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Intimacy and the Theater

Everybody seems to want intimacy, at least on stage; one advocate recently declared that “intimacy” should be one of the values that replace “excellence” and “growth” as a measure of a theater’s success. But what precisely do we mean? Most people these days understand intimacy to be: 1.) A euphemism for sex, 2.) A synonym for love, 3.) Physical closeness, 4.) Emotional closeness—or some combination of all four. I’ll assume that most theater people are not pushing for more sex on stage (with the possible exception of Thomas Bradshaw, whose ironically-titled Intimacy was an explicit look at amateur pornographers in the suburbs). But four current shows in New York—two on Broadway, one Off-Broadway, and one in a public park—have raised some intriguing questions about how and whether the various conceptions of intimacy interconnect.


How much does physical closeness in a theater translate into feelings of emotional closeness?


Scenes From A Marriage
At the beginning of Scenes From a Marriage, Belgian director Ivo van Hove’s extraordinary stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s forty-year-old television miniseries, Johann declares himself “a fabulous lover. Right, Marianne?” His wife doesn’t reply. At the end of the play, they are lying on the floor when he says to her: “I think in my own selfish, imperfect way that I love you. And that you love me in your own emotional, imperfect way.” It is three hours and maybe thirty years later, and, if we’ve learned nothing else, we understand that intimacy between Johan and Marianne is—maybe not outright hell, maybe not torture—but certainly ambivalent and complicated.

six actors kissing on stage
Scenes from A Marriage (the Johans and Mariannes), photograph by Jan Versweyveld.

But the audience at New York Theatre Workshop has been on their own intimacy journey, and it is an unusual one. In the first act, van Hove has reconfigured the space so that it is divided into three separate theaters. There are three separate pairs of actors portraying Johann and Marianne in their thirties, in their forties and in their fifties. Each of the Johans and Mariannes repeats their particular scene of Act I three times, each time for one-third of the audience. We move from one scene to the next. The result is that each scene is played to some sixty-five theatergoers at a time, rather than the full two hundred. When Johan3 tells Marianne3 in Act I, Scene 3 that he is leaving her for another woman, they are in a bed that is inches away from the nearest theatergoer, and only a few feet away from the most distant. The staging of Act I prompts the question: How much does physical closeness in a theater translate into feelings of emotional closeness?

During a thirty-minute intermission, the separate playing areas are removed, and for Act II the full audience is ushered into one large space, with seats around the periphery. We watch all three Johans interact with all three Mariannes—first telling her he’s broken up with the other woman, then trying to seduce her, then arguing with her, then physically fighting her as she takes divorce papers out of a briefcase. For close to half an hour, all six performers talk simultaneously—a cacophony—and they roam the stage like a battlefield, not always in pairs, not necessarily with the same partner as in Act I. Chaos ensues. We may feel like spectators watching a gladiator sport, but isn’t their combativeness and incoherence a form of intimacy too?

Love Letters
In many ways, the Broadway production of A.R. Gurney’s two-character Love Letters seems the exact opposite of the Off-Broadway Scenes From A Marriage. The two actors—Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow (for the first month of the run)—sit on sturdy chairs at simple tables at the edge of an empty stage, facing an audience in 1,069 unmovable seats. The audience doesn’t move, and neither do the actors. The actors read directly from the scripts, never look at one another, and never get up from their chairs. Their characters, Andrew Makepeace Ladd III and Melissa Gardner, who begin their correspondence in the second grade and keep it up for half a century, never marry. Yet more than one critic explicitly called the play an "intimate drama." In this context, "intimate" could simply mean a drama with a small number of characters, but I think the phrase was clearly used in praise; most critics embraced the production, including me.

Two actors on stage
Love Letters (Mia Farrow and Brian Dennehy), photograph by Carol Rosegg.

There are three reasons why I suspect people come away from the Brooks Atkinson Theater feeling as if they’ve had an intimate experience. The first, to be fair, is how engaging these characters (and these performers) are, as we witness a relationship and two lifetimes unfold before us, in much the way that the Richard Linklater film Boyhood, or Michael Apted’s documentary series Up allow us to see time telescoped. The second may reflect our rapport with familiar faces. One of the characteristics of contemporary American society, for better or for worse, is the sense of intimacy we develop with individuals we’ve never actually met—i.e. celebrities. The third reason, though, is more likely in this case: the simplicity of the Love Letters production serves as welcome contrast to the usual fare on Broadway. Writing about a different play, the New Yorker critic Hilton Als observed recently that Broadway versions of shows typically “drown out language in favor of production: glittery sets, prancing actors.”

This Is Our Youth
Als was talking about Kenneth Lonergan’s This is Our Youth. Compared to the same production in a smaller house at Steppenwolf in Chicago, the play, he writes, “has lost some of its intimacy. Everything is in medium shot, and the actors have to compensate for the size of the space, their voices more strained, their manner more graphic and frenetic.”

It’s interesting that several other critics also talk about this loss of intimacy as a consequence of the transfer into the larger space. The content of the play could be read as a story about the loss of intimacy, and the inadequate efforts to regain it. Shortly after the play begins, we learn that Warren’s (Michael Cera) father has kicked him out of the house, ostensibly because Warren’s pot-smoking has stunk up the luxury digs; we eventually piece together that things haven’t been the same in his family since Warren’s sister was murdered by her boyfriend six years earlier. Dennis (Kieran Culkin) has his own place, he explains, because his parents are paying him off to stay away from them. Given this void, the semi-abusive relationship between Warren and Dennis (Dennis is always insulting Warren; they frequently rough-house) can be seen both as a search for a kind of surrogate family intimacy—and as an expression of the warped sort of intimacy they have learned in their childhood households. 

Two actors on stage
This Is Our Youth (Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera), photograph by Brigitte Lacombe.

With this interpretation, the lost of intimacy in the larger space can almost be viewed as a directorial comment on the relationships in the play.

Much time is taken up as well with the interaction between Warren and the girl to whom he is attracted, Jessica (Tavi Gevinson). The attraction is mutual, but in Act II, when they meet again in Dennis’ apartment after a night at the Plaza Hotel in which both lose their virginity, Jessica is furious because Warren talked about her with Dennis.

I just should have figured that you would like rush off to tell your friends that you fucked me.


 whereas I might be more inclined to be a little more discreet about it till I found out where I stood with you.

Of course, more is going on here than a feeling of betrayal, but Jessica’s complaint harkens back to a time when intimacy came accompanied with an expectation of privacy—when intimacy and privacy were nearly the same thing. That is even less the case now than it was when Lonergan wrote This Is Our Youth in 1996. Many rightfully decry this whittling away of privacy in intimate affairs. There are, though, some advantages (See this article about how privacy was used until the 1970s as a way for the courts to ignore cases of domestic violence.) One could argue that all the talk about the need for intimacy on stage is in part a result of this increasing merger between the private and the public in our lives.

I Am Me
Can theatrical intimacy be anything but a mere simulacrum of actual intimacy? I wondered this as I trailed behind actress Nicole Kontolefa in Madison Square Park, following her from the Admiral David Farragut Monument at the north end of the park to the original Shake Shack at the southern end, from Fifth Avenue filled with buses on the western park border to the marble steps of the state courthouse across Madison Avenue on the east side of the park. As other people in the park idly munched on fries or sifted through the Sunday paper, I was one of more than a dozen theatergoers attending Kontolefa’s performance of I Am Me, a monologue by Alexandra Chichkanova, a Russian playwright who committed suicide in 2012 at age twenty-nine. I Am Me, translated into English by John Freedman, is the first of Chichkanova’s works to be performed in the United States; on subsequent weekends this month, Kontolefa will perform it again in Central Park, then Prospect Park, and finally (in Russian) at Brighton Beach.

an actor in a park
I Am Me (Nicole Kontolefa in Madison Square Park), photograph by Jonathan Mandell.

In the text that Kontolefa performs, an unnamed character offers feverish speculation about the people in a bus that passes by, and the people who subsequently take out the library book she is the first to read. She talks about a movie that shows a soldier hugging his wife goodbye, and confesses that when she’s on the phone sometimes she only pretends to be having a conversation with the person on the other end; instead she reads a book, which is why she feels lucky that few phones have video screens. During the performance, the actress hugs one theatergoer, dances with another, plays patty-cake with a third. How often are theatergoers asked to employ all of their senses, including the sense of touch? By the end of the hour, whether or not we’ve all been touched by the playwright’s words, nearly all of us have been touched by the performer—which, on a beautiful day in a park crowded with strangers, feels like an intimate act.

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If HowlRound pieces were all of this quality -- instead of generally heartfelt, but ultimately poorly considered and factually dubious shouts (howls!) about various things -- this site would be my first destination each morning.

Really enjoyed this essay. The structure of "I am Me" sounds *too* intimate for me. When I attend theatre (unless it's improv), I expect to be mentally stimulated--but physically passive. The idea of the actor touching the audience members is disturbing, but maybe the message she and playwright are trying to convey is more powerful for that reason.