For the last month, a group of over-65 Melburnians have been preparing to talk about sex in public. This weekend, they’ll take to the stage to spill secrets of their first loves, last loves, wild flings, lost flames and taboo affairs to audiences – and they’re not afraid to get really, really personal.
All the Sex I’ve Ever Had – opening this week as part of the Melbourne Festival – is the project of Darren O’Donnell, who is the artistic director of Toronto-based company Mammalian Diving Reflex, and also a novelist, playwright, director, actor and urban planner. For decades, O’Donnell has been flouting the conventions of traditional theatre to create live art experiences designed to smash preconceptions about different groups of society, create empathy, and bring communities closer together. Last year, he came to the Melbourne Festival to shift the way that we think about (and underestimate) kids in Haircuts By Children. The work was exactly what it sounded like, with adults surrendering to scissor-wielding young people.
This time, Mammalian Diving Reflex are breaking down one of society’s greatest barriers: that between elderly people and everyone else. To do this, O’Donnell decided he would create a work that delves into sexuality, that incredibly human, inescapable, personal aspect of ourselves that we all share, yet rarely discuss in public. “Our hypothesis was that older people are no less sexually interested and active than the population of young people, who are generally depicted as being horny for action,” O’Donnell wrote about the piece when it premiered in 2012. “It turns out we were both wrong and right.”
The process for Melbourne’s season began about a month ago, when O’Donnell met up with a group of senior Melburnians and asked them to talk about all the sex they’ve ever had. Through a series of workshops, O’Donnell then worked with each person to create monologues, which the elderly participants will perform.. The resulting show paints an extraordinarily raw and rich depiction of what it is to be human.
We spoke to O’Donnell during the rehearsal process.
Darren, in previous iterations of All the Sex, have you found that audiences have changed the way they think about elderly people?
Yeah, for sure. It’s really easy to look at this group of people who are in their seventies and [succumb to] the tendency to reduce them down into an old person to whom nothing much has happened. But in actuality – and this is one of the things I was absolutely convinced about, and have proved over and over again – if you live that long, interesting things have happened to you. [For example,] the ‘adorable little old lady’ phrase is ridiculous. There was one [performance] we did recently in Vienna where a lady had been involved in all these white collar crimes and had gone to Buenos Aires. As her boyfriend slept, she had sex with all these Argentinian guys. Nobody expected it! Everybody has these complex, incredible stories.
You’ve written at length about your belief that traditional theatre is not able to make the same impact on audiences that participatory experiences like All the Sex can. What can All the Sex achieve that it wouldn’t be able to if it were, for example, a fictional play about old people talking about sex?
As we made and performed [the piece originally], we realised that the openness and the vulnerability of these people with their own lives on stage – in however awkward or fumbling that these non-actors are as they sit there and literally read the script – produces this really strange kind of community open session to discuss ageing and sexuality and the effects of sexuality in our lives. None of us escape it; it causes us lots of pain but then it causes us lots of pleasure. [The piece] provides an openness for people to feel differently about themselves and their own sexual history and think about those things differently.
In today’s world, society is quite polarised into different social groups and political affiliations. How does your work with Mammalian Diving Reflex attempt to bridge these divisions?
When people start to reach across polarities and they spend some time with people with views that they find anathema, in the long run they [realise] that with most people it’s much more complex than “that person’s an idiot racist over there” or “that person is ridiculously sexist”. People are quite vulnerable, and often horrible views are masking fear.
That feels very relevant to the current debate around the marriage equality plebiscite.
I think with the plebiscite, it’s fear that’s driving people to say no to that. It’s an unreasonable fear but once you start to spend some time with people who are gay and who are married then that fear goes away pretty quickly. Spending time with other people who you might feel don’t share your views, it’s very difficult not to find compassion and find love for them given the right circumstances, and we try to create those circumstances in our projects. We try to create a circumstance where in this show, the audience does find love for all of the people on stage.
It sounds like you have a very positive outlook on humanity…
Yeah! I wonder whether this particular period is the sort of turbulent time between more stable times. When you move from one understanding of the world to another understanding it can be quite confusing and I think right now we’re going through a phase shift where we’re leading to more enlightened times, but we have to go through this small bit of being paralysed and fighting about sometimes seemingly ridiculous things.