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TBA Online: News & Features: February 2014

Stage Love and Lust, or, The Showmance Must Go On

Thursday, February 13, 2014  
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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 perform together.

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 address first.

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 stupid."

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 difficult.

"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 ourselves."

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