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One-woman play on growing up in a porn-empire told with the help of a rock band

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Liberty Bradford Mitchell’s story “The Pornographer’s Daughter” plays out somewhat like a rock opera with the aptly named, rock band, The Fluffers sharing the stage with her. The musical direction and all the songs The Fluffers play not only latch the audience immediately into a particular era of time but also furthers Bradford Mitchell’s narrative which tells of a family whose story unfolds like a Greek tragedy of epic proportions with murder, sex, alcoholism and drugs.

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In an interview with Examiner.com, Bradford Mitchell whose play opened last Friday, Jan 17 at the theatre space, Z Below talks candidly about her colorful childhood and how integral the live band and music is to her show. Celebrated Bay Area rock n'roll poster artist, Chuck Sperry even lends a hand designing limited edition posters.

She is the eldest daughter of Artie Mitchell, who together with his brother Jim opened the infamous O’Farrell Theatre in the Tenderloin in 1969. The strip-club and X-rated movie house thrived against the backdrop of the counter-culture movement. And the brothers emerged as cause celebre in 1972 when their X-rated feature "Behind The Green Door" captured a certain zeitgeist and received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival.

Behind the glitz, the play reveals an uncomfortable childhood in the seedy underbelly of the porn industry where as a young child she visited her father's office and was exposed to movie sex scenes where everything was on show. That was juxtaposed with summers spent at her mother’s WASP-y New England family's where she was taught never to speak about such things though they did inculcate in her a love for the sea. For all their sexual enlightenment, however, neither parent would ever discussed mensuration or masturbation with her. That was left to Judy Blume.

But the music she loved.

Taking time out between rehearsals and the shows tech-run last week, she explained: “Part of being reared in San Francisco and the Bay area at the time was the counter-culture and the music scene. The Stones, the Beatles, the Eagles we were a very rock oriented household,”

“My mother was a big fan of rock music and was at the Monterey Music Festival.” Regarded by many as the beginning of the ‘Summer of Love’, the Monterey Festival of 1967 featured defining appearances by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar and The Grateful Dead.

Bradford Mitchell loved musical theatre as a kid and throughout her schooling always found a way to sing, perform or include music in her projects and speeches. She even did a play on ‘Women And Rock’ where she portrayed Debbie Harry and Courtney Love.

She added: “I feel rock music is so inherently theatrical. And rock n roll so sexy, the way that pornography never was for me. My Musical Director, Kevin Harding who I have known since I was 18, read the play’s first draft in 1995. He helped arrange all the pieces. I had joked to him that the band’s job was to ‘fluff’ the audience and so he called the band, The Fluffers.”

In the context of the show’s themes it is perfect. On an adult movie set, a fluffer is someone who kept the stars aroused until it was time for the cameras to roll. But in the play, the band does more than just provide overtures.

“We traffic a broad swath of time – we drop in some disco and we are in the ‘70s, then we do a little Duran Duran and we’re in the ‘80s. It is a short hand to the time-chart but the music was also an extension of my psyche and emotions at any one time."

The band also functions as a co-star for her. The Fluffers are made up of Oakland band, the Burning Monk's Kevin Swartz on drums; bassist, Keith Stater who has opened shows for Fleetwood Mac and Kelly Clarkson; and Geoff Knoop on guitar. “They are really a talented bunch of musicians and it means I’m not alone up there. I go through a lot in the arc of my story.” With some hard emotional scenes and serious issues being raised, the band and music provides a release for the audience and her. "Music is the ultimate catharsis, "she added.

The music might serve to help tell her story but hers was a difficult story that sometimes she didn’t want to tell. At various junctures Bradford Mitchell was forced to shelf her script either because Emilio Estevez had made a film about her father (the 2000 Showtime movie, 'Rated X') or she had decided herself to just move on. Eventually, getting married and having two children.

Indeed the script was first conceived as a means for her to deal with the tragedy. She put pen to paper while at Cornish College for the Arts in Seattle just after the fratricide and the ensuing media circus that followed her uncle's trial.

“For years, I was writing it as a way of telling a story without ever acting in it myself. And would go back to it when I had some new insight. But about a year and a half ago, I was invited to a storytelling-slam where I was one of 7 people who got up and did our piece. That's when I had an a-ha moment and felt like I could do this as a one-woman show," said Bradford Mitchell who has been working in the theatre scene in LA.

"It is also so hard to get theatre produced. We eliminated a lot of logistical problems when it was just me in it as a one-woman show.”

But still it has taken her almost a lifetime to see this play on a San Francisco stage.

She explained: “I think of the movie, ‘Amadeus’ and the scene in which Mozart is getting angry writing his Requiem and would wonder, why I was putting myself through this? It’s been a long process and a difficult one for good reasons.

“And the story that I wanted to tell when I was 25, then again when I was 30 was different again to now that I am 43. I am going back to my first love of acting and theatre, and am older with two children and a changed perspective. I am also now close to the age my father was when he died.”

By her accounts, she had a loving father who took his family on camping trips to Shasta and ski trips to Tahoe but she found it hard to reconcile what he did for a living. “In some ways my life was mainstream. I knew people who lived in communes. But when I was 6 or 7, I knew my dad’s job was really a bit strange and realized that I perhaps should not say what my father really did."

“But it was when I was 10 that it became really depressive. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I loved my dad but I did not know how to defend him and I was wrecked with guilt for being ashamed of him.”

Not surprisingly, the theatre major saw the glaring similarities of her life to the art of Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies. “I really identified with Antigone by Sophocles, the uncle kills her father, she goes bananas and tries to get revenge. I was heavy bent on revenge at the time but that’s really not sustainable."

Unhappy that her father was vilified in the press as Party-Artie while her uncle got a light sentence of only six years, of which he only served three before being released. She was most hurt by the fact that her uncle never took the time to apologize to her and her siblings. He died of a heart attack in 2007.

“I wanted to have a legacy of my dad that I could share with my children. He wasn’t an angel but no one is a complete devil either. I’m not interested in being a martyr. But that’s where I think the story transcends mine, or that of the Mitchell brothers. It is a coming-of-age story for my generation.”

For tickets, click here.

“The Pornographer’s Daughter”

Directed by Michael T Weiss

When: Till Feb 16 (Thurs at 8pm. Fri and Sat shows at 8pm and 10.30pm. Sun shows at 5pm)

Where: Z Below, 470 Florida St in San Francisco

Tickets at $32 from www.PDtheplay.com

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