A Fringe production tells the true stories of local seniors' intimate relations.
Rochelle Lewis sat down a few weeks ago to begin reviewing the past four decades worth of her own sexual history. It’s helped the 63-year-old put her finger on some important moments: for instance, that day in 1985 when she met the first sex partner she ever considered a real lover.
“Before then,” she says, “it was just fucking. I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, and there was a lot of sex without context—without content. There was no emotional content, and I don’t think the boys really knew what they were doing.”
Lewis, a Center City resident, is one of half a dozen Philadelphia-area senior citizens who’ll take to the stage this Friday and Saturday in All the Sex I’ve Ever Had, a provocative piece of nonfiction theater revolving around a topic that remains oddly taboo in society today: the intimate lives of folks over 60.
Produced by the Toronto-based performance company Mammalian Diving Reflex as part of the 2013 Fringe Festival, the show is structured almost like a U.N. hearing, with participants sitting before the audience and going through their lives year by year to review the thrills, orgasms and heartaches they’ve endured and enjoyed.
The artistic director behind Mammalian Diving Reflex, Darren O’Donnell, traveled to Philadelphia last month to sit down one at a time with local seniors who were willing to tell their stories onstage. He recorded dozens of hours worth of their reminisces, then sifted through it all to choose the best anecdotes and outlined a show comprising a specific sequence of those stories. “I feel like I’ve fallen into a stream filled with gold,” he says. “It’s so amazing, and it’s so great to hear all of their unique stories.”
The audience will hear from storytellers like Joe, a 63-year-old retired schoolteacher, and Hattie, a 69-year-old retired welfare caseworker. “People are surprisingly sexually active,” O’Donnell says—“both men and women at all ages. At any age, of course, you still have to sift through the normal den of douchebags.”
The participants’ stories represent a remarkable sort of generous honesty that’s unique to older people, the director adds: When it comes to being candid about their private lives, “they understand there’s not much to lose.”
“Look, frankly,” Rochelle Lewis says, “all a woman has to do is spread her legs and get fucked. It’s a no-brainer. But to make love to a woman—or, conversely, for a woman to make love to a man—[we] have to learn how to do this.”
A self-described erotic poet who enjoys one-on-one readings of her works—and produces “smut sheets,” 500-word erotic musings—Lewis warmed to the show’s concept quickly. “People in the audience are going to find the stories funny and poignant and compelling and shocking,” she says. “I hope they take away from it the fact that people over the age of 60 are still viable, still vibrant, and, yes, still having sex.”
And yet for all the blunt honesty—despite the fact that senior-citizen sex is at least as delicate a subject in our culture as adolescent sex, if not more so—All the Sex I’ve Ever Had ultimately isn’t about the lurid details. “While we use sex as the metronome to keep us on track,” O’Donnell says, “it’s all of the other things about life that are most interesting.”
Indeed, while discussing matters carnal, it doesn’t take Lewis long to segue—just like Sigmund Freud—into talk of family history. “It may be that men have to learn not only physical technique but more,” she says. “I hope [audience members] come away with an understanding that you learn over the entire course of a lifetime: You get better, you get worse, you get better, you get worse, you survive the pain. Chaotic families, dysfunctional families—everyone thinks they come from a dysfunctional family, and I think that’s probably true.”
O’Donnell’s initial inspiration for All the Sex I’ve Ever Had came while he was working with a theater in Oldenberg, Germany, where the city’s residents are more habitually physically active than your typical American: “People there have been riding bicycles their entire lives. So I was seeing women in their 70s on bicycles everywhere—and I started conversations with them.” The German seniors’ forthrightness in discussing their life experiences led O’Donnell to the idea of a show in which older people around the world would share similarly—and his Philadelphia interviewees, like others he’s worked with, proved eager to do just that.
“It’s knowledge through experience,” says Lewis. “It’s knowing that things change. Even a marriage, a 50-year marriage—that’s not forever, either! Nothing lasts forever.”
(One cast member in a Singapore production of All the Sex suggested: “The trouble to date men is not worth it, and learning to be a magician is so much more interesting.”)
Talk of love and aging soon unearths a cultural contradiction between the two. Our common picture of romantic love has long centered around the idea that it’s predicated on the obliteration of the self in favor of the “we.” And yet our conceptions of aging—and aging well—tend to engage the notion of the complete realization of our individual potential. Just look at TV commercials aimed at seniors: So many investment banks seem to think that, upon reaching retirement age, Americans promptly begin to sail ships in Maine and paint watercolors with their grandchildren.
From where Lewis sits, passing the 60-year mark offers many people new possibilities that they never managed to explore in their younger days. She suggests they go for it. “Either people relish life and love,” she says, “or they’re stuck being bored and boring. I understand that some people work full-time jobs and raise children; of course, raising children takes up a lot of their time. By the time they get to retirement age, though, life may be something they have to learn.”
Obviously, it takes a certain kind of person to sit before a crowd of 100 and talk about the first time she orgasmed. But this type of intergenerational exchange, and the conversations and thoughts it prompts, are ultimately more valuable than the details. As society nears a point of critical mass of information where truth is the inevitable driving force leading us to truly understand and accept each other, we must confront and enjoy the irrefutable, and sometimes eyebrow-raising, facts that, yes, some grandmothers masturbate, and a whole lot of retirees give blow jobs.
Lewis, for one, has decided to be nonchalant about saying so. “I have no illusions that the whole town will be talking about me and my sex life,” she says. “And even if they are, who cares?”
All the Sex I’ve Ever Had runs Fri., Sept. 13 and Sat., Sept. 14 at Plays & Players, 1714 Delancy Place. 7pm. $29. 215.413.1318. fringearts.com
The 2014 Philadelphia Spring Guide