Stage Love and Lust, or, The Showmance Must Go On
Thursday, February 13, 2014
By Chad Jones
Ask theatre people to talk about their love lives and you're likely to
hear a lot about "showmances," those intense affairs that ignite in the
rehearsal hall, carry on through the production then often fade once the
final curtain rings down.
Photo: Heller-Wilson/Perfect Circle Photo
Some showmances, of course, have happy endings, and the spark turns into
the long-burning flame of true romance and a healthy relationship.
Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne are the most remarkable example of this.
They married in 1922 and performed together until their retirement in
1966, and in those 44 years worked only on shows in which they could
We'll get to another happy ending story—names and all—in a minute. It's
the backstage love stories in which the tellers wish to remain
anonymous—spilling the theatrical tea is sometimes easier that way—we'll
When the call went out via various social media to share tales of love
and lust, the bulk of responses had to do with the traditional
showmance. An interesting (if highly unscientific) trend emerged among
respondents. Showmances tend to happen more in the 20s.
"By the time I was 25, I think every love affair I'd had was with a
co-star," one actor said. "I was having a lot of fun, but I was creating
a lot of drama and wondered if I was in love with the drama of it all
more than the actual people. I consider that realization the moment when
I started to grow up."
Another unverified observation: more backstage hook-ups happen in
musical theatre than in straight drama. Is it youth? The larger casts or
maybe the music?
"Work in the theatre is incredibly intense," an actor wrote in an email.
"Instant intimacy is often required, and it's sometimes hard to tell
what is real and what is pretend, especially when you're young and
Not one but two respondents wrote in with stories of showmances during
productions of Twelfth Night, and in both instances, the relationship
was between Viola and Sebastian. Yes, the actors playing twin brother
and sister hooked up.
In one case, the relationship flared up in rehearsal but had fizzled by
opening night, making the twins' reunion scene at the end rather
"We did look alike, and I disliked him so much by the time the show
opened, it was all I could do to be professional," one Viola recalled.
"I'd look at him looking like me, and I was grossed out by my own
narcissism. At least we were cute."
The other Viola-Sebastian pairing (in college) was more of a lark: "I
didn't look like my Sebastian," the other Viola said. "He had no
real-life sister, and I no real-life brother, so it didn't seem ooky to
us. Just amusing."
Some showmances—maybe even many—are indeed fun and can be useful. "We
are actors after all," one actor said. "We can be vain and selfish and
needy. We can be impulsive and thoughtless. And we can chalk it all up
to experiencing everything we can about being human, or so we tell
Sometimes that rehearsal spark can lead to marriage. That's what
happened for "happy ending" couple Juliet Heller and Dan Wilson when
they met as castmates in The Custom Made Theatre Co.'s 2009 production
of The Heidi Chronicles. He played Scoop and she played three
characters, including Scoop's wife.
Wilson had been accused in years past of being a flirt, so he was trying
not to be "that guy" hitting on all the single females in the show. So
it was up to Heller to make the first move, which she did. Hanging out
turned into dating, and though they tried to keep the budding
relationship on the down low, they failed.
Heller and Wilson married in September 2012 and live in San Leandro with their little dogs, Beatrice and Benedick.
"If you meet in the theatre, where it's easy to get swept up in the
emotion of it all, it's easy confuse actual, realistic love with what's
happening on stage," Heller said. "I know that from personal experience.
So when you do meet someone in a show, and if you feel like there's
really something there, you have to commit to not throwing it away as
just a showmance and really allow yourselves time to date."
Wilson, who has officiated at other actors' weddings, had this advice to
actors: "Always remember the other person isn't perfect, and neither
are you. Always carry the spirit of humility and forgiveness." Wilson
paused for a minute and added, "I guess that applies to every couple."
Chad Jones has been writing about Bay Area theatre since 1992. He blogs at theaterdogs.net.