The Craft of Romance
(originally written for www.brainsofminerva.com)
Caveat: This article is not for people who can easily fall in love with their acting partners and create hot, juicy chemistry.
For the rest of us: Even though there are classes in town that would have you believe all you have to do is show up and say the lines – there is no mistaking the chemistry that occurs when you’re in the presence of two people who are in love. Everyone in the room can feel it, and the couple is a pleasure to be around. Unless you are a jealous person, then they are just annoying to be around. There is an unmistakable thread of energy between the two people in love that cannot be denied.
Sure it’s fun when we know the two actors are really in love (Pitt/Jolie, Tracy/Hepburn, Bogart/Bacall). Yet, it’s equally mesmerizing when we don’t connect the people in real life (Gable/Leigh, Gyllenhaal/Ledger, Winslet/DiCaprio). We all want to experience that heightened sensation of falling in love, and for some of us – that happens vicariously in a darkened theater (or watching TV in our underwear on our couch). Our job, and our work as actors, is not only to make people believe this state of loving – but to allow the audience to feel it with us.
When you get that chemistry for free, then Hallelujah! and more power to you. I urge my actors to not fool around with their scene partners, because oftentimes the consummation of the love dissipates that precious longing. Sex can oftentimes ruin the chemistry (and makes it uncomfortable for all involved if it doesn’t work out). That said, I’ve had two marriages come out of my acting class -thankfully, the dating didn’t begin until after the scene was complete! At least, that’s what they told me. While acting, there is something wonderfully freeing about knowing that you can ‘love’ the person across from you, and not have to deal with the responsibilities and clean-up when the work is over. To be that vulnerable and intimate with someone and then not have to worry about who is going to call who next is really delightful! Basically, you can move into the fantasy of the other being perfect, without having to do any of the tough work that a real relationship can necessitate.
In the late Michael Shurtleff’s wonderful book, “Audition”, he asks his actors to ask themselves “Where is the love?” in every scene. In that way, even if it’s the absence of love -we are accessing the most powerful forces in the universe. Even in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” there must be chemistry. We must believe that deep down George and Martha love one another or it’s too brutal to watch.
So how do we create this magic when we don’t really love, and sometimes actively dislike, the other person? I use tools from tantric exercises to Gestalt processes – it really depends on the actors, and the depths to which they want to go.
One of my favorite exercises – because it is so practical and juicy – is a tantric posture called “yab-yum”. Fully clothed, I have the two actors face each other while sitting on the floor. Actor #1 wraps his legs around Actor #2, facing each other. Actor #2 does the same. They each place their arms around the mid-section so that they can feel the other breathing. The two actors begin by aligning their breaths, inhaling and exhaling at the same time. They also begin soul gazing (looking gently into each others eyes, not staring). Initially some laughter and embarrassment comes forward, but that is usually quickly moved through and replaced by a deeper opening and vulnerability to the other. I have seen two actors, who openly disliked one another, moved to tears and deeply connected on a soul level after doing this process for five minutes.
Another exercise is having the actors soul gaze (either in yab yum or holding hands) and I ask them questions such as: “Where in the other person can you see the loneliness of their childhood?” “Where do you see their dreams they’ve not realized?” “Where do you see the heartbreak”, “Where do you see yourself?”, etc. This allows whatever walls the other person may have to come tumbling down as they feel really seen by their partner. It also allows the actors to really see the vulnerable and loving Spirit of the person in front of them. We are forever linked by these moments. When they look at each other, they are fully present and available, vulnerable and open, the sexual energy is flowing.
When we date someone we are looking for similarities. While the old phrase “opposites attract” has some validity, it’s usually the external differences it’s talking about. We often look for someone that can understand our wounds because they’ve experienced similar ones. For example, if our issue is abandonment we tend to attract someone that can either salve that wound or pour salt into it (depending on our level of emotional health). If it is a healthy love partner, they will understand and assuage our issues. If it’s the “wrong one” they will push our buttons. The great love stories tend to be good fits, not ill-suited (usually star-crossed however, but that is the writers issue, not ours). If you imagine your acting partner as knowing all your hurts and insecurities and having similar ones themselves, you will have both trust and compassion. We aspire to heal, and be healed, by the other – a trust.
Relationships are also tested in the crucible of conflict. If romantic scenes have no conflict – you’re probably watching porn. When you think about it, the people that you love most in life tend to be the ones that you’ve worked through the most “issues” with. Working through issues is what deepens a relationship. Do an improv from the characters past where there was an insurmountable conflict that they worked through. You’ll see how this experience brings them closer and makes them even more vulnerable and available. In some love scenes the characters initially have defenses up, but these exercises allow for their attraction to be unmistakable.
I would urge the actor to stay away from objectives like “to seduce” unless they’re just going for a quick lay in the imaginary circumstances. It tends to lead to crass and unlikeable performances. I would urge the actors to look for action verbs like “to connect”, “to join”, “to merge”, etc. Every romantic scene is a chance to connect to a ‘“soulmate”.
Creating chemistry in an audition situation is more challenging – you can’t really ask the casting director to sit on the floor with you in “yab-yum”! Wouldn’t it be fun if we could??!! Often, in features and television, they will bring you in for a “chemistry read”(to see who has the best chemistry with the attached “star”). In both of these instances, I urge you to always look for the things you love about the person you’re reading with (their smile, their power, their choice of hair color, etc.). In life, the first thing we tend to notice about others is their flaws. By looking for the things about the other that you love – you can create a safe heart-opening space in both of you. Be playful! Be flirtatious! Don’t be vulgar! If time allows, let yourself imagine the similar challenges from your past to be projected onto your reader. Finally, If the first thing you notice about yourself is your flaws…then by all means look for the loving presence in your own eyes! Always, ALWAYS, feel beautiful – because you are!