Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask Your Grandparents)
Originally published in a different form in the Prague Post, 5 November 2013.
Bohouš’s stiff silver comb-over is the crown atop his rakish good looks. A self-professed womanizer, he’s been putting his mischievous charm to use for the better part of the last century; married happily, at least by his own account, to a woman who has turned a blind eye to his dalliances for forty-eight years, he has bedded some 350 others on the side. Through a translator, Bohouš said with a raffish grin, “Some people like picking mushrooms, some keep bees…some collect stamps, and some prefer sex and erotic pleasure.”
A twist of good fortune led Bohouš to Mammalian Diving Reflex, the Toronto-based research–art–performance atelier behind “All the Sex I’ve Ever Had,” onstage at the National Theatre’s New Stage November 6 and 7. Following successful performances featuring native cast members in six countries, and assisted by Motus, Alfred ve Dvoře Theatre’s home for the “living arts,” Mammalian recruited Czech senior citizens to divulge the details of their sex lives—year by year, beginning in childhood—and then to tell those stories in a live staged reading. Bohouš found a flyer at a film screening seeking senior participants for the project and resolved to apply immediately. Sex, he explained, “is my theme.”
Mammalian Diving Reflex is the conceit of Darren O’Donnell, who composed the script of “All the Sex I’ve Ever Had” from hours of recorded interviews and co-directed the performance with the German artist Konstantin Bock. In addition to founding the company in 1993, O’Donnell has also authored a number of plays and several books, including Social Acupuncture, in which he outlines a method for unearthing generosity and abundance in order to clear a blockage of energy. As practiced by Mammalian, social acupuncture strives to reintroduce the flow of social chi to “drive new ways of being together.”
“All the Sex I’ve Ever Had” was indeed something radically new for the company. In 2005, Mammalian began to receive attention for the international touring performance project “Haircuts by Children,” in which eight- to 12-year-olds provided free haircuts for members of the public. (“Haircuts by Children” appeared in Prague in 2011 as part of the festival 4+4 Days in Motion; two underage stylists set up shop in the posh Toni & Guy salon.) “That piece then led to everybody demanding and wanting and expecting more with the children,” explained O’Donnell, who is in his mid-forties, “and so at a certain point I wanted to do something else.” “All the Sex I’ve Ever Had” was the bold departure from “Haircuts” O’Donnell was searching for.
O’Donnell’s sense of humor is integral to the identity of Mammalian Diving Reflex; his ease with others points to the company’s success. In the café of the New Stage, he pushed around the pomade-heavy sheet of hair on Bohouš’s head, explaining that the older man recently allowed him to comb over the comb-over onto his own shaven head. In a short film about the making of “All the Sex I’ve Ever Had” in Singapore, O’Donnell and Bock can be seen in a (somewhat sheepish) striptease for a bus full of cheering older women. And in a promo for the Glasgow performance, O’Donnell is seen with his arm around an elderly woman, chatting candidly about how she responds to erotic passages in books.
The rapport between the directors and their cast is that of fondness as much as trust, and the men joke that they know more about the three Czech and three German performers in the Prague production than the performers’ own families know, or would ever wish to know. Many of the stories they’ve gathered have been sweet and romantic. Others, like several of those Bohouš tells, are too raunchy to publish here. A few are quite painful. František, who was recruited via a gay seniors’ organization in Prague, said through a translator, “The public thinks that gays are just these promiscuous, vain people.” He added, “Other people are going to talk about their beautiful experiences. In my life, there have been very few of those.”
In three years of international performances, a few cultural differences, and a host of commonalities, have emerged. In conservative Singapore, the directors explained, the all-female cast was largely abstinent until marriage and again after their forties. Philadelphia was home to what O’Donnell called “the most demented sex I’ve ever heard of.” Within the Czech-German cast, with the exception of František, “the idea of an austere Communist place doesn’t show up anywhere.” In all countries, both O’Donnell and Bock claimed, monogamy simply “does not exist.”
Talking about sex, the duo says, is an excuse to reestablish that flow of social chi, and to get to know people. In its many incarnations, “All the Sex I’ve Ever Had” is meant to amend misrepresentations about desire, to facilitate a dialogue about gender, to shed light on history and taboo, and to celebrate a spirit of openness and optimism acquired with age. As Bohouš said best, “Sex indicates a whole spectrum of stories and relationships…for which we only have one word.” And he should know.