Intimacy onstage is a slippery thing

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by Matthew A. Everett • 9/23/08 • (Hmmm… on further consideration, forgive the title. Nothing untoward is implied, I swear…)

If the cast of my play “Leave” had consisted for four gay guys, one of the things I might have said at opening rehearsal would have been, “You’re four good-looking young men who, because of the way your characters are written, all get to make out with each other a lot. You’re welcome.”

Single White Fringe Geek is the blog of Matthew A. Everett. In addition to being one of five bloggers covering the Minnesota Fringe Festival for the Daily Planet, he blogs throughout the year about theater and culture.

However, the cast is four heterosexual young men, one of whom had recently gotten married. I resisted my kneejerk response as a writer whenever I realize I’ve presented an actor with a potentially awkward situation, which is to meekly apologize. They all knew what they were getting into. They had the script shared with them by the director as I fed him the evolving set of rewrites. Even the previous draft wasn’t shy about the contact the male characters were going to have with one another. None of this was a surprise to anyone.

Let’s just think of it as really special blocking.

One of the things that put me at ease about the whole scenario was, first, the director. He had confidence in all of them, and I had confidence in him, so it was all going to be fine. Another thing was most of the guys had a background in improv comedy. Yes, “Leave” is a drama, though not without its frequent moments of laughter. But the reason improv set me at ease is, well, improv performers are up for anything. Their cardinal rule when presented with a situation is, “Yes, and…” They don’t try and change the circumstances or weasel out of them. They accept what they’re handed and build on it. Heck, a couple of these guys have even done drag – so they’ve got a gay merit badge even I don’t have.

But a kiss is not just a kiss, and there’s an emotional component involved. Plus, audiences can always tell when you’re faking it.

First things first, we had to get the script locked down. After the readthrough, a couple of days later, dozens of pages of cuts and changes to streamline the script and clean it up. Oddly enough, there wasn’t a lot that needed to be added. All the beats were there, they just needed trimming and tidying up. Meanwhile, they got the whole thing blocked. Then they memorized their lines.

The one long-term couple, Seth the Marine and his civilian husband Nicholas, had the most intimate material. The director told the actors he wasn’t going to set a date for when they’d start incorporating the kissing. The touching and hand-holding and such was the easy stuff. Took some getting used to, of course, but still, the kissing was going to be the big hurdle. If they set a date ahead of time, the director figured that’s all they’d think about, obsess about, and then potentially get so distracted that nothing else would get done in the meantime. He joked on the night he brought in brownies, that would be kissing night in rehearsal. And then proceeded to bring donuts, bagels, pretty much anything except brownies, to rehearsal. Treats were looked upon with suspicion. One jest was that whatever was served was laced with latent homosexual tendencies.

In the interim, the guys would just get up really close to one another, look like they might do it, and then wave their hands on the sides of one another’s faces making an extended fake “Mmmwwwaaaahhhh” kissing noise. Silly, yes, but they marked every one of the spots it was going to happen. They weren’t always in the script. Sometimes the dialogue would indicate one was required, but the director would also make notes, “We need a kiss here. Your characters would kiss here.” This strategy of hand signals came in handy later in rehearsal when one of them got sick, passed it to the other one, and they had to take a few days off from kissing just to get the germs out of their systems again. “Mmmwwwaaaahhhh”

There were questions about intimacy at the first readthrough and I’m not sure I was terribly helpful, but I said, “Basically, anything you would do with a woman who you liked and wanted to be physically closer to, and attentive to, and considerate of – that’s what you’d do with your acting partner. There’s no secret code. It all translates directly.”

The kiss happened, so the story goes, by accident. The director almost missed it, making notes on a runthrough one night. The one actor thought the other actor seemed like he was going for it. The other actor thought the first actor was going for it. So they met in the middle, and went for it. After that, it all got easier.

The two actors are friends who live together in a house with some other guys, so they had a natural chemistry already. And since they were never going to sleep together in real life, the sexual tension remains unabated. When the director asked one night on a smoke break whether they hung out more often at home now, one of the actors admitted, “No, we actually have taken to avoiding each other a little. Averting the eyes. ‘So, you want to go do some hunting, or maybe sit around and drink, watch some sports, not call some girls back?’”

All four of the actors, particularly in their pairs, have gotten much more physically comfortable with one another. The natural barriers that straight guys sometimes put up between one another have sort of melted away. Certain sequences, it started out when they were holding one another there was a space down below between their hips that you could drive a truck through.

“Gay men don’t worry about bumping pelvises. They’re not looking to avoid it. It’s kind of the point of most physical contact. You want to get closer to one another. It’s not a high school dance in the 1940s. You don’t have to leave enough room between the two of you for the Holy Ghost.”

Every production of one of my scripts I’ve ever worked on, the guys start out keeping their usual distance, and slowly just fall into a familiarity with one another that’s really kind of touching to watch. It’s conditioning. We all feel we’re not allowed to do so many things. When you relax a little, it’s really not that frightening. Definitions and labels aren’t quite as rigid as we’re all trained to think they are. It just depends on what you’re comfortable with. Nobody’s looking. Nobody cares.

One actor on my first production in Minneapolis was nervous even telling people he’d have to kiss another guy. When he finally told his girlfriend, she laughed. “What’s the big deal?” When he told some co-workers, “I have to kiss a guy,” one female co-worker just rolled her eyes and said, “Trust me. You’ll get over it.”

Even the one actor in this cast who’s least comfortable with kissing, when he’s acting any other time, you wouldn’t know it. You believe he wants the person in front of him. Sometimes the yearning in his voice and on his face kind of takes my breath away. Some of the physical elements may not be present, but the emotional honesty is always there. And that’s just as difficult as the physical to get right, and just as hard to fake.

Unusual conversations in public places make for unintended moments of comedy. When discussing the kissing sequences, someone commented on how great they were on what this other person thought was just the first night. “Oh, this isn’t the first time. I’ve been kissing Nick James since Monday…” Just at that moment a group of people wanders past. “Wait, I need to give you context for that last remark…”

These guys are dealing with a lot more than I’ve thrown at any other college-based production. My first commissioned play for a college, the whole point of the script and the production was to get the audience to the point where they’d accept one kiss, at the end, with the lights fading out. We’re a long way from that in “Leave.” So I’ve got to hand it to them for stepping up and taking on the challenge. I believe I’m seeing Nicholas and Seth’s story on stage, and that’s huge. I actually have to remind myself now that those two actors aren’t gay.

When told they’d be getting a small stipend, one quipped, “Great, I’ll have enough to buy myself some Jameson and get the taste of Tim out of my mouth.”

To which Tim replied, “Unfortunately for you, you will discover that I also taste like Jameson.”

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If you want to see for yourself what I’m talking about, stop by the Bryant Lake Bowl this Thursday, September 25, 2008. We’ve got one more performance of “Leave” before we close up shop. Show starts at 7pm. Doors open at 6pm. The production lasts 90 minutes – one act, no intermission. Tickets are pay what you can on a scale of $12 to $15, or $10 with a Fringe button. You can make reservations by calling 612-825-8949 or visiting www.bryantlakebowl.com or www.brownpapertickets.com

You can find more about the production at www.afterdarktc.com, and you can find sample scenes and monologues from the script over at my site, www.matthewaeverett.com

Matthew A. Everett is a local playwright and three-time recipient of grant support from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Information on Matthew and his plays can be found at matthewaeverett.com.