The single file
INTERVIEW:Being single is often defined by what you don’t have – a relationship. In her new play, Una McKevitt gathers a gang of singles to share their stories, writes UNA MULLALLY
NEVER THOUGHT of myself as single, even when I was. I was just ‘between relationships’.” Playwright Una McKevitt is talking about the personal part of the inspiration for her play, Singlehood, which premieres at the Absolut Fringe, having evolved from a 20-minute piece to a full-length performance.
McKevitt, a critically acclaimed writer and director who specialises in documentary theatre, admits addressing the state of being single isn’t exactly an original idea, but there is something compelling about watching the “actors” sharing their personal stories of singlehood and swapping lines in rehearsals. Themes emerge: sex, loneliness, marriage, kids, dating, baggage.
Every time McKevitt broke up with someone, she found herself in another relationship a few weeks later. “It was, like, maybe all those single people, maybe they’re actually selective!”
A personal revelation about what she calls “serial monogamy” and a tendency towards codependent scenarios meant she felt she was always “leaving a relationship already interested in somebody. Or becoming interested in somebody to leave a relationship. It couldn’t just be, ‘Oh, I want to be on my own.’ This was all unconscious; I didn’t realise there was something wrong with this, because there is something wrong with it.”
McKevitt also realised the play couldn’t be personal, because “if you plant yourself into something, you’re doomed, nobody cares”, so she looked at the stories of others. She approached people she knew as single, talking to friends and family and interviewing people individually. Starting with six or seven initial conversations, she eventually compiled 50 interviews.
And while Singlehood is about personal stories, it’s also about something much bigger. “We’re told that there’s this big shift in the world, so I’m aware that it’s kind of a cultural reality that’s becoming more prevalent, but at the same time it’s an unoriginal idea. Everything is about relationships, really: plays, films, TV. But actually, those films about looking for relationships, they are about ‘single’ – it’s just that that’s not really the focus. The focus is always about getting them away from that [singleness].”
Singlehood is generally viewed as one of two things: a period of adventure, a state symbolising freedom, independence, excitement and sexual exploration with the patron saint of George Clooney winking at your every move; or a lonely, Pot Noodle-eating, couch-bound “you have No. New. Messages” state of being left on the shelf, and with patron saint of Bridget Jones handing you a Kleenex after another viewing of The Notebook.
When researching this piece I rang a male (attached) friend in his 30s and asked if he knew any single men his age. “I think finding them is a problem a load of birds have, isn’t it?” Touché.
We rarely really hear the voices of single men, but McKevitt found that when talking to men, they were just as willing to share information about their single lives, most of them bringing up the same insecurities women have: primarily, a fear of loneliness, and confidence issues.
Conor Behan, a 24-year-old from Carlow, is a member of the Singlehood cast. “It’s weird because the best thing is I have this independence. I go wherever I want, I do what I want, I don’t have to leave the nightclub at a certain time. But it can be lonely. Even to have someone to cuddle while you watch crap television, someone to curl up with. You do feel a little bit when you’re on your own you’re out of step. No matter what age or sexuality you are, you are expected to settle down. The expectations of other people are hard to deal with.”
Behan, who has never had a long-term relationship, feels that singlehood is universal. “Everyone’s experience is unique, but at the same time, everyone is kind of in the same boat. Whether you’re in your 30s and have a kid or are 21 and have just broken up with your first boyfriend.”
He jokes that he has been single for 24 years. “If you’ve never been in a relationship, technically are you even single? Are you defined by what you don’t have?”
Relationships – past ones and potential ones – shroud singlehood. In her interviews, McKevitt found one of the most common stories of singlehood was people “recovering from relationships”.
There’s little difference in how her 50 interviewees spoke about singlehood, regardless of age, gender or sexuality, aside from gay men.
“Straight people talk about ‘sober sex’ a lot, as a thing, not having any, ever,” McKevitt says. “We did a ‘single symposium’ one time and we were asking people about it, and there was a gay man there at the end who was like, ‘I’d just like to say, I feel so sorry for all these straight people.’ But it’s true. Men and women, and probably lesbians, let’s face it, probably have more drink-fuelled evenings, whereas gay men have easier ways of negotiating sex. I guess that’s more about being single and finding sex in a more strategic kind of way.”
When it comes to dating, sex is obviously always hanging around in the background. “Guys seem to be more into playing the field, and guys now are very forward when it comes to expecting you’ll sleep with them. They’re very presumptuous,” says Helen Francis (34), from Donegal, reflecting on her online dating experiences.
“I think the [dating] situations I’ve been in, eight times out of 10 they think if you’re putting yourself out there to meet someone, you’re obviously putting yourself out there to sleep with them. But it’s different from meeting someone in a bar, right? I would want to have a more emotional connection with someone.”
When you think about it historically, pairing up only changed in the last century. Women are slightly more liberated than they were in the times of hanging around caves; they can choose not to have children, and in countries with more gender equality, the age of marriage is rising. Occasionally, through circumstance or necessity, the woman, not the man, will be the provider. In recent years and in a minority of countries, gay people have received some opportunities to have their relationships legally recognised. People can access sex more freely than they used to without having to sign up to a relationship.