Merry XXXmas

With her comic new play, Minneapolis writer Bridget Carpenter gives new meaning to the term "Blue Christmas"

Bridget Carpenter's first play didn't go over too well. A senior at a girls' school which was "kind of, you know, Catholic," Carpenter shone as top student, class president, and all-around good girl. Then she wrote "Interlude," a one-act about a man and a woman trapped in an elevator, which her drama teacher arranged to have staged in the high-school auditorium. During the play, the audience heard the interior monologues of these characters--which featured some, well, impure thoughts. That is, when the two weren't busy smoking pot.

The school's nuns were not happy. After the performance, the holy sisters did not talk to their prized student anymore. At graduation, Bridget Carpenter did not give the valedictory speech, nor did she win any honors. The 17-year-old's reaction?

"I was like, allll rrrright! I never got that kind of bad attention before, I never Acted Out. I thought, Check it out! I'm in trouble!... I was hooked."

Naughty but nice: Award-winning playwright and Dirty Debutante aficionado Bridget Carpenter
Christopher Peters
Naughty but nice: Award-winning playwright and Dirty Debutante aficionado Bridget Carpenter

Eleven years later, Minneapolis's Eye of the Storm is producing Carpenter's Mr. Xmas. If the nuns ever catch wind of this play, Carpenter may find her high-school diploma revoked. Mr. Xmas is about pornography. And Christmas. Mr. Xmas is about the twin institutions of pornography and Christmas.

God rest ye, merry gentlemen.

Perhaps the nuns have had their revenge. Their muttering disapproval got Carpenter addicted to a profession with a fame-and-fortune potential somewhere below poet and above sculptor--a profession where even if you have made it, nobody has heard of you. And in playwriting terms, Carpenter is slowly but surely making it.

At 29, she has seen 14 of her plays professionally produced. In 1997, The Death of the Father of Psychoanalysis (& Anna) was staged in New York and Massachusetts, and in Minneapolis, by Eye of the Storm. Carpenter herself came to Minneapolis and the Playwrights' Center from Brown University's top-notch playwriting program on a Jerome Fellowship in 1995. The next year, she won another one. In the last two years, she's won two State Arts Board grants and the Playwrights' Center's McKnight Advancement Grant. Earlier this year, she won the Princess Grace Playwright Fellowship, a prestigious national award given each year to one "emerging playwright" under 30--past winners include Tony Kushner, perhaps the only contemporary playwright that many people have heard of.

Yes, Bridget Carpenter is Emerging, though the honor is dubious; to her, it means members of grant boards pat her on the head, cooing, "'Well, Bridget, some people know you, but most don't. But we think you're working really hard. Really.'" "Emerging" is a label she should probably get used to. Paula Vogel, Carpenter's mentor through her undergraduate and graduate career at Brown, has written successful plays over the last two decades, including The Baltimore Waltz, which was produced all around the country and which won her an Obie in 1992. This year, Vogel won the Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive, and the media has been treating the 46-year-old veteran like new talent. (Vogel says that she believes Carpenter will win a Pulitzer Prize in the 21st century.)

Says Carpenter, "It always confuses me when people say, 'Oh, have I heard of you?' and I say, 'Well do you go to the theater?' and they say, 'No,' and I say, 'Well, I doubt it.' And then they say, 'Tell me a title,' like it's a game, and they might guess right."

Of course, if any new play has the potential to create a media (and convent) buzz, it's the irresistible Mr. Xmas. But the script isn't simply about pornography. For Carpenter, the play began in a desire to explore and explode an American mythology. Pornography is the vehicle for the script's examination of success and manhood in America.

Carpenter has perhaps a more natural sense of the porn world than some of her Midwestern peers. The playwright grew up near the San Fernando Valley--she's got the freckles, the sun-streaked hair, and faint valley accent to prove it--and she describes the region as the nation's hotbed of porn. "There are certain coffee shops you'd be at at 3 in the morning and there were people who had obviously come from a porn shoot. And they looked really tired."

That demystification of the porn world gave Carpenter an ability to see pornography as an approach to a broader theme. Pornography, she says, "plays into people's desires to be watched, to be famous, to be on film. There's something so American about that hackneyed Andy Warhol phrase, your '15 minutes of fame,' but it's ingrained in our culture. Porn seems to embody that." It's a basic distillation of the American Dream. Men who are able to perform can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get their 15 minutes. Men who can't, fail.

Porn, on the most basic level, is the ultimate sellout, the greatest conceivable prostitution of an art (if porn acting can be labeled an art). There's an underlying irony in an emerging playwright expounding on the topic of fame in America. Carpenter has chosen a career that damns her to grant applications and a life sentence of obscurity, all for her love of an art. Meanwhile, her Mr. Xmas, Brian, has chosen a path where the art of love will deliver him from obscurity. Who's got it worse?

As the play begins, our hero, Brian, is discussing his admiration for Lyle Menendez, with whom he played Little League:

BRIAN: And now he's famous. I mean everyone knows who he is... I want to do something so that people know who I am. Not, obviously, to kill my parents. But I think it's important to leave something behind. To leave a legacy.

Brian's dreams of silver-screen fame are squelched when his acting teacher takes him aside and confesses, "Brian, you are a Very Bad Actor." But, he's been going out on casting calls for porn movies, and maybe, one day, with a little perseverance and a lot of luck...

...Or, maybe, a lot of hard work. While Carpenter was finishing this play, the New Yorker published an essay by Susan Faludi called "Waiting for Wood." Pornography, said Faludi, was one of the only industries in the country where women are in charge, traditionally earning 100 to 150 times more than men for a shoot (although this trend has been changing a bit in recent years with the rise of the male porn "auteur"). Men typically work as grunts whose success and/or failure depends entirely on their ability to "get wood."

"Waiting for Wood" is also the title of the first act of Mr. Xmas. (Carpenter laughs, "I loved the title. I blatantly stole it.") When Brian meets porn casting agent John Product, Product explains the business:

I see hundreds of pumped-up porn wannabes every week. They take off their clothes. Then they get in front of the camera, and they can't perform. No one cares how you look. With women, it matters how you look. With men, it matters how you fuck. Do you understand? This business is not about appearance. It is about cocksmanship.

And when you're talking about cocksmanship, who comes to mind but Santa Claus? Christmas is another American institution built on marketing and unusual celebrity. The action of the play is continually interrupted by musical breaks of Christmas carols (performed by a chorus of XXXmas dancers). There's "Jingle Bells," "The Little Drummer Boy," "Blue Christmas," and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." It's all terribly, terribly naughty.

"I have to confess something right off the bat," Carpenter says. "I love Christmas music. I collect Christmas music. I love the Stevie Wonder Christmas, John Mellencamp Christmas, Patti LaBelle Christmas. I listen to the Elvis Christmas album all year round. I love it all."

Director Casey Stangl, who started her artistic life as a dancer, then became choreographer, has staged the opening "Jingle Bells" number as a nine-man marching and saluting, Brady Bunch Variety Hour, danceline, showbiz, jazz-hands, O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A hunk of Americana. (At rehearsal, Stangl instructs, "OK, on 'One-horse open sleigh,' hold your hands like Evita. 'Don't cry for me, Argentina.' That's it.")

Stangl promises an S&M sleigh ride, where the XXXmas dancers will be dressed all "leathery," Santa is mean, and the reindeer are afraid--but kind of like it. The musical numbers, says Stangl, serve as they would in a Brecht play. "They do not advance the plot," she explains. "The people performing the numbers are not the characters in the play. The songs are a moment of irony, distancing the audience, setting and changing the mood."

The juxtaposition of pornography and Santa makes good copy, to be sure, but the clash between the two elements also makes good theater. It is precisely Carpenter's understanding of the inherently theatrical nature of this good loud bang which makes her an interesting playwright, one who writes about the allure of fame in a medium which nearly guarantees she won't have any. (That, and the rare ability to write heavily conceptual plays about, say, manhood, all the while pulling off any number of cock jokes.) This juxtaposition, too, is quintessentially Bridget Carpenter. Any woman who counts as her favorite movies North by Northwest and Fame, Truly, Madly, Deeply and The Craft, will probably also butt triple-X against Xmas.

When people talk about why they're attracted to Carpenter's writing, it often becomes a conversation about why they like Carpenter herself. Former Playwrights' Center Lab director (and Mr. Xmas cast member) Elissa Adams says, "What I love about Bridget's writing is, it is lively and curious and fearless and funny, much like Bridget herself, come to think of it.... And, God bless her, she can land a joke."

It's hard to resist a personality when there's so much of it to like. Parts of her are elegant: Carpenter makes small-edition books, "Paper, binding, letterpress, the works." Parts are less than elegant: She describes the contents of her fridge as, "Vodka, a bottle of perfume I always forget to use since it is in the refrigerator but I read in Cosmo once that it's a good place to keep perfume, Chicken by George, and a lone bottle of Rolling Rock." She counts among her pleasures the works of Sharon Olds and Charles Baxter, kickboxing, and swing dancing. She loves (loves, loves) the Miss America Pageant. ("I must add that my cousin Anna Carpenter was the 1998 Miss Nevada, and to my mind, she was robbed of her rightful place in the top 10 finalists. Robbed.")

And she likes rust. She has an old rabbit trap hanging on her wall. "I think it's for rabbits," she says. "I got that in Fargo for $4. The guy who sold it to me had only one arm, and when I bought it he said, 'Careful with that thing, that's how I lost my arm.' And I looked horrified and then he laughed and said, 'Just kidding.'"

In the course of researching Mr. Xmas, Carpenter developed a new hobby: shopping for porn. She asked all of her friends for good titles. They demurred: You know, uh, I've never seen any. I mean maybe at a party or something.

Carpenter laughs. "All of my guy friends and family members would just mumble. 'I've only seen a little, maybe at a party or on cable.' And I'm wondering: What kind of parties are you going to? Is this a guy thing? Do guys go to parties and watch porn?"

But she had one friend she could count on: "OK, Maurice. You love porn."

He responded, "Oh yeahhhhh... I love me the porn."

Maurice gave her production company names and people to look out for, and Carpenter began going to video stores. "It was a really empowering experience to go in and know what I wanted and not get overwhelmed by the flesh. I had a little list. I was treated really well. I went downtown to Wabasha Books on Hennepin, and I was invariably the only woman in there. I could see people perk up and wonder what I was doing, and the store guy said, 'Uhhhh...can I help you?' and you could see that there was the beginning of some kind of weirdness. And I said, 'Yeah, I'm looking for Vivid Productions, do you have that? And do you carry the Dirty Debutantes series?' And he got completely professional.

"That was a really exciting experience, more so than actually watching the movies. I got brassy about it, because it was such a high. I'd sit there with films spread out around me reading the backs of tapes going, 'Oh, where's T.T. Boy?' or, 'Oh, I'm going to see Ron Jeremy.' It was titillating to be a woman who was knowledgeable about pornography, more so than actually watching the movies."

As indicated by her affection for field trips into windowless storefronts, Carpenter defies the stereotypes of the withered, reclusive, pretentious writer. Talking with her is like improv theater; she acts out her speech, mocking herself, drawing characters, implying stage directions with her voice. Perhaps that is why she is drawn to playwriting: Lonely as it may seem, it is the only kind of writing which is inherently social, collaborative, living. At rehearsal the actors talk and joke with her as if she were one of the cast. Carpenter watches intently while the actors are working, but when the stage manager calls a break, she shouts to one, "Boxing is magic--magic, I tell you!"

Carpenter is ridiculously positive about the process of staging Mr. Xmas because it has gone well; she and Stangl cannot stop singing each other's praises. But, of course, it's not always this way. "When I was younger and taking classes at the Mark Taper Forum," she explains, "I was rhapsodizing to [playwright] Eric Overmeyer about the 'magic of collaboration.' I gushed to him, 'Oh! It's like people are giving you presents!' He looked at me and said, 'And sometimes its like a dog comes in and shits on your rug.'"

Bridget Carpenter has had her share of dogshit. "There was a production of mine a few years ago in another state, at another theater," she says. "It was a play I was very proud of, and the director had simply wildly mishandled the piece. It was ponderous; it was slow. I couldn't stand to watch it.... And as I sat, tortured, watching the matinee, I looked around me to note that some of the older members of the audience--my audience--were sleeping! I was amazed. And jealous, too: It was so tiring to watch, and I thought, 'Boy, I wish I weren't so tense and upset, I'd love to be able to take a nap.'

"And this woman next to me kept shifting around and sighing loudly, just to make sure that other people knew that she wasn't having a very good time. And at the end of the play, the audience clapped, and the lights came up, and she turned to me and shrugged. I shrugged back, sort of in commiseration. 'Well,' she said. 'That was a hard sit.' I nodded. I sort of wanted to giggle or cry, I didn't know which. She shook her head and sighed again. Then she looked at the notebook in my lap. 'Oh, did you have something to do with this?' she asked, mildly interested. I looked at her and smiled. 'Nope,' I said."

This trying to make a living on something you love is a noble cause, but a trying business. "It is always hard to make a living," Carpenter says. "Always. Always. Always. Near to impossible. Truth: I live hand to mouth. Month to month. I have no savings. I have no health insurance...My worries about money are, frankly, ever-present and at times, crippling.... Isn't it strange and extraordinary that this choking fear is somehow, incredibly, balanced by a passion for making plays and a drive to spend inordinate amounts of time alone in a room arranging words on pieces of paper?"

It's a miserable delight, this emerging. But the nuns hooked her, and there is no going back. Carpenter says, "I cannot think of anything else I would rather do. And if I did think of something else, I would do it."

Mr. Xmas opens Saturday, October 24 (preview performances on October 22 and 23) and runs through November 21 at the Loring Playhouse; 332-1619.

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