Cancer. Rape. Theatre. Loophole.

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Y’know, I’ve been chewing over what my first article for this year’s Fringe Festival should be, and I think I’ve found it. There’s been a bit of an explosion in social media over the following show description:

“Unable to speak, dying of lung cancer, and while my mother was taking her last breathes I admitted to her that I had sexually assaulted two women.
I am on 450 mg of bupropion 300 mg of sertraline. Both for depression and to control my OCD / tendencies to latch onto intrusive negative thoughts. I take 100 mg of Amitriptyline to help me sleep. this is my fourth show for fringe and the first one I haven’t had to do any research on because it is the first one that actually happened to me. I need help I need help I need help.
The great untapped loophole in theatre is you can admit to actual wrong doing with little to no repercussions.
Like admitting your sins in an empty confessional. Like admitting your sins to a dying woman.
This is a true story.”

This understandably created a bit of furor. At this point, somebody did a Google search and found the following quote:

“Sean Neely specializes in Andy Kaufman-esque forays into audience discomfort.”

…and followed that quote up by calling him a “fucking asshole.” That’s the point where I felt like I should chime in with something, because the writer being quoted is, uh, me. And I’m concerned that that quote, out of context, makes it sound as though Mr. Neely is a crude shock comic, and I think there’s a fair amount more going on here.

(Not that I have a problem with crude shock comics – I am one – but that’s simply not what this guy is doing. For those who want my more detailed thoughts, here’s a link to the full review. I also hasten to add that my view is by no means the majority one – the Planet’s own Matthew Everett has a dissenting opinion, and I know of several of my colleagues who actively keep their distance from this guy and his work.)

I don’t believe that he’s a rapist, any more than I believed that he was a white supremacist. If the concern is that rape is a horrible crime, I’m confident that (in out of character conversation, at least) he would agree. That would be why he chose it as his subject – because his entire deal is uncomfortably intimate explorations of human darkness.

I would go so far as to say that creating this ambiguity between art and life isn’t some cheap prank, it’s central to what he’s doing – it’s the source of those moments of sickness and horror and uncertainty he generates in his audiences. (During his last Fringe preview, an audience member started yelling at him to get off the stage. I have never seen that happen there before.) To simply have him step out and reassure everyone that it’s all an illusion would destroy his body of work, and in my view, at least, that would be a serious loss – to all of us.

(That said, I’m a part of that apparent niche that finds the freakshow compelling. I love Birth of a Nation and lurk Stormfront message boards. I read every post on Reddit’s infamous (and rapidly deleted) Ask a Rapist thread. I can’t look away from this stuff. I’m obviously in his target audience, and regard the guy as a capital-G Genius – his last show gave me just about everything I want from an hour of theatre – but I’d probably be defending his approach even if he was the shallow jackanape he’s been made out to be.)

I want to emphasize that I think I understand why people are disgusted with his premise, and why they may be concerned that marketing copy like his may ultimately do more harm than good. I understand why someone would refuse to see his show, and urge others to as well. I understand why someone would organize a boycott, and endeavor to send a message with small houses.

I simply don’t understand the calls to the Fringe staff to remove him from the Festival. This is the exact thing that Fringe Festivals were built for. Work like this probably isn’t ever going to show up on a mainstream theatre’s season. And I don’t understand how a world in which Sean Neely is denied a venue to explore this troubling body of material is a better one.

Questions? Comments? Enraged invective? Check out my answers to occasionally asked questions in Notes on Notes, or the contact info linked from that page!

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2 Responses to “Cancer. Rape. Theatre. Loophole.”

  1. Minnesota Fringe Festival: Cancer. Rape. Theatre. Loophole. at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage | Womb with a View Says:

    […] evaluation of the quality of the show is completely separate from arguments about its value (and I have written about that issue at this link). And while I’m loath to contribute to how vituperative the argument has become, I will say that […]

  2. 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival Summary | Womb with a View Says:

    […] Cancer. Rape. Theatre. Loophole. (about the controversy) …annnd SCENE. (following up on the controversy) […]


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