“Dangerous” theater? The Empty Spaces Theatre Co. explores plays that got banned.

ORLANDO – Community theater is often quick to embrace the very familiar – revivals of popular plays that have broad appeal, the kind of shows that seem guaranteed to sell box office tickets.
But sometimes the theater world goes out of its way to avoid the universal, and instead to get right in your face – to embrace shows that are controversial, distributing, and — hopefully for the directors, producers and actors — thought-provoking as well.
That’s the aim of the Empty Spaces Theatre Co., which is devoting 2011 to plays that are anything but wholesome and inoffensive.
“We have a mission to do dangerous plays this year,” said director John DiDonna. “So far it’s been a rich experience.”
Empty Spaces Theatre Co., founded by DiDonna and Seth Kubersky, is well versed in tackling controversial subjects. Past productions have included “Stripped,” a docudrama exploring the world of exotic dancers in Central Florida; “Bent,” about the persecution of gays during the Nazi Holocaust; “Jesus Hopped The A Train,” about the brutality of prison life; and “Frozen,” about a mother who confronts the pedophile who killed her daughter.
Now Empty Spaces is branching out to include, as DiDonna called it, “dangerous” plays, although in this case the definition means plays that have been banned. In some instances, the subject matter is no longer as controversial today as when it was originally written; for other works, though, the controversy rages on.
Their first two productions highlight that contrast. In January, Empty Spaces did a reading of Mae West’s play “The Drag,” a 1920s comedy-drama about homosexuality. After some try-outs in Connecticut and New Jersey, West announced she was bringing the play to New York, but it never made it to Broadway after the Society for the Prevention of Vice vowed to ban it.
“It was banned for sexual reasons,” DiDonna, adding that today the content would barely raise an eyebrow.
That’s not the case with “My Name is Rachel Corrie,” the play by Alan Rickman and Katherine Viner, taken from the writings and journals of Rachel Corrie.
Corrie, an American born in 1979, died on March 16, 2003 when, as an American member of the International Solidarity Movement, she was crushed to death in the Gaza Strip by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer. Corrie was kneeling in front of a local Palestinian’s home, acting as a human shield to prevent IDF forces from demolishing it.
The play, which closed on Feb. 28 after five performances, remains highly controversial for its politics.
“This is kind of a pro-Palestinian play, in a way,” DiDonna said. “It’s a very visceral play. It got banned in Miami, and got shut down because of its politics. Rachel Corey was an American girl who went over to the Gaza Strip, and was trying to protect a house from being demolished when she got killed by a bulldozer. This play is politically dangerous.”
Or is it, he added. DiDonna noted that the performances were following by nightly talk-back forums, “Putting Rachel Corey in Context,” and not everyone thought the play’s message was inflamatory.
“The play is 90 minutes long, then we have a community dialogue after it,” DiDonna said. “Everyone who has seen this show says ‘Why is this dangerous?’ That’s just it – it’s not. We’ve had Jewish audiences who have loved it. I think this play can actually bring some dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis.”
If “Rachel Corey” has tested the patience of some Jewish audiences, the play “Corpus Christi” has done the same for Catholic — including DiDonna, who said he resisted even reading the play for years because of its content.
Terrence McNally’s passion play depicts Jesus and the Apostles as gay men living in modern day Texas, and in this version, Judas betrays Jesus out of sexual jealousy. Jesus is also shown admiring the gay marriage of two apostles.
Derided as blasphemous and immoral by some critics, DiDonna said it took him a while to read the piece.
“I have a section in my class on dangerous plays,” said DiDonna, who teaches drama at Rollins College and Seminole Community College. “When I finally read it, I said ‘Hey, this is good.’ I’m a straight Catholic man and I have no problems with ‘Corpus Christi.’”
Sexual content and violence are the principal objections behind another play that Empty Spaces is reviving: “Shopping and F***ing,” a 1996 play by England’s Mark Ravenhill. It’s a comedy about what happens when consumerism supercedes all other moral codes. When it was first performed in London, it shocked some audiences with its sexually-violent content, including the violent rape of an underage male.
“It’s a British play that is extremely shocking and vulgar, with very violent sex,” DiDonna said. “But in the end, it’s a morality tale. It’s dangerous. It has never been produced in Florida.”
DiDonna said the plays that have been chosen are not necessarily lost masterpieces, or ones the espouse a point of view he readily agrees with.
“We’re doing plays that we don’t necessarily agree with,” he said. “But we feel they should be heard. It’s been working well for us.”
How long will Empty Spaces keep producing so-called dangerous plays? That, DiDonna said, is still up in the air.
“For as long as we want,” he said. “We’ll do this as long as we want.”

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

Florida Ghost Hunters haunt old homes to record some hauntings.

The Orlando Public Library hosted two ghost hunters on Saturday.

ORLANDO – It’s one of the things that definitely lures tourists to this state: historic buildings and sites that reflect the Sunshine State in a very different era.
Tim Brown and Shawn Porter search out these places, but not from the perspective of recording history – unless, of course, that history includes the people who once lived, and died, in there.
A fine example is the Italian Club in Ybor City, a historic property founded more than a century ago.
Porter and Brown were eager to visit the building – very late at night.
“In 2008, we were at the Italian Club in Ybor City, and there’s four different floors there and we had groups on every floor between 2:10 and 2:20 that night,” Porter said.
Then something unusual happened – which is exactly what they were expecting.
“I had a pair of girls on the third floor come down and say ‘We’re real sick, we have to get out of here,’ “ Porter said.
He understood immediately what was making them ill: ghosts.
“The spirits in this place don’t like women,” he said. “Back in its day, only men were allowed in there. Another girl came to me a couple of minutes later on a totally different floor, and she was also sick.”
Brown and Porter are members of Florida Ghost Team Inc., which tours the state looking to record the existence of spirits – “real ghost hunting without all of the hoopla,” the Web page notes.
Brown said he’s had some unusual experiences himself, the kind that would cause even supernatural skeptics to scratch their heads in wonder.
He was recording the sounds in an old building once, he noted, and heard nothing. But when he replayed the tape, he noticed something odd.
“Listening to my audio, I can hear myself say ‘Hey, is something going on,’ and when I listened back to it, I heard someone knocking on the microphone,” he said.
Brown and Porter took part in a program called “The Paranormal” at the Orlando Public Library, part of a series of public talks they give.
Established on 2003, FGT is a not-for-profit organization that promotes professional paranormal research and investigation.
They take on clients and remain in contact with them “until their issue is resolved,” the Web site notes. “All client information is kept completely confidential. FGT’s professionalism and dedication to our clients sets us apart from some other teams. We view the media as a forum that provides us an opportunity to inform and educate the community.”
It’s led them, Brown said, to some decidedly eerie experiences.
“With a group of friends, we went to the old Spanish Military Hospital in St. Augustine,” Brown said. “We heard knocking on the door. I said, ‘Come on in,’ and nothing happened.”
There was a second knock. Again, no one responded.
“I got it on audio recorder and video camera,” Brown said. “That was kind of interesting that we could catch that.”
It’s all a part of their investigations – of buildings and locations that seem to attract spirits.
“We do try to research locations if we can,” Brown said. “We can find out the area itself, what used to be there, and a lot of the historical nature of the place.”
Other times, not much comes out of their investigations, including the visit FGT made to the Titanic museum on International Drive.
“It’s a small hole in the wall shop,” Brown said. “Some people believe there is a spirit attached to it. We were there almost a year ago, and we did a live overnight investigation, but we didn’t really get much that night.”
Porter also runs GhostShop, selling ghost hunting equipment like motion sensor alarms, mini night vision cameras, Olympus voice recorders, and ghost meters. He said there used to be a social stigma attached to doing ghost hunting, but not so much anymore.
“I think it’s become a lot easier,” he said. “Years ago, we could never have done this, especially at a public library. When I first started doing this, you didn’t talk about it. You were burned at the stake. When people first started asking me what I do, I said ‘I’m in electronics.’ Now I say I make ghost hunting equipment.”
Brown added that realty shows like “Ghost Hunters” have helped by introducing a wider audience to this concept.
“If it’s done anything, it’s made the supernatural more mainstream,” Brown said. “With these TV shows, there’s more awareness now.”
People can be skeptical that ghosts exists, Porter said – until they get the proof caught on tape.
“Seeing something like that is one thing, but when you combine it with recordings and other documentation, that’s when you say, ‘Ok, there is something to it,’ “ he added.
That’s the good news. The bad news, he said, is that ghosts are totally unpredictable.
“I wish there was a pattern,” he said. “That would make it a lot easier for us to do what we do.”

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Blissful Lotus celebrates local artists often censured by mainstream galleries.

Orlando artist Tina Foote's paintings reflect women in erotic situations.

ORLANDO – Adeline Rivera remembers that when she was growing up on Staten Island, she often had strange visions that haunted her.

“It started when I was about eight years old,” she said.  “I started having dreams that were coming true – which was freaky.”

When she turned 16, she sought out books on ghosts, the supernatural, and the paranormal, and discovered something interesting: the chapters on extrasensory perception, which involves receiving information not gathered from physical senses, but rather sensed within the mind.  Sometimes referred to as a sixth sense, Rivera recognized what she was reading about in herself.

“There are a lot of things about ESP that really opened my eyes,” she said.  “The more I read, the more I realized, ‘I could do that,’ and ‘I could do that.’ “

It wasn’t an easy thing to recognize, though.

“My mom was evangelical, and she kicked me out of her house when I was in high school,” Rivera said.  “I lived in my car for two years.”

Today, Rivera has a home in Orlando, where she reads people’s fortunes.

“It’s something I’ve been doing for 21 years,” she said.  “I use my crystal ball, or I have my set of Tarot cards, although a good reader doesn’t need anything.”

She has no bitter feelings about her past, calling it “life lessons. I’m self-sufficient now.”

She’s also ready to help others, including couples who want to improve their relationship.  That’s why Rivera attended the EroticBliss Party, held on Saturday at the Blissful Lotis boutique in downtown Orlando, where she told the fortunes of couples and individuals who wanted to know where their romantic life was headed.

“This is about generating intimacy between couples and keeping them alive,” Rivera said.  “You don’t have to fall into the doldrums of romance.”

Blissful Lotus, she said, is the ideal place for a celebration like this one.

“One of the things that keeps me coming back here is it’s a very positive environment,” Rivera said.  “In terms of single women, it helps them with their confidence levels.  It’s been very transformative for them.”

The EroticBliss Party was something else: an artistic night, and a celebration not just of erotica, but erotica as art.

“This is a great way to start your Saturday night,” said Sean Ramsay, who operates the Blissful Lotus boutique along with his wife, Stacey Murphy. “This event goes from 8 o’clock to 11, and every couple of months we do this.”

The Blissful Lotus boutique hosts EroticBliss Parties that celebrate sensual art.

By 8:30 that night, the erotic boutique on Orange Avenue had attracted a large crowd of people who were there to drink wine, get their fortunes read, learn about Henna art, and check out the paintings on the wall by Orlando artist Tina Foote – a crowd that Murphy said exceeded their initial expectations.

“These events have been going really, really well,” she said.  “In October when we did this, we put a table outside because the crowd was overflowing.”

It was also a happy event for Foote, who said it gave her an opportunity to present her work to a larger audience.

“Right now I’m working mostly in pastel, and getting into oil paintings as well,” Foote said.  “All the paintings are sensual women, in emotional situations.  Some of them are erotic, and touch on erotic situations.”

But they’re not intended, Foote said, simply for shock value or to be controversial, but for self-reflection.

”For me, they are extremely therapeutic,” she said. “There’s a lot of bondage. It kind of reflects the limitations put on us, or that we put on ourselves. Most of the paintings have a lot of emotion behind them, sadness and fear. There are stories behind all of them.”

Foote was raised in Upstate New York, and moved to Orlando in 1997. She now has a studio in her home, and has shown her work at galleries in Tampa and Atlanta.

“I’ve been painting women since I was 14,” she said. “By painting women, I’m wanting to create more of a story.  Most of them are more emotion than erotic – but they always seem to lead into being erotic by nature.”

Her artwork, she added, is also a passion for her.

“I can’t live without it,” she said.  “I can’t breathe without it.  I have to get my thoughts and feelings out.”

It’s also, Murphy said, about countering galleries that prejudge art like this as being crude or offensive — and forget there are other people who disagree.  Blissful Lotus wants to be a forum for artists who often can’t get their works shown in more traditional galleries for censorship reasons.

“Our goal is to host artists who have very sensual and erotic art,” Murphy said, “and it’s been very popular. What’s unfortunate, though, with sensual and erotic art is there are some galleries that will not show it. Many of the artists want to have a place for shows, but don’t.”

To learn more, call the boutique at 407-704-3357, or log on to www.theBlissfulLotus.Blogspot.com. The shop is at 1810 N. Orange Ave. in downtown Orlando.

To get a Tarot card reading from Rivera, call her at 407-435-3767.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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