The afterglow of an open relationship
Afterglow, by S. Asher Gelman gives us the story of Josh and Alex, a married couple in an open relationship, who invite Darius to share their bed for one night. When a new intimate connection begins to form, all three men must come head-to-head with one another’s notions of love, intimacy, and commitment.
Ahead of the London production, I caught up with S. Asher Gelman for a behind-the-scenes look at Afterglow.
You’ve talked about how this play was inspired by your own experiences of being in an open relationship. Was the risk of sharing the details of your private life worth the therapeutic process of creating this production?
Part of the reason I wrote Afterglow was to help dissolve the marriage between sex and shame. We live in a culture that continuously bombards us with the promise and allure of sex while simultaneously shaming us for engaging in it. There is nothing shameful about an act that is literally responsible for our collective existence. Sex is a biological function – it’s something we are hardwired to desire. When we are thirsty, we drink. When we are hungry, we eat. When we are horny, we fuck.
When we allow others to govern our biological functions, in this case, sexual expression, we give away our power. Sex is powerful. Truth is powerful.
When I first started writing Afterglow, my husband said – “On the one hand, I hope this play finds stunning success. On the other hand, I hope it never sees the light of day.” Though the piece is semi-autobiographical, we were still aware of how much its content would “out” us. When we moved to NYC from Tel Aviv in January 2016, we had a long conversation about how “open” we wanted to be about our open relationship – in Tel Aviv, we presented as
monogamous, even though we weren’t. That weighed on me – I felt like we had created a false narrative about our relationship while we were there. When we moved, I told my husband that I was tired of giving fucks about what
other people think. I’d rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I’m not. Then, Afterglow opened, and our private life was on display eight times a week for 14 months.
Being open about my sex and love life, particularly in such a public context, has been incredibly freeing. I don’t have to keep any secrets or fabricate any lies. I get to be the same person in every room I enter. I also realise that not everyone has the luxury of being as open about their lives I am, so I am exceptionally grateful for that. It is truly a gift, and absolutely worth it.
Navigating the boundaries of an open relationship isn’t exclusively reserved for gay men, but it almost is. Is this a play that only gay men will really connect with?
I don’t agree with the first part of this question, as I know plenty of straight couples who are currently navigating open relationships, although less openly than their gay counterparts. I do agree that the open dialogue about non-monogamy is mostly had by gay men, but I think that has more to do with the fact that gay men are more inclined to discuss sex in
general – it’s a substantial part of how we meet each other. One of the first things we consider in a romantic or sexual interest is whether or not we are sexually compatible. Our straight counterparts are less inclined to have that conversation, because most of them were taught to assume that the penis will go in the vagina, so there’s no real need to talk about it. It’s not as simple as that for gay men – we want to know what can go where before we get to the bedroom. This fosters dialogue about sex and sexuality from the onset, so having conversations about our sexuality and the importance – or unimportance – of sexual fidelity comes more easily to us.
All that said, Afterglow was never designed to be a gay play. It is a play about three men who have sex with men, but there’s no mention of any of the traditionally gay tropes – there’s no mention of HIV/AIDS, coming out, homophobia, or even sexual orientation. There’s no ‘inside joke’ in the piece that only gay men will ‘get’ – the piece was designed to be
It’s interesting how, even in 2019, we still ask ourselves if straight people can relate to our stories. I’ve never once had anyone ask me whether or not I could relate to a piece of theatre that lacked gay characters. Not once. It’s almost as if we’ve convinced ourselves that the hesitance of non-gay audiences to experience gay stories is somehow acceptable. In the immortal words of William Shakespeare – “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”
I never realised how much homophobia existed in the theatre community until Afterglow began performances. So many members of the theatre community, people who have been quoted again and again about the importance of telling diverse stories, skipped out on it, despite its 14-month run. When asked why, many of them quipped that it wasn’t ‘their demo’. That was seen as an acceptable answer. It shouldn’t have been. We should have seen it as the
absolute homophobia that it is – the notion that stories about us aren’t a part of the human experience. It assumes that we are subhuman – the epitome of homophobia. Our stories are just as relevant as anyone else’s, and just as relatable.
How did you feel when Afterglow became such a massive hit – that this was something that audiences were really responding to?
A phenomenal team came together to build Afterglow. While I was – and am – incredibly grateful, I wasn’t surprised. The calibre of the artists involved in this project and the passion they had for it led to the creation of a piece that was far greater than anything I could have built by myself.
The truth is that anyone who works in New York City and says that they are ‘surprised’ by their success is lying. We all go there because we earnestly believe that we have what it takes to ‘make it’ there. If not, we wouldn’t choose one of the toughest cities in the world to live in – it’s prohibitively expensive and the competition is incredibly fierce.
That said, I was surprised that I was able to find my team so quickly – I owe that to my brilliant General Manager, Evan
Bernardin, who assembled the perfect team for this piece. Art is only as strong as its creator, and I have some really spectacular creators I have the privilege of working with. I hope to continue working with them on project after project, for years and years to come.
The success of Afterglow has been incredibly validating, especially since it was my first play. As an artist whose primary focus had been dance and choreography, it gave me the confidence to continue creating theatre.
This the first time that Afterglow has been staged in the UK – were you asked to make any adjustments for UK audiences?
This is the first time Afterglow has been staged anywhere outside of the US, though there are several international productions in the works. It’s really thrilling to see how much of an impact this play has had. To date, there have been productions in Buffalo, Salt Lake City, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, and now, London. I’m excited to see where this play
goes. I’m also really looking forward to seeing it in a language other than English.
There was a brief moment in which I considered having the play adapted to have it set in London – it’s set in New York City – but I realised that so much of the vernacular would have to be adjusted that it wouldn’t really be my play anymore. Luckily, I’m told that UK audiences also speak English.
Would you recommend that people in a long-term relationship should give an open relationship a try?
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend trying an open relationship, though I would strongly recommend discussing consensual non-monogamy with your partner, just to gauge where you both stand on the topic. We live in
a culture of toxic monogamy. To clarify, I don’t think monogamy is toxic – when it works, it works. I don’t have the audacity to assume that what is right for me would be right for anyone else.
That said, the culture of toxic monogamy we live in tells us all, in no uncertain terms, that we are born incomplete. We are all looking for our ‘other half’ – that person who will tick all of our boxes and leave us completely fulfilled in every possible way. Single people are failures. People in open relationships are failures. The only kind of legitimate love is monogamous. I call bullshit. Monogamy is not always the answer. Toxic monogamy leaves no room for nuance or negotiation. It traps those of us who prescribe to it because it limits the kinds of discussions we can have about and within our relationships.
When my husband and I first started dating over a decade ago, both of us discussed the absolute importance of monogamy. Had either of us even entertained the idea of veering from that, it would have been seen as a deal-breaker on both sides. Luckily, we evolved together through the various permutations of consensual non-monogamy. We’re poly now, and have been with our partner for three years – Afterglow is not about him.
My advice is to have a conversation about how or if monogamy fits into your relationship and to start seeing it as a choice instead of a default.
If you’re considering an open relationship – and even if you’re not – you need to learn how to communicate effectively and honestly with your partner. You also need to understand that you will make mistakes – you need to be willing to navigate them together. You will get jealous sometimes – jealousy is okay, as long as you discuss it with your partner. The more you bottle up your feelings – whether they be of jealousy or something else – the more explosive they become when they finally, and inevitably, release themselves into the world, so it’s critical to discuss your feelings before they grow into issues.
Lastly, know that the rules of your open relationship can change. It’s important to set the terms of your open relationship, while also understanding that they may change – but should not until you’ve appropriately discussed them.
In general, effective and honest communication is the key to any healthy relationship, regardless of whether or not you are monogamous.
What do you hope that people feel when watching Afterglow?
I’m less concerned with what audiences feel during the show than I am with what they do after it. Art should challenge the way we think and change how we react to the world around us.
I hope audiences take away the importance of having the difficult conversation, whatever that may be, and then actually have it. When presented with the choice between having a difficult and necessary conversation or simply avoiding it altogether, we often choose avoidance, in favour of maintaining the status quo.
Many people told us they broke up with their partners because of the conversations the play brought up. I am glad that this little play allowed them to have those difficult and necessary conversations and am glad those conversations brought clarity, even if that clarity ultimately ended their relationships. This culture of toxic monogamy has taught us that the worst thing in the world is to be ‘alone’ – there is nothing lonelier than being in a relationship with the wrong person.
What’s next for you?
My second play, Safeword, opened Off-Broadway in April. It’s a sinfully delicious exploration of power dynamics through BDSM and food. We’re currently slated to run through 7 July, so if you’re in New York before then, come check us out
Where to see Afterglow
Directed by Tom O’Brien
77-85 Newington Causeway, London, SE1 6B
5 June to 20 July.
UK cast of Afterglow
- Jesse Fox
- Sean Hart
- Danny Mahoney
Photos: Darren Bell