Category: Research

Dress your floozy in vintage!

Thanks to the great and serendipitous generosity of John Monaghan and Madeleine Barkey, there is now a much larger wardrobe with which to play, consult, dazzle, and seduce at the brothel – although our gentlemen are still, metaphorically speaking, rather naked. This may not be an issue in certain cases.

Here are a few photos to give a glimpse of our color palette – a knowing ivory, a tattered peach, a silken pink that once was innocent, all to a background of black, so useful for hiding stains and stresses of all kinds  . . .


As Melissa Joy Crawford, great friend to the Poppy and costume maven extraordinaire (having worked shows like “Harvey,” “Million Dollar Quartet,” and “The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway”, among others), notes, “Want to make a roomful of dressers coo?  Bring in the vintage.  Sure, it’s a challenge to maintain, but vintage lace?  Nothing like it.”

She also was kind enough to provide this shot of backstage wisdom:

“After the costume designer leaves, the dressing staff is there.

A dresser sees everything.  A good one keeps everything they see a secret.  We’re there to help make the illusion.  We’re the ones that scrub out the blood,  know if an actress is pregnant before she has uttered a word.  We know the secret ways out of the building.  We can also change your clothes in 30 seconds, in the dark.”

An enormously valuable skill set for those at the Poppy to emulate, n’cest-ce pas?

How the work gets done

From dear friend and colleague Sarah Miller comes this lovely reminder: the world of our stories, the world of the Poppy was and is created moment by moment, words stitched one to another with patience and pleasure and the belief that there are those who will want to share this world, when it finds its way into the greater one. Beautiful hooks of bone, keys on a keyboard, stitch to stitch and word by word.

‘Are we the show?’

When I’m not out and about with puppets of questionable morals, I’m researching for our immersive event. And one of the most spot-on investigations of setting as both community (for the patrons/audience) and character (as a curated component of the event, not just a space in which to contain/present it), is WolfBrown’s “All the World’s A Stage.”

Discussing performance entities and events ranging from “Sleep No More” (of course), Woodshed Collective, and opera at the Hayden Planetarium, it explores the idea of site curation as desirable, even necessary, not only to serve the making of a piece of performative art, but to more thoroughly engage an audience who are increasingly at home with, and excited by, fluid performance boundaries.

Or, as at Under the Poppy’s “The Company We Keep,” after entering the performance space (an artist’s studio in the Russell Industrial Center, tricked out into a Victorian gentleman’s love nest complete with wine and incense), an audience member asked, with a mixture of wariness and glee, “Are we the show?” This kind of experience will never be for everyone, but it is increasingly desirable for more, and more adventurous, consumers of theatre and art, and we’re very pleased to site our brothel at this intersection.

That scene with Pearl

Helen Davies’ review of Under the Poppy raises some interesting questions regarding the role(s) of the women in the novel, all of whom have their own stories to tell, some of whom have more space to enact those stories than others – the voices of Lucy and Isobel take narrative turns in the book’s second half, and Decca, love her or hate her, could easily have had an entire section all to herself. (At one point, Gavin Grant at Small Beer Press suggested that I might consider writing an entire Decca novel.)

The novel’s narrative focus is always on Rupert and Istvan, and those who impact their shared lives, whether directly or peripherally; but this is not to refute or debate Helen Davies’ review, which is thoughtful and substantive. What interested me greatly, as a writer, is this:

“The most shocking realisation of this power imbalance comes at the beginning of the novel, when we witness one of the women, Pearl, seemingly being brutally violated by two men. The first is Istvan, the second is revealed to be his puppet, Pan Loudermilk, and the scene of the ventriloquist’s doll sodomising Pearl is dismissed as Istvan’s ‘prank’ to announce his return to Rupert and Decca. The use of Pearl in this exchange is horrible yet her exploitation is never redressed. Perhaps my anxiety about this scene says more about my expectations of neo-Victorian fiction than highlighting a deficiency with the actual novel; is it that I require my neo-Victorian sex to be rendered politically correct?”

This is a very provocative scene, perhaps the most shocking in the novel, and it has definitely disturbed more than one reader (I lost a potential donor to the performance production over this very scene!). And Pearl is traumatized – we see her reactions to the Pan Loudermilk puppet throughout the novel’s first half, we hear her speak of the puppet’s troubling “reality,” we see her authentic fear not only on display but exploited, again, in the last show staged at the Poppy. (What happens to the whore Laddie/Vladimir at the hands of Jurgen Vidor is also physically painful and invasive, but more “normal” and thus less disturbing on the surface.) (Or does the normalcy make it worse?) Her treatment also refracts that of the Parisian whore Lucienne, whom Istvan lodges with for some time, and ends by betraying with the theft of a puppet from a patron to whom she has introduced him, leaving her behind to face that theft’s punishment.

What interests me most about the scene with Pearl is that mode of announcement, and I would posit (though I always hesitate to do so – my interpretation of the characters’ motives is as valid as anyone’s, but the text is there for every reader to parse, and I don’t put precedence on my own interpretations as the “right” ones; part of the great pleasure of fiction is arguing these very things!) – I would posit that this mode of reentry to Rupert’s life is aimed by Istvan solely at Rupert; Decca is in no way its target. It is Istvan’s way of saying quite literally “Fuck your brothel”, this place that has hidden Rupert from him in some way he does not yet understand, this place he defiantly annexes and subjugates by not only having sex with one of the whores, which any person might do for money, but by introducing the puppet into the equation. By making a show, literally, of fucking Pearl with a puppet Istvan puts his stamp, and spin, on the brothel itself, and announces in the most literal way possible that he is on the scene. Pearl’s own reactions to this act are of very little interest to him in its commission; as a temporarily purchased commodity, Pearl has no real power at all, with Istvan or any other customer. That he attempts to make it up to her later changes nothing for Pearl.

(I should also add that all of this was subterranean for me as I wrote it, as it is when I write everything – I never lift the hood when I’m working! I consciously considered Istvan’s motives much later, in a conversation with some readers about this scene.)

Reading Helen Davies’ examination of the role of the Poppy’s women gave me the chance to examine, and reexamine, this power dynamic and these ideas. Long live fiction and discourse, long live engaged, and engaging, reviews!

Here in the sweet spot

Last night at the Knight Foundation event announcing its new Detroit arts initiative, I spoke to a lot of people professionally active in the arts, in theater, in restoration, in media, and found that our Victorian brothel was right at home, itself existing at a nexus of all those things: a narrative in words and in performance, not only site-specific but site-dependent, with Detroit’s landmarks and neighborhoods as its playground . . . Exhilarating, to be right where you need to be, doing what wants to be done.

[Photo of Jordan Whalen courtesy Jarod Lew.]

Cover that thing!

From the New York Times: “A prominent Vienna museum has decided to cover the ‘intimate parts’ of three naked male soccer players on big posters put up in the Austrian capital after they caused an outcry . . . ‘Many people told us that they wanted to or had to protect their children,’ [Klaus] Pokorny said. Some had warned that ‘if we won’t cover it they would go there with a brush and they would cover it with colour. Already somebody did that.'”

It’s easy to make fun of this, and just about irresistible – won’t someone please think of the children?! (who, one hopes, have genitals of their own) – but the Poppy stands with Klaus Pokorny:

Pokorny added: “We are not really happy about the situation. You always hope that we have made progress, that we are now in the 21st century.”

The representation of sex is still dangerous, and naked men far more so than naked women. Is this why two naked men together, amorously, are twice as dangerous? And to whom?

Touring . . . accompanied by accordion

Continuing to source our final venue, from New Center to Woodbridge to Eastern Market, accompanied today by merry and melancholy accordion tunes in the mist and rain. Sometimes the journey is the destination.


Books & booze!

Time to drink yourself Under the Poppy at TNBBC’s The Next Best Books Blog!

Please imbibe responsibly, like the Victorians did.

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