In a culture that has sex constantly on the communal brain, there’s one segment of society for whom it’s still taboo: seniors. Though you’ll see all kinds of half-naked people posing provocatively on magazine covers, steaming up the sheets on TV and in movies and just strutting down the street, it’s rare that the mainstream presents anyone 60 or over in a sexy or sensual way. The Toronto-based multidisciplinary arts company Mammalian Diving Reflex challenges this convention with “All the Sex I’ve Ever Had,” a live stage show featuring seniors talking candidly about their real-life sexual experiences.
MDR’s artistic director, Darren O’Donnell, was inspired to create the project in 2009 when he noticed a group of mature women riding gleefully on their bicycles. “They were so vibrant,” he remembers. “Suddenly, they made me see age quite differently.”
At that time, MDR was best known for “Haircuts by Children,” a site-specific interactive installation in which kids offered no-cost cuts to the public. The piece was so successful that O’Donnell wanted to remind people of the company’s edgier work. “I decided we needed to do a 180 and I thought, why not work with seniors?”
“Originally we tried to make it an environmental piece with seniors hosting a party where they would tell stories,” O’Donnell says. “At that point the show was called ‘The Best Sex I’ve Ever Had‘ – but the ‘best sex’ actually turned out to be the most boring. We realized we wanted to share how the seniors experienced sex, good and bad, throughout their entire lives.”
“We focus more on a life of sexuality rather than a view of simply older people and sex.”
The Courage to Let It All Hang Out
Each edition of “All the Sex I’ve Ever Had” is unique, taking place in a different city with a different set of older non-actors. Versions have been mounted in Bern, Singapore, Prague, Glasgow and Philadelphia. In each case, the company partners with local senior organizations to recruit a diverse pool of about 10 willing participants ages 65 and up. Then O’Donnell and his team arrive to conduct in-depth interviews that will form the basis of the script, along with games (like one in which participants decide if they find passers-by sexually attractive or not) and bonding experiences designed to help the performers open up.
“We spend time getting to know each other and we do a bit of socializing outside of the rehearsal hall. Each senior is interviewed by me and two other people for many hours. Then we write the text.”
“We wanted to mark the societal change,” O’Donnell says of the interview process. “We got to know how when they were young, nobody talked about sex and how now we talk about it constantly. We interviewed them about every romance, every crush, every kind of sex and any other major life events to write our script.”
During the performance, the so-called senior “panel” sits onstage behind a table with scripts in front of them. Background projections and occasional dance breaks give the proceedings a theatrical quality. The performers fire off their anecdotes in rapid succession, just a line or two but packed with action, emotion and often the humor that comes with the distance of decades. Some stories are innocent (first love, the wonders of masturbation); others are more shocking (public sex, incest, abuse); and a few are operatic sagas of lifelong connections and lost loves.
Sometimes, participants ask the audience directly if they’ve ever engaged in a certain act, and people will stand up and share their stories. A sense of empowerment and freedom seems to override any trepidation.
“It’s a safe space for people to disclose things they might not ordinarily talk about publicly, both onstage and off,” O’Donnell says.
Since “All the Sex I’ve Ever Had” has been done in different countries, it serves as a local barometer of changing sexual mores. “In Singapore, we only used women because they really didn’t want any men around for fear they’d kill the vibe,” says O’Donnell. “In Germany there was a woman who survived a terrible, abusive marriage. She avoided relationships for decades until she fell in love with another woman in her late 60s. But Philly represented the highest level of disclosure from every participant. I just think Americans are open about their life stories.”
One of those Philadelphia seniors, 70-year-old retired social worker Hank Major, is reprising his role this June when MDR presents an international incarnation of “All the Sex I’ve Ever Had” at Toronto’s Luminato Festival featuring one member of each past production. “One of my big stories is from 1965, when my uncle came home and caught me and a male lover in bed together,” Major says. “He was with his wife and their six children. I was put out that very night.”
Not all of Major’s stories are so traumatic. “I remember my days in Central Park at night—I was naughty then!” he laughs. “I really loved my experience with the show. In high school I was a theater person and it felt so good to get on stage again. People shared such intimate and interesting details about themselves.”
O’Donnell believes that for the audience, the performers’ openness is at the core of the “All the Sex” experience. “As a younger person, you can relate to [the stories] up until a point, but then it starts to become a foreign territory… The information about their sex lives isn’t always so interesting. But what is always interesting is how generous they are with sharing these personal details. They become quite confident and courageous.”
“Because they are older, they understand just how little is at risk when you disclose yourself.”
A behind the scenes look at the process – and a sneak peek of the performance – Singapore edition.
“All the Sex” participant Dorothy, age 81, talks to director Darren O’Donnell.
Mammalian Diving Reflex presents “All the Sex I’ve Ever Had” at the Luminato Festival in Toronto June 12-15. Click here for more information.
We are over 60 and have been married for 40 Years but my wife has no interest in sex, it’s been nearly 10 years since we’ve been intimate. What can I do ?
Hi Jim, please feel free to address your question to our senior sexpert Joan Price, who responds to reader questions in our Sex at Our Age column. You can email her privately at email@example.com. Here’s the column https://seniorplanet.org/tag/sex-at-our-age/
where can I find sex toys for senior women in Bay Area northern CA?