Poetry reading, neo-burlesque performance, and fin-de-siècle brothels are outwardly different forms of art and entertainment. But the Poetry Brothel, started nine years ago in New York by Stephanie Berger and Nicholas Adamski, promises to push back against that assumption. Arriving at Oberon, the American Repertory Theatre’s second stage, on Sept. 9, this interactive experience will feature one-on-one poetry readings, tarot card readings, live music, and burlesque and vaudeville acts.
“When you put a poet and a person in a private place together, we find that people can hear it in a really different way,” Berger said. “Poetry is really valuable to us, and it’s kind of the only art form that people give away for free,” she added.
That’s where the “brothel” aspect of the event comes into play. Actor and musician Charley Layton (a.k.a. Mister Charley) serves as the master of ceremonies, and Berger (a.k.a. “The Madame”) presents the cast of poets, called “poetry whores,” to the audience. Throughout the night, audience members can choose to pay for poker chips which they then use to purchase private readings, set apart from the main-room cabaret. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and Harvard English Professor Stephen L. Burt will be featured readers at the Oberon showcase. Certain private readings, depending on the poet, will “cost” more chips than others. Performances by Pinsky and Burt will be two poker chips, Berger said.
“I wouldn’t say that it is satire, but it makes a point about the intimacy of, well, sex work, and the performing arts, and poetry,” Burt, who uses the pronouns they, them, and their, said. “Arts that claim or pretend to give you something of the performer—or to show you something of yourself—are all related to desire in some sense….There are a lot of questions being asked about what’s theatrical, and what’s intimate, and what’s sexy, and the title is part of that,” they added.
In researching the history of jazz in graduate school—and later Argentina’s tango and European modernist painters like Toulouse Lautrec—Berger noticed that brothels often facilitated experimental, expressive art. “There was this culture in brothels where artists were freer to explore elements of sexuality and elements of society,” she said. “In a brothel, social mores kind of go out the window, for better or for worse.”
Despite receiving criticism from the get-go for putting money, sex, sex work, poetry, and art together under the spotlight, Berger maintains that the point of the performance is to start meaningful conversations about these topics and to create a spirit of empowerment. Before becoming self-titled “poetry whores,” poets have to craft characters, hone their abilities, and apply for the position. “Reclaiming the word ‘whore’ has been something that has been empowering,” Berger said. “A ‘poetry whore’ is a badge of honor,” she added.
Patricio Ferrari, a graduate student at Brown, will perform as ‘poetry whore’ Sebastien de Tours. In introducing his character, he writes: “Because I waded. Because I widened. Because I would. Dwell. Eight languages. Backdoor into this keyhole of selves.” According to Ferrari, de Tours is a Frenchman in his early thirties, fond of three-piece suits and writing letters to his lover, an older woman. The poetry, written in English with snippets of French, excerpts text from de Tours’s inspirations including William Shakespeare, Fernando Pessoa, and Alejandra Pizarnik. For Ferrari, the Poetry Brothel’s format shatters preconceived ideas about poetry and performance. “People going to the theater...I don’t know how much poetry they are expecting. My take is that they get more poetry than they think they will get,” he said. “And that’s a good thing.”
The Poetry Brothel’s flair grew from a place that lacked vibrancy, difference, and intrigue. Berger described how she and Adamski attended stuffy poetry readings that did not reflect the beauty of poetry. “There’s, like, pulled-up chairs and halogen lights,” Berger said. They wanted to create an entirely different experience: a softly-lit environment that combines page-based poetry, vintage evening wear, and acrobatics.
When the Poetry Brothel gained traction in New York, Berger and Adamski helped to grow branches of the event in cities from London to Paris to Barcelona. In addition, people contacted the Poetry Brothel to staff private events like birthday parties. For all these iterations, Berger and Adamski have worked to connect with and to highlight local performers. “We kind of realized early on that the Poetry Brothel...had this ability to move around, and it spoke to people in different places and different cultures,” Berger said.
With the Sept. 9 show as the Poetry Brothel’s first test-run performance in the Boston area, Berger said she hopes to establish a permanent branch in a city dominated by universities and residents who appreciate unusual cultural events. To that end, Burt said that the Poetry Brothel fits in well with Oberon’s program of boundary-breaking performances. “It is not a brothel, but it does think about what is performance, and what is intimacy, and what is sexuality,” they said. “And it’s a chance for people who think about performance to think about these things.”
“I would hope that if some Harvard undergrads come and see what the Poetry Brothel is doing, it would give event planners and student writers some more ideas. It should be fun,” they added.
—Staff writer Melissa C. Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @melissa_rodman.