous Rainbow of Desire projects.

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February 24, 1999

Reservations : 62
Attendance: 44
Seats: 60
% of house: 73%

Hmmmmmm. We went into the evening with 62 reservations. A very high no-show rate. Don't know what that's about-- very annoying, though.

There was lots of media. the Georgia Straight, CBC Radio, the Jewish Western Bulletin (!). Fairchild TV arrived unannounced, not having contacted Mirjana and started setting a camera up at the back of the theatre. I noticed the camera in the dark and said "no" -- needing to keep the space safe for the audience.

The opening got laughs. Whew! Nerve-wracking to do something like this, even so small, virtually impromptu. I conceived it and teched it at the same time.

Warming the audience up seemed to go well. Also most of them indicted that they knew what kind of an event they were at. When it came time to offer stories, though, there was dead, dead silence. I do Rainbow of Desire in public settings a lot. This silence was scary. I waited. and waited. Eventually, three stories did get offered.

The story the room chose, by a large margin involved a woman (Marsha) and an experience with a good friend (Jared). They have never been physically intimate. They are at another friend's house, where Marsha is house-sitting. They have had a lot to drink. They end up in the bedroom, naked, passionate. Marsha is fumbling with a condom. Jared stops and wants to know about previous sexual experiences. She doesn't want to tell him.

We ended up having a great Rainbow. Some of it very, very funny -- a desire to lick and bite paired with a desire to just forge ahead -- people recognizing how these two desires together can create a very unsafe situation. Some moments were frightening -- such as when a desire that said "come here, go away", paired with a desire that just wanted it to "be OK" created an improvisation in a "cage" that was quiet, sinister and desperate -- our loneliness and alienation getting the best of us.

After many people expressed their gratitude for the evening. Some wanting to organize group bookings for health related groups, youth groups, theatre groups. I hope some of these happen.

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February 25, 1999

Reservations: 32
Attendance: 20
Seats: 60
% of house: 33%

This was a very disappointing turnout. Not only the high no-show rate again, but also the low ticket sales.

Still the evening went pretty well. The story:

Tina and Mark were together for a long time in a monogamous relationship. They were not practicing safe sex and then split up. After being with other partners they got back together again for dinner. Passions rose. In the bedroom, just before intercourse, Tina asks Mark to wear a condom. He gets very upset, saying they never did this before, so why now?

A woman played Mark. This could have been great. This particular woman never really "got it", though. By that I mean she couldn't focus and was virtually never "in the moment" through the whole evening. This meant that the electricity of the event was really up and down.

Part of the very exciting part of the evening was a realization that "safe sex" is more than physical protection. Our definition of it must include emotional and psychological safety as well.

Once again the audience was very appreciative. Feedback through friends of friends indicates that people find the event both refreshing and extremely challenging. Unlike anything they have ever experienced in the theatre, they like it very much, but are also afraid of the inter-active nature of it.

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February 26, 1999

Reservations : 35
Attendance: 32
Seats: 60
% of house: 53%

I went into this evening feeling really energized and was happy with the intro. Rethought it a bit and found a way to tie it all together emotionally. I think it made starting easier for the audience.

Having said it also felt throughout the event that a lot of the crowd had come to spectate. This often happens when we hit the weekend with a Rainbow of Desire event.

The story was very simple and fun. Nsiki is in a bar. She walks across the floor and notices Mark who she finds very attractive. She gives him her best smile. He smiles back. Minutes later he asks her to dance. Their bodies touch. The part. Later he asks her to dance again. They start to kiss on the dance floor. This behaviour is very unusual for her. In the middle of this public passion, she starts to think about disease. Nsiki has a strong concern about her mouth -- she, in her own words, is fixated on the possibility of getting cold sores. She stops kissing Mark and asks him if he has ever had cold sores. He is very taken aback. Freeze moment.

A woman from the audience offered to play Mark. She was great, as was Nsiki. This is one of the good things about this night -- both Nsiki and Mark were able to really be in the moments.

Nsiki's desires and fears were mostly self-protective. One wanted out. A desire from the audience was the one that wanted to continue. Mark's desires and fears ranged from wanting to feel protected from what seemed like an attack, to "wanting to get into Nsiki's pants".

In one of the most compelling moments of the evening, Mark's "into Nsiki's pants" desire played a scene with Nsiki. It ended in a brutal attack. The audience was stunned by this because the surface of the entire moment was so friendly. Both Protagonist and Antagonist, and many of the audience, agreed, though, that this anger and violent energy really was just below the surface of all the laughter.

Once again the audience was very appreciative of the evening. I am wondering, though, about the viability of these public Rainbow of Desire events. I think I might have lost track of how "out there" they are. Of how much they ask of an audience, and how scary they are for people to come to. The risks in them have become normal for me and I am frustrated at the size of the audience -- although others feel that, in relation to the riskiness of the event and the conservative times, that houses are "good".

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February 27, 1999

Reservations : 54
Attendance: 69
Seats: 60
% of house: 115%

This was a great house tonight. We had to pull out more seats.

When I asked them if they had come to see a "normal play", only a few put up their hands. Then the warm ups went really well. Lots of energy. Then, though, we got to offering stories. I had used the same language I always use -- "a story between you and another person, where you are negotiating safe sex, and it is full of complexity and contradiction". It took forever. Finally, we had three stories. None of them suitable. No conflict. I tried to explain that they couldn't be stories about people just agreeing.......for some reason I got blank stares. I don't know what went wrong. Finally, a young woman offered a fourth story and we decided to focus on it:

Veronica and Juan have been friends all their lives. They are in Veronica's Aunt's house. Veronica is leaving the country (this takes place in Argentina) the next day. They have had a little to drink. They have the hots for each other. No condoms. Veronica is afraid of getting pregnant. Juan promises to "pull out" before he comes. Against her better judgment, she agrees.

We had a great time staging the scene. Both actors were capable of playing the roles. No need to get "gropy".....lots of emotional and psychological tension.

Veronica's Rainbow is split between wanting to be with Juan and wanting to run out of the room. One fragment wants him to "tell the truth" because she knows that he just really wants to have sex and will say anything to get his way. Juan's Rainbow is also split. He really wants to have sex..........but is also frightened. They are on a "ride" together, and they don't know how to get off.

There was a tremendous amount of laughter tonight. Also some silences, as the audience recognized that there was also a deep friendship at stake. In the Forum near the end, a young woman replaced Juan, and said that he didn't want to make the decision himself -- what DID Veronica want? She seemed to want to have intercourse and there were no what did she want him to do? Veronica didn't know. There was a very insightful moment here as the room seemed to realize that throughout the evening Juan was being presented as the horny guy who would do/say anything to get laid, but that he was also getting very confused messages from Veronica.


The journey of this run of Safe Sex has been very interesting. It is perhaps true that with a longer run we might have just sustained the large houses. It only took four days to build to an over-full house





This review of Safe Sex was written for the March 04/99 edition of the Georgia Straight. Due to space restrictions, it did not go to print. It is reprinted here with permission of the reviewer, Anne Fleming.