Last May, I signed up for a solo theatre class - and no, learning to jack off in front of a webcam is not part of the curriculum. Think one-man shows at the Fringe Festival and you get the idea.
I’m pretty exhausted when I take this class. Sorting out medication changes, I can barely get through the day without sleeping a couple of hours, let alone take an intensive morning-only course. What am I thinking?
The class is run concurrently with the SoulO Theatre Festival. At its end we each perform an concept piece to be developed further. We call it the birthing of new work not fully formed.
I have an idea planned out ahead of time. I want to do something more serious around HIV, as I usually go for fun or salacious pieces. I’ve done a lot of talks on the subject, but it is different turning it into a theatre piece or in a storytelling format.
This is the second time around taking this class. Typically we have ten minutes for our final piece. I learn we only have five minutes. I have to scrap my initial idea. In five minutes it’s very difficult to open an emotional vein plus end with the wrap up “See you folks, have a great day.”
As we work through the class we take periodic ten-minute free thought writing moments. One story comes up. It seems like something I could go with. It’s intimate and vulnerable. I will embark on a tale of sexually coming of age (there is a pun in there) at twelve going on thirteen - with a twist.
(Don’t forget I’m heavily medicated. I barely remember doing it. Thank god I have the video to write a transcript that I’m using for this article.)
At the Red Sandcastle Theatre on Queen Street East, Toronto, we gather in the morning, do our exercises and finally let the audience in. It is a small. intimate space that heats up like an oven in summer.
We begin. One by one we get up there. Finally it’s my turn, last in the running order.
I walk on the stage with the lights down, grab a chair and place it to the left of me. I stand facing the audience, wait in a few moments of silence and begin.
It is 1977, I’m twelve years old turning thirteen, living in Thunder Bay. We moved here so my mother could complete her master’s degree in psychology.
1977 is the year disco peaked. Saturday Night Fever is a raging hit, Star Wars dazzles our eyes. Blue screen is cutting edge technology. The 1970s versions of today’s computers take up entire floors and are coded with punch cards. Answering machines are barely a thing. We aren’t tied to our phone taking food pics for Instagram.
This is also the year I’m into wearing bell bottoms. They are so wide they encase the entire shoe. In the winter the bell part of bell bottoms becomes frozen into solid fabric that could double as a cast.
We are poor, a family of three living off student loans and some savings. Our kitchen table is a simple cardboard bridge table. We use plastic camping dishes and our floors are covered with an orange shag carpet. I’m ashamed of our plastic K-mart curtains, an early sign of my emerging gay boy-ness.
Our neighbours are a newlywed super-cool couple with a months-old baby girl. They often go out on Saturday nights, maybe even to a disco. Even Thunder Bay has one. Their sorties are a boon for me as I get to earn extra money babysitting.
Since we don’t have a record player, whenever I babysit, I love sitting in front of their brushed silver Pioneer 1970s stereo, gazing at their record collection.
I stumble across someone I’ve never heard of before. Donna Summer. Cautious not to scratch the record, I put it on and listen with big clunky headphones.
The sound is like nothing that I’ve heard before. Up until now synthesizers have only been used by Kraftwerk or more ethereal Jean Michel-Jare ambience new age-type music.
This is different. When David Bowie first hears “I Feel Love” he proclaims this is the future of music. Imagine how I feel as I listen to it for the first time. I fall in love with the four on the floor dance beat and the godfather of electronic music, Giorgio Moroder.
(It wasn’t until years later I found out that falling in love with Donna Summer is a pretty gay thing too. Who knew? How is it as young gay boys, completely isolated, we gravitate to really gay things? It’s like it is encoded into our DNA or something. Still I’m too young to understand this and the implications of the music - and my love of Chihuahuas.)
At 12 I don’t understand that Donna Summer is a metaphor for the post-1960s sexual revolution gone amuck, turned into cocaine-fuelled hedonism. I don’t get the over sexualized lyrics; they go over my head. I simply fall in love with the music.
This is not the only awakening for me. I am very naive about sex. I know that one thing goes into another and babies are made. The idea is kind of gross. (In grade two I was shocked and horrified to learn this is how babies were made and was in denial for quite some time.)
It is around this time mom gives me, “the talk.” The fact that she is a psychology student doesn’t escape me when I’m given two pamphlets. One pamphlet about “Girls” and the other about “Boys” I clearly remember the first image I see after flipping a page into it.
It is a boy in swim trunks on a diving board looking embarrassed as he is pitching a tent. I’m warned about the perils of bumpy bus rides and other awkward situations that thirteen-year-olds may face but should not feel shame about.
Now I’m quite aware of the land of boners. I’m also aware of happy endings. The problem is I have no idea how one gets from A to B. At night when boners arise, which is often at this age, I believe I can mentally make this happen. I figure if I just think about it hard enough and long enough this will make me come.
Night after night I remain disappointed.
Finally one evening when I’m home all alone, I go into my mother’s closet/office to take a look at her library. I don’t have any agenda; I want to see if there is anything interesting. It’s boring psychology stuff for the most part. Then one book jumps out at me screaming "forbidden": THE JOY OF SEX! The Joy of Sex is the rage of the 70s. It brings sex out from the dark and on to coffee tables around the world. It is ground breaking.
I’ve never heard of it. I open it up and to my amazement there are images of things I’ve never seen or heard of before. The number sixty-nine takes on a whole new meaning. Flipping through the book, chapter after chapter, I see exactly what I’m looking for. Out like a Broadway show marquee pops “MASTURBATION”.
I’m beyond excited. This is amazing, there are even instructions! I managed to successfully bake a cherry cheesecake last week from a recipe, I can do this!
Sneaking into the bathroom feeling like I’m about to commit a devious act I lock the door even though I’m home alone. I sit down on the toilet facing the wall so I can use the toilet tank to lay the book down and keep my hands free.
(On stage, I take the chair that is beside me and I move it back facing the audience as if it were the toilet and we are in the moment when this is all happening. We are in the place that changes my pre-adolescent life and creates a new-found love of the bathroom. I do this part as a twelve year old, I want this to be fun, not explicit, letting the audience’s imagination do the work.)
With manual - or orgasm - recipe guide in front of me - I hear an almost announcer-like voice in my head reading out the instructions.
Step 1 ……..
I’m only twelve. I’m not going to tell you what step one is, but I’m there!
“Step 2” ….. place your two fingers here, and your thumb there.
Step 3 ……move your hand “up and down.”
(Now this is the part I require audience participation.)
I yell out, “Everyone help me out, say with me, “up and down”.
With full audience participation we all say in unison, “Up and down, up and down, up and down.”
Looking at everyone I say, “I bet you didn’t think you were going to be doing this Sunday morning!”
We increasingly say it louder and faster. “Come on everyone clap along with me.” This makes the moment even more participatory. It’s intense.
My hands are blocked by the back of the chair so their imaginations can fill in the blanks - me jerking off without me actually doing it. We get louder, the clapping harder, and faster, faster, faster and faster until all of us are chanting and clapping into a frenzy when I stand up with my fist in the air screaming a triumphant YES!!!!!!!!!!
I have achieved my very first orgasm, recreated for public consummation. Getting up after our mutual jerk off session, I wrap up the moment.
There I did it, I just got the audience to verbally and physically jerk off with me. I wasn’t vulnerable in the way I intended to be, but who shares the first time they jerk off and watch their first load on stage? This is the moment my masturbatory career kicks off. Even though we don’t often talk about those details a few guys come up to me and say, “Oh I remember that moment”
As a post-script to this. While hosting my own storytelling night a performer spoke about giving his nephew a sex talk. I realized that we don’t get gay sex talks as kids. Sure I got my pamphlets, but they didn’t cover what I needed to know. I wasn’t interested in making babies.
I have this conversation with our storytelling audience between performers. “Ya, I never got the gay sex talk, that’s the one I needed. Come to think of it, “Cruising” with Al Pacino was it. It’s amazing that I really followed through with it after watching that. All I can say is that it was a feast of information.
A few years later “The Joy of Gay Sex” came out. (Pun wasn’t initially intended)
One night when the storytelling evening wasn’t going so well and people were going too long, the audience’s attention was waining. I decided to end the evening by re-doing this story. It never gets old getting an unsuspecting audience to participate in jerking off.
And you know what? It’s always a hit.