Performers Serena Fennell, Kansten Mueller and Brent Adams pose before taking the stage in the 418 Project’s fourth annual “What is Erotic?” fundraiser, which shows May 29 and 30. Photo by Conner Ross.
Performers Serena Fennell, Kansten Mueller and Brent Adams pose before taking the stage in the 418 Project’s fourth annual “What is Erotic?” fundraiser, which shows May 29 and 30. Photo by Conner Ross.

Performers circle the perimeter of the room. A jester serves mango and a masked woman swings a sword and drags it across the necks of audience members. People sensually kiss and hug and it becomes difficult to tell who is actually a part of the show — it seems everyone is.

A sign on the bulletin board of the 418 Project details its income, totaling $105,615, while its expenses have reached $127,000. It is clear that some monetary stimulation is necessary. The annual “What is Erotic?” fundraiser is intended to provide just that.

Now in its fourth year, the interactive performance raises money for the 418 Project, a nonprofit community center located in downtown Santa Cruz.

“The 418 is really a place where diversity lives,” center director Ana Elizabeth said.

The 418 serves over 1,000 people per week, and is an all-ages, alcohol-free venue and rehearsal space for various music, dance and theater events.

“We’re a place where new and up-and-coming artists can present and explore different works without spending a lot of money in a supportive community,” Elizabeth said. “We’re not stuck on tradition.” 

Composed of local artists and volunteers, the performance pushes the envelope of the topic of eroticism.

“I think eroticism is about suggestion, tension, passion,” said Phoenix Toews, an interactive digital artist. “It’s that moment of whiteness as the climax approaches.”

Toews collaborated with fellow artist Serena Fennell on a piece entitled “Being with the Divine.”

“This type of thing is a question of the personal aspect of [eroticism] — what the performers personally find erotic — so it becomes a dialogue,” Toews said. “It’s a celebration of the extremity of life.” 

Waiting for the opening-night performance to begin, volunteer and attendee Rosie Stone said that her personal curiosity, as well as the name of the show, drew her to the event.

“I hope that they interact with the audience,” Stone said. “I’d love to participate.” 

The festivities began with an erotic salon pre-show. Upon entering, attendees kicked off their shoes and proceeded to lounge on the futon-covered floor. In the first row of chairs in the back sat a woman with her husband and teenage son. The woman, who would like her family to remain anonymous, said her son is “old enough” for the show.

Sitting between his parents, the teen was approached by a female performer who offered him a chocolate-dipped strawberry and proceeded to slowly hand-feed it to him. Moments later, the mother was given a blessing, in which another female performer lightly caressed her head and hummed in her ears. The father was also soon teased with a strawberry.

The event also featured a confessional booth, complete with a priest, who was “open to hear your sexual fantasies.” 

It was announced that, “The best fantasy will be acted out by the cast.” The teen suggestsed a fantasy of porno and aliens to his mother, while the dad joked, “Where is the cow?” 

With more than 50 people in attendance, the main event began. Among the several works by local volunteer artists, dancer Shelly Adams performed a piece called “Sometimes.” It began and ended with her saying, “Sometimes I like to eat raspberries.” Following her performance, raspberries were served to the audience.

Adams, who teaches dance at  local public schools and is an energy medicine practitioner, spoke of her inspiration for the piece.

“I received an invitation from someone to explore what is erotic to me,” Adams said. “The exploration ended up being like everything from the mundane, everyday eating of a raspberry, all the way to something that’s hotly sexual — and everything in between.” 

Fundraising through events like “What is Erotic?” is crucial to the longevity of the 418, which relies heavily on its income from renting out the studio for performances and classes, as well as to the attached Jumping Monkey Café. 

“If we lost one of our major studio renters, we would be in trouble,” Elizabeth said. “We don’t have a big cushion to lean on. We don’t have a lot of grants to support our programming.” 

Laura Bishop, lead director and co-producer of the performance fundraiser, explained how the center is surviving.

“Most nonprofits rely on just a donor base to get their money,” Bishop said. “We’re still open because we creatively use the space. It’s a lean year, so we definitely need the support. We’re doggy-paddling along.”

In the midst of the interview, Bishop, dressed in a corset, lingerie and top hat, spanked one of her co-performers in the lobby as she explained why it is important to pose a question like “What is erotic?”

“We have to ask it because in this culture people don’t,” Bishop said. “It deserves to be asked out loud at least once a year — and in a really juicy way.”

 

“What is Erotic?” will be held May 29 and 30 at the 418 Project on Front Street (across from the Metro Center). Tickets are on a sliding scale of $20 to $25. VIP tickets are $25 and include a foot massage.