Jerry Prell in Cal Rep's production of Quills (© Keith Ian Polakoff)

"Social order at the expense of liberty is hardly a bargain." -- Marquis de Sade

Last Friday, California Repertory Company opened our spring semester season with Quills, by Doug Wright. The play riffs on the historical circumstances of the Marquis de Sade's incarceration in the mental asylum Charenton, and imagines a horrific tale of his demise that is completely invented and highly theatrical. Wright wrote the play as a challenge to the censorship of the arts that was occurring in the early 1990s.

In Quills, Wright employs elements of the Grand Guinol, a theatre company in Paris whose name literally means "big puppet show." The Theatre du Grand Guinol was known for its short, horrific plays, which Wright referred to as "precursors to modern-day slasher movies." The play is filled with graphic images of violence, dismemberment, murder, explicit sexual descriptions, and general mayhem. Large sections of de Sade's pornography are read throughout the play, and the main character spends over half of it completely nude. But, it is also an extremely witty, satirical commentary on the First Amendment.

However, mounting such a controversial piece of theater has proved to be a bit of a challenge for our management team. A large portion of our audience comes from general education theater courses composed primarily of college freshmen who have never seen theater before. Additionally, all of our Cal Rep actors serve as teachers of these classes, so it could prove uncomfortable for the students to see their teacher fully exposed.

Of course, when was the point of theater to make the audience comfortable? Perhaps I come from a sort of Brechtian aesthetic, but my belief is that the purpose of theater is not only to entertain but also to educate, and if it is necessary to wake up an audience by creating an experience that may be slightly jarring, it is our obligation as artists to not shy away from controversy. I'll attempt to keep my personal viewpoints about nudity on stage out of this conversation, but suffice it to say, the use of nudity is visually essential to the meaning of Quills. The gradual stripping of the Marquis' means of expression to the point where he is removed not only of his clothing but of his body parts as well is crucial to the play's integrity.

But how do you market a potentially offensive piece of theater? I think one of the most important bits of advice I received was from the director of Quills, Larissa Kokernot. As Literary Manager and Director of Publicity for Cal Rep, I interview every director for our study guides and press releases. When we spoke about the potential for audience ruffling due to the nudity and subject matter present in the piece, she said, "the most important thing is that we are not embarrassed about it - that we know what we're doing and why we're doing it, and we are not apologizing for it. Because that's the only way the audience starts to release some of their baggage around it and stops seeing it for that initial shock value, and it starts to mean something more."

In terms of marketing, then, the most important thing is to make people aware of the content, but in an unapologetic way. First, we partnered our production with a campus-wide anti-censorship initiative called "The B-Word Project" which explores what it means to be "banned, blacklisted, and boycotted." This association focused our marketing strategy on the message of the play rather than the macabre aspects of it. You can read a modified version of my press release to see the strategy in action by clicking here. Additionally, we decided to offer discounted tickets to patrons who supported other B-Word Project events to support the sense of collaboration.

Although we worked in our campaign to highlight the importance of the meaning behind Quills, we could not completely ignore the controversial content, for that would be irresponsible to our audience. Particularly with our students, we wanted to be sensitive to their concerns, so we encouraged teachers to lead open discussions about the content of the play as well as discussing the reasons why challenging art is created. We also suggested alternative assignments should a student be unable to see the show for personal reasons.

My hope is, that by creating an open dialogue about the play and highlighting its importance as a commentary on censorship, our audience will be excited to step out of their comfort zone and into the world of the notorious Marquis.

Click here for more information and tickets to CalRep's Quills.