A number of years ago, in my mid 40s, I fell madly, wildly, secretly, unrequitedly, sexually in love with someone half my age. I was stunned. I felt like David Byrne had taken residence in my head, dancing around singing, 'How did I get here?' My body was on fire. I was obsessed and had to work my way through it in small, insignificant steps. It was one of the most powerfully sexual, non-sexual, experiences of my life and it reminded me how much of a sexual being I am. How important sex has always been to me as a physical, emotional and spiritual act.
There were hideous days of sitting in the British Library trying to research my thesis (since abandoned) and being overwhelmed with words, poetry, prose; anything but the intellectual analysis I had signed up to deliver. I was earning my living as the Creative Director of a participative theatre, art and media charity which I had set up to create projects with and for communities. I had long been interested in Boal's 'Forum Theatre' and I put together projects that I hoped would give children and adults opportunities to express themselves through the arts. The projects I loved and was proudest of were those where audience/participants developed new skills, confidence or created something unexpected. I sometimes worked with actors, taking shows into communities or schools, using forum techniques to start discussions and have audiences perform their ‘solutions’ to problems. My thesis was on developing criteria to evaluate participative arts, looking particularly at ‘The aesthetics of participation’.
In my spare time, I worked as site-specific and participative artist. I had come from a performance background, but had long given up being a jobbing actor. I had considered that part of my life over. However, this new energy, this sexual energy, was so overwhelming strong, that it could only be played out in particular ways. I could either give myself over to it, pursuing the object of my desire, or I could attempt to temper my, by now almost impossibly urgent, feelings and rein my passions in through art. I chose the latter, starting a poetry blog and finding building that into a site-specific performance called “TIME=MONEY” a 1-2-1 intimate poetry performance which I took to the Brighton Fringe Festival in 2013, winning a 'WINDOW' award as a promising company. It was just me and an audience member, separated by a thin mosquito net, in a bespoke venue that we erected ourselves. My partner in the project, Immo Horn, acted as 'front of house' ushering people in and out. The performances were intense, direct and, I am told, weirdly sexy.
In the 2 years since that performance, I have moved on. My new show is called 'Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, More: LOVE!' I’ve gone from being separated from the audience by a mosquito net and speaking to them only in poetry, to doing a full facilitated 60min show, as myself, using my own name and singing, dancing and telling stories about my dating disasters.
The show is about learning to date again in your 50s. I turned 50 last year and slowly began to realise that the promised ‘post-menopausel disinterest in sex’ was not going to happen for me. In fact, it hasn’t happen to a lot of my friends either, many of whom are reporting the best sex with new partners who take the act of pleasuring their partners seriously. On the rare occasions I have had sex, it has been explosive. Intimate, connected, mind-blowingly great. Unfortunately, on all occasions, the people involved where unsuitable for long term partnerships. The last two, separated by months and months and months, were friends. One an ex-lover from my twenties. The other an acquaintance going through a protracted separation. The former was a gift, the latter sent me around the twist. I had known he was damaged. I had been speaking to him earlier in the night we hooked about opening his heart again. I was not planning on seducing him. I blame The Gin.
I have also, despite an absolute aversion to dating, joined a dating site. To my frustration and amusement, I have had, sadly, to self-declare as a “dating disaster”. The person I was when I last dated no longer exists. The mechanisms for dating (meet in bar/club/through friends/shag/see if it works) no longer satisfy. There's a whole new world out there of dating apps and dating sites. Dating sites have been around since the 90's, so although it is not new, the 'dial up/swipe right/booty call' culture is. It is everything a sex loving, liberated woman like me should want. Yet, I am finding it difficult. I want my sex with integrity, but was completely put off when attending some Osho type workshop. All the men just looked like they wanted to stick their dicks into anything. Quite frankly, I thought I could have more fun at Joe's Bar in Camden on a Sat night. Picking up men in bars is and always has been frighteningly easily. You almost don't need to do much more that exist. I wanted to find a new way of meeting people that wasn’t just pure, blind, chemistry. I’d tried that. I’ve had a few long relationships, married, separated. I am still very close to my ex, emotionally and intellectually, though not sexually. We work together. I still love him in a filial and emotional way that means I don't want to consider the normal heterosexist trajectory of basically destroying all aspects of one's life and partnership together simply because one is no longer fucking. So, I am trying to see what it will be like to identify as polyamorous, though strictly I am not, as polyamoury normally means that you are having multiple relationships which are both sexual and emotional. However, right now, it feels like the best description that I have to go on.
It suits me better than 'ethical non-monogamy'; no-one is asking me to be non-monogamous. I have always wondered if I could. I have always run into problems in relationships as one or the other of us wants to explore other relationships, but because we have been locked in monogamy, this has happened furtively, secretly and caused so much damage when the truth has outed. So for many years, I have tried to be another way in my relationship. I have given this sexual and emotional fidelity business as good a shot as I have been capable of. It hasn't worked out very well for me.
I'm 51 yrs old now. I feel I have to try and create the relationships I want, right from the start. I don't want to be told that I can't enjoy the deep emotional intimacy I have with my ex, that somehow that part of my relationship will become irrelevant if (when!) I start seeing someone else. I don't want to be involved in anyone else's lies either. I don't want to be part of someone else's 'dirty secret' or their 'shame'. I don't want to be that person who breaks someone else heart when they find out about me. I want to see what happens if we try loosening things up and become more honest and true with each other. How much kindness and compassion can we throw at ourselves? At those we don't know? At our lovers?
When I started working on the show, “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme More: LOVE!” I had no idea how personal the content was going to be. I imagined that I could work as a 'facilitator' in the process, and keep parts of myself private and hidden away. During the course of developing the work though, stuff has happened. I've broken some of my own rules, I have car-crashed my own learning process. This is by far the most honest, open, warts and all, work I have ever done. While the poetry was showing my soul in a deeply intimate, sexy way, this show is much more honest. I don’t have a character to hide behind. I’m revealing things about myself I thought I would never disclose publicly.
As we are getting closer to the show opening, I am beginning to feel a real nervousness. Some of the content is just so private. Should it just stay that way? Why am I engaging in this 'emotional exhibitionism'? On the other hand, as the show uses live-chat, I am hoping that sharing some of my dating disaster history will free people up to share theirs. It is enormously exciting to me to have created a show where audiences can contribute if they choose. Since I have started the project, people have been disclosing the most intimate details of their dating lives to me. A lot of the stories are really funny. Or at least, they become funny once they are shared. Even if audiences don’t join the live chat, they can still participate in the singing, the dancing as they see me skating close to the thin edge of self-exploitation. How far can I go? Have I gone too far? In my personal life, I think I haven't gone far enough. I have a rule book. It’s been updated in light of recent events. It goes like this:
The Rule Book
- No one I work with. See reasons 2 and 3. I work in the arts. Often with gorgeous young people, who become my friends.
- No friends who have not been your lover before. When it goes wrong, the whole friendship group is affected. In our 50's – this is bad news. You can sleep with old lovers though. Just because you can. They feel familiar and safe and you know, if they are still around, it's because you've had something real going on
- No one under 35. Just no. Not because they are unattractive. But just no. I can't bear the whole 'Cougar' thing. I detest being seen as a label. If I meet someone under 35's who I think I can make a relationship work with, I might. But not as an 'experience'.
- No one cheating on their partners. I'm done with dishonesty. Starting to date and starting to date people who are openly polyamorous has opened up the discussions with my ex about sex. I wish we had had these discussions years ago. It may have saved our relationship.
The Rule Book is no less coercive for being invisible. Last weekend, I went to a friend's party. I didn't know anyone there but her. I walked in and she said, 'You are dressed quite tamely for you!', and I was. A shin length, full skirted black dress. I thought I would have one drink and then go. Then I started dancing. Sometime in, there was this lovely young man dancing just around the edge of my space. Very unobtrusive. I asked him to dance with me. He said he had been waiting for me to ask. He was the most fantastic dancer. I am notoriously uncooperative at either following or leading at swing or blues or salsa. For some reason, it just worked between us. As I swirled, my dull black dress fell in waves about me and I became caught up in the magic and romance of the dance. I kept telling myself, 'It’s just dancing.' One woman came up to us and said, 'The two of you look amazing dancing together.' He was both damned good and responsive; the leading and following fell naturally to and fro between us. I couldn't help imagining how wonderful it would be to slip my fingers underneath his shirt. However, I had noticed the ring on his finger. I reckoned, at his age, the reason his wife wasn't there was because she was at home, maybe looking after the children. I suspected he danced pretty well with her too. This could go no further. So, shortly before midnight, I said my goodbyes and took my leave before either of us did anything we could regret. I'm not saying he would have; I'm saying, I could have. The next day I really wondered about this. Why not just give myself a bit more license? Why so cautious and conservative? I can't say that I have come up with any plausible reason why it is so. It is just what my soul needs right now.
So. I'm still out there looking. Looking for what? I don't know. I guess I'll know when I find it. Or maybe I won't. In the meantime, “Gimme, Gimme, Gimme More: LOVE!”, an intimate, audience-collaborative show exploring themes of lust, love and dating with your clothes on opens May 6th in Brighton and on Sat 7th May we are having a party right after the show. Further showings on 27th, 28th and the 29th May. You can purchase tickets here. Or contact us on FB, gggmorelove, and join the conversation. I am going to need all the help I can refining and updating my rules.
© Debra Watson 2016
Debra Watson is a poet, performer, facilitator and director. http://www.gggmore.com
Photos Credit: Susanne Ballhausen