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The Wilmington Art Scene’s Naughty, Dirty Modern History…from The Bard to GRINDR

29 01

The Wilmington Art Scene’s Naughty, Dirty Modern History…from The Bard to GRINDR

JulieAnne Cross,


It is art for which even the name has shaken up Wilmington: Bootless Stageworks presents GRINDR: The Opera – An Unauthorized Parody starting January 31.


Yes, you read that right. Wilmington’s spunkiest little professional theatre is showing us how the sausage is made by putting stories born of the world’s most notorious phone app—GRINDR, a geolocation-based way for gay men to hook-up with just a click—on stage (to music!)


The road to this racy season has not necessarily been a well-lubricated track for Bootless. 


Executive and Producing Artistic Director Rosanne DellAversano said of some season fundraising efforts, “Bootless’ Board of Directors felt it important to turn down a particular grant award due to panelist comments of censorship and homophobia.”


A reduced grant—which would ostensibly support some of Bootless’ other productions, which total four annually—was offered, but, DellAversano said, “After discussing the comments with some of our core member artists, we felt it important to make the hard decision to go without because supporting our artists is our first priority.”


This is not Bootless’ first gay rodeo: they’ve hung dirty laundry on stage many times over. 


Oedipus for Kids!, which is really a play within a play, ran in 2019. It spoofs the incest-laden Oedipus Rex story yet still features a meta-character called Oeddy, with his signature lyric “a little boy a lot like you,” who “runs away from home when he finds out that he is destined to do something terrible to his Mommy and Daddy.”


2015 saw the Delaware premiere of In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), which addresses the ironic uptight Victorian era’s clinical relief of choice for the now-defunct diagnosis known as “hysteria.” (19th Century docs are alleged to have caused women orgasms, under the guise of medical treatment, using newfangled technology we refer to today as vibrators.)


Wilmington’s tongues were wagging in 2013 with the regional premiere of Jerry Springer, The Opera. According to Wikipedia, some news sources claim this musical makes 3,168 mentions of “the F word” and 297 of “the C word.” Unlike what happened in every major city where this production took place, protestors did not manifest at Bootless’ show (not that some citizens didn’t find ways to express their displeasure).


But most importantly, in 2017, Bootless presented the Delaware premiere of Body & Sold: True Stories of Human Trafficking Survivors. Unlike some of the company’s other scandalous productions, this one was no laughing matter, as the play was documentary in nature. Since then, Bootless has continued its work in support of human trafficking prevention and rescue.


Ironically, the director Bootless chose for GRINDR is part of Wilmington’s history of sexy, unseemly art. In 1999, Lee Kimball was the artistic director for OperaDelaware when the company staged Don Giovanni, directed by John Lehmeyer. The audible gasp heard throughout chateau country came when the titular lothario appeared mostly naked in a running shower on the venerable stage of The Grand Opera House, although Kimball remembers a more favorable reception.


Kimball says, “For the most part, the audience loved it. We had a significant bump in attendance from younger people, as I recall. There was nothing onstage that you couldn’t see on an afternoon TV soap opera in 1999! I think I got several angry snail mails. A quite elderly lady…sitting on the front row…leaned way forward and squinted her eyes. She was trying as hard as she could to see details of Giovanni's ‘nude’ body through the steamed-up glass shower door! (Full disclosure:  it was all stage magic. Our Giovanni was wearing a flesh colored brief!)”


So, clearly, the idea of sex and disrepute on Wilmington’s arts stages is not a new, 21st Century invention, even if sometimes it existed on the fringe.


In 2009, the debut of the much-missed Fringe Wilmington festival included Through the Keyhole, an exhibition by Bruce Humphries that consisted of ceramic cast joint baby dolls in flagrante delicto.


Humphries says the work was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights, and, “Whoever was in charge of the festival deemed it necessary to place a great big plastic wall around the piece so the general public could not see it.”


Other Fringe entries included 2010’s The Drome featuring Jack Jimminy: The Story of a Pornstar Extra. 2010 and 2014 featured dirty plays by Shel Silverstein. 2014 content ranged from Leanne Linsky’s solo comedy performance of “Lady Luck Is a Whore” to one-time DCCA curator Maiza Hixson presenting Pale Red Head Urge Surf, an interactive performance-lecture culminating in a pop-up, erotic post-Medieval meditation on the complexities of art as a fetishized object of desire.


The nearby ‘burbs may suffer deeper pain from a negative public reaction to risqué content.


In 2008, organizers of the Unicity Festival in Middletown were met with public opposition after announcing a schedule that included legendary actor, writer and film director John Waters and comedian Sandra Bernhard. A citizen and business owner at a town meeting called the artists “obscene” and cited their “extreme liberal agenda” as inappropriate for Middletown. Facing virtual torches and pitchforks, the festival rescheduled Waters from a tented performance area to an indoor space and canceled Bernhard altogether.


Lest readers think all these bawdy stagings are the fodder of post-sexual-revolution acceptance, rest assured that what we consider the fine arts today has always embraced sex, from the crude to the sublime.


Brendan Cooke, OperaDelaware General Director since 2012, elaborates: “From its very beginnings, opera hasn't been afraid to be a little naughty. The Coronation of Poppea (1653) has one of the steamiest operatic love scenes ever written, and musicologist Ellen Rosand refers to the opera as an ‘extraordinary glorification of lust and ambition.’” OperaDelaware performs Poppea this Spring.


He arrived in Delaware right about the same time as Bootless’ production of Jerry Springer - the Opera," which he called “terrific.”


Cooke remembers Bootless’ production being, “…in our black box theater shortly after I started at OperaDelaware, and the audiences delighted in the raunchy humor. Sometimes when you're dealing with contemporary topics and contemporary language it can feel more ‘in your face,’ but opera’s been naughty for a loooong time. I will say though, that this past year, to my knowledge, was the first sanctioned F-bomb dropped on the stage of The Grand during an opera [Dead Man Walking]. I'm certain there have been unintentional ones, but it's hard to tell a story about a death-row inmate without certain colorful language.” 


Bud Martin, Executive and Artistic Director at Delaware Theatre Company, added a few productions to the Wilmington’s black book of infamous productions, “Our first show last season, Sanctions, dealt with sexual assault on campus. DTC did Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune several years ago and there was nudity in it that drew a lot of comments by the audience. The show is about a one-night stand and the actors that were naked were a married couple.”


“The greatest writer in the English language,” William Shakespeare, is actually responsible for some of today’s popular sexual euphemisms. New Light Theatre performs Othello through this weekend at the Delaware Historical Society, a play which may be the earliest appearance of “the beast with two backs” in written English. made a top ten list of dirty jokes from the Bard, and the first two are from a play that Delaware Shakespeare has commissioned as a new musical for Fall 2020—Twelfth Night. Del Shakes taps into a somewhat famous card game, Bards Dispense Profanity (based on the even-more-famous Cards Against Humanity model) for an audience participation section of its annual Shakespeare & St. Valentine event.


David Stradley, Producing Artistic Director, offers a differing opinion from Mental Floss, saying Romeo and Juliet (which Del Shakes took to all three counties of Delaware this past Fall) “is up there among dirtiest/naughtiest,” yet it doesn’t even make the aforementioned top ten list.


And while vampires may be acceptable fodder for even children’s entertainment (Bunnicula, Mona the Vampire, Marceline from Adventure Time), they are excellent examples of sex and lust metaphorically not-so-well-disguised in literary characters. Ballet is a brilliant art form for expressing concepts metaphorically, and First State Ballet Theatre has put vampires on stage twice in recent years with world premieres of Dracula and Irene, complete with neck nuzzling and hypnotic attraction.


One only has to search the calendars of the major stages in Wilmington, like The Queen and The Grand (which is said to have long-ago hosted vaudeville, if not burlesque), to find low-hanging naughty fruit like drag brunches, bump-and-grind shows (Chippendales dancers will be in town in February) and potty-mouthed comics. Wilmington has even brought recent scandals full circle: The Queen welcomed Sandra Bernhard in 2014, six years after her unceremonious suburban cancellation, and The Grand welcomed John Waters in 2013.


Not satisfied with singular outrage, Bootless is tripling down on the lascivity this season. They just completed Calendar Girls this fall, in which senior ladies pose naked for charity, and Porn Awards, the Musical swings through in May. Adding to the fun is an “After Glow After Party” happening weekend nights of the May run – costumes encouraged!


Be sure to catch GRINDR: The Opera at Bootless Stageworks, January 31 through February 15. With musical styles ranging from baroque to contemporary pop, it is a daring, humorous look at the changing landscape of gay relationships, and the greatest catalyst for the shift. Characters in include a mythical siren from remote antiquity who has been awoken from her millennial slumber by technology, along with Devon (a romantic), Tom (a cynic), Jack (a twink) and Don (a Daddy). Though the opera lives in the world of parody, it touches on serious hot-button issues that exist in the gay community.


When asked how Don Giovanni might influence his work on GRINDR, director Kimball says, “John Lehmeyer was one of my mentors, as was Nic Muni, both of whom directed productions of Don Giovanni for OperaDelaware. They both tackled an opera’s theme ‘head on.’ If the opera was about a sexual predator (Don Giovanni) with an insatiable appetite who exploited his social and economic privileges to gain sexual favors, that’s what they showed on stage, no holds barred.”


Kimball postulates that if his mentors had to direct the show today, they might reference Jeffrey Epstein or Harvey Weinstein. Their influence carries over to his 2020 work, with Kimball saying, “Having seen Mr. Muni’s depiction of kinky S&M sex in his Giovanni production (in a Leporello-Zerlina duet) and Mr. Lehmeyer’s famous nude shower scene (Giovanni’s aria), both onstage in Wilmington, it probably freed me up to think that 20 years later the city was ready for the sex scenes in GRINDR.”


He says that the opera asks some pertinent questions, like: Is there more to love than instant gratification? When we connect on a dating app, are we presenting our “real” self, or an idealized avatar? Is it possible to forgive a lover who strays?


  • GRINDR: The Opera
    GRINDR: The Opera