Even as times change, the topic of women’s sexual pleasure remains taboo in some circles. That’s why local director Heather Frost wanted to put the subject center stage in Theater Company of Lafayette’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s 2009 work, In The Next Room (Or The Vibrator Play).
“When I was growing up, you didn’t talk about masturbation until you found a close group of girls you could ask all the questions you needed to know the answers to,” Frost says. “This play is incredibly beautiful because it allows us to have these conversations together. I thought women’s ability to talk about their sexualities was improving, but I’ve been disappointed by the number of questions I’ve received about attending the show because of its subject matter.”
Ruhl’s script explores the early history of the vibrator as an instrument for treating “hysteria” in women (and occasionally men) by inducing orgasms. The story set in the 1880s revolves around wealthy, analytical scientist Dr. Givings (Ronan Viard) and his wife, Catherine Givings (Hannah Embree), whose marriage is tested by the invention of his unorthodox new medical treatment.
But this buzzed-about history isn’t simply an invention for the stage. Ruhl cites a number of nonfiction books in her playwright’s notes that she says helped support the historical elements of her work, including The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel P. Maines, AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War by Tom McNichol, A Social History of Wet Nursing in America: From Breast to Bottle by Janet Golden and Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose.
“Things that seem impossibly strange in the following play are all true — such as the Chattanooga vibrator [dubbed the “Cadillac of vibrators” in Maines’ 1999 book] — and the vagaries of wet nursing,” Ruhl says. “Things that seem commonplace are all my own invention.”
Frost was recommended the script by local actress Renee Sobering, whom she had directed in Coal Creek Theater of Lousiville’s 2014 production of The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Sobering said Frost would offer the perfect guiding vision for the show, so the director ordered the script and immediately fell in love with its women-focused fusion of heart and humor.
“I mostly do musicals, so every time I had the chance to pitch this show, I would pitch it with a musical, and the musical would get accepted,” Frost says. “However, due to the pandemic, several of the theaters in Boulder County where I usually pitch had already stated they would not be doing musicals until at least 2024, so this one jumped to the top of my list — not only because I love the script, but also because Roe v. Wade was overturned. I believed Ruhl’s examination of women’s treatment in the medical field was important for today’s audience to hear.”
‘It’s part of everyone’s life’
To help the cast contextualize the history of the vibrator, Frost enlisted the assistance of Front Range Community College professor Catlyn Keenan, whose areas of expertise include religion, violence and sexuality studies.
“Using a vibrator would not have been considered sexual because of the way female anatomy was viewed at the time,” Frost says. “It was literally thought of as a release of hysterical energies, and that was sort of the ‘aha’ moment for all the women involved. It was not sexual; rather, these scenes of masturbation were a tactic to help patients be relieved of intense emotions.”
Along with Keenan’s dramaturgical help, the cast also worked with Aynsely Upton, an intimacy coach and actor who plays Dr. Giving’s patient, Sabrina Daldry, who helped establish clear boundaries among the cast and crew.
“We discuss the body in terms of ‘open gates’ and ‘closed gates,’ and each person may have different boundaries,” Upton says. “For example, the front of my chest is closed. We focused on desexualizing the language to be as sensitive to people’s comfort levels as possible. From the beginning of rehearsals, the entire team was on board. Now that we’ve established that practice, we don’t have to stop to discuss touching each other; we can just be in the moment.”
The majority of Upton’s scenes center on her treatment with Dr. Givings, which she says is the most vulnerable she has ever felt onstage. “Heather helped me get to where I needed to be for those moments to work, but you don’t know how an audience is going to react,” Upton says. “A majority of my nerves were because I didn’t know how this was going to be received, so on opening night, when they all laughed, that was all I needed to know that every decision we made as a team was the right one.”
And while Frost understands people’s initial apprehension about the play, she hopes audiences will put their hangups aside. “It’s sad to me that we still need to have these conversations,” she says. “Women’s sexuality is the same as men’s sexuality; it’s part of everyone’s life. America needs to move beyond its Puritan roots to have an open discussion about women’s emotional, mental and sexual health.”
ON STAGE: In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) by Sarah Ruhl. Various times through May 20, Mary Miller Library Theater, 300 E. Simpson St., Lafayette. Tickets here.