“Just don’t do it” review: a zany swipe at abstinence culture — but can it find its audience?

Flyer for 'Just don't do it' by Beside Ourselves collective, on a black background. The flyer says 'Sex. Celibacy. The Church' and has two women on it, facing the camer. One is dressed as a bride; the other in a tracksuit. The bride is holding a large 'no entry' sign over the top of the other woman's legs. There's also large text: "Just don't do it review: a zany swipe at abstinence culture - but can it find its audience?" workthegreymatter.com

Where do I begin? This is a two-woman show about the failings of church attitudes towards sex and sexuality, complete with parodied worship lyrics, a chicken wire wedding veil, and vagina hand-puppets.

I got to see the Beside Ourselves Collective, with Kate Mounce and Eleanor Young, at the ‘Out of Control’ conference organised by Natalie Collins in March 2019. The conference had gathered a number of Christian speakers and artists to discuss gender violence and the church, with Natalie enthusiastically chairing and uttering words like “vagina” and “clitoris.” This play was performed just after lunch and with its savage commentary on purity balls and abstinence-only education, it was a fabulous fit for the conference.

But more than that, the show took all my emotional armour away, evoking buckets of tears and reams of hand-written notes which I pressed earnestly into Kate’s and Eleanor’s hands before I scurried away home.

Yeah, I didn’t really pay attention to the speakers in the afternoon.

Anyway, the play has finished its tour, but I still figured it would be worth writing up what I made of it. Its subject matter is very much in my blogging lane.

Why have I taken this long to write a review?

The conference was in March, now it’s July – what happened? Well, when I first wrote up my thoughts, I found myself asking what audience would (a) be able to stomach the play as a whole, and also (b) be changed by it. It was challenging stuff and as I finished writing, I figured it would be helpful to get Kate’s and Eleanor’s response. That took a while and even longer for me to compile everything into a final blog post. But hey, here it is.

The plot – and what I loved about it

It starts in a Christian youth camp with Trish and Tash teaching a room of (we presume) teenage girls about sex.

(By the way, if you want a short concise review instead of my long sprawl there’s a good one here about their performance at the Camden Theatre in London.)

This section was simply great and laugh-out-loud the whole time. It had:

  • the prudish older woman who said she knew everything and “can’t be shocked” yet is unable to say “orgasm”;
  • the almost-exclusive emphasis on not waking love until the right time;
  • the two gingerbread cardboard cut-outs glued together and then ripped apart (an illustration for what supposedly happens to people’s souls when they have sex with more than one person); and
  • a short skit about American purity balls — which was nearly as disturbing as the things themselves.

I particularly loved how the audience was navigated around the “roundabout” of sex from which there were many exits — but only one led to the ‘marriage motorway’. (Others were: ‘Sit on it side street’ in rainbow colours, ‘M*st*rb*t**n goose chase’, ‘Celibacy cul-de-sac’, and ‘Sex before marriage dead end’.)

And then the plot began to shift.

The tension between Trish and Tash had been building. Trish wanted to explore her sexuality whilst Tash was closeting the fact she’s a lesbian. But just as their conflict was coming to a peak, it turned out that the church altar behind them was actually to a pagan goddess.

I can’t quite remember how it happened, but not long later, Trish and Tash were both in said box, with the dialogue delivered through the use of vagina and penis hand puppets (complete with French accent). I think the idea here was that Trish and Tash had both, figuratively, sent their sexualities to hell because neither could frame their sexualities as good within their Christian beliefs.

Ouch, it’s close to home.

So then Trish and Tash come out of the box — Trish hypersexual, and Tash with a martyr mentality (determined to hold her sexual orientation in check because of her religious devotion). And they argue a load more.

But then they end up re-telling an ancient myth associated with this goddess, and the story has some thematic resonances with the cross. It’s still frenetic much of the time, but then you get this bit where Tash uses a hand puppet to sing to Trish from Song of Songs.

ALL. THE. FEELS.

That was the moment that absolutely got me.

Never seen or heard anything like it.

My memories are all a bit of blur after that. Trish and Tash finish retelling the myth. I think they argue a bit more. Tash is reconnected with her sexuality (more vagina hand puppets — I remember that bit!), the conflict between the pair eases, but doesn’t resolve, and the play ends in an upbeat dance.

“Do you think this show, and art in general, can help open up ‘tricky topics’ in church?”

After the performance we had A5 slips of pink paper for giving feedback. I completed mine and then wrote all over the back. Then I hovered until Kate emerged and thanked her for it. Then I re-read my comments (of course I took a photo before handing the paper over!) and wrote more comments on another sheet of A5. And wrote on the back of that too.

Yes, yes, OF COURSE this show can help open up ‘tricky topics’ — well, at least it would if it could find its audience. I was just concerned that Kate and Eleanor would struggle to find said audience.

So, um, a heap of my comments probably came over rather negative:

  • “I don’t know anyone in the evangelical church who wouldn’t be deeply offended by this show.”
  • “I think you’ll be called irreverent, possibly blasphemous”
  • “I think it shouts too loudly for conservatives to hear”

With friends like me, who needs enemies?

But hey, even Natalie Collins has written that the idea the sexual revolution resulted in benefits for women’s rights is ‘Huge News’ to many conservatives.

And it’s a shame because I think the conservatives really ought to be called out on things like abstinence-only sex education, purity balls and the church’s emphasis on marriage. Plus, I think the vagina hand puppets (actually, they’re vulvas) were a great way to de-stigmatise our genitals and lighten the ultra-seriousness with which most Christians discuss sex.

However, I wasn’t sure this play was quite rounded enough to challenge an ex-evangelical or ex-church audience.

Conflicts are presented but the challenge is mainly on the more-conservative Tash to wake up and be a bit more yielding and accepting. Although I think the sustained criticism of purity culture is justified, there is little-to-no presentation of a relaxed and sexually-integrated Christian, or someone who actually puts perspective on the conflict between Trish and Tash. I appreciate that this is partly a limitation of the play being a two-woman show, but my concern is that it will give excuse for non-conservatives to scorn conservatives.

To be clear, I don’t think the play is scorning conservatives (well, maybe a little — but I’ll get to that). The problem I see is people coming to the play with the scars of their church experiences and revelling in the performance, not because of what the play is saying, but simply because they enjoy church-bashing.

Then add in the pagan myth and you have a complete package of “nothing is sacred so let’s dance on the ashes of conservatism.”

But I don’t think that’s what this play is about. It has more nuance than that, but I wasn’t sure its structure had the balance needed to persuade or equip non-conservatives to (a) acknowledge the mistakes they’ve made, and/or (b) engage in meaningful dialogue with conservatives.

What would I change?

OK, ok, I get that it’s easy to be a critic of someone else’s art. But. The topics of this play are right in the middle of my blogging lane and I write theatre. Plus, the play dug up so much of my personal history and other important stuff, I think there’s mileage in talking about what could be good to change.

When I first drafted this review, I said there were two fundamental changes I’d make. I’d have less arguing and more resolution between Trish and Tash, and I’d axe all references to demon possession / demonisation.

The second criticism came as a bolt out of the blue to Kate and Eleanor because, so far as they were concerned, the play didn’t make any reference to demonisation. So let’s deal with that one first.

Demonisation / demon possession

The question “Is it right to have sex outside marriage?” is controversial, nerve-touching, and loaded with a history of abuse and ignorance. But the question “Do you believe in demons?” is waaay more so, especially when talking about LGBTQ+ issues given the association of exorcisms with conversion therapy.[1] Coming from this context, I was deeply uncomfortable when I saw what I thought was a pretty unambiguous reference to demonisation. When I spoke to Kate though, that was not the intended meaning, at all.

This all comes down to a short sequence where Tash peeks at the pagan altar and whilst the cloth is lifted up (making the altar visible) Trish behaves very differently. Combined with the lights in the room flickering (which was a great comedic touch), I thought this was meant to show she was being controlled by a demon. I mean, in Deuteronomy, the gods of the pagan nations are described pretty unambiguously as demons, so the link I drew wasn’t random. That said, there were no other demonisation references anywhere else in the play, and none to conversion therapy.

So when Kate later told me that this section wasn’t intended to be about demonisation, I could see what she meant. This section of the play explored how people can ‘demonise’ what are God-given, natural and normal parts of their sexuality. The moment when the cloth over pagan altar was lifted, was symbolic of uncovering of ‘unchristian’ parts of ourselves, and Trish was having a bodily response to that.

We could have a debate about the wisdom of using a pagan myth in the first place, but I think it’s fair for Kate and Eleanor to grapple with these topics, even without providing neat answers. Theatre is a great sandbox for playing with ideas that are at the edge and/or uncomfortable in real life. Just because you use or retell a myth, that isn’t to say that you’re endorsing it or the historical practices that once went with it. It can open the door for people to exercise their imagination in new and good ways – and Kate said that some in the audience specifically commented that this was the case.

In case you’re wondering, the myth was the descent of Inanna. Kate also said:

I think the key link where Jung appears as a puppet explaining the role of the myth, got lost on the day and unfortunately is quite a key moment. The myth in itself is about an alternative narrative that on the surface falls outside on the Christian story, but in some ways parallels it and offers Trish & Tash something to learn from that will ultimately benefit their Christian faith.

So, for anyone else who saw the play and, like me, misread it, this should provide some clarification.

The arguing between Trish and Tash

This was the second main comment I had. Trish and Tash really argue. To begin with it’s fabulous story-telling, escalating as Tash lets slip that Trish isn’t a virgin, and Trish outs Tash as a lesbian.

But after a time I longed for the conflict to ease, for their characters to see that they were just hurting each other without anything good being achieved. And I was frustrated because after they did ease a bit they went back to rehash old conflicts in a different form.  At least, that’s what I remember.

So, the key thing I’d change here would be to soften Tash’s stance towards her sexuality.

I’m fine with her choosing to be abstinent out of regard for what she believes to be God’s will for her life — there are plenty of LGBTQ+ in that camp (no pun intended). What I’m less OK with, is seeing her portrayed as having a martyr attitude and/or persecution complex. What I saw in Tash was closer to a warped “no cross, no crown” mentality and I think it’s unfair to put that attitude into the character of a closeted lesbian. LGBTQ+ people who hide and pray against their sexuality often do so out of an earnest desire to please God. It’s not to revel in suffering, or to make holier-than-thou boasts, or to earn bonus points in heaven.

As I corresponded with Kate and Eleanor on this point, I was told that the ending of the show had evolved to be softer in this regard. What the play shows in Tash’s character is how “her extreme views and approaches have led her into a very confused place about how to express her faith.” Even so, despite her obnoxious behaviour, audiences have felt sorry for her and come away thought-provoked, conflicted and sad, more than anything else.

Where to go from here?

My last piece of scrawled feedback was this:

I guess there’s a sense in which what you have here is fire. It doesn’t make it bad, but it’s powerful and I want to say ‘be responsible’. It’s not my job to teach you though, so I’ll leave it there. I guess this play has the potential to provoke volatile responses.

Bear in mind, aside from the pagan myth, LGBTQ+ issues, and sustained criticism of church abstinence culture (which I’ve already discussed), this show also has strong language and a moment where Trish unashamedly says she had sex outside marriage and that it was good for her. I know a lot of people who’d take offence at that.

Now, in some ways, it’s fine and fair enough if Just Don’t Do It evokes strong emotions in people and exposes the faultlines in our beliefs. But if the purpose here is to open up conversations on ‘tricky topics’ I wonder if it needs to be little less overt, and to tread a little more gently.

Although theatre is a wonderful medium for experimentation and discussion, we’ve also got to have care for what the audience came for and the context they came from — in that regard, I came away feeling that the play slipped here.

That said, it’s also worth bearing in mind that I saw this play in a church at a Christian conference. If it had been in a fringe theatre context, then the audience’s expectations would likely have been more aligned to what the play presented.

As Eleanor later wrote to me:

It’s supposed to be seen in a theatre space with good sight lines, good acoustics and lighting, I think this may have contributed to a feeling of lack of nuance. In the church space it wasn’t possible the take the show any slower, quieter or present it in a more nuanced way so I think some of the layers were sacrificed because we had to reach the back of the room with our voices and bodies, despite a lack of playing space and lots of the audience not being able to see well.

We knew the church space was much less than ideal … it was an experiment of our part too, and we wanted to present as much as we could of the show despite to the challenges. We’re so glad we did it but it certainly wasn’t the ideal setting.

So anyway, that was my take on this show. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before and all the feels. I think we can expect more zany comedy from this duo in the future and I, for one, look forward to seeing it.


Find the Beside Ourselves Collective on Twitter, their website. “Exploring faith and embodiment through the medium of clown, mythological archetypes and home-made dance routines.”

 


If you want to read more:

I wrote up my thoughts on the ‘Out of Control’ conference and its speakers on my Facebook blog page. I’ve also reviewed ‘Endless Second’, a fabulous play about consent and reconciliation.

For the avoidance of doubt, although I think abstinence culture is problematic, that doesn’t mean that abstinence can’t be a fulfilling, healthy and valid choice for someone. A fellow blogger, Bailey Bergmann Steger, wrote a great piece on this subject: Can abstinence be sex positive?

Here’s my open letter to an evangelical couple considering sex therapy (yes I was a virgin bride, but no, my sex life was not amazing for the first few years of marriage).

Here’s a picture of a 5,500 word essay on consent, highlighting everything I didn’t know when I married. (Do click through to the essay itself — it’s one of the best things I’ve written.) Actually, check out my sex worth celebrating index page because there’s lots of good stuff there.

 


[1] Even on a good day, the story of the Gerasene man in Mark 5 comes over as pretty strange and disturbing; meanwhile we have sensationalist stories like pastors praying for Trump to be protected against ‘concentrated Satanic attack’ and horrifically violent stories involving actual witchcraft. There’s also ‘praying the gay away’ and, for example, the emotional damage caused to Vicky Beeching when she underwent a conversion exorcism. (I wrote about that here, btw.) Whereas stories with angel and demon characters are quite commonplace (here’s my take on why I think Good Omens doesn’t promote Satanism), demonisation is rarer and a lot less comedic. As such, I class it as a highly sensitive topic that needs careful handling.

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