An interview room. Under a row of slatted blinds, a faded white couch. The lighting is harsh, almost medical.
A scene perhaps familiar to some. Transactional sexual encounters have been documented since society has been documented –sex work is often colloquially referred to ‘the oldest profession’ – and yet it is still shrouded in mystery and fascination.
Dan Ireland-Reeves offers a glimpse with his new work Sauna Boy. Detailing his year-long experience working in a gay sauna in London, even Ireland-Reeves wasn’t aware of what he was getting into when he first walked into his interview. “I always thought going into the job that it would make for a really interesting play because it’s a world that not many people know much about –it’s a world that I only knew the basics of.
“The place that I worked operated with its own set of rules that were quite outside of what you would expect from a normal workplace.” And in the UK, these saunas are not as few and far between as some people may expect, and not as illegal as one might assume. “As far as saunas go, you have to have a sex-on-premises licence to say people are having sex in this building, but it’s totally legal because no-one is paying for sex, you are paying to use the ‘facilities’.”
This is a far cry from South Australia where, in 2019, a Bill to decriminalise sex work was denied. Ireland-Reeves was able to see first hand how closing down businesses, such as the sauna he had worked at, impacted the local area.
“Since my place has closed down I’ve heard that sex trafficking has gone up in the area and public cruising has gone through the roof. These are things you don’t think about – our business created a safe space for sex work. We worked with the NHS so people could get tested and be safe having sex and be educated. A lot of the people that came to our sauna were ‘straight men’ – they were men who had sex with men, but totally secret from their heteronormative day life.”
But Ireland-Reeve’s work promises to be anything but dry and political. “I’ve tried not to hold back. I don’t want to be shocking for the sake of it, but I want to portray things as openly as they were when I worked there. The things you see are just normal on a daily basis and I share that in a way I would speak with colleagues – as openly as I have seen things.
“I tell the stories really candidly, without getting bogged down in the disgusting minutia of it all. I try to do it no-holds-barred, that’s how I like to tell all stories really – from a place of truth and not just pornographic titillation, but ‘This is what happens, this is how it is’ and this was just the norm.”
There is something beautiful about the connection that’s created when drawing on personal experiences within theatre, something Ireland-Reeves is exploring for the first time with this work. “This is a somewhat cathartic experience. I am getting a lot of things off my chest – a lot of my opinions and experiences – and I want to share that and I want people to affirm that back with their own experiences.
“That’s something I love specifically about the gay community – there are so many amazing stories, especially in the older gay community. Older gay guys have the most amazing stories about things they’ve experienced, things they’ve done that were illegal back in the day.”
Sauna Boy, The Warehouse Theatre, until 24 February