Ahead of Snowballing, a work-in-progress by Rebecca Atkinson-Lord and Greg Wohead commissioned for Hotbed, Rebecca shares an exchange between herself and Greg.
On 14 Apr 2017, Greg Wohead wrote:
I guess I wanted to start with some of what feels to me like the more obvious concerns and slight stresses I have around making Snowballing. I think it’s fair to say that this project is a continuation of a conversation we have been having between us for the past two-ish years about alternative relationship set ups—open relationships, polyamory, what options and models there might be when you don’t take the dominant standard of monogamy/marriage/kids as a given and how destabilising and also full of wild potential making up your own model can be. And this has gone hand in hand with a growing frankness in our conversations with each other about our own individual sex lives. So Snowballing is maybe not necessarily about these things, but what this project will be really came out of this place of back and forth conversation, exploration, potential, excitement, worry, fear, but ultimately for me at least an underlying optimism in questioning my own assumptions around sex, loving and caring for other people, and trying to understand someone else.
So the concerns. I do have a fear that by making this show I’m somehow framing myself as, like, a sex expert or something, which I am absolutely not. So that makes me feel vulnerable. I’m thinking about shame a lot. We have said that we’re not out to make the type of autobiographical show where we directly tell the audience our experiences, and I do stand by that. But part of me wonders if by hiding behind a clever theatrical form I am perpetuating and supporting my own shame. How am I supposed to make a show that wants to be sex positive when I myself am carrying a fair bit of shame? How do you feel about how I’ve just described the project and what are your concerns or stresses at this moment?
On Apr 14, 2017, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord wrote:
Hmm. This is really interesting. I totally agree with how you’re describing the project, and I recognise that sense of foreboding and maybe shame about how we end up presenting ourselves. I think there are some different strands for me though. I’m less bothered about whether or not I’m presenting myself as an expert; I’ve taken quite a bit of care to do the research, absorb the science around sex and relationships and think deeply and philosophically about this stuff. I’ve also had enough sex with enough people, been in love and out of love and dealt with enough complex relationship stuff to feel like I can speak from a position of reasonable authority on this. As much as anyone can anyway.
On the one hand, the thought of just laying bare my sexuality on stage makes my skin crawl, but I’m also aware that, for me, one of the most transformative aspects of becoming polyamorous was the sense of radical openness it gave me. Because polyamory works best when you’re totally honest with yourself and your partners, when you have that level of true intimacy to trust that you’ll be accepted regardless, I’ve felt a compulsion to transfer that way of being to other aspects of my life. So for me, being able to be radically open in the show is a really important aspect of it all.
I’m most excited by theatre that fosters a sense of true intimacy and connection-between performer and audience and potentially between audience members. And more and more I realise that that’s symptomatic of what I want more broadly from both romantic/sexual relationships and from life in general. And without true openness, there can be no true intimacy.
I’m curious what you are scared will happen if you reveal too much? I feel like we have quite an unusual degree of intimacy and nothing has shocked me so far. In fact, more than anything, the more we share of this stuff, the more I recognise of myself in you. So the more accepting I feel I guess.
I think I’m most concerned that our personal fears will curb the potential of the show to be intimate: connected and meaningful to our audience.
It’s interesting that we’ve started with the risks of this piece. What do you think the positive promise/potential is?
On 14 Apr 2017, Greg Wohead wrote:
Yes, this is an interesting point I think. I had actually gone off making ‘autobiographical’ performance myself before we started this project. I’m still very much interested in making work that comes from a personal place, but I’m much more excited by working that personal impulse through a form that really makes it a piece of art. So it’s not just about being scared about revealing too much—although I must acknowledge that maybe there’s a little bit of that—it’s also being specific artistically about why. I can see the value in being straightforward, honest and revealing in a private conversation, but that’s a very different context to standing in front of an audience who have paid for a ticket and are looking at what we do through some level of aesthetic framework. So I don’t think we can take what works in a private conversation and do that in a performance context. Or at least if we do I don’t think it will mean the same thing or work the same way. I’d like to find a form to work these ideas through that can translate what we might value about straightforward conversation into an artistic performance that also speaks to some of the strangeness, contradiction, exhilaration and vulnerability around this stuff that we all feel. I want to operate from a clear principle of sex positivity, but I want to swim around in it all rather than argue a specific point I think.
And I am actually going to call you out on something. You’re presenting here as very knowledgable, confident and authoritative—and I know you have done your reading and are confident in your views. But where is your vulnerability? I’m not sure you fully answered my question about what feels like a concern—or maybe to rephrase, what are you not sure about in a way that makes you feel vulnerable?
Some of the positive promise or potential. Well first of all, sex can be so fun! Duh. So if we can somehow speak to fun, pleasure and connection in our performance that will feel great. I’m generally interested in imagination and open potential, and as a through-line from that—multiplicity, contradiction and queer possibilities. So if something we do speaks so that, that will feel positive to me.
On Apr 22, 2017, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord wrote:
So. I guess it’s interesting that you asked me to acknowledge my vulnerability and it took me eight days to answer you.
To be totally honest, I am feeling incredibly vulnerable and bruised right now, I feel like I’m all vulnerability, so it’s mostly a problem of knowing where the hell to start. Because the thing is, once you decide to be radically open and activist about your sexuality and lifestyle choices, it feels really loaded when things go a bit wrong from time to time.
Having come out to my parents a few months ago, and had them aggressively and hurtfully reject me, belittle my life choices and undermine the value of basically the last twenty years of my life, on some level I am fucking terrified that this show will be a replay of that; that I’ll say something honest and authentic and have it shat upon in dramatically cruel terms. In addition, I’ve recently been working through some really knotty stuff in a couple of my poly relationships that has left me feeling a bit unseen and uncared for.
In the face of all that, it has been really difficult to stick by my convictions. I still absolutely know that polyamory is the right thing for me, but I’ve had a bit of a period of almost wishing it wasn’t; of wishing that I could just be happy with a heteronormative monogamous marriage in a suburban semi with a couple of kids and all the banality that that life assumes. But I can’t. And because I can’t I have to learn to manage some really emotionally difficult stuff. And learn to live in a landscape where there is no fucking route map to follow blindly. I was talking to my husband yesterday about how difficult it is when every choice has to be made anew. There are no ingrained social norms to take as a base line. So sometimes we get it really wrong. The payoff is worth it in the end I suppose. But it’s hard.
Unsurprisingly, all the emotional complexity with my parents and my partners has left me super stressed and lonely in a period where the sociopolitical climate also feels isolating and cruel. I’ve been struggling. And that’s affected how much I enjoy sex, which in the past has been a useful positive force for me – my sexuality has become a really big part of how I identify myself. I think that I feel as though so much of myself feels bruised and wounded that there’s not enough left to share with someone else in seeking a connection through sex.
So it feels quite difficult to know what I want to say in the show. Because I still 100% believe all of the stuff we’ve been saying thus far; I want it to be a joyful and glorious celebration of the freewheeling chaotic hilarious wonder of non normative sex (and yes I hate that phrase and know that for most people paraphilia is the norm yadda yadda yadda) and love, but right now I’m struggling to remember that joy for myself in more than an intellectual way and love feels a bit weaponised to me.
So there. Vulnerability. Suck it.
On 24 Apr 2017, Greg Wohead wrote:
I see and hear you on this stuff—there is a lot going on here. It’s all really messy. Through all of this talking and development and, well, living life recently, one of the only things I feel like I know is that when it comes down to it nothing feels really and truly forever, set in stone or beyond question when it comes to sex, love and how we can be in relationship to other people, and that’s something I hope we can make present in our performance—both the unstable sadness of that and the radical sense of possibility.
That’s also why I stand by the title we came to, which is Snowballing. A lot of people will know the significance of the title, but some people have asked me what it means. I’ll quote the Wikipedia article here: “Snowballing is the human sexual practice in which one person takes someone else’s semen into his or her mouth and then passes it to the mouth of the other, usually through kissing.”
And a bit more of the article because I enjoy it: “The term was originally used only by gay and bisexual men. Researchers who surveyed over 1,200 gay or bisexual men at New York LGBT community events in 2004 found that around 20% said they had engaged in snowballing at least once. In heterosexual couples, a woman who has performed fellatio may afterwards return the semen to her partner’s mouth, mixed with saliva; the couple or other partners may then exchange the fluid several times, causing its volume to increase (hence “snowballing”). Some heterosexual men are uncomfortable with the practice.”
We’ve talked about this project having a sense of a messy back-and-forth that to us feels something like emotional experiences, sexual interactions or relationship negotiations with other people, and aside from the sexual practice, that’s what the term ‘snowballing’ speaks to. Having this conversation has felt like an important part of the process and it has also highlighted the fact that although we have some shared principles, we have different experiences and some different ideas for what the work itself could be. How do you think all of this can be part of it in this artistic snowballing we’re trying to do?
On Apr 26, 2017, Rebecca Atkinson-Lord wrote:
I think that pluralism has to be absolutely central. It speaks so fundamentally to the sense of reaching for a connection with another human being, of trying to share something essential, but always just missing. I love the dramatic irony of how simply attempts at connection can be derailed by circumstance. In my most nihilistic moments, I think that we are all fundamentally alone; that connection is impossible and the best we can hope for is a sort of approximation rather than true union. Like that quote from The Argonauts: “Even identical genital acts mean very different things to different people. This is a crucial point to remember, and also a difficult one. It reminds us that there is difference right where we may be looking for, and expecting, communion.” (Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts). Sometimes, that feels really bleak to me, but at other times, I realise that it’s in the act of seeking connection where union and recognition can be found. It’s the attempt that’s important, not the end goal.
So coming back to your question – I think our different pathways into this and the different ways we might favour to express them are central to an understanding of what the piece will be; as artists, we’re reaching for an artistic, intellectual and aesthetic connection and in making that reaching explicit, the form of the piece reflects that more instinctive reaching out for connection that is such an essential part of sex and love. To a certain degree, the contradictory and polyphonic aspects of how we approach this will probably turn out to feel the most meaningful.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how damaging the aggressive pursuit of perfect union / connection / shared understanding can be – I’ve had a few relationships where my partner and I were operating under different fundamental assumptions around the function and structure of the relationship. They were quite happy and positive experiences until I/we became aware that we were not sharing how we thought about things. From that point on, the connection I had felt began to dissipate – like I’d seen behind the curtain: a hollow truth that couldn’t be unseen. I wonder now if perhaps the pretence of connection is more useful in the pursuit of happiness than the connection itself.
I’ve also become aware that for me, a small part of how I’m thinking about this show is as a love letter to the partners and connections and new philosophies that have been so transformative for me over the last few years. It’s my way of reaching out and acknowledging how much I treasure all I’ve learned and all I’ve gained from them. Only a very small number of the people who shared in those connections will ever see this show, most of them will never hear my thanks – but I don’t think that matters. For me it’s the act of transmitting; of sending out my half of the connection that’s important.
I guess what our audience will ultimately experience is a version of that – you and I reaching for an imperfect connection with each other in how we understand sex and love, and then at the same time trying to make that connection with them.
Find out more about Snowballing and book tickets here.