As I gear up to work with Contact's phenomenal Young Company again this month, my mind reflects on the bravery, honesty and frankness of the company back in 2015 when myself and Stacy Makishi created the sexiest show in town (totally self-proclaimed).
When we took the show to Edinburgh to Youth Theatre Arts Scotland's Chrysalis Festival, I was asked to give a keynote speech on the process of creating the show. My focus was FEAR and how it holds us back. With the start of another year, it feels right to reflect on how we are so limited by our fears, both actual and imaginary.
Facing fears head on (IMHO) makes for great art, but there is a great deal to be gained in all aspects of our lives when we refuse to let fear control us... have a read and here's to a creative and fearLESS 2017!
‘You Will Get Chlamydia, And Die’
You will get Chlamydia and die. Ok, so that's a bit of an exaggeration used for comedic effect in the film Mean Girls. But the humour lies in the fact that many of us can relate to the out of their depth teacher talking about sex. Let's face it, us Brits aren't all that good at taking about taboo subject matter.
And it’s not just talking about sex we struggle with. Drugs, addiction, crime, immigration, politics, religion, race, sexuality… these are all topics that make us anxious at the first mention.
So what's holds us back? One simple thing: fear.
Our whole society is permeated with fear. We see it in the press, on the news and on our social media streams.
We live in the most watched country on the planet and yet we’re still fearful.
We live in a world where young girls are told to fear lone predatory males and where the default expectation of our young men is that they will grow up to be mysoginists and rapists.
We live in a country constantly on ‘high terror alert’ although quite what from, no-one is really sure.
We fear our food is giving us cancer...
...and we fear that immigrants are eroding what it means to be British.
We fear that our teens are too high or taking substances that will kill them, or at least turn their brains to mush.
And we fear that sex will either get us pregnant… or even kill us.
And as adults we want to protect our young people from the fear that we are subjected to. We want to protect their innocence for as long as possible.
But young people don’t live outside the world we do… they occupy it with us. And often they’re more astute to the pains and pressures of the world than we give them credit for.
So it is only right then, that we start talking. We need to start talking to our young people, talking to them, with them… and most importantly, we need to LISTEN.
When Contact’s Creative Development team first called me and asked me to come on board to assist on a show about sex, my first reaction was: but what will the parents, teachers, carers, families think?
What if people think it’s inappropriate? What if we open a can of worms too big for us to handle? What if all the young people suddenly start shagging like rabbits? What if someone get’s pregnant? What if someone gets chlamydia… and…
And it had set in… Fear.
Now I’m a pretty liberal, open minded guy and I pride myself on my work tackling intimate and challenging issues with young people head on… but even I was surprised by my own internal struggle… perhaps it was the sobering words of the Safeguarding Officer from my recent training course still ringing in my ears, or perhaps it was some deep internalised shame, a hang over from Coach Carr’s sex ed class…
And then along came Stacy...
I’ll never forget our first workshop with Hawaiian performance artist Stacy Makishi. After looking round the Institute of Sexology at the Wellcome Collection in London we circled up to work with Stacy for the first time.
And within about 30 seconds she had everyone humping the carpet and faking orgasm… that kind of set the tone of what was to come.
Stacy introduced us to a word from her native Hawaii… ALOHA. It means many things, but first and foremost it means LOVE.
Love… not fear.
And it was then it became apparent to me.
For all the progress on sexual liberation we’ve made here in the UK… we’ve still got a long way to go to learn to love ourselves, our sexual partners and the sex we’re having.
From the minute we started the process of creating Under the Covers, it was clear that the conversations the young people in CYC wanted to have were urgent. These guys desperately needed and wanted to talk about sex and suddenly they had a platform, a voice
Firstly we bottom-lined our fears. What were they? And how were they holding us back?
And during these early conversations a particular phrase emerged. You'll hear it in the show a fair bit: there's something you should know about me...
This became the groups way of testifying, of standing up naked (mostly metaphorically naked, but not always!) and declaring their identity... Sometimes empowering, sometimes vulnerable and very often conflicting and confusing.
As someone who grew up in the Protestant church, I've always been fascinated with the idea of testifying, of laying your story out for all to hear and for others to bear witness to your humanity and fragility. And in today's secular world, when do we get this opportunity? I believe it's a very powerful tool for healing and in the case of CYC, sexual healing.
But it wasn't all group circles and opening of hearts and sob stories. Oh no. Soon CYC were tackling sexuality, sex toys, orgasms and the darker side of human sexuality: power, BDSM... Rape.
And then came the next moral dilemma for the team... Is ok for young people to be sexy onstage?
And of course, the answer is yes!
Let’s face facts, many young people (rightly or wrongly) are sexual beings from their early to mid-teens… I certainly was seeking the gay holy grail (excuse the pun) at 14... but, and here’s the rub, most teens in the UK lack the sexual knowledge needed in order to have a safe and healthy sex life… and this leads to many people unable to confidently pursue the sex THEY want to be having later on in life.
We should be celebrating sex. Too much of the rhetoric around sex (and indeed other taboo subjects) is factual and devoid of real human experience, emotion and opinion.
Young people rarely get the chance to question authority, to challenge the status quo or critically think about why our society is the way it is.
And Under the Covers really is a celebration of human sexuality. The show takes you on a mini sexual journey from flirtations, to foreplay, to full on sex, to orgasm and then to the place we are most exposed and truly ourselves, pillow talk.
I’ve been truly bowled over by CYC’s honesty, bravery and supportiveness. The group range from age 16 to 25 with a huge variation in sexual experience but this has never been an issue. They’ve shared intimate truths, cried together, laughed together and created one of the most stunningly honest and brave shows I’ve ever witnessed.
Not all of CYC’s secrets are revealed in the show, some of them will be staying well and truly buried under the mattress, but they invite you to come under the covers with them and snatch a glimpse of their stories.
Sexologist Alfred Kinsey once said to his undergrad class: In an uninhibited world, you’d know everything I’m going to teach you about sex in this class by the age of 12… I hope that for those who see Under the Covers, you’ll be inspired to pull back the duvet and be that little bit more open about one of the most beautiful, confusing and contradictory acts that makes us who we are.
CYC tackled the taboo subject of sex and you know what... No-one got chlamydia, and no-one died. So what are we all so fearful for?
Contact Young Company's Under the Covers premiered as part of Sick! Festival at Contact in Spring 2015 and was subsequently performed at WHY? Festival at The Southbank Centre, Chrysalis Festival at The Traverse and Battersea Arts Centre. It was commissioned by The Wellcome Collection.