Creator/performers Lauren Gilles and Alaine Hutton explore some topical social phenomena in their SummerWorks 2019 piece, Safe and Sorry. They introduce us to Keith Much, a Pickup Artist who runs a seminar called Power Play. Does your stomach turn at the mere mention of PUA culture? Mine too. But Much’s approach to pickup artistry is clever and responsible. Gilles’ portrayal of him is disarmingly charismatic and fosters a well-deserved trust.
That trust does take time though. An uncomfortable awareness of the misogynistic rhetoric that informs PUA culture kept me wondering when the other shoe would drop. As we begin to trust his authenticity, our defences are lowered, allowing us a glimpse into a dominant, healthy, heterosexual male psyche. The content of Much’s seminar and the values he tries to instil in the desperate men who flock to him are built on respect and integrity.
Some of my favourite moments occur early on as Much coaches two young men with very different social obstacles. Alaine Hutton really shines here—with slight yet telling changes in demeanour, she elegantly shifts from the overly confident yet misguided “Mike” to the painfully shy “Stu.” And she makes each endearing in their own way.
There is genuine, unexpected humour in Much’s noble attempt to correct the cringe-worthy behaviour of the men in his audience. The segment on maintaining proper hygiene is a comedic highlight, with explicit references to those specific textures and smells that occur in and around genitalia when left, uh, unattended. And the pickup exercises are an affectionately goofy send-up of male insecurity and practiced bravado.
Much gives some detailed and perceptive advice regarding consent and fosters an awareness of both the explicit and subtle social cues from potential women. He lays out an efficient, practical and comprehensive code of conduct that is deeply considerate yet maintains the dominant, pickup dynamic integral to his method.
Much’s Power Play is a body-positive, sex-positive, inclusive and responsible space for male fantasy made reality.
As Much’s popularity grows, cynical internet trolls belittle his valiant attempts at infusing PUA culture with progressive ideals. And men’s rights activism rears its ugly head in Hutton’s disquieting portrait of an incel—a middle-aged man masking his hostility with a gentle voice and “reasonable” explanations for misogynistic views.
The lecture scenes are broken up with a series of projected trailers for a dark, pretentious film that tells a melodramatic story about men acknowledging their demons. The thematic relevance of these trailers is gradually understood, though I didn’t find this element insightful enough to justify how much time is dedicated to it.
And I didn’t fully understand the need for certain artistic flourishes—like stylized sound-and-movement segments. Much’s seminars and his interactions with other men—the ways in which he challenges and is challenged by those men—are, for me, the most compelling part of Safe and Sorry. This is a work-in-progress, so these elements may feel more integrated and relevant as the work develops.