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Slash brings familiar and unexpected pairings to life in the ultimate fanfiction play
If you're familiar with fanfiction, then you're probably familiar with the subgenre of slash. Slash fiction depicts romantic relationships between same-sex couples such as Star Trek's Kirk and Spock, unions that are not necessarily canon but are commonly brought to fruition in fiction. While you can enjoy these stories mostly online these days, now some pairings are moving beyond the screen to the stage thanks to a two-woman, two-hour, no-intermission play appropriately titled Slash.
Slash is performed by writers Emily Allan and Leah Hennessey at the MX Gallery in New York City. Allan and Hennessey first worked together in a writers and actors group before starting their web series Zhe Zhe. The series developed a cult following and led to some one-off live performances. At one point, they tried to put on a play unconnected to the series but had such a bad experience they vowed never to do a play again. Then their love for BBC's Sherlock and the Johnlock (the ship name for Sherlock Holmes and John Watson) fandom changed everything.
"We got really into that community and they were a lot younger than us. They were in this different generation technologically and we were so fascinated by the way they expressed their passion, their sexuality, and their desire," Hennessey told SYFY WIRE. "They were so open and serious, but funny. The way they navigated private and public [spaces] was so novel. We were really obsessed with the Johnlock kids and obsessed with the Johnlock conspiracy in our own serious way too."
They felt too old to participate in the community and weren't writing fiction or heading to conventions, but it did make them want to create a Johnlock cosplay performance. That led to Allan and Hennessey to write and perform a series of sketches in which two characters would cosplay as two other characters, followed by a musical number. Eventually, Allan says, they started to think about putting these sketches together into a longer play format. After months of writing, the owner of the MX Gallery saw some of their sketches and extended an invitation. Allan and Hennessey have now been at MX with Slash the past few months and have been shocked that people other than their family and friends want to see it.
The play is described as "an infernal fantasia of perverted intertextuality" that transcends "the banality of identity and the terror of consciousness through cosplay, homoerotic fanfiction, archaic feminisms and song... an erotic Post-Absurd mystery play for the next generation." The description is perfect and yet also not quite enough to describe the whirlwind journey that begins with a discussion between Archie Comics' Betty and Veronica, who start cosplaying as others. Allan and Hennessey don and discard props to transform into various personas. You watch each pairing enter the will-they-won't-they tension of a scene — the kind of relationship that often drives fans to ship slash pairings in the first place — and then it fades into the next sketch before anything can be realized.
"The slash we play with is really the melodrama and the romance, the childlike discovery of desire," Allan says. "A lot of slash fiction just cycles through that again and again and ultimately when the two characters get together it evaporates or turns into smut and that's not so much in our show."
Fictional characters star throughout Slash, including Catwoman and Wonder Woman and a wonderful alternate-universe Johnlock/Harry Potter crossover (Potterlock) with Sherlock as a drug-addicted pureblood Slytherin and John a Muggle-born Gryffindor dating Hufflepuff Mary. Real-world figures are also often featured in slash fiction and receive the spotlight here too, including Paul McCarthy and John Lennon, Ivanka and Tiffany Trump, Steven Morrissey and Jonny Marr, and Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin.
Those who know the slash world will smile at common scenarios that take place across couples or at references specific to one pairing in particular, such as the mention of a telepathic bond between Kirk and Spock. Those who don't know slash will still find an impressive, funny performance to enjoy and might recognize more aspects related to the real people.
A lot of the characters they chose were less geek-driven than just reflective of the creators' interests. David Bowie makes an appearance — Hennessey admits she's been an obsessive fan since she was 12. Both writers have been fandom-oriented since they were kids, though not active in the larger fan communities. Both loved Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes. Hennessey wrote her own Star Trek stories while Allan had a joint Xanga account with a friend where they'd write stories edging on slash smut. John Lennon and Paul McCarthy were a big pairing for both of them growing up, as well, and to Allan that couple, in particular, makes her feel connected to the slash community.
Without that early community connection, it took Hennessey longer than she would have liked to realize she wasn't alone in her love for these ships. She would read fanfiction with her anime friends in middle school and had inklings of slash then but didn't know other girls were into it as well.
"I think I probably always knew there were people obsessed with Kirk and Spock or Batman and Robin, obvious things like that," she says. "In terms of really understanding the [slash] world and how huge it was, I think it was Johnlock that opened my eyes."
In addition to some of the pairings, musical performances often set between scenes weren't in early drafts of Slash, but they did know early on that they wanted to incorporate certain feminist figures such as Camille Paglia and Susan Sontag. At one point after a sketch, the two take off their props to become Betty and Veronica again, needing a roleplay break. During that time, Veronica reads to Betty part of the Joanna Russ essay "Pornography By Women, For Women," which is just one take on why slash appeals to women in particular.
"She makes this conjecture about women writing these romances about Kirk and Spock that aren't gay fantasies or in a gay erotic canon because they can't imagine a woman and a man having an equal power relationship, so they want to project it onto two men," Allan said. "It's fascinating to me, but it doesn't totally answer all the questions I feel boiling up from my depth. She's very much using this frame of women who want to write about men and then if you go online now there are people who identify as all kinds, but who are writing about two boys or two men. It's so familiar to me and I so feel a part of it. It's also a deep sexual mystery."
They began looking for more scholarly writings on the subject and found a lot about conventions and Star Trek, but soon realized a lot of good writing about slash fiction seemed to stop around the '90s. With a JSTOR account in hand, Hennessey says they searched but found only a lot on Kirk/Spock, written in a moment for academia in which feminists were wondering what this fantasy and sexuality meant.
They wanted to incorporate the Russ essay and others, but Russ was the only exceptional one they found. Both would like to find more, but their discoveries at least led to them imagining these feminist conversations and including them in the play.
Beyond the pairings and familiar slash elements, fans are also honored in Slash directly, as some parts are not written by Hennessey and Allan but actually come from real fanfiction. They included this element because they would try to think quickly about a sketch, start writing, research the pairing, and find a perfect story to adapt to the stage.
"We would think ‘is there a Trotsky/Stalin slash?' Then we found it and we were like ‘this is better than anything we could ever come up with,'" Hennessey says.
They've tried to contact the authors for permission to use their work, but have not received responses. Two stories are still available, written by authors trenchcoat_arrogance and daysinbetween on Archive of our Own, while another is not available anymore. Hennessey and Allan would love to speak with the authors to get permission. They would also like to get clearance for using other aspects of the play, including the music.
"It's very much in the fanfiction spirit," Hennessey says. "We're just going to take whatever and put it up there and give credit where credit is due, but we didn't get permission. That's another reason I think it's interesting doing this in an art gallery versus a theater. It's a more punk, DIY thing in that fanfiction spirit."
Right now the future of Slash includes a one-night performance at Joe's Pub and they've been offered a spot at the Under the Radar Festival at the Public in January 2020. They plan to revise and rewrite the play and add more pairings too. Their work continues on their web series and they'll be working on a video series connected to Slash with DIS Magazine.
"There's that line in the play where Brian Eno, and we wrote this line, says ‘using funny voices can open up access to the alterity of oneiric intelligences in the unconscious.' There is something about that that fanfiction opens up for me," Allan says. "You lose yourself and it all sounds the same and it doesn't belong to anyone and at the same time you have that feeling of 'this is me, this is my thing, I'm that, and you're me,' when I read it. I think there's some link to that with theater."
To Hennessey, the draw boils down to freedom and the feeling of awe or incredulousness about something like Trotsky/Stalin fiction even existing.
"Many slash fictions are exactly the same. So many use the same phrases [and tropes]… and yet you can still always be shocked at the absurdity and how moving it is, and just be shocked and moved all over again," Hennessey says. "It was just really encountering that kind of freedom and intensity that I don't feel exists anywhere else for me right now. Things are so tired and fanfiction is really where you find people, especially girls and women, expressing their feelings in an uncensored way."
Slash is at the MX Gallery until January 31.