The Peter Principle
Ojai Theater Veteran Takes Stark Approach to Male Sex Organ
Twenty-five years ago, a then-little-known playwright named Eve Ensler turned the theater world upside down with The Vagina Monologues, comprised of a stark series of stories told in first-person readings that explore experiences with sex, body image, reproduction, menstration, sex work, and many other topics through the perspective of women of varying age, races, sexual orientation, and more. Ensler’s aim was both celebration and empowerment, but the play’s reach far exceeded her wildest expectations, as TVM has gone on to explosive success with regular productions across the country and globe, with particular focus on fundraising and colleges.
Now, Ojai-based playwright and actor Peter Fox has manufactured a male counterpart to the piece – called The Testicles Monologues: If These Balls Could Talk – that is having its world premiere as a virtual staged reading through the end of the month. Fox’s acting credits include regular roles on The Waltons and Knots Landing, guest shots on dozens of other TV series, a part in the film Airport ’77 with Jack Lemmon and Jimmy Stewart, while he also served as the artistic director and chairman of the board of the critically acclaimed Alliance Repertory Theater in Los Angeles for 16 years, and his play Acts of God was nominated for an ADA Award for both writing and direction. But it was his most recent gig as a participant in last fall’s Personal Stories readings at Center Stage Theater that led to his new show’s debut when the Montecito-based director Maggie Mixsell agreed to helm a reading filmed at the theater. Fox and Speaking of Stories veterans Justin Stark and Tom Hinshaw are joined by Los Angeles-based actors Gus Buktenica and Cary Thompson in reading the dozen-plus monologues that comprise TTM.
Stark talked about the play over the phone from his home earlier this week.
Q. What prompted you to create this piece now?
A. I wrote it over the course of the last year, and it came from having read Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, and knowing what a profound hit that was. She dives deep into the effects for females of having the female organs, obviously very successfully because it’s (performed) virtually every night somewhere in the world. I thought it was great, but it’s only one half of the story. As a playwright, I wanted to explore and work on the other half of the human experience, look at it from the male point of view, and from my point of view of these characters.
Where did these stories come from? Are they purely from your imagination or your experiences, or did you interview men the same way Eve Ensler talked to a lot of women to create The Vagina Monologues?
A lot of these characters come from me or people I know (including) the opening one about my girlfriend making me go see The Vagina Monologues and my buddies making fun of me, and the closing one about apes because I did study primate anthropology when I was at Harvard. Also the one about a father whose 14-year-old daughter is walking out the door dressed provocatively, which happened to my brother. But I’m an actor and a writer. What we have to do is find characters and dig deep to (uncover) the emotional truth behind them. So the rest came from me doing that, coming up with 13 or 14 of these characters and figuring out what this guy is really thinking, what’s really going on (inside). Whether it’s a priest or a porn actor or just plain ugly or anyone – what’s happening to that guy because he’s got a penis and balls? I wanted to do the spectrum of every conceivable guy, whether he’s gay or straight, about to become transgender, or you name it. That’s what I did over the 14 months of cogitating.
At the time Ensler wrote her work, it was still in an age when women largely still felt embarrassed or disempowered to talk about their vaginas or even, perhaps, consider those parts of their own bodies… The culture has changed a lot since then. But do you believe that this is also true for men, that they have similar issues and might even perhaps feel like victims?
Yeah, I think there’s a male counterpoint. As I said in the play, being a man is no picnic either. Women have to deal with the fact that they’re smaller and less muscular and can be bullied by bigger guys, but men get bullied by guys too. It’s just in a different way. It’s a jungle out there and it can be just as wounding to be a male who has to go out there into the (world) and try and find a place as it is. And yes, it literally is harder for women because they also have the supposed disability of being smaller and less muscular and less loud and are often taken less seriously.
Nearly every vignette has a lot of humor, which is very different from The Vagina Monologues, which is funny only in a few moments. What drove your desire to approach this material from a more lighthearted point of view, with jokes and innuendos?
I think the humor is organic, and it’s gold. I did have to be careful to make sure that lines are in there because they need to be spoken, not only because they’re funny. But if I can make an audience laugh while making a point, I love that.
You mention in the intro about being aware that The Testicles Monologues is coming out during the #MeToo era, when the attention and focus is in the opposite direction of how men have abused, taken advantage, or otherwise inflicted problems on women. Are you trepidatious about this?
My thought in general was I have a great idea for a play. It might have set me up for howls of disapproval in this very sensitive age, and rightfully so. But it’s a great idea, I wanted to tell our stories and I was going to do it and let the chips fall where they may. However, I was very careful. I’ve got a wife, I’ve got three sisters and a mother and lots of female friends. I get it. I’m behind it. But it’s just half the story folks. I tried to avoid mansplaining, but I wanted to go at it and not back off. And I think for the most part, I achieved that. I’m sure I’ll get feedback from some organizations saying, “You’re sexist.” But I’m willing to take the consequences. I don’t feel I stepped over any lines.
It seems you’re saying that presenting what you believe is the male point of view doesn’t deny or change women’s experiences.
Exactly. Several characters say exactly that, that we’ve been a-holes and I’m sorry. But what can I say? We’re men, and sometimes we do and say things that are stupid, but we’ve been dealing with these testicles that are making us do (that).
So then what is it you hope audiences will take away from watching these readings?
I would like them to go, “Yeah, women have had it really tough and now’s their time and good for them, but it’s no picnic being a man either. Here’s the reasons why, and they’re legitimate, and it’s the other side of the coin.” I’m glad to have both those perspectives, which is sorely missing in our world today.