Ejaculation Falls is a performance where a group of people gather together to celebrate sexual diversity. It is an opportunity to share things regarding sex and sexuality that are often hidden or silenced in public discourse.
We talked to director Essi Rossi and sound designer Sarah Kivi, who are currently in Manchester preparing for the SICK! Festival performances of Ejaculation Falls with the local working group.
Could you talk about the origins of the Ejaculation Falls project?
Essi: I have worked with the topics of gender and sexuality for many years. Some years ago I realised that throughout all the projects I have carried with me a trauma that is not mine, but which is present in my way of observing things. I became interested in where that experience of trauma was coming from and if it was possible to talk about sex and sexuality in a sex positive way without making a sexy performance. I wanted to build a multifaceted piece that would allow me to deal with sexuality in all its forms and simultaneously learn more about it. This is how Ejaculation – Discussions About Female Sexuality, a solo piece built on recorded and anonymous interviews, was born. It premiered at the Finnish National Theatre, the BRUX Freies Theatre in Innsbruck, and was finally brought to the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe where Sarah and I performed it as a part of the From Start to Finnish showcase.
That solo piece was in a way an early “demo version” of Ejaculation Falls. After the performances Helen Medland, the CEO/Artistic director of SICK! Festival contacted me and asked if I wanted to bring the performance to Manchester and if I had ideas for how to develop it. At that point it was clear to me that unlike in Edinburgh where I had been on the stage myself, I instead wanted to have other people up there telling their own stories. I also wanted to organise an open call to find the performers, because I wanted them to be non-professional performers. I also wanted to take the piece further in the context of the stage and to do away with the anonymity. I also wanted to bring in a sex therapist to join the process. I felt that my own experience performing on the stage helped me prepare to face these issues from a director’s point of view and gave insight into how to work ethically on a project concerning these deeply personal topics.
Ejaculation Falls was performed for the first time at the Baltic Circle festival last year. That was an immensely meaningful experience. Originally that production and the one in Manchester were supposed to be performed by the same group of people with half of them from Finland and the other half from the UK. However, because of the pandemic we ended up working with two separate groups, each consisting of local people only.
What differences have you noticed between the two working groups?
Essi: The thing that has the biggest effect on the working process is the composition of the performance group. This is affected by the reach of the open call and by who is in such a place in their life that they are able to take part in a project with such an intensive training process. Even if the piece is built around a dramaturgical structure, the people and their experiences are what ultimately shape the content of the performance, which is why the selection of the participants is so important. In the selection process we were looking for a group of people that was as diverse as possible, and for individuals who had both the ability to put their experiences into words and the will to explore those experiences with others. It is of course not possible for a group of six people to cover the entire spectrum of human sexuality, which is what makes the role of the audience so important in rounding out the performance. This is particularly apparent in the discussion we have at the end of the performance. I am eagerly looking forward to what kind of a reception this piece will get in Manchester and the discussions we will have here.
It is impossible to compare the two working groups because the context, rehearsal processes, performers, and the energy of the groups have been entirely unique in each case. While in Finland we were working together as a group towards the November performances and new surges in the pandemic, now in May in the UK you only occasionally see face masks anymore and some of the team is working remotely from Finland. Here our venue is close to the famous Gay Village which has a long LGBTQ+ history. Both groups have had a delightfully broad representation of different ages. We recently celebrated the 70th birthday of the oldest member of our group here in Manchester.
If we are looking for some differences to mention, in Finland we were able to more broadly cover the variety of potential relationships and for example some of the asexuality spectrum which I feel is an extremely important point of view to cover when talking about sexuality. On the other hand, in Manchester we have a cisgender man in the group for the first time. His presence has brought new levels of depth to the discussions: we have for example had conversations about the connection between toxic masculinity and the local gay culture. In Manchester all the people we were able to reach through the open call were white. We have wondered about the reasons behind this, because the city itself is very multicultural. It seems the call failed to reach a range of different demographics which is a shame, and we have been trying to think of ways to do things differently in the future.
Because this is our second time working on Ejaculation Flass, I already know what works and what does not. This has also made me even more aware than before that even though times are changing, there is still a desperate need for this type of a piece among all age groups.
How have you taken into consideration the sensitivity of the topic and the difficult emotions that may come to the surface during the process?
Essi: It is important for us that everyone adheres to the safer space guidelines we have agreed upon together during the whole process, from rehearsals to the performances. We also go over these rules with the audience before the performance and expect everyone to follow them. These rules deal with, for example, the use of the correct pronouns, respect for other people’s space and their experiences, apologising when needed, and taking care of each other. This is important because the piece deals with incredibly personal topics and it is necessary that everyone can feel safe and comfortable in the space.
We have structured the process so that there is plenty of space for conversation and the sharing of experiences and emotions. It was also important to us to involve sex therapists in the process. In Manchester we have three of them, and they have a key role in supporting everyone’s wellbeing during the production. All the participants have the opportunity to take a break whenever they need to and have one-on-one discussions with the therapists to go over the thoughts and feelings that may surface during the sessions. The therapists also provide us with tools and exercises that we do together. When necessary, they reflect on what they see and hear during the process. They help us think about the topics that we will deal with on the stage and how to cover them, as well as what types of reactions these topics may cause. As the director I work alongside the therapists and we guide and limit the topics that will be discussed. Even if the live interviews that are a part of the performance are not scripted or fully planned ahead, their potential contents have been rehearsed beforehand. The performers have been able to choose for themselves which topics they wish to talk about or what they want to avoid, and they are able to change their responses whenever they want to if they feel like it.
During the application process I tried to talk to the applicants about their thoughts regarding the topics that we will be dealing with, how they feel about those and what they think about sharing their experiences in front of an audience. The performers can also ask me questions and they can pull away from the process if they do not feel that it is possible to build the necessary sense of mutual trust. During rehearsals we all try to be open and flexible and considerate of everyone’s needs and emotions. We have a common understanding that anyone can take a break whenever they need to and for example take some time to have a conversation with one of the therapists. We will wrap up the entire process by meeting after the performances as well, so that everyone has a final opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about the whole project.
It is important that everyone remembers that everyone involved in this is learning and improving the whole time. Everyone makes mistakes but what is important is how you react to them and learn from them. After the performances in Finland we got positive feedback on the safe atmosphere and the sense of belonging we had managed to create around the performances. It felt great because we had worked very hard to achieve that.
Could you tell a little bit about the structure of the performance?
Essi: When the audience arrives into the space, they hear the soundscape Sarah has prepared. We also go over the common safer space guidelines that everyone agrees to abide by. After this the six performers arrive for a picnic at the Ejaculation Falls. At the heart of the piece are the live interviews of the participants, where they each take a turn to interview one of the other performers on their experiences of and thoughts on sex and sexuality. During the performance we also see taped interviews of experts who discuss the topics from various points of view. At the end there is space for a discussion where the audience can participate in the conversation and share their experiences and supplement what has been shared during the performance.
What is the role of the soundscape during the performance?
Sarah: I have done the sound design for the performance and written songs for it. In Manchester I will also perform two covers with the performers. The role of the soundscape is to create a space that is ideal for having conversations and for listening to them, to support the topics and stories the performers bring to the stage, and to create a rhythm for the performance that is built around interviews. The musical elements also help to create pauses where the audience can process the topics that have just been covered.
Right from the start it has been clear that we want to give the performers an opportunity to be involved in the making of the musical elements of the performance. Because of the input from the participants on each of the performances, the soundscapes and the structure of the sound design are completely different in Helsinki and in Manchester. I have more or less built the sound design in each case uniquely for that particular group and performance.
I work with the performers throughout the process. I try to get an understanding of the musical background of each individual soon after their selection. This was I can get an idea of who is interested in music and can suggest options for things we could try on the stage. Many of them are eager to participate in that side as well and bring forth suggestions we can try out and possibly incorporate into the show. This approach to the sound design is well aligned with the collective approach we have to working on Ejaculation Falls.
For many of our participants performing can be a rare and special experience, especially in this kind of a context. This means I feel like I have succeeded when I am able to give them space for that experience and to bring additional levels to it with music.
Sarah, in Manchester you are also one of the performers. How has this been different from the previous production?
Sarah: The process has been surprisingly different from this perspective. As an added bonus, I jumped in as a performer on rather short notice. When I started the process I felt an immediate connection to the other performers in a way that was different from working on the project only as a sound designer and musician. It is fascinating to notice how quickly you dive into the deep end even among people who were recently perfect strangers when you all have a clear understanding of the safer space guidelines and everyone has the opportunity to be heard. Even if these are topics that are quite openly discussed in my circle of friends, I have found it challenging to find and establish my own limits during this project and to decide how much I am willing to share in front of an audience, or what I want them to keep thinking about after the performance.
What has it been like to work with a foreign festival for such a long period of time on a commissioned piece?
Essi: Since this is a commissioned performance we have been able to have discussions with the artistic directors of the festival throughout the project. We have also been able to take into consideration the venue and the characteristics of the festival, since those have been known to us from the start. The festival has supported us in production and funding, which has allowed us to take a more artist-centric approach to the project. For example, we have not had to apply for dozens of grants or to produce a piece without help in a foreign country. It is usually not possible to produce larger pieces like this or to work on a single piece for such a long period of time because of production costs.
Brexit and the pandemic have of course both caused their own challenges since they have both occurred during this process. I had a hard time believing that the production would even go ahead until I was on a train and then the ferry on my way here a few days before the start of the rehearsals. We also luckily got our visas just in time for the journey. Even if we originally ended up doing the production with two different working groups out of sheer necessity, I now think that was a good change. The nature of the piece is such that it is heavily reliant on the current moment in time and the context has a great effect on the performance. Because of this it would be challenging to replicate unchanged if the piece was to be performed over a longer period of time or redone after a long pause.
In its programming, SICK! Festival aims for accessibility and it sees performances and art as a part of the wellbeing of all communities. It has been eye-opening to get to observe how they work. This festival has many similarities with the Baltic Circle and Anti festivals in Finland. Since the beginning I have felt that what they are interested in is the art and the content, not the money. Before the rehearsals I had been in dialogue with Helen Medland and (the artistic director of the festival) Tim Harrison for 2 and a half years. I felt like I was in safe hands.
Sarah: I get an enormous amount of inspiration for my own artistic work from travelling to new places and getting to know local communities, cultures, and ways of working. Opportunities like SICK! and Fringe are few and far between but these processes are crucial because they create opportunities for cultural exchange and diverse discussions.
Ejaculation Falls at SICK! Festival in Machester, 25.5. and 26.5. at 7 pm. Stun Studios (Z-ARTS), M15 5ZA. Tickets £10, book them on Eventbrite for 25.5. (sold out) and 26.5. For more information about the Festival, click here.
Image: Sarah Kivi and Essi Rossi in Manchester, credit: Gwen Riley Jones