Charles Lewis III returns to get romantic.
“I want you to lie to me just as sweetly as you know how for the rest of my life.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Offshore Pirate”, The Saturday Evening Post (29 May 1920)
I have no problem saying “MacBeth” in a theatre. I never have. I’ve done it in nearly every theatre I’ve performed. It’s just a name, and there’s no sense in fearing a name. It’s also the title of a play and I’ll be damned if I’m scared to say the title of a play – in a theatre, no less! But where I lack a sense of terror of the spoken word, I try to make up for it in a certain level of social grace. Though I have no problem saying it, I recognise that others feel differently. And given that those people are my collaborators, and that we rely on one another to perform our best in a comfortable work environment, I’m discreet with my relationship to MacBeth. I don’t flaunt it because doing so would affect the production. My fellow cast and crew likely suspect, perhaps it’s a major topic of post-show gossip each night. Regardless, MacBeth and I keep our thing on the down-low.
It’s just common courtesy. Some theatres or troupes might have specific rules in regards cast/crew behavior. As such, there will always be someone in the cast who takes this as a challenge and will immediately break the rule. Be it as trivial as “No reading reviews backstage” (seriously, just because we’re not hanging up a newspaper, you think we aren’t sharing links via smartphones?) or as sensitive as “No hook-ups with cast members”. And it is the latter, dear reader, to which I’d like to direct your attention today.
Try as you might, there’s only so much you can do to discourage a coupling amongst co-stars. You put two people together in a scenario where they have to express their deepest passions, eventually those passions will find their way off the stage or screen, and into someone’s bed. You add the specific nature of theatre – particularly independent theatre, where the entire cast will often share a single dressing room – then you’re just adding scantily-clad fuel to a very horny fire; to say nothing of the temptation of it being a taboo in some companies.
But is it taboo for a good reason or are some folks just envious of the fun these two are having? Have hooked-up actors found a healthy relief for built-up tension within the show, or are they putting the entire production in jeopardy? Ah, the tricky business of starting a “showmance”.
For the sake of argument, I’ve never been in a showmance myself. Not for a lack of interest, mind you, I’ve just never been the object of any actress, director, or crewmember’s affection. Nevertheless, I have at times (often inadvertently) set the wheels in motion for other cast members. Plus, I’m usually right in figuring out which folks are the ones trying a bit too hard to keep their hook-up under wraps: the two who are careful not to leave or arrive together, but always do so within minutes of one another and in/from the same direction; the two who know more about one another’s personal lives than any two cast members, despite weeks or months of us all being together; the two who constantly compliment one another’s work when the production is discussed. For Christ’s sake, folks, why don’t you just wave a frickin’ banner already?
But their discretion is understandable. The Bay Area theatre community, like all such communities, is full of gossips. Anyone who says they aren’t a gossip is just trying to hide the fact that they gossip about you. And showmance gossip is tastier than free wine & cake at an opening party.
“You know she only got cast ‘cause he wants to fuck her, right?”
“The reason she never comes to my shows anymore ‘cause she knows he’s gonna be there.”
“What? They’re a couple? When did he turn gay?”
“If she can keep a girlfriend for more than a week-and-a-half, I’ll be very impressed.”
Hell, during last year’s auditions for the Olympians Festival, there was a moment on the first day where I realised I knew far too much about these folks’ sex lives. I could positively identify one particular actor on whom a certain local actress had a crush. Said actress was in the very next group of auditionees – as was a past flings. And that was just the start of a two-day marathon that eventually became just as much about me matching actors with roles as it was about creating my own mental “Our Chart”. (Yes, I’ve seen every episode The ‘L’ Word and yes I know I will never get those hours of my life back.)
There are quite a few on-line articles about why one shouldn’t date an artist (actor, musician, painter, etc.). Those articles are written because the appeal of doing so is obvious: when they’re “on”, they can be whomever you want them to be. The downer is realising that for some of them, that’s all there is. But when the spark is there, it’s nothing but pure magic.
The best compliments actors receive is when they’re told they “come off so natural, so effortless”. Actually there’s a great deal of effort involved. I first started directing in highschool. An original piece (which I’d also written) my senior year had a kiss. It was then that I learned one indisputable truth about acting: be it a NorCal highschool or the Globe theatre, getting two actors to kiss is really fucking awkward. You try to tell yourself “They’re good-lookin’ folks who’ve probably kissed folks before; they’ll figure it out.” I’m not the best-looking guy, but I’ve done plenty of kissing scenes to know how awkward they are. Two years ago I was let go from a play because the director was incompetent, a fact made all the more apparent by the way she tried to direct rehearsals for my kissing scene.
That’s why successfully pulling off chemistry between actors is considered nothing short of a miracle. And, as anyone who’s been camping can tell you, once you’ve got the flame started, the trick is to keep it going for as long as possible so that everyone can feel the heat. This is why directors will turn a blind eye towards a none-too-subtle romance between actors. So what if Romeo and Tybalt are having “a word and a blow” when they aren’t on-stage? As long as Romeo can bring a fraction of that heat with Juliet, more power to ‘em, right?
Well that’s the thing: whether positively or negatively, a coupling between two people on the same production will always affect the production itself – ALWAYS. By bringing a real relationship into a production, you’re bringing with it all the baggage of said relationship. I once worked on a show where the director and lead actress were married. A simple conversation about using their coffee table as a prop in the show turned into a gritted-teeth argument where the tension could have been cut with a knife. I’ve seen the sort of jealousy that rears its ugly head when one castmember’s crush starts dating another castmember (hell, I’m as guilty of that as anyone). I’ve walked home from the bar after a post-show cast drink and tried to ignore the fact that two cast members are shouting at one another right next to my bus stop. I’ve even known an asshole in a long-term relationship who carried on a three-year affair with an actress, then actively prevented said actress from being cast in his company’s shows (I can’t stress enough how much of an asshole he is).
Last year I directed a wonderfully well-written piece about the relationships that truly define us at the end of our lives. When I divided a set of speeches between two actors, I gave the better actor the more loquacious parts. During our first or second rehearsal, I peeked ahead in the script to be sure of who was reading what. It was only then that I realised I’d given the aforementioned better actor the speech in which three months had passed since his painful break-up; which would have meant nothing, if not for the fact that a month or two had just passed since the actor went through a break-up. Needless to say, he was great with that speech (and given who was in the audience the night of the performance, my heart nearly stopped when he spoke it).
They always affect the show. We’re artists; even if our influences aren’t always obvious, rest assured that all of our life experiences will be reflected in our work one way or another. And it won’t always be pretty.
Yet, it’s no secret as to why folks in the same industry get together: they clearly have the same interests; their circles of friends no doubt intersect; they both understand that they have to plan their social lives around unpredictable performance schedules; and they probably both know how to read. Fuck Match.com, where’s the Natalie Cole-scored commercial for dating someone in your cast?
God forbid they date someone outside of the theatre community. You know them when you see them: those sad, pathetic creatures who show up at the party just to huddle in the corner with their wine; feeling horrifically underdressed in a party full of people who are friends with costumers; the ones who stick out like sore thumbs because they’re the only ones in the room who don’t know the full libretto to Into the Woods by heart. The poor bastards. They can feel everyone’s judgemental eyes on them and they just want to leave. You know that feeling because it’s the same one you feel when you go to one of their parties.
But at least dating an “outsider” will add some variety to your usual routine. They show you people outside of your usual circle, they expose you to things that aren’t part of your repertoire, they allow you to believe that there’s more to life than being able to recite Tom Stoppard ad nauseum. Y’know why showmances fall apart so quickly? Pure boredom.
But then, one has to wonder: what about those couples that do make it work? How do they stay together for so long? You know the ones I mean: the adorable sci-fi sweethearts that run a theatre out of a pizzeria; the sickeningly cute couple who spearhead The City’s most famous mime troupe (notably devoid of actual mimes); the consummate performers who never let the stress (see what I did there?) of the world crush their artistic drives or their feelings for one another. How the hell have they got it figured out when so many others fail? What do they know that we don’t?!
It’s simple, really: their relationships aren’t based solely on their work. Oh sure, they may or may not have met during some business-related function, they might be running the business together, the business itself might even be central to dinner conversation – this business is a major thing to them. It’s just not the only thing to them. Their devotion to one another doesn’t stop when the curtain goes down; their respect for one another isn’t based on acclaim or gross revenue; the passion they feel for one another lasts more than a single fleeting night of sweaty two-backed-beast-making. What’s more, they know that relationships – actual relationships – are a commitment, and a commitment takes work. There will be arguments, there will be miscommunications, there will be moments when they both just want to escape – but the truly committed folks have been around long enough to know which things (and people) are worth fighting for and which are best to let fall by the wayside.
That’s what separates a relationship from a showmance: the latter is falling for someone based on who you want them to be; the former is loving them for who they really are. But when you’re caught up in the moment, who cares what happens in the long term? Who cares what damage is done to the show just so you can get your rocks off?
When all is said and done, the risks outweigh the rewards. The inevitable conclusion is that showmances aren’t worth the effort, right?
I have something to confess, dear reader. For someone who’s spent the majority of this piece showing off his unapologetic cynicism, those who have known me long enough will know that I am, in fact, a hopeless romantic. I don’t put emphasis on the negative because I want anyone to fail, I do so because the one thing I really love is when someone I know succeeds – it’s the greatest feeling in the world to me. Every scenario I’ve written about in this piece has been drawn from real life, so I’d like to conclude with a hypothetical for us to ponder.
Let’s say there’s a couple – in the tradition of TheaterPub pseudonyms, let’s call them, oh, Lilliam Weschber and Cashley Aowan. So Lil and Cash (I know, it sounds like a Country-Western duo) come from origins as opposite as can be: he from the dry desert of Arizona, she from the cold Connecticut wilderness. Somehow, someway they both make their to the greatest city in the Golden State in the hopes of pursuing their dreams. By an act of fate or pure chance, they wind up at the same fancy gala at the same time. They strike up a conversation. They click. Now this is the point in the Choose Your Own Adventure book where the story can go either way.
Maybe they choose the option neither really expected. Maybe that option winds up with both of them doing stints in Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding. Maybe they really hit it off. Maybe geography keeps them apart so they decide to cool things off. Maybe, through another inconceivable act of fate or chance, they both get cast in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night playing – get this – Orsino and Viola. Maybe the spark reignites. Maybe cast members start bumping into Lil and Cash (Depression-era bank robbers) a number of times outside of rehearsal. Maybe the other cast members of what-has-now-been-nicknamed-Twelfth-(M)ight start to take notice of the fact that Orsino and Viola seem very comfortable with their kiss scene. Maybe – in defiance of every unspoken showmance law since the beginning of the open stage – they drop all pretense and make a grand declaration of their love in front of the entire cast and crew. Maybe, just maybe, they decide to make it permanent.
But that’s just me thinking out loud. The simple truth is that although showmances involve (hopefully) only two people, it has repercussions for an entire group of people who have poured their hearts and souls into a work that has deep meaning for them. When a showmance goes right, it can mean great things for the show. When it goes wrong, the whole show could wrong, and that could just be the start of your problems. But if there’s something we can take away from the parable of Lil and Cash (Vaudeville Comedy Duo), it’s that sometimes it can be more than just one-show fling; that sometimes risk is worth the reward; sometimes auditioning for a show and all the effort in the director finding the most compatible pieces results in a union that can last for years and years.
Not always. But sometimes…
Charles Lewis doesn’t know if he’ll be able to make it to Lil and Cash’s San Frantastic June wedding, but he was there when they played Orsino and Viola. To say that he wishes them the best would be a gross understatement.