Virgins and Cowboys – Lisa chats with Morgan Rose and Dave Selswick (Theatre Interview)

Virgins and Cowboys is showing at The Stables theatre 30 November to 16 December. You can grab your tickets here.

For Louis Althusser, questions of thought had to do with battles, frontlines and the  balance of power. Meditation and withdrawal be damned, it was intervention that sparked revolution, ideas and intelectual movement. Politically speaking, success or failure was determined not as an objective logic of powers but rather as a figure of intellectuality. Take, case in point, the exciting forthcoming show at Griffin, Virgins and Cowboys. The internet, the body, the choice and the collision of these three things is creating political positions we chose often before understanding takes hold. The intelect is out of fashion at the moment, but surely that simple means it requires new measures, modalities and language? In Virgins and Cowboys, Morgan Rose has created characters who play with the political (ideological, social and ontological) power of their bodies, but do so in unexamined ways. Experience is not always the best way to gain knowledge.

The Griffin Theatre company have this to say about Virgins and Cowboys:

A sitcom-reject, set in cyberspace, Virgins & Cowboys is a play about a 20-something dude stuck in a dead-end job who meets two women online, both of whom are virgins. As he sets out on a bizarre self-assigned mission to ‘be the one who…’, the internet, the past, the future, and the stage smash together and everything crumbles around him. This twisted and timely premise is used to examine a demographic of people spat out of the other end of the information age—those in a futile and relentless pursuit of happiness.

Combining Morgan Rose’s darkly comedic social commentary with Dave Sleswick’s bold and colourful direction, Virgins & Cowboys brings together a talented ensemble cast in this non-hero’s journey. Off the back of a critically acclaimed Melbourne season, this work is a current, dangerous and unapologetic bon voyage to the patriarchy.

I was lucky enough to catch up with writer Morgan Rose and director Dave Sleswick who were kind enough to chat deep into some of the ideas surrounding Virgins and Cowboys. You can read their intreaguing answers to my questions below.


LT: You mentioned in your blurb on Virgins and Cowboys: I am excited about pushing the limits of a text-initiated processes. You usually work with movement based works. What have you found the most enjoyable aspects of working from text?

DS: My practice as a theatre maker has stemmed from highly physical and visual training methodologies and my inroad into the heart of my shows has always been by trying to embody it through the senses, and to assist my performers to do the same. Text has always been a fundamental part of this process, but I try to break down the hierarchy of ‘what’s most important’. It’s helpful for me to visualize the whole world and to explore the whole world at the same time – and that doesn’t always have to start with the words. But I had been around Morgan and the development of this work since it’s inception, and so it was inevitable that this process would be different.

Virgins and Cowboys was originally programmed in the Flight Festival of New Australian Writing at Theatre Works in 2015, and having it premiere as part of a festival dedicated to ‘writing’, I knew the words had to be at the forefront. Morgan has been very present throughout the making of this work (and its remount here at Griffin), and having her in the room has been invaluable – particularly during crucial moments of indecision and confusion. She would sweep in with the right words, thoughts and analogies that kept us moving forward. I have not worked with a playwright this closely before and it has been very insightful and highly rewarding to bring Morgan’s words to life with her so close by. I am happy because I can also see my own style very present in what we’ve done together.

LT: Virgins and Cowboys is about (among other things) those searching for meaning in life after being engrossed in the internet age. Do you think the avatar, the sign of who we are ‘in the world’ is a more potent expression of our ‘self’ than our physical bodies? How does this occur to a director moving away from the body toward the text?

MR: I think the avatar is a more common expression of self these days, but definitely not a more potent one. Online we can craft who we are with exacting precision. We can step away and look at it, erase it, change it. While we definitely craft who we are in our physical bodies as well, we have less control over this. For example, I can tell when my friend is sad, even though they are saying everything is fine. Meanwhile, the selfie communicates exactly what we want it to communicate: It is an art form, a craft. It doesn’t acknowledge what lurks beneath the skin, the stuff we are trying to hide. And that is the most interesting stuff isn’t it? That’s stuff you can really love or hate about a person. I get small, take-it-or-leave-it feelings when I look at your profile picture. But staring into your eyes while you attempt to lie to me, I feel that hard, in the best way—I feel a connection, I feel like we are made of the same stuff.

DS: Morgan says it so well. There is something so inescapable about the human body. It cannot be replicated online. It is a living organism that grows and morphs, and that is highly sensitive to change. Each one is so different. The internet is not these things, no matter how hard we try to make it. This is why the theatre is such a fascinating form – people on people, bodies in time and space with other bodies. I love how awkward it is to pull out your phone in a theatre… there is something in that.

I don’t think our avatars are more potent at all. I think our avatars are 2 dimensional and day by day I am slowly trying to retract myself from being constantly plugged in – I suck at it though. Virgins and Cowboys plays with connection and disconnection in the internet age – words are lost, status updates and ramblings vomit from real mouths, eye contact is hard… and there are 5 characters all just trying to make sense of this fucking maze we have created for ourselves. It’s been a challenge to direct as I see myself in all of these complicated, strange characters.

LT: Usually, the way we experience theatre (and the exceptions we take to some theatre) are in the audiences head and not in the directors intention. In Virgins and Cowboys, are you working in terms of yourself, the text, your cast or your audience? Are these perspectives compatible given the different approaches?

DS: I don’t try and dictate what an audience should feel or think. That’s impossible and boring and we’re not trying to sell anyone anything (except for tickets – we’re definitely trying to sell those…). It’s about expression of ideas and expression of self. Morgan has written a script that has been an expression of her interactions with the world, she has handed it to me to place my own language and ideas on top of it (or within it), then each actor, designer and team member contributes their interpretations through their craft. We’re left with a cumulative product of all the parts, minds, observations etc. We offer that product to the audience as a gift and they can choose to do what ever they like with it. It may resonate, it may not, but it’s beautiful because it belongs to all of us.

Our job as theatre makers is to try and communicate in a way that audiences can receive something meaningful and useful. That takes training and it is pretty hard work, but we’ve also had a lot of fun within the chaos.

LT: According to Foucault, modern sexuality is where the political and the body meet. By making biology political, the state is able to control our bodies. The ‘normalising society’ is one where power is directly connected to the body. How do you see this idea playing out in the theme of taking virginity in Virgins and Cowboys?

MR: The concept of virginity in Virgins and Cowboys serves as an access point to launch us into a story about 5 people struggling to understand themselves while entangled in a system, both social and political, that doesn’t care about them. It is my hope that the audience will see themselves reflected in one or more of these 5 characters.

The play begins with a man, Sam, who has met 2 women online both of whom have never experienced sex before, and both of whom have implied that they want Sam to ‘take’ their virginity. Sam is incredibly flattered. The women are at two very different points in their lives, and therefore virginity has a different connotation (a connotation dictated by society) for each of them. Lane is 19. Her virginity is perceived as ultimately a positive thing—purity, innocence (Or as the men in the play say ‘The plate of food before you’ve taken a bite and ruined it. The plate you take a photo of.’). Steph is 29, and for her, the fact that she hasn’t had sex yet is edging on pathetic (Or as the men in the play say ‘There must be something wrong with her.’). It is my belief that neither Lane nor Steph have a strong internal desire to fuck Sam. Instead they are worried about the afore mentioned perceptions and so they want to ‘lose’ their virginity because they fear the social repercussions of remaining unfucked. Sam is not a worthy partner, but he’ll do, he’s nice enough, and they just need to get it over with. This of course is uncomfortable and sad to watch, and that’s entirely the point.

Sex for women (and men, I assume) is perhaps the most confusing thing of all. We write every play, song, poem about it, in an effort to make sense of it, but to no avail. It has become nearly impossible in this world to disentangle our own personal desires from the desires projected on to us by the media, and even the media contains conflicting messages: have an amazing and constant sex life/don’t be a slut, wait for the right person/go out and have fun, fall in love at first sight/if you just give the nerdy guy a second look he might be perfect, passion/romance, masturbate/don’t masturbate, orgasm loudly/orgasm softly, do whatever you want to do/except not that. No matter what you do, you lose, and I think that all the characters in Virgins and Cowboys are crushed by this paradox.

After a great deal of confusion around the topic of sex, the play explodes out into everything, just everything, in life: A perpetual cycle of unfulfillment, a disconnection from our own desires. The characters attempt to escape their own disillusionment but nothing works: I’ve heard yoga helps? Or perhaps quitting my job? Or maybe travelling to South America?

This story turns out worse for the women, per the design of society, but the men are not immune to it either. In the final moments of the play, every character except Sam sees the system for what it is, and chooses to exit. Sam is left behind, blind to the unseen hands that manipulate him, blind to his own flaws. It is too late for him. This ending is of course utopian—there is no exit for any of us, we are all Sam. But perhaps if together we simply notice the system and all its failings (and all our own failings), we can start to dismantle it.

LT: Do you think the internet has the potential to create a categorization context for all of us to our detriment? Is it a bit like a biographical text, a psychological road map, that will have each of us defined according to our context for the rest of our lives, for example? Do you think this matters? Is the internet like our families – always think of us as that silly teen and never let us change, grow and mature?

MR: I do personally think this. I don’t know if the play thinks this, because I don’t know if I had come to this conclusion when I wrote the play, which was in 2013, and so much has changed in 4 years (ahem, ahem, Trump, etc). I think there are so many positive things about the internet, and significant social progress is being made because of it, but the flip side is hard hitting. I often look at my own Facebook profile and wonder what people think of me. I can feel my brain changing. I’m talking for myself personally here, because I’m very interested in this question (and like I said, I don’t know that the play consciously examines this topic), but I do fear my past existing for all eternity on the internet. I fear the way the mistakes don’t disappear anymore. I fear writing plays, and those plays being bad, or unintentionally unethical, and not being able to erase those tracks. This of course can be a good thing—the ability to point to the hard evidence of mistakes made, but it creates a lot of anxiety. I wonder if it will inhibit our ability to change. I’m not sure. It’s making existence less ethereal, more tangible, and there are definitely problems with permanence. We have to be able to change our minds—the ability to change our minds quickly and easily goes hand in hand with evolution, with adaptability. I think of all the stupid things I’ve done pre-Facebook and I’m relieved no one had a smart phone to document them, because I know so much better now. And while I regret doing those stupid things, I had to do them so that I could learn not to do them. I feel old and cranky writing this answer. I’m honestly not sure of my opinion on this. I see good and bad, and I don’t know which side weighs more.

Virgins and Cowboys is on at Stables Theatre Nimrod Street from 30 November to 16 December. You can grab your tickets here.