Where There’s Smoke…: In Conversation with Kim Davies
From Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie to Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre Centre’s Mies Julie, August Strinberg’s classic, cloying account of the ever-shifting power dynamics between a wealthy heiress and a discontented servant has been adapted and reconfigured for an ever-expanding list of contexts.
But whereas Strindberg’s Miss Julie casts its sympathies with its masculine, working-class laborer – who convinces the titular Julie to commit suicide – Kim Davies’ Smoke at the Flea Theatre – which was recently praised as “intense, provocative and exceedingly clever” by Anita Gates of The New York Times – gives Julie a voice of her own.Transferring Strindberg’s questions of power, class, desire to a contemporary New York City BDSM “play party”, where a self-assured artist’s daughter finds herself trading barbs and testing boundaries with her father’s put-upon intern, Davies’s play starts as dark, Secretary-style romantic comedy, only for John’s resentment of Julie to start injecting real violence into their shared fantasies. Innocuous flirtation gives way to the play’s disturbing conclusion: an act of sexual violation with ramifications beyond the ‘scene’ the couple is playing out.Here, Davies talks to Litro about complicity, consent, and the myth of the “perfect victim”
Litro: Tell us about the process of writing Smoke.
Davies: I was in the second year of my MFA program [Mac Wellman’s Playwriting MFA at Brooklyn College]. I have a lot of anxiety about writing, so I’d always put things off. And the thing about my MFA program was that you get two points at which you can present work each year, when you can bring in a script. I only managed to finish 18 or 19 pages for the fall semester workshop class that I had. And so the start Smoke is much more friendly than the end of the play, so everything thought that I was working on this really cheerful irreverent romantic comedy. Then I came in the spring with the rest of the play, and…well, they were really upset that that was not the case. I think it was the most hated play I’d seen read at my workshop class. I think people were really disturbed by the subject. Normally in workshop, you’re supposed to give feedback on how you reacted to the play but not tell them what to do with it. But I got a lot of feedback that was like “I wish you had made the [lead] female character more passive.
That’s distressing, especially given Smoke‘s subject matter…
The overwhelming message from a lot of people at workshop…as well as people who came to the play later…was, “this female character could be seen as asking for it.” Not very many people said I think that this female character is asking for it outright, but they seemed concerned that other people would think that. They thought it was problematic, politically. It was upsetting, initially, to receive that kind of feedback, because I didn’t think about that at all. [If anything], I was concerned that people would really hate [John], the male character. Surprisingly, a lot of the response I got to [John] was things like: “well, he always asks for permission”, “he’s not really dominant because he always asks permission.”
The setting [a kitchen at a kink party] is a fascinating one. Can you talk more about your decision to set Smoke there?
I think the reason I felt compelled to set Smoke in that particular subculture that, when I was an undergrad, I went to a college that had a really pervasive date rape problem and is actually now under investigation for covering up rape under Title IX. Even if it doesn’t happen to you directly, it still changes you, being in that kind of environment. I was interested in how the culture of my school had become so permissive of sexual assault.
And then when I moved to NYC, I became very involved with a kind of grassroots effort in the queer community – the intersection between the queer and BDSM community – where we were trying to deal with sexual assault in their own communities: do things like help people make rules for their BDSM parties or play parties in which people could interact with each other with less risk and there was a lot of discussion of – what are the vectors of this behavior. Is it people who accidentally assault one another, or do you have people who are actively looking for victims and the culture is such that it’s very easy for them to hide?
But also it’s important to realize – BDSM is not this magically drastically different subculture – actually, what’s really fucked up about BDSM and what I found really fucked up about the people I encountered[in my work as an anti-rape activist in the community] is that assault is hugely, hugely endemic in the BDSM community. In a subculture that really celebrates consent and sex-positivity, and advertises itself as a “safe place” for people to explore their sexuality, it’s especially hypocritical and disgusting, because it’s just like the overall culture that surrounds it. It hasn’t removed itself from Western civilization; it hasn’t removed itself from these patriarchal structures.
[People in the community might] say, “oh, we’re better than all the vanilla people” – but you still are “vanilla” in how you interact with people, even if the particular toolkit of your sexuality involves more gizmos. You set yourself up for a really dangerous lack of self-knowledge.
Certainly – John has an over-whelming lack of self-knowledge. We’re set up to see him as a charming guy, a Nice Guy. He warns Julie about “other men” who might commit rape in the community. And then…without saying exactly what happens…he commits this horrific act.
I definitely didn’t want the audience to have an easy time saying “this is a bad guy”. It’s so easy to make sexual assault that happens to other people, that only “bad guys” do. I think John is someone who has pushed people’s boundaries before, he’s not someone with a clean record, he’s had someone freak out before and he’s walked out on the them.
You see how John’s character traits lead him to be that person. He’s not “evil”, he’s not “a rapist”, he’s not a “horrible person”, he’s just weak in a specific way that our culture allows him to be weak, a culture that says “if you hook up with a person at a party, you are not responsible for them.” Our culture has a lot of ways that men can divest themselves of responsibility for their actions towards women, and that’s what John does. He allows himself to walk out – to pretend that he can just leave.
Steve [Stout, who plays John] says he thinks of this guy who would say “well, not all men…”, this is a guy who definitely considers himself a male feminist, who considers himself on a good person, and whose idea of himself as a good person is predicated on his relationships with women. But you do see the aggression, the frustration lurking underneath the surface – he’s someone who has definitely self-identified as a good person, a nice person, who has a lot of really great traits, but also has this anger that life hasn’t been good enough to him, that he hasn’t had the opportunities that he thinks he should have had.
And what about Julie? To my mind, she’s the most fascinating character in the piece, in spite of – or indeed because of – being less obviously “likeable”. She actively goes to a sex party seeking to be dominated, to explore her sexuality, she seeks out experiences she knows will push her boundaries – and yet, when John assaults her, it’s so clear that this is so far beyond what she was expecting or consenting to.
[Julie was inspired by] the kind of people I was fascinated by when I was 19 or 20, the kind of girls who’d come from much more glamorous backgrounds than I came from, who had a much more expansive idea of what their lives might be like. That’s part of what’s so seductive about Julie as a character; she’s given herself this permission just to say what she wants, to do what she wants, and she does that in a way that’s only possible when you’re that age and you don’t know what the consequences of your own actions might be.
What is she looking for? What does she want?
This is going to sound like a cop-out – but I think she wants to find out what she wants. I think in dramaturgy, there’s such a pressure to say “this character needs to want this specific thing”. Part of what’s hard about navigating the world when you’re that age, when you’re young and you’re female, is that there’s so much noise in the way of finding out what you actually want. I think that’s the motivation for quite a lot of people at that age.
Early on, I was concerned about Madeleine [Bundy’s]’s portrayal of Julie [as very self-assured and manipulative] . Part of me was worried that “if they think that Julie is this conniving character, they’re going to think “she deserved it”. I ended up just trusting her to do what she wanted to do with it, which was the right decision, because she made something really incredible.
And what Steve and Madeleine both pointed out to me was that the play is not about a woman who experiences a horrible sexual encounter that she [personally] didn’t deserve [because she’s an “ideal victim”]. it’s a play about someone who experiences something that no one could ever deserve. What Madeleine did with the character, where she played the character as someone who’s not always likeable, but very, very self-willed, she created this character who…even though she’s, by far, not the “perfect victim”, every single night the audience has to engage with whether she was assaulted, with whether she’s going to be OK, and they have to sympathize with her whether they like her or not. [Julie] doesn’t beg for the audience’s sympathy, she simply wins it by being a person.
So much of what I’ve heard about sexual assault when it’s happened to people I’ve worked with [as an anti-rape activist in the BDSM community, or among people I knew at college]: the reaction is always, “I wasn’t there,” “I don’t know what really happened”, “he seems like a nice guy”, et cetera.
But of course, the audience is there. That’s part of what makes Smoke so powerful. We don’t have the excuse that “we’re not there” to help us divest ourselves of responsibility.
You’re a witness. You’re complicit when you watch. But for a lot of people, it’s not clear [that the encounter is a rape]. And I used to be disturbed by those people who said, “I don’t feel like she was raped.” But everyone comes away from that play feeling that something horrible has happened to [Julie]. Something happened that’s going to change her. And that’s a valid interpretation. One girl described it as “I feel like she had an encounter she wasn’t ready for – but I don’t feel she was disempowered”. And that’s a fine interpretation, too. In Strindberg’s Miss Julie, she dies at the end. She kills herself. I like that our Julie is not decimated by what’s happened to her.
Smoke runs on selected dates through December 18 at The Flea Theatre, TriBeCa