You're about to have all your questions about the porn industry answered…in a musical. New York's favorite investigative theater company, The Civilians, is about to debut their latest extravaganza, Pretty Filthy (Abrons Arts Center, January 31 – March 1). With a book by Bess Wohl, music/lyrics by Michael Friedman, and direction by Steve Cosson, this show takes audiences into the rapidly changing world of adult entertainment, especially as it exists in California's San Fernando Valley. Cosson, Wohl, and Friedman told TheaterMania what they learned while embedded in this exotic world, including one question anyone buying a house in the Valley might want to ask the previous owners before closing.
From Steve Cosson (director):
Porn is often shot at houses that are for sale. I visited a shoot at a house in the [San Fernando] Valley and observed a scene that was taking place on top of the dining room table. I asked someone about the set dressing — the table was fully set, napkins, napkin rings, etc. — and was told that all of that was actually done by the real estate staging company to make the house look nice and sell. The porn shoot basically borrowed it all for their shoot, though it was mostly shoved aside to make room for the action of the scene. Important to note though, the house was not being shown by the realtor on that particular day. This was the shoot where I interviewed the charming Katie St. Ives, and snapped this picture of her showing me her tattoo.
Porn parodies are some of the best sellers. During our research time in porn, the most talked-about question for everyone was how to make money when the customers are now used to getting porn for free on the Internet. One of the biggest sellers were porn parodies — the XXX version of Happy Days, The Brady Bunch, or, pictured here, This Ain't Star Trek XXX 2. Curious that many of these titles are the shows that we aging Gen Xers watched as kids.
We're more nervous with our clothes on than they are naked. The very first shoot I visited was a small affair with just three performers doing a scene in a rented house. This particular house in the Valley managed to look both very expensive and fairly hideous — picture pricey but uniformly ghastly objets d'art placed throughout the over-the-top decor. I struck up a conversation with one of the performers, a naked, heavily made-up, very porno-looking young woman and awkwardly said something about how nice the house was. She looked at me with a dubious stare and said, "Yeah, if you like hideous furniture and really tacky art." Turns out she was a UCLA grad and known for being one of the "smart girls" in porn. And I proved myself to be terrible at talking to naked women. But I got better with practice.
From Bess Wohl (book writer):
The front door to a porn shoot is always unlocked. Every time I went to visit a porn shoot — mostly at normal-seeming houses in the Valley — the front door would be unlocked and anybody could wander right in. I realized later it was so that the crew could enter with equipment without needing to ring the doorbell and disrupt the shooting. I often entered and observed shoots without anybody asking who I was. I was struck by how strange it was to be watching naked people have sex without them wanting to know what I was doing there. At one point, one performer said she had just assumed I was from OSHA, the government health and safety inspectors that monitor porn shoots. I told her no, I was from a theater company — she just shrugged and went back to work.
You can tell porn is being shot in a house by the number of SUVs parked outside. It's a truth that you never know what's going on behind your neighbor's front door. But one dead giveaway that they might be shooting a porn is — in my experience — if their house looks perfectly normal except for lots of SUVs parked outside. These are to transport performers, wardrobe, food, camera equipment, etc. In spite of this insider clue, the "porn houses" that we visited often had ways of keeping out prying eyes — high hedges, sunken backyards, and lots of blackout curtains on the windows. I noticed directors being very careful about keeping those blackout curtains shut — any crack and there goes the neighborhood!
From Michael Friedman (composer/lyricist):
You can't buy Cetaphil anywhere in the San Fernando Valley. The skin cleanser Cetaphil is often used on porn sets as a substitute for...well, let your imagination run wild. And that makes Cetaphil a particularly popular item in drugstores throughout the Valley. But, as a way of keeping the adult-entertainment community out of their stores, most drugstore owners don't carry Cetaphil.
Porn stars love Wicked. For a while I thought it might have something to do with the fact that one of the biggest porn studios is also named "Wicked," but I was asked by a remarkable number of people I interviewed if I would get them tickets to Wicked next time they were in New York. And, whenever I could, I obliged.
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