THE woman was not making a thing of it. It was just a passing remark over a cup of tea.
She simply observed, in a matter-of-fact kind of way, that when her new neighbour shook her hand, it was the first time she’d made physical contact with another human being since her husband died. She hadn’t been touched for 19 years..
The woman was talking to Fiona Miller, artistic director of Tricky Hat Productions, a theatre company that works with older people. The comment brought the director up sharp. “It hit me in quite a big way,” she says. “If your partner dies, there’s a huge loss of intimacy, whether that’s shown in sex, physical contact, the unspoken things that pass between you or, indeed, hate.”
Miller’s show Unusual Places to Dance – Part Two, now touring Scotland, draws on interviews with elderly people about their changing experience of intimacy.
By chance, it’s not the only show on that theme in Scotland this month. In Glasgow, the Canadian company Mammalian Diving Reflex is putting six local pensioners on stage to talk about a lifetime of bedroom secrets in All the Sex I’ve Ever Had. “The thing that is most surprising is the amount of tragedy that almost everybody has had,” says director Darren O’Donnell. “People’s resilience is also surprising. They stand up, dust off and carry on.”
Both shows seek to make audiences see the over-65s in a different light. Unusual Places to Dance, performed by professional actors and created in collaboration with Cumbernauld Action Care for the Elderly, is about a couple whose relationship is put under strain by the onset of dementia. “The show is about loss and what that means,” says Miller. “If somebody rips your clothes off when you’re 20 and the same person does it again when you’re 80 and you have Alzheimer’s, it’s the same action but it’s a different meaning.”
Glasgow’s All the Sex I’ve Ever Had, meanwhile, takes us through the participants’ sex lives year by year, right up to the present day. It follows similar performances by elderly people in Germany and Singapore. “It’s a pretty sexy crowd here in Scotland,” says O’Donnell. “People seem super open.”
In the extensive interviews he does with the performers, he has heard it all. There was the German man whose wife liked to play a role-playing game in which he had to pretend to be paralysed and she pretended to be a nurse who had to sit on his face. And there is the Glasgow musician whose rock’n’roll lifestyle brought him a different partner every night. “He was a bit of a teddy boy and was in a band back in the day,” says O’Donnell. “From being 13 years old to his mid-thirties, he had sex with thousands of women. Even 2000 is a modest guess. It was every night they played.”
O’Donnell’s team transcribes and edits the interview material, then returns it to the participants so they can perform their own stories without straying from the central theme. Despite the sensitive nature of the subject, the anecdotes are frequently funny. Others become so in the telling. “The show used to be called The Best Sex I’ve Ever Had, but that proves to be boring. The Worst Sex I’ve Ever Had produces the more interesting stories. One of the things that makes the show funny is the distance that’s created with time and the way people come to terms with the horrible things that have happened to them. They can now look at it with a bit of ironic distance so it becomes OK. Most people are happy to mock themselves.”
The purpose of All the Sex I’ve Ever Had, however, is neither to indulge our prurience nor to act as therapy for the performers. Rather, it is to use sex as a jumping off point to reveal the particular worldview that only age and experience can bring. O’Donnell thinks he’d achieve a similar effect if the show were called All the Money I’ve Ever Made. The taboo subject is just an excuse.
“At first, it was interesting to talk about sex, but after spending time with a bunch of seniors in Toronto, I realised the thing that’s really exciting is their ontological state of mind, the way they are in the world, their openness and generosity. If there’s any message or theme of the show, it’s that the audience sit there and experience this openness and calmness from people who are coming to the end of their lives. In that sense, it’s not about sex, it’s about generosity and openness.”
It means the audience need not fear being caught attending a show about kinky geriatric bonking. There’s no Carry On… smuttiness or dirty-raincoat bawdiness here. “It’s about the matters of the heart rather than the matters of the genitals,” he says. “Those are the things that make the stories interesting.”
Likewise, Unusual Places to Dance is less a maudlin study of loss and incapacity than a vision of rejuvenation. “One of the things we found surprising is how resilient older people are in finding joy and appreciating a future,” says Miller. “We try to carry that spirit into the production: it’s not what you’d expect when you see something about old people. It’s not all couthie and rose-tinted-glasses.”
Miller takes inspiration from those older people who, in spite of their various incapacities, grab the chance to lead an active and fulfilling life. In a similar way, O’Donnell continues to learn from the perspective older people bring. “Now that I’m getting older,” says the 47-year-old, “I’m aware of the shock that young people have when they realise old people haven’t always been old. That’s hard to remember. It’s about understanding that old people have had these incredibly complex lives and now have these complex attitudes towards sex and sexuality that are really nuanced.”
• Unusual Places to Dance –Part Two is at Eastgate Theatre, Peebles, tonight, and touring to Peebles, Glasgow, Musselburgh, New Galloway, Greenock, Mull and Mugdock. All The Sex I’ve Ever Had is at the Arches, Glasgow, 9–11 May.