Welcome to Club Shortbus, Where Queer Sex Party Meets Cabaret Theatre

On the evening of Valentine’s Day, I found myself sitting on a cushion on the floor of a loft in Manhattan’s Chinatown. I was within spitting distance of Glow Job, a drag queen who was twirling and lip syncing to the bridge of “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani. “This shit is bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S,” the whole room yelled along (myself included). In more ways than one, it certainly was: midway through the tropical-fruit-themed medley, Glow Job gleefully pulled a baby banana out of her thong. At the very end, she pulled a full-sized banana (yes) out of her ass, and after only a moment’s grimaced hesitation, peeled it and took a bite, to the uproarious applause of the crowd.

If you can believe it, this was not the main event of the evening, though it was certainly a personal highlight. The number took place during the afterparty for the inaugural Club Shortbus, a live immersive adaptation of the John Cameron Mitchell film. If you’re unfamiliar, Shortbus follows a crew of sexually unsatisfied New Yorkers, including Sofia Lin, a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm; her husband Rob; James and Jamie, a gay couple who open their relationship; and Severin, a dominatrix who craves deeper connections. They all find themselves at the titular Shortbus, a weekly artistic salon/orgy hosted by the drag artist Justin Vivian Bond (played by vself), seeking various answers to their sexual frustrations within themselves, with each other, and with total strangers. Notably, most of the sex in Shortbus (and there is a lot of it) is unsimulated — and yes, that held true for Club Shortbus as well.

Fempath, who created, directed, and adapted the script for Club Shortbus, was drawn to the film’s joyful approach to depicting sex and sexuality. “It was hardcore with a soft heart,” she told me one afternoon a week before the production. Fempath has been a regular in New York City’s sex party scene since she was 18, starting with the mostly anonymous environment of darkrooms. As she’s gotten older, Fempath felt a desire to cultivate a sex positive space that allows for “hardcore” fun but where “people can still get to know each other.”

“If that translates to a room full of everybody playing, that’s cool,” she said. “But if it’s not that and it’s people coming for conversation and community and dancing, then that’s great, too.” It’s an ethos very much in line with the original movie, which was itself based on actual parties Mitchell attended in the ‘90s and aughts.

Fempath started dreaming of making Shortbus a reality after Mitchell tapped her to act in Anthem: Homunculus, a podcast musical. She pitched the idea to him “a year and change ago,” and he was on board. “Finally the right people are adapting Shortbus in the true spirit of our film,” Mitchell told me via email. “They’re not afraid of the explicit sex, but more importantly they are creating a salon-like environment where sex and art are equally honored. A modern Moveable Feast indeed!”

The ultimate vision for Club Shortbus is that it will be a monthly event. While the first “fore(play)” focused mostly on Sofia’s storyline and her quest for an orgasm, the next iteration will highlight Jamie and James (“If you’re a fan of threesomes, come see that show — you’ll never hear the Star-Spangled Banner the same way again,” Fempath told me wryly). Once you’ve attended one “fore(play),” you’re considered a member of the club, meaning that you could just show up for the afterparty if you wanted to, as Fempath explained to me.

In order to create such an environment, Fempath had to shift from thinking about the project as an attempt to bring eroticism into theatrical spaces to thinking about it as an attempt to bring art into sexual spaces. She wears many hats — in addition to working in theater, Fempath is currently a sex worker, and previously worked as a rape crisis counselor, an intimate partner violence counselor, and an intimacy coordinator. “I thought this was an amazing opportunity to stretch all my muscles at the same time and bring in experts from all the different places,” she said. “I’m the only one who knows all the porn people and all the theater people and all the cabaret people.”

Those people, she said, told her that they’d been waiting for a production like Club Shortbus, one that rejects the false dichotomy between porn and art. That includes burlesque performer Darlinda Just Darlinda, playwright Justin Elizabeth Sayre, gay adult performers Jonah Wheeler and Benny Blazin, and Lola Jean, a sex educator who holds the world record for volume squirting and who Fempath cast as Sofia’s “sexual avatar.”

Oscilloscope Laboratories 

The “sexual avatar” was one of several concepts Fempath mentioned in our conversation that intrigued me but that I couldn’t quite visualize. What did she mean by sexual avatar? How were they going to fit a live band in the space? Sofia’s husband is going to be portrayed by… a blow-up doll?