BWW Interview: Joe Chisholm Talks SAFEWORD
Exploring the depths of modern relationships is something that S. Asher Gelman is keen on doing in his works. On the heels of Off-Broadway's smash hit AFTERGLOW, which offered a view into the world of open relationships, the playwright's latest work - SAFEWORD - explores concepts of trust in relationships through the lens of BDSM. To get the inside scoop on the play, we sat down with Joe Chisholm. Be warned, plot spoilers are discussed below.
You've worked with S. Asher Gelman before, doing AFTERGLOW, and now you are in SAFEWORD. Is that how you came to be a part of SAFEWORD, or did it happen in a different avenue?
Joe Chisholm: No, that's about how it came to be. Towards the end of the run of AFTERGLOW, Asher had mentioned that he had been working on a new piece and had wanted me to read one of the roles. He had me in mind as he was writing it. I left AFTERGLOW and immediately went to another show out of town, so I wasn't actually available for the first reading of the show. However, when I came back, they asked me if I would still be interested in joining in. It was kind of one of the great examples of work that gets work. I was lucky that Asher kept me in mind.
What has it been like getting to work with an up-and-coming playwright twice?
Joe Chisholm: It's been fascinating. For AFTERGLOW, I came into the show a couple of weeks after it had opened, so I really wasn't there for the gestation period for the piece. I came into a solidified show and just interjected myself into it. That's always an interesting experience as an actor, folding yourself into a pre-existing world.
For SAFEWORD, being able to be there from the ground up, has been really an enlightening experience. We're lucky to have a team surrounding us that has been incredible and that has helped to massage the piece into its strongest form. It's been really interesting looking at the creation of a new piece of theater from beginning to end and seeing how much of it has changed from our first reading to our opening night. And, how much has changed, honestly, from our first preview to our opening night. We started as a two act piece, and it became a one act during the preview process. It's been a really interesting challenge of adapting, growing, and being flexible, but I couldn't ask for a better cast or crew to make it happen. We've all banded together.
Your character is this really fascinating guy who is, surprisingly, not using BDSM for sexual gratification. Can you talk to me a little bit about that aspect and how you constructed that as an actor?
Joe Chisholm: I think that's really what is, to me, one of the most important aspects to this piece. On the outset, a person can glance at our marketing, or the synopsis of the show, or anything that they see from the outside and make a lot of assumptions about what the story is, what the characters are, and what they go through. And, more importantly, what the BDSM world is.
I think there is a very large misconception of the community, and there really isn't a lot of theater, film, or TV that is really creating an authentic representation of that community. They go the 50 Shades of Gray route and cheapen it and sexualize it because it sells. It was a really cool education and learning experience to have. We had a consultant come and talk to us, and we all did research to really explore the almost infinite sides and facets of this community. We aren't saying in the show that there isn't a sexualized side of BDSM. Honestly, there is, but it's not a hard and fast rule that that is what that is. Everyone's experience, needs, and desires are completely unique to themselves. What they need and what they get out of the BDSM world is specific to what they need and what they want to get out of it.
For my character, in specific, I think it's really interesting to be able to look at this world and this idea of really releasing control, of humiliation and degradation as a means of therapy, of arriving from a place of guilt and a need to be punished rather than a need to get off. Being able to tell that story we're able to humanize this world. Feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse are all basic human feelings and emotions, and anyone who watches the play can immediately latch onto and hook into that experience at the basic emotional level. We just happen to be having this very human emotional experience through the lens of a very, very specific slice of the human community of this BDSM world that is very unique but is not represented nearly often enough, or nearly authentically enough. I think the beauty of our piece is that we're getting to humanize and hopefully start a conversation with the audiences that leave the theater, and hopefully destigmatize this world.
When denied access to his Dom, your character starts to self injure. It's frustrating and hard to watch as an audience member. Can you talk to that?
Joe Chisholm: It's frustrating and hard to do. [Laughs] It is never really fun to see a character who kind of unravels in that way. We made the decision as we were telling the story of this person, their desire to be humiliated in this way, and their personal experience in the BDSM world was not sexualized. So, it was important that we made it very clear that for them there was a delineation between the sexual and the physical act of the degradation. They were two separate things, and his specific experience almost has an addictive quality to it.
A lot of people wonder why he didn't just go and find a different Dom, get off that way, and have a happy ending by just removing this social issue of the Dom living in the apartment building and being friends with his wife. But, there's an aspect of addiction that I'm fascinated by and that it was this need, this strong desire to have this experience. When he found a different Dom to do it, it didn't feel the same. And, I think even though there is no sexual energy, there's no sexual intention behind the relationship between Micah and Xavier, there is an emotional bond. That's only heightened through this need, this repetition, and the addiction to this experience that almost imprints Xavier onto Micah. That's what makes it so difficult when this relationship is broken. That's what really drives him to end up self-harming.
It is important to recognize that Micah doesn't have history of self harm. We didn't want a character broadcasting that he was utterly and emotionally broken, unstable, or that he kind of fell upon this other physical outlet of pain. So, we were interested in finding how this character went from this seemingly bizarre but safe and comfortable outlet of a Dom to finding a more extreme and dangerous version of that release by himself. You know that he's falling apart and that's not really sustainable. It's an outward manifestation of the internal destruction that is subsuming Micah. He's just falling apart, essentially. [Laughs]
Another interesting aspect of Micah is his lack of honesty with his wife because of his shame. What do you feel the play is saying about honesty in terms of fidelity?
Joe Chisholm: At the end of the day, both AFTERGLOW AND SAFEWORD are relationship stories, and that's what drew me to both pieces. They are about the confines and constructs of relationships. They just happen to take place through the lens of these very niche communities, whether it be a polyamorous gay open marriage, or, in this case, the BDSM world. But, at the end of the day, you strip away those circumstances, and the experiences that these characters go through in terms of their relationships can be applied to any relationship regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or anything else.
What we see in the show by having these two couples juxtaposed to each other is what it really means to be honest in a relationship and what it means to be actively truthful, rather than passively truthful. I don't think Micah necessarily sees himself as cheating on his wife, and I think he believes everything he does is for the greater good of their relationship, and there is the sense that he is trying to protect her from this world, but at what cost is he denying this rather large part of himself from this person he's been married to, or together with for more than half of his life. There's this glaring elephant in the room that you can't have both of these versions of yourself without acknowledging that both exist, and there's really no way as soon as Pandora's Box is opened for it to get shut again.
The show really highlights the necessity for openess and honesty in a relationship even though you fear the repercussions of that. It shines a light on the increasingly growing grey area in which relationships in today's society exists. You see with Xavier and Chris that their relationship is not monogamous and it has it peaks and it's valleys. Throughout the show there is a sense of hope, there's a sense of growth, and there's a sense of togetherness in that relationship even though it's not constrained by society's norms in terms of how relationships and fidelity are generally accepted by the public. Conversely, the two that truly live the heteronormative, white-picket-fence ideal relationship - the American dream idealized marriage - show their relationship to be so decayed and incongruous internally that you see it fall apart.
Hopefully, we do get to show that there is a gray space in which relationships, even the most highly functioning and happiest, can live. I think it's so important to shows that love and marriage, or relationships, don't exist in simple black and white anymore. I think trying to keep that up is a recipe for disaster in today's world. It's more interesting to highlight the nebulous nature of relationships and the role that truth plays in them.
SAFEWORD is currently running Off-Broadway at the American Theatre of Actors (314 West 54th Street). For ticket and more information, please visit https://www.safewordtheplay.com/.