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David West Read writes at www.nytimes.com – ON the morning of the Adult Video News Awards — the Oscars of the pornography industry — I woke up in my Las Vegas hotel room to the sound of a sex scene being shot next door. I knew it was a sex scene, as opposed to plain old sex, because 1) the woman’s screams were deafening and otherworldly and 2) I was in Las Vegas on the morning of the Adult Video News Awards.
Like the couple next door, I was also hard at work at the Hard Rock Hotel — I was conducting research for my first Broadway play.
I wrote the first draft of “The Performers” — a backstage romantic comedy set at the awards — as a newly admitted playwriting student at the Juilliard School less than two years ago. I never dreamed that it would lead to a production of any kind, let alone a trip to Vegas.
Yet in January, the director Evan Cabnet and I were flown out and put up in the hotel where the 2012 awards would take place by the producer Scott Delman, a veteran of both Broadway and Las Vegas. Mr. Delman even arranged for a chaperon in Sasha Grey — a former adult film actress who holds the distinction of being the youngest winner of the female performer of the year award.
The chaperon turned out to be a good idea, as it was not only our first time at the awards but also our first time in Sin City. Remarkably, the two-day trip managed to span both of our birthdays, and while I might have been happier to spend mine with my girlfriend, and Evan might have preferred to stay home with his wife and 2-year-old daughter, we were committed to the project. And for our significant others, the idea of us spending our birthdays in Las Vegas with porn stars was, of course, a dream come true.
We arrived the night before the awards and met Sasha inside a dark dance club. I approached her V.I.P. table and was almost neck-punched by a security guard. Fortunately, Sasha was expecting us. She waved us past the barrier and introduced us to her musician friends. Over thumping music she explained that we would meet her friends from the “other” industry the next day — she had packed our schedule full of interviews.
Since the script was already written (the play begins previews on Oct. 23 at the Longacre Theater), the primary purpose of the trip was to gather information for scenic and costume design. This meant that as scantily-clad performers paraded around the hotel, we were the weirdos taking pictures of the walls. So when Evan and I realized that we were going to spend an entire day talking to the stars, we decided we’d better scuttle back to my room and do some homework.
“There are categories for things I’ve never even heard of,” Evan admitted, as he leafed through the awards catalog. He read me some of the classifications, which cannot be reprinted here, and we stared at each other, mystified. We’d developed a play that was set in the world of adult film, but we were far from experts on the subject and were not convinced we wanted to be.
We fortified ourselves with breakfast the next morning at the Hard Rock’s aptly named Mr. Lucky’s Cafe. The crowd included hard-core gamblers, pneumatic women in velour tracksuits, the adult film star Ron Jeremy, and a handful of tourists with terrible timing. In our button-down shirts and blazers, we worried that the performers might not feel comfortable opening up to us about their romantic lives. (I was far more interested in emotional truths than in the graphic particulars.) As it turned out, we worried in vain.
For our first interview we shared a bed — and by “shared” I mean we were perched on the edge of a bed in a hotel room, above the covers — with a young starlet who was nominated for so many awards she had lost count. She spilled about the difficulties of holding down a boyfriend in her line of work. We also learned that she went to high school in New York, around the corner from Evan. Here they were, reunited at last.
Next, we met a young woman from Siberia, who had just suffered an on-set injury while shooting a particularly acrobatic dungeon scene. She was also starting an online shoe company.
In fact, many of the performers had double lives. We sat down for lunch with a young gentleman who is known to many as a “bad boy” of the industry but who also teaches karate to 7-year-olds. As he devoured a burger, he started talking about the scene he had just shot.
“You mean back in California?” we asked.
“No,” he replied. “The scene I just shot. Upstairs.”
I had a flashback to shaking his hand moments before, and I wished I had brought my Purell.
At times we struggled to maintain straight faces; at other times, our innocence. When Sasha asked if we would like her to gather a group of friends and shoot a scene for us, we respectfully declined. There are certain things that, once seen, cannot be unseen.
It was not always easy to identify our interview subjects. The awards show is just one part of the largest adult entertainment expo of the year, so the lobbies swirled with performers and fans in a sea of skin and silicone.
In one hotel, we used Evan’s iPhone to run an image search for an actor we were looking to meet, but the results did not tend to focus on his face. As it turned out, the guy we were searching for was the one strutting around the lobby in the full Spartacus costume. We should have known.
Moments later we were huddled around a phone as he shared set photos from his coming epic parody, in which all of the actors performed their own stunts. His enthusiasm was contagious, and the more he spoke, the more I became convinced that the movie, “Spartacus XXX,” would truly become the greatest film of all time.
It also became clear, however, that this writer/director/producer was up against more than the Roman empire. With the proliferation of free Internet pornography, his insistence on engrossing story lines, high-quality visuals, naturalistic sex scenes and pubic hair was more than a matter of personal preference: it was a matter of survival.
While the stars that we interviewed were nothing but gracious, the more we talked to them the more we realized that the glory days of the business, and by extension the awards show, were long since past. When we finally made it to the awards that night, the disparity between the spectacle I had imagined and the scaled-back reality only widened.
The ceremony was full of technical glitches, the most painful of which occurred as the nominees were still taking their seats, when a summary of the night’s winners prematurely flashed on-screen. A number of young women were understandably in tears, but they were brave enough to stay until the end, which, according to my rough estimate, arrived 14 hours later.
Still, there were moments of lightness. One film with an unprintable title dominated the foreign-language category and earned a statue for its star, “Mr. Pete.” The American-born actor took the stage with 12 German guys in suits and sunglasses, all of whom looked like “Matrix” villains.
“I’d like to thank these European people,” he proclaimed, in a rare display of Yankee humility.
I understood how he felt. Pornography stars were as foreign to me as Europeans were to him, but I appreciated their willingness to assist in my process.
Ultimately, very little of what I learned from them has found its way into the play, which remains, like most romantic comedies, a work of fantasy. Still, it is rare for a playwright to dream up a world and then have the opportunity to experience it. Usually it works the other way around.
The trip has made me think twice about the setting for my next play. A beach house in Maine? A villa in Venice? At a certain point my imagination fails me, because it’s hard to think of a better fantasy than opening this play, with this cast, on Broadway.