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Finding humor in a touchy subject: The Not Ready for Bedtime Players use skits to talk about safe sex

  • Olly Kelly, from left, Jason Canuel and Matt Biagi, members of the Not Ready for Bedtime Players, share a joint during a skit called “That Weed” during the recent performance at Mahar Auditorium. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Keep ‘em laughing: Audience members at Mahar Auditorium respond to a recent performance by the Not Ready for Bedtime Players at UMass. Group members say humor is a key part of their presentations. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Maya Kosztolitz, left, and Jason Canuel, right, as “Captain Condom,” with other members of the Not Ready for Bedtime Players at a recent performance at Mahar Auditorium at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Will Cole and Hasini Jayawardena perform during a NRBT skit called “Please Don't Tease Me.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Aria Zedgoun, left, and Britt Mardis, perform in “Lezbehonest,” one of the many skits the Not Ready for Bedtime Players offer on sex and healthy relationships. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



For the Gazette
Thursday, November 21, 2019

What do costumes, a stage, and sex toys have in common besides a strip club?

They’re all imperative for a sexual health comedy troupe at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The Not Ready for Bedtime Players (NRBP) is a diverse collective of student actors dedicated to peer sexuality education through free weekly performances of brief, entertaining skits, held on different parts of the campus. Their goal, as stated on the group’s webpage, is to “educate others to think critically about sexuality, encourage fellow students to make safer decisions, and laugh.”

“Students respond better to theater, they respond to comedy,” said troupe director Tommy Claire. “We’re able to be funny and sex positive, but we’re also able to go to the shadow, the underbelly, the traumatic stuff that could happen in a relationship.”

To be sex positive is to advocate for people to pursue any type of relationship they desire, as long as boundaries and wishes of all parties are respected. Such relationships could be purely sexual or totally platonic. Claire defines this as “sexual empowerment.”

Each skit promotes safe and respectful approaches relating to a sexual topic, covering basic healthy habits like condom use and other protections from sexually transmitted diseases or unexpected pregnancies. For a recent performance NRBP staged in Mahar Auditorium, the show opened with Captain Condom debating the effectiveness of the contraceptive.

“Just because you guys really trust each other doesn’t make you less at risk for pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and invisible STDs that have no visual signs,” said an actor ensconced in a costume resembling a giant condom.

That message may be even more relevant today. The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported last month that combined cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and all stages of syphilis reached record high numbers in the U.S. in 2018, especially among sexually active people ages 15-24.

This year NRBP includes 18 volunteer actors. They’re unpaid, and they don’t expect to get additional academic credit, but the players take significant time out of their schedules to perform and prepare for upcoming shows. Very few students involved actually major in theater, which means students come from a variety of backgrounds and interests that can lead to diverse conversations within the troupe.

Olly Kelly, a UMass senior, joined the collective this past summer and became involved full time this semester.

“I think the whole thing is a really collaborative process, and [yet] everybody in the troupe is a very individual character,” Kelly said. “So I think that energy brings different lenses to scripts that are already written and adds to new skits we’re working on.”

“During the school year, our shows are a little more expansive,” Kelly added. “We also talk about gender and sexuality, self-work, and self-image, all through a sex positive lens. And we just have a lot of fun while we do it.”

Touchier subjects the players discuss can take on a more somber tone, but their message remains optimistic. At the performance at Mahar Auditorium, two male students acted as if they were ogling a female peer, demonstrating poor social skills, disregard for consent, and the sexualization of women.

Claire said the performances are tailored to college students of all ages and identities. NRBP’s goal, he added, is to get audience members to consider a range of questions on personal sexual health and open the door for more sincere conversations surrounding sex.

The group’s reach has extended beyond Amherst. Claire said they have visited other Massachusetts colleges and also performed as far afield as Florida. Those travels partially stem from the group’s popularity but also because NRBP is the only sex positive comedy troupe in the state, Claire says. The group mainly schedules its own shows, but at UMass, student resident assistants or any group leader can also request a show.

NRBP formed in 1988 at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. Over 30 years later, the troupe still performs for large audiences at UMass, such as for all incoming transfer students and campus fraternities and sororities.

Claire credits the consistent popularity of the shows in part to the annually changing cast. In one recent year, some 80 students attended the auditions to fill the four open slots, he noted.

Claire says NRBP also works hard to keep its skits fresh. Every week features a mix of skits both new and old, in a new order, he says, and members meet weekly to debrief on new ideas, altering current skits, or picking up one of their 200 backlogged performances.

“In years past it was just the same show in different locations, but now it’s a different [show] every time,” added Olly Kelly.

And as much as the performances are meant to entertain and inform the audience, said Claire, the ones who get the most out of NRBP’s shows might be the players themselves.

The Not Ready for Bedtime Players will perform Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m. at the Old Chapel at UMass Amherst. More information about the group can be found by calling (413) 577-5181 or visiting https://www.umass.edu/studentlife/health-safety/chp/not-ready-bedtime-players.