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Offstage sex and romance in Chicago theater

Industry professionals share their “showmance” wisdom.

“One of the first rules of thumb I go by when casting a show,” a local director says, “is that I have to be able to imagine myself, or at least someone else, wanting to have sex with the person I am casting.… I think if a person is ultimately fuckable, if you will, then an audience is going to like them all the better.”

There are obviously exceptions, he admits—say, if the role calls for a grandma—and he never actually sleeps with his cast. But if he’s not screwing the lead actor or actress, someone else in the show probably is. The phenomenon of theater people hooking up while working together is so common it has a somewhat derisive industry nickname: the showmance.

Theater artists, particularly actors and directors, spend weeks working closely together to craft believably intimate onstage relationships. It should come as no surprise that such work often leads to offstage intimacy. “I can whole-heartedly say that every relationship I’ve ever had, starting from the age of 13, has been a showmance,” a lighting designer tells me. (Sources for this story were granted anonymity, to protect their privacy and employment prospects.)

Sometimes the showmance can turn into lasting romance. For instance, the original 1998 production of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, currently remounted at Lookingglass Theatre Company, spawned three marriages. More often, perhaps, the showmance lives up to its name, fading with the final curtain.

“Never date a director. For many reasons,” one musical theater actor cautions her colleagues. “When you’re working on a show with another director, your boyfriend will try to direct you from home because he thinks he knows better. Then he will come to your preview weekend with a notepad and take notes. When you break up with him, word will get around, people will take his side because he has more ‘power’ in the industry, and you’ll be out of a job.”

An ensemble member with a longstanding Off Loop troupe describes what he and his friends call the Classic Theater Date. “That’s the courting ritual, unique to theater people, where you meet someone at a party or whatever and for your first ‘date’ you go see them in their play and then go out for drinks with them afterwards,” he says. “I met a girl at a bar once who was going to see the play I was in the next night by pure coincidence. It was a Classic Theater Date of destiny. I got naked in the play, which really made me think, This doesn’t happen to normal people.”

Another actor describes a particular production a few years back as “insane. Everyone was hooking up with everyone, and there were affairs and just general debauchery. There were more scandals going on backstage than there were onstage.” Which is saying a lot, considering the show was Jerry Springer: The Opera.

One theater artist who met her husband in a show wonders if it’s hereditary, as her parents met via showmance as well. But despite that track record, she offers a note of caution. “If it doesn’t work out, you have to keep coming back to work with that person. I know actors who’ve quit shows over failed showmance,” she says.

And yet, she notes, there are work-arounds. “To avoid this potential hazard, many will wait it out for the closing night. ‘We waited till after the show closed’ is kind of a little badge of honor showmance couples like to wear to demonstrate their professionalism, but I swear this waiting can turn them into 13-year-olds in the meantime,” she says. “It leads to a Wet Hot American Summer–esque, ‘last day of camp’ high-tension race to bed with your crush after the cast party. And if it’s been a long run, chances are your chosen cast party ‘date’ has changed a few times from table read to closing night.”

And then there are those occasions when real life bleeds onto the stage rather than the other way around, as it did for one acquaintance who related a sort of anti-showmance tale. “We were doing Angels in America in college. I was Louis and my boyfriend was Prior,” he says, referencing the troubled gay couple at the heart of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play. “It wasn’t the best relationship, and one night right before we went on for the Louis and Prior breakup scene, he said to me, ‘Let’s make it real tonight.’ And then we weren’t dating when we got offstage.”

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