Theatre writer producer Lorna Hannan

How do you get a group of Dutch people of different backgrounds and ages to share their innermost feelings about sex, death and ageing? If you had to guess, you’d be unlikely to suggest bringing them together with an 85-year-old great-grandmother from Melbourne.

The key, however, is that they have to be alone with Lorna Hannan – or another ‘senior host’ – with an open mind, and a photograph of themselves taken many years earlier.

That is the premise of the unlikely hit performance art installation, Sex and Death, which after two celebrated seasons in Melbourne – including an appearance at the 2016 Victorian Seniors Festival – has just completed its first international outing at the Modestraat Festival in Amsterdam.

The show is the brainchild of three Victorian artists – director Samara Hersch, artistic collaborator Bec Reid, and photographer Ponch Hawkes – who, in a unique piece of constructed ‘theatre’, help their audience to reflect on some of the most intimate moments of their lives.

Treated as individuals instead of a group audience, one by one, audience members are invited to sit down with a friendly and non-judgmental ‘host’. These hosts invite them to chat on subjects many of us would consider risqué or taboo. Some talk about their first lovers, others about close friends who have passed away. Overall the vibe of the performance is ‘coffee catch-up with a friend or confidante’.

‘I think many people are quite surprised to discover the things they want to talk about,’ says Lorna.

‘This installation is about the importance of staying curious about ourselves and each other, and embracing inter-generational conversations,’ adds Samara. ‘It debunks stigmas around ageing and older bodies – particularly in a society that’s obsessed with the young and new.’

Personal encounters

Audience members are asked to bring along a photograph of themselves taken at least 10 years earlier. In return, they are given a photo of their host (Lorna’s was taken at her university graduation) and listen to her introducing herself through headphones.

‘When I then appear as my 85-year-old self, they invariably grin, and then we begin a game picking up cards and answering questions,’ Lorna says.

Over the next 20 minutes, the pair have an informal Q&A, swapping stories about sex, death and other significant milestones in their lives. The session concludes with the participant being made up and photographed by Ponch Hawkes in the same pose as the photo they brought with them.

This ‘mirroring’ of experiences is key to the whole encounter. ‘Everything the participant does, the host does,’ says Lorna, ‘which gives them the freedom and the confidence to talk about themselves, free of any judgment.’

Lorna, who was a councillor at Melbourne City Council in the 1990s, says she was ‘completely moved’ by how willing people were to open their hearts and share their most intimate thoughts with a complete stranger.

‘Some people told me how they’d been hurt by former lovers. Some spoke of how their relationships with their parents had moved to a new plane after they had died. Others wanted to talk about how religion made them feel guilty about sex – but how those feelings had changed, and how they’d been able to put their guilt behind them.

‘And of course, many people wanted to talk about their first experience of sex. They laughed and joked about it … but often what they had to say was very sweet.

‘All these things were big revelations, things they hadn’t talked about for a long time but had obviously been lingering in the backs of their minds. I think that was what really moved me – how willing people were to be vulnerable, talking about something really private that had happened years before.

‘I felt that I grew up all over again absorbing the details of what people were telling me.’

Meaningful change

After the four-day season was held in Amsterdam, the 50 people who participated were invited to a soirée, where Lorna saw that the show had changed something significant in their lives. And, she says, it had changed her too.

‘I’ve become a much better listener,’ she says. ‘I’m less judgmental, and more able to accept people’s stories that I might once have considered shocking or wild.’

Bec Reid says Sex and Death has been a ‘gently seismic experience’, and it’s no surprise to her that it has positively impacted everyone involved.

‘It’s been such a privilege to see how these encounters have affected the participants and hosts, who are forever moved, adjusted and realigned by these conversations,’ says Bec.

‘There are tears – good tears – and it’s just been so satisfying to pay such deep attention to people in this way.’