Theatre artist Katie Sly has returned from Vancouver to present their play Serenity Wild at the Summerworks Festival. Sly is a significant figure in the vanguard of exploring sex and sexuality onstage.
They have produced the Two Queer: A Bi Visibility Cabaret series (which once featured my work), and performed in Sky Gilbert’s The Terrible Parents, and they have been featured in Summerworks previously, with their autobiographical show Charisma Furs. I had the pleasure of seeing a staged reading of Serenity Wild some years ago. Here is my conversation with Sly.
How has the cultural narrative surrounding BDSM changed since you began working on this piece, and what does Serenity Wild contribute to that narrative?
When I started writing Serenity Wild in 2013, Fifty Shades of Grey was the main cultural talking point related to BDSM. Now, at least in Canada, I think the main cultural talking point around BDSM is the Jian Ghomeshi trial.
In the Fifty Shades movie the main character is stalked: a man wants her, he breaks into her house when she doesn’t respond to messages, he constantly attempts to coerce her into activities she shows no interest in.
And Ghomeshi: when news broke, he tried to argue that he was being stigmatized as a member of a subculture, i.e., leather culture. If someone as famous as Ghomeshi wanted to have a consensual BDSM encounter, he could have walked into a fetish event and found someone to play with, someone that wanted to be played with in his way, and that encounter supervised by the folks who monitor consent: dungeon masters.
Both when I started writing Serenity Wild and now, the cultural narrative surrounding BDSM is insufficient. It almost exclusively operates from, or in service of, the male gaze. BDSM in the media is something that’s done in private residences, kept secret, has this sense of taboo and privacy. That’s not the BDSM I know and love.
The BDSM I love is about three things: communication, freedom, and community. I go to public fetish events as often as I play with folks privately. Both negotiating scenes, and watching other people negotiate, has taught me how empowering it is to name what I want, and what I don’t want, and have that thoroughly respected.
I’ve had my paradigm completely shifted in terms of how I conceptualize freedom. Freedom for me now looks like knowing that my anatomy dictates nothing about my fantasies: I can inhabit any gender, any role, any object. BDSM has given me the freedom to know that whatever I can imagine for myself, sensually, is possible.
Which brings me to community. One of the things I love most about BDSM is the passing down of skills and knowledge, the exchange of ideas about how to create a sensation, a situation, or a dynamic, and the encouragement and celebration of all persons present.
What Serenity Wild contributes to the cultural narrative of BDSM is a cognizance of how one-dimensional and harmful a lot of media depictions of fetish are, and how that seeps into our relationships and ideas about what being kinky is supposed to look like. Serenity Wild offers insight about how to move beyond that gracelessness, into heightened moments of intimacy that are raw, consent-driven, full of sensation, and cathartic for all persons involved.
What was working with Nightwood like, in general and in terms of the content of Serenity Wild?
Absolutely wonderful. I developed the first drafts of Serenity Wild over a year, as part of Nightwood Theatre’s Write from the Hip program. A year of guidance in writing this piece was instrumental for me, not only in completing the work and keeping me on track with deadlines, but in helping me ride that line between creating a work of art that folks who have no experience with fetish could understand, while also making a piece that would be hot and interesting to the leather folk.
Nightwood also gave me the opportunity to be mentored by Erin Shields, one of my hands-down favourite playwrights. Not many people get to say that their hero has read, and provided feedback on, their work.
Lastly, my time at Nightwood taught me a lot about how to receive all feedback, whether it’s useful or not — but to only implement what’s useful. Writers get a lot of suggestions that are useless, even harmful, to the work. So many people want to take the story you’re telling and turn it into the story they wish they were telling. Nightwood taught me how to identify mentors who want to help me write down the story I wanted. In that very real way, Nightwood taught me a lot about self-respect.
How has the play changed since the staged reading I saw? Has your work since (i.e. Charisma Furs) had an effect? Has Audrey Dwyer’s directing added elements that you didn’t expect?
The bulk of the script is still the same. In 2016, I won the Wildfire National Playwriting Competition, and Audrey and I traveled to Calgary and workshopped this play with actors there. That allowed me to make clarifying changes about the finer nuances of the play. Working with Audrey has allowed me to sink into how much this play is about a woman’s relationship to her wetness: when she’s wet because she’s scared, when she’s wet because she’s turned on, and that both responses are valid. Wetness does not equal consent.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length.
- Serenity Wild, as part of the Summerworks Festival , plays at the The Theatre Centre BMO Incubator (1115 Queen Street West, enter down the ramp at the side of the building)
- Performances are:
Friday August 4th, 10:00pm – 11:15pmSunday August 6th, 7:30pm – 8:45pmMonday August 7th, 12:00pm – 1:15pmTuesday August 8th, 7:15pm – 8:30pmThursday August 10th, 9:45pm – 11:00pmSaturday August 12th, 9:30pm – 10:45pmSunday August 13th, 3:45pm – 5:00pm
- SummerWorks tickets are now Pay What You Decide at $15, $25, or $35, whichever suits your budget. All tickets are general admission and there are no limits to any price level. Tickets are available at the performance venue (cash only), online and in person at the SummerWorks Central Box Office – located at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street). Open August 1-13 from 10am-7pm. Cash and credit accepted.
- Several money-saving passes are available if you plan to see at least 7 shows.
Audience Advisory: Mature subject matter, coarse language (18+)
Photo of Terra Hazelton, Chy Ryan Spain, Dainty Smith, and Julia Matias by Sly Feiticeira