As Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James continues to penetrate our culture with knock-off books such as Fifty Shades Of Chicken, exotic uses of men’s ties, and new slang (he was good but was he Fifty Shades good?), one of the more delightful products inspired by the trilogy is Spank! a parody/sketch show now traveling through the United States, Canada, England and Australia with multiple casts and paddles specially designed for spanking. (It would great if those last five words were true, but they aren’t.)
Conceived by Jim Millan, creative director of the Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall, as well as the founder of Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre, Spank! was developed two years ago through improvisational routines with actors collaborating with writers Jon Blair, Ian MacIntyre, S.A. Moran, Colin Munch, A.M. Scheffler and I.P. Whalen.
Spank! gives us a brains-eye view of Fifty Shades: How the writer might have felt, and how much she might have drank, and what she could have been wearing when writing. We see how her characters might have talked to her, talked back to her, rolled their eyes at her, and been grossed out by that weird toothbrush-sharing scene E.L. James tried to pass off as sexy.
Spank! is funny, even if you haven’t read the books. And Fifty Shades lovers, don’t worry, the play doesn’t make fun of you. The Spank! cast is two women and one man playing the parts of writer, heroine and hero, renamed for the parody as E.B. James, Natasha and Barry.
Broad caught up recently with Spank! actress Amanda Barker who plays the writer part, E.B. James.
Originally from the South Shore of Massachusetts, Barker is a Canadian Comedy Award winning actor, writer, and comedian. Stage credits include: The Best of Second City (Toronto), Second City at Sea (Norwegian Cruise Lines), Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding (Toronto), Shame is Right! (Los Angeles Comedy Festival), Dufflebag Theatre (US/Canada tour), Over the River and Through the Woods (Village Playhouse), The Book of Liz (Toronto Fringe). Most recently, she wrote and starred in the internationally acclaimed, Release the Stars: The Ballad of Randy and Evi Quaid (www.releasethestars.ca).
Barker spoke with broad about all aspects of Spank! including the Fifty Shades phenomena, bumbling housewives, female sexuality, and what in the world are virgins reading this book going to do if this is their first-time exposure to sex? While Barker was a little closed-mouth about her own bedroom practices with her husband in their après-Fifty Shades life, play literature revealed that her husband is well-spanked.
broad: How did you get cast in Spank!
Barker: Spank! was written in Toronto, where I live, by friends of mine. They needed somebody both American and Canadian. I’m one of the three actresses playing E.B. James.
broad: Have you read the books? What did you think?
Barker: Yes and I like to travel with them. I borrowed the series from my sister-in-law and read it when I got the show. It’s good to know what you are making fun of. I was in a wedding in the Dominican Republic when I first heard about Fifty Shades. People told me they (the series) was really steamy. My impression from the cover was that it was a legitimate piece of literature. A lot of people on the beach were reading it.
broad: Wait, this isn’t a legitimate piece of literature?
Barker: It’s very important for this show that we celebrate the book and the concepts of the book while having fun with it and not take pot shots at the writing. We don’t want any audience member who enjoyed the book to feel less than because they did. As much as we satirize and parody, lines that took shots at the writing were removed from the script.
broad: But, the literature thing…
Barker: I feel strongly that if everybody is reading that is a good thing. I have a degree in theater and English. I’m passionate about literature. There were Shakespearian plays that were appealing to the masses. One of the greatest art works of our time…Michelangelo’s David…might have been considered the smut of its time. Who’s to say?
broad: Well, if you’re comparing it to Shakespeare..
Barker: We all know this book is a guilty pleasure.
broad: Anything with words in it is literature, right?
Barker: It’s super important to a woman, when she comes to the show, that we aren’t making fun of something that means so much to her. It’s important to the woman who says the book changed her life. Once you negate the writing too much you are alienating the audience. If you approach your comedy with love you will get more laughs.
broad: Um. We poked a lot of fun at the writing in this issue of broad.
Barker: We are the biggest show to be satirizing this book.
broad: We are the biggest website. Maybe the only one that has dedicated a whole issue to it, but we are doing it out of pure love. Let’s move on. What are the women like who come to see Spank!?
Barker: We see drunken bachelorette parties, but also lots of adoring husbands on date night. Nothing sexier than watching your partner get excited. There has been a baby boom connected to book sales. (editor’s note: we were able to confirm an expected baby boom linked to book sales, but not an actual baby boom).
broad: What about all the weird sex that goes on in the book?
Barker: It’s opened a discussion of female sexuality. It’s great that if women are into BDSM they are allowed to rejoice in it. Also, if you don’t like it, you get to have the discussion of what floats your boat. E.L. James made Anastasia, the main character in Fifty Shades, a blank slate. (Reading it) we can go back to the days when we were sexually inexperienced. We get to impose ourselves on these characters. And a lot of men are going to say, ‘wait a second. If this is what turns women on, it’s in my best interests to read it.’ You can be Ana, your husband can be Ana. Isn’t it kind of fun that we have a version of sexuality written by a woman?
broad: Do you think people will discuss Fifty Shades for years to come?
Barker: Yes. Any sweeping culture phenomena will ultimately be discussed by anybody who experienced it, by everybody who has lived in this time. Years ago I wrote a paper on Madonna and why she was important and what she has done for women sexually. I wrote it’s important that she happened, but she isn’t the only version. There is not one way. BDSM is a wonderful outlet but shouldn’t be the only discussion we have about woman’s sexuality. It doesn’t represent their version of a healthy committed relationship. Only time will tell if young woman read this book and expect that out of their husbands. I’m positive that (BDSM) is not sexy to a lot of women. I think the negative and positive repercussions will be discussed for a long time.
broad: Do people use e-readers to read Fifty Shades to subvert gendered shame by exploring explicit sexual content privately?
Barker: Here you have a smutty novel without a smutty cover. You have a tie. All that signifies is a business man. But many women read the book on their commute home on the subway. People are looking at you but it’s just a tie. Subversive stuff on page but mass appeal cover that would not belay what was on the cover. It wasn’t a Harlequin Romance cover, but on many levels it is a Harlequin Romance. The cover was genus. A great tie can mean just about anything. We don’t have any indication of what Anastasia looks like. The genericness of the cover helped woman impose from their own imagination. You can cover it with your own interpretation of what “down there,” means. You are the author when you read this. You can superimpose self and your husband on the main character. Every girl feels they don’t know how to walk in heels but their best friend does.
broad: What affect do you think it will have on young women who are just learning about sex? If you had a daughter, would you want her to read this book?
Barker: I‘m curious about 17-year-olds reading this book. I hope they can use it to claim sexuality. The Prince Charming part of this concerns me. This man, (Billionaire Hugh Hanson, the love interest in Fifty Shades), doesn’t exist. At 27 you are excited if you have benefits. I worry that young women reading this and thinking that this man is a possibility. I worry there will be Prince Charming syndrome associated. Also worry that some of this behavior will be seen as OK. Anastasia protests about things, but there aren’t repercussions, so what Hugh is doing is considered acceptable. He’s possessive and controlling I can’t imagine that she would want that. I don’t think E.L. James was writing for young woman. She was writing for 40-year-old women.
If my daughter read it, maybe she should read it at age 30, not 17. I would hope we could have a discussion about what is false information.
broad: Has it changed any of your practices with your husband?
Barker: No. No comment. My husband, (Marco Tempano. Tempano does character stand up. Marcoempano.com), and I are actors so we are creative on our own.
We didn’t need a book to tell us to spank. My husband is the most creative and sexy person I know. He’s Italian. He doesn’t need some old British woman’s book to tell him what to do.
broad: Let’s talk some more about the tour. Can you tell me about the difference in audiences?
Barker: Across the board it’s very hard to say that American audiences vs. Toronto are more generous with their laughter. Canadian’s are more reserved. But they really love the smart jokes. Reference jokes.
Spank! is a sketch show that follows a narrative. American audiences might be confused by what they are seeing, a musical or sketch show. This is panto, which parodies popular songs with broad sweeping character.
broad: How is the tour going? Where are you now? What are after crowds like?
Barker: “I started in October. I’ve been doing the tour for seven months. We do about one city a week and we’ve done thirty cities so far. I’m currently in Detroit; we’ll do eight shows here. My husband and just celebrated our three year anniversary. I’ve only had two weeks off. I got to see him three days.
After Denver, we did 2000 Pike’s Peak Center theater in Colorado Springs, amazing town because it’s such an army town. It’s clear that that book holds a strong hold for a community like that with husbands out of town. It’s got to be hard maintaining a love life over Skype. I’m doing it now, trying to maintain a long-distance relationship.
In Colorado Springs, there was a lot of date night stuff going.
I talked to the first row of the audience there, we did a lot of army jokes. I said something like service men know how to service. It was a Sunday night 6 p.m. show. The Colorado Springs show was the biggest show so far.