When the provocatively-named American Masturbatory Theater Company made its way onto the scene at Swarthmore a little over a month ago, many students had one major question: what exactly does this group do? Some immediately negatively judged the group, as seen in a post on the “Only at Swat” Tumblr page. While there has been a lot of speculation about what exactly AMTC does and what it is all about, AMTC is a purposeful group that fills a physical, and more importantly, emotional need for its members.
Swift Shuker-Haines ’14, the group’s creator, took the inspiration for AMTC from their participation Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts during high school. The company had Shuker-Haines and others perform an exercise that involved laying themselves bare emotionally to a group of people. A person would stand in front of the group and answer a series of prompts, like “What I don’t want you to know about me is…” The effect of telling the truth, as Shuker-Haines said, was “devastating and beautiful.” They learned about the deep, human qualities of those they worked with.
What really affected them was that even the adult directors performed the exercise. These adult figures were instantly made more relatable by exposing inner turmoil that adults can mask so easily. Shuker-Haines’s reaction at the time was, “Oh my God, you’re people!”
AMTC was born to create a space where people can come to this same conclusion about fellow group members through physical and emotional intimacy, as well as realize new things about themselves.
After Shuker-Haines’s experience with Shakespeare and Company, they started AMTC at Swarthmore last semester. They held the first open meeting on December 6, and a number of people joined the company. “I was looking to get involved in theater this semester and Swift is a close friend of mine so they told me all about the AMTC,” Doriana Thornton ’16 said. “I love being intimate with other people and the fact that it isn’t really traditional theater drew me to it.” The group’s last open meeting took place yesterday evening in Old Tarble.
The Sunday before the heart of finals week, I attended an AMTC meeting. It is important to note that during the meeting, you do not have to participate in certain exercises if you do not want to and can leave whenever you feel uncomfortable. I came prepared with answers to a series of prompts supplied by Shuker-Haines: “When I’m around strangers I feel the need to tell them blank but I don’t”; “When I’m around friends or family I feel the need to do blank but I don’t”; and “When I’m with myself I feel the need to do blank but I don’t” are a few of the prompts they emailed members.
We met on the top floor of Old Tarble. More than anything, the meeting immediately felt like a yoga class, as we sat down in a circle and focused on our breathing. Shuker-Haines encouraged us to describe how we were feeling in terms of texture and color, which sounds silly, but doing so clearly had a positive, meditative effect on the regular members.
Another exercise Shuker-Haines led was one where everyone stood in a circle and tried to collapse together in the center. Someone would think that everyone was beginning to fall into the middle, but would misjudge and fall in alone. They’d laugh off the mishap and try again.
Later, we did an exercise where everyone literally just moved wherever they wanted to and could touch people at random (where they indicated beforehand were comfortable being touched). Some people ran and jumped on the couch in the room. Some people, like me, just sat down for three minutes and stretched. A friend of mine and I intermittently poked each other’s backs.
These exercises are about creating something quintessentially human and beautiful through a group that explores the realms of emotion.
Swift said right off the bat, “[AMTC] is not a masturbation club.” Rather, “What [AMTC] is looking for is a little bit deeper version of social interaction.” AMTC is a group of people that share a belief that people can gain something intangible by attempting to examine others on a level as unobstructed from the outside world as possible and by glimpsing the inner human-ness of other members.
This is definitely not a group that everyone can benefit from, but those who do participate gain something from the workshops which they would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere on campus. It is meditative. It is liberating. It is beautiful.