Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fall in Love, or Theatre Games 101

Romeo and Juliet had a good romance going, as far as love affairs that end in grievous miscommunication and death go. I’m a sucker for the balcony scene, no matter how much of a cliché it has become, and think Juliet’s got a lot of spunk to shack up with bad boy Romeo while her parents plan her marriage to the soporific nobleman Paris. Still, I now understand why Shakespeare had to kill off these two in Act V. A star-crossed courtship may have driven them to their death, but the routine familiarity of marriage would have driven them insane.

I’m a romantic by nature, but lately, it’s the poem of William Carlos Williams, the modernist, that runs through my head. So much depends…so much depends….so much depends on an unloaded dishwasher. The pace of my entire day hinges on this simple truth. My husband unloads our KitchenAid every morning before our kids have even finished breakfast. It may be nice to get roses, but when he brings me home a box of Sparkle dishwasher pellets—without any prompting—I feel love.

I was in college when a professor first mentioned the idea that love in a marriage is often founded on prosaic gestures. I’d just spent days in isolation reading a nine hundred page Russian novel for his class and found the lecture to be a bit of a downer. But, he had little elbow patches on his corduroy blazer and fuzzy hair coming out of his ears, and I thought: this guy probably knows what he’s talking about.

Still, it’s hard to figure out how romance, love, marriage and taking out the garbage, all make up the modern love story.

So, I was interested in the cover story in the latest Scientific American Mind, by Robert Epstein, enticingly plugged with the phrase: Fall in Love and Stay that Way, but officially called, “How Science Can Help You Fall in Love”. Could science finally offer a counterpoint to the misguided R & J ideal?

Epstein is a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and has a Ph.D in psychology from Harvard. He has spent a lot of time thinking about how people can improve their romantic relationships. “The fix,” he writes, “is to extract a practical technology from the research and then teach people how to use it.”

He has created a group of exercises that can make total strangers feel an increased sense of intimacy. I suppose the goal is to use these sparingly—in a relationship that you desire to strengthen, and not to flex your skills on random strangers throughout your day. Although, I am not so sure.

An article in the Washington Post last month, OnLove: Psychologist-Author, Robert Epstein Says Love isn’t Accidental, (Dec. 27, 2009) tells this story about the professor:

“In 2002, when a young woman came in to interview for an internship and told him she'd never been in love, he had an idea: They set out to make her fall in love. The intern eventually backed out of the experiment, so Epstein decided to do it himself. After meeting a woman on a plane who agreed to be his partner in the endeavor, he began to employ strategies and behaviors that relationship experts have found increase feelings of intimacy: sharing vulnerabilities, touching each other affectionately and seeking adventures together. The good news? They fell in love. The bad? It didn't last. She was from Venezuela, and the logistics were too difficult to overcome.”

So, what are the Love-Building exercises Epstein has created to “deliberately create emotional intimacy with a partner”?

His article mentions eight and I was struck by one thing: they are almost identical to the games and techniques I was taught as a theatre student. It’s amazing to me that going to Harvard or one summer at sleep over camp at Stage Door Manor can produce the same insights.

Let’s take a look and see what I’m talking about. (I did not, much to my disappointment, get to go to Stage Door Manor, but I have friends who did. I learned my acting/love expertise at Northwestern University and later got an MFA in acting/love-building techniques.)

Two as One: This is similar to something you might do in voice and speech class. You try to breathe at the same time your partner breathes. Epstein says you should embrace gently as you do this. Actors don’t embrace, at least not in the classroom, but we’re sometimes told to put our hands on our partner’s chest or ribcage to help isolate breath.

Soul Gazing: looking into your partner’s eyes for two minutes. Epstein says you’re trying to look into the core of your partner’s being. Well, actors do this all the time on stage when a fellow actor forgets his lines. You just stare, and stare, and stare some more until the other person remembers his line, or the lights blackout.

Monkey Love: The term in theatre is The Mirror Exercise. You move your arms and legs and your partner imitates. I recently guest-taught a class at my daughter’s Montessori school and had two sections of kindergartners do this. In retrospect, I am so relieved none of the six year olds eloped.

Falling in Love: you fall backwards into your partner’s arms. Again, a classic theatre game designed to build trust, although we often just let the person hit the floor. Especially if they have a good role.

Secret Swap: the name says it all. Not exactly a theatre game, but we spend a lot of time confessing secrets in the dressing room. But, the biggest secrets are those actors collectively keep from the audience. You know that staircase on the set that supposedly leads upstairs to the room in which Duncan is killed? It leads instead to narrow escape stairs and Duncan’s in the green room eating yogurt. That wine being drunk in Act I? It’s grape juice. Or, an even bigger secret—it’s wine.

Mind Reading Game: see Soul Gazing. Also directors expect this of actors at most auditions. And, there is of course, the idea of subtext—or the meaning underneath the lines. Actors spend a lot of time reacting to the subtext of their acting partner’s lines, and having perfected this skill, they are attuned to it off stage, as well. That is why, “I like your haircut,” is not a safe thing to say to most actors.

Let Me Inside: You start off four feet away and then move closer to your partner until you have invaded their personal space. I can think of very few elements of training, rehearsal, or performance, in which your personal space is not invaded. If nothing else, just riding the subway to get to rehearsal is an exercise in this.

Love Aura: You put your hands near your partner’s without touching and sense the sparks. The Mirror Exercise can create this—if your hands are close enough. But, a slight modification of this takes us back to Romeo and Juliet and their first encounter, a dance in which they stand, you guessed it, palm to palm. This position didn’t create sparks; it started the Chicago fire.

The thing that connects Epstein to my theatre scenarios is the shared goal of creating vulnerability. Epstein says this is the key to emotional bonding. Vulnerability, or the willingness to be open to it, is essential in acting and in the collaborative aspects of creating a show, as well.

There are other things he suggests that are paralleled in the acting world. Love between two people can be created, he says, when they: share an adventure or experience danger, do something new, and when they lower their inhibitions (without the use of Jell-O- shots). All of these things happen in the process of working on a production. Very often, an actor is in a new town, at a new theatre, with a new cast, doing a new part, and staking his or her future on the success of the play or individual performance.

I don’t think I am revealing any secrets of the profession when I say that—occasionally, or rather, often, or should I say, very often, there are, shall we say, romances in the cast. This should come as no surprise to faithful readers of People Magazine.

But, I decided to test my own theory. Where else would a novice researcher go but Facebook and SurveyMonkey? Just mentioning SurveyMonkey should make it clear that I am sufficiently unqualified to conduct this type of investigation.

The survey is still ongoing, but as I write this, 78 percent of the actors who responded said they had fallen in love with someone they were working with on a production. Eighty-six percent agreed that the intensity of working together on the show gave them a sense of intimacy faster than if they had not been in such a circumstance.

And, when did they begin to fall in love? At what point did they have a love-building session? An overwhelming majority, 93 percent, said in rehearsal, dwarfing other options such as, “first time I met them,” and “cast parties or social interaction.” It is in rehearsal where the parallels I mentioned above are most intense. It makes perfect sense that this is where the sense of connection would start.

But, of these actors, some of whom said they’d fallen in love while working on a show not once, but twice, or three or four times, and a few (a minority to be sure) said it happens on almost every show---most are not in a long term relationship with the objects of this affection. Sixty-one percent said they are no longer in the romance initially started while acting.

When actors said they wanted to form a lasting relationship, or hold onto one, they had to move beyond the easily felt feelings of love and deal with the “logistics”—the very thing Epstein said sabotaged his romance with his seat partner from Venezuela. Many of my respondents said they had to consciously stop themselves from falling in love again and again, show after show. Or, the ones who spoke of attaining a long term relationship or maintaining a marriage spoke of how they had to move past those feelings to orchestrate the foundation of commitment.

Commitment, even Epstein says, is one of the most essential things needed for a marriage to work. In his study of arranged marriages, where commitment comes first and love comes later (at a rate higher than in non-arranged marriages, eventually,) it’s the devotion to the commitment that is most remarkable.

And, this is why I am cynical. Falling in love is easy. Especially if the article in last summer’s Advertising Age is correct when it credits Epstein for saying the average person has 350,000 soul mates, 50,000 of which are in the United States. Maybe his scientifically extracted steps are liberating in the sense they allow a person can take control of their destiny and “make love” where and when and with whom they want, and not wait around for destiny to bring them to their one and only true love.

But, in some ways, it seems that it is another way in which we Americans look for solutions to our epidemics (in this case divorce), by imposing our will instead of modifying it with compromise and hard work.

Which brings us to another epidemic, the Reality TV show. You knew this was coming. Epstein’s website touts a show in the works called Making Love, which will use his principals of Love-Building on contestants. We’ll watch as the bud of love grows between perfect strangers, like a sprout fed nothing but fertilizer. To strengthen the commitment, the willing participants will sign a “love contract.” I suppose since the act of signing a real legal document has done little to hold sacred the vows of marriage, signing a bogus one has half a chance.

The show promises to have more product tie-ins than The Price is Right (if that is possible) and, as one supporter on his website says, it will “change the whole love game completely.”

And, that is why I am skeptical. Whatever makes people happy in their marriage is probably a good thing. If the eight steps and theories based on it give more people a foundation for love and the ability to let it thrive, all the better.

But, let us look at actors as cautionary players against the fascination with “falling in love quickly”. The very people who have perfected the craft espoused in the magic eight steps—who have devoted themselves to being emotionally open and agile—speak of how they have to then work to overcome this prowess once they find the one they want to be with. The real work comes in the logistics. So much depends…

Ps: As some of you know, my hard drive failed this morning. My husband had to go to Best Buy and see the Patriots lose on twenty large screen TV's instead of the comfort of just one, to salvage what's left of that beast. Still, there is an update to the lunchboxmomhour page. The silence was deafening last week, most of you too kind to voice your doubts....

If any actor reading this wants to take the survey, please visit the link: Actors survey


Anonymous said...

It sounds like a 21st century version of The Emperor's New Clothes. And a reality show? Puh-leeze. I can tell you right now that emptying the dishwasher will have much longer lasting impact on most women than gazing into their eyes.
By the way, did you know there are more Miss Universe winners from Venezuela than from any other country that competes?

Dr. Robert Epstein said...

Your survey data with actors is amazing! Perhaps you could keep me informed about this. I'm sorry that you feel somewhat cynical about my work. I'm sincerely trying to make things better, and most of the supportive letters I receive are from women who have been hurt or disappointed. Learning to love is just part of the picture; you need to start out with someone appropriate, for one thing, and it's helpful to work on some basic relationship skills (see ) - and then there's than commitment thing.... Cheers, /re

Tim Morrissey said...

Thank you for this post. I can confirm the dishwasher-emptying phenomenon. My wife works away from home; I work at home. She thanks me for this simple task every time she comes home to an empty dishwasher and clean kitchen. Part of the love equation, I think, is that much of your joy springs from your partner's joy.

Anonymous said...

Maybe they should do a reality show with couples that have been married for years and have "misplaced" that loving feeling...see whether these techniques work to "rehabilitate" love, or whether these techniques only work when there is still a sense of "mystery" about one another. In the mean time, tonight I'll see if my spouse wants to try staring into one another's eyes (souls) instead of cleaning up the playroom. Thanks for the post - as usual, an insightful and humorous break in my day!

happygal said...

This is a wonderful post, Sarah.


Alyson said...

Fantastic. Emptying the dishwasher is soooo romantic. Kudos to Tom for doing it every morning. Right now my husband is putting our son to sleep, another thing that melts my heart.

Angie said...

Hi Sarah - Just wanted to let you know I've been enjoying your blog. I've had one myself for a couple of years now, which I'd love for you to check out as well... But thanks for sharing the URL and I look forward to following! Happy 2010 to you and the family!

Anonymous said...

As an actor with credits in film, television and on Broadway, I think the little bit of cynicism regarding the study is warranted. In fact, I would go a step further and say that not only do those techniques in rehearsal create very short term crushes, but they can just as easily create absolute contempt. And I can say with certainty that it's happened to me (and others around me) on more than a couple of occasions....