Since the final weeks of last semester, posters for the American Masturbatory Theater Company have been posted across the Swarthmore campus. A cursory glance at the flyers has left many students perplexed about the nature of the club, which, as Sam Swift Shuker-Haines ‘14 puts it, is about “trying to find a presence, an honesty” as individuals.
Created by Shuker-Haines, the American Masturbatory Theater Company aims to bring Swarthmore students together in a search for intimacy and the pursuit of art born from it. The company has both laboratory and performance components; all members of the company participate in the laboratories, during which the group engages in exercises for the purpose of “being seen honestly and showing [themselves] to someone else honestly.” Members with an interest in theater are encouraged to join in the creation of a performance piece drawn from the work of the group as a whole. The actors of the company will execute the resulting performance later in the spring semester. Beyond this, the company also hopes to make an appearance at Crunkfest, an annual event.
Shuker-Haines and other members of the company are unsure of what the performances will look like or even what the work of the group will result in. The lack of this clear conception is largely due to the lack of a finalized group of participants, which is necessary for “real community-building work” to start. Shuker-Haines sees the future of the company as resting in the hands of the participants themselves.
The company will be holding its final open meeting in Old Tarble on Sunday, January 27, 2013. Though *they directed the first two workshops, Shuker-Haines hopes that once the group becomes closed, the actors in the company would take a more leading role in conducting the following laboratory sessions.
The origins of the concept are found in Shuker-Haines’s experience as a high school participant in programs hosted by Shakespeare & Company, a theater company based in Lenox, Massachusetts. During one particular exercise entitled “Actor, Audience,” program members stood up individually and shared revelatory truths about themselves, before pointing to a part of their body and speaking a line of poetry. The exercise, described by Shuker-Haines as “terrifying, painful, and absolutely beautiful,” prompted visceral emotional reactions from the members of the group. The cathartic nature of the “Actor, Audience” exercise was an impetus for the founding of the American Masturbatory Theater Company. Having since never experienced a space where the same sort of “pure unadulterated honesty” could be shared, Shuker-Haines sought to create a group for that purpose at Swarthmore.
Since its inception, the company has held two open workshops in Old Tarble, both of which took place in the last weeks of the fall semester. In these introductory meetings, participants engaged in a range of exercises; a number focused primarily on meditation, while others were a little more creative. In one activity, members of the group took turns standing in the middle of the room for five minutes while the others simply watched them. In another, participants moved freely about the room, following their impulses and making whatever sounds they wanted to express.
According to Shuker-Haines, the goal of these exercises is to fill a void they feel exists not just at Swarthmore College, but also most everywhere else. Shuker-Haines wants to create a space where students can “take the time, not to see what we expect to, but to actually look at the physical presence of someone who’s there, look at who they actually are in the space, in the moment right then.”
One participant, who wished to remain anonymous, commented that the meetings were “a really good stress reliever, which everyone at Swarthmore really needs.”
Another member of the company, Doriana Thornton ’16, admits that she was unsure of what the group would be doing before going to the first meeting, but was pleased with her experience.
“I found that the space was the perfect place to connect with myself,” she said.
The idea of being vulnerable in the way encouraged by the company sounds frightening to many – not everyone is comfortable with being so open both emotionally and physically. Shuker-Haines understands that the activities that the group engages in can sound intimidating. “It’s hard to have intimacy without vulnerability, without it being a little bit scary, because a lot of the sensation of intimacy is being seen honestly and showing yourself to someone else,” they said.
Participant Kerry Robinson ’16, who describes himself as a very “private person” who was uncomfortable with self-exposure, has attended both of the fall semester workshops. After he came across a flyer for the theater company in Sharples, Robinson joined, partly out of curiosity and partly because he wanted to experience the intimacy the group offered. He said, “It was something that I needed because I felt that I’m not a very intimate person.”
Having struggled with intimacy and vulnerability, Robinson said that the meetings were constructive for him. “It made me realize that I could invite people in a lot more than I felt like I could before,” he explained.
The company’s provocative name arises from the strong parallels between the nature of the group and the nature of masturbation itself. Shuker-Haines describes the work of the company as “the creation of a pleasurable experience out of nothing but bodies; it has no purpose other than its own… The company’s not trying to gain anything except the pleasure of being seen honestly and seeing another person in a loving way and sort of the inherent pleasure of intimacy.”
Though the company has no immediate plans for any actual group genital masturbation, Shuker-Haines pointed out that, should a member of a company begin to masturbate during a meeting, they would not stop that member from doing so – as long as the activity is useful to the exercise and no other member is traumatized by the action.
The student body’s reaction to the formation of the American Masturbatory Theater Company has ranged between enthusiasm, cautious acceptance, and confusion.
Many students know nothing more about the group than its name. An anonymous junior asked if the group was meant to be a comedy club. Zequn Li ’16 had a closer, though vaguer, notion of the company, believing it to be a group of actors who wrote plays about masturbation.
Upon learning more about the group, Li said, “It’s a novel concept… I’ve never heard of anything like this. I think it’s great that they’re creating this new group.” Despite this enthusiasm, Li states that he, like Knight, would not be stopping in on a meeting of the American Masturbatory Theater Company.
To students who are wary of joining the company because of self-consciousness, Thornton offers words of encouragement. “I feel like a lot of people could really benefit from it,” he said. “One of the points of [the company] is to be able to feel discomfort. The group is beautiful because it’s a safe space in which you can feel that discomfort.”
*Sam Swift Shuker-Haines prefers to use the gender pronoun “they.”