I’ve always been a sucker for a good romance. An embarrassingly significant portion of my misspent youth involved watching romantic comedies with my friends and longing for the day that Freddie Prinze Jr. would walk into my school, pull me out of social Siberia and announce to everyone that he’d always been in love with me. A rousing choreographed number would follow this whole scene, of course. You can see I had a flair for the dramatic, so it’s no surprise to anyone that I spent the rest of my free time taking part in a variety of theatrical productions.
Being involved in countless shows, I’m not ashamed to admit that I have fallen prey to more than one “showmance” in my time. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it is a romance that develops between two people during a production, be it theatre, television or movies. When I was in my early teens, suffering through braces and an unfortunate choice to get bangs, I would find myself crushing on the older actors in the leading roles who barely registered my existence. A misguided part of my brain was certain this was where my romantic future lay, and I dreamt of what it would be like to be noticed by them, to be the one they fell in love with every performance. Until finally, in one production all those years ago, my wish came true.
I auditioned for the play on a complete whim after days of agonizing over whether I would go at all. It was probably the most underprepared I have ever been at an audition, but somehow the director found it all endearing and cast me in the show.
At the first rehearsal, I met my castmates, including one in particular who sought me out. He was to play opposite me as my love interest. He politely shook my hand and told me he was looking forward to working with me before he bid me goodnight. He was tall, classically handsome and charming, like he’d just fallen out of a Ralph Lauren catalogue. He affected almost every girl in the cast and crew, whether they admitted it or not.
It was hard not to notice him. He was articulate, he held doors and he woredress shirts with cashmere sweaters. This was a far cry from the typical boys we were used to, in their offensive T-shirts and hoodies. He rarely socialized with other members of the cast, and his nature was quiet until he stepped onto the stage and came alive in his role. Passionate, reckless, romantic and smart, he played his part with such ease. We all watched him in awe from backstage, and even our director was excited by scoring such a stellar male lead. As rehearsals progressed, it was not surprising that I developed a crush.
I worked hard to fulfill my role opposite him as the love interest and devoted all of my free time to rehearsal and hanging out with my friends in the cast. During rehearsal downtime, we’d often sit together in the audience, which is exactly where one of the girls I’d become close friends with confessed her feelings for my onstage love interest. My heart sank. She couldn’t possibly have known about my crush, as I’d been careful not to mention it to anyone, choosing to pine in silence. The knot in my stomach tightened when she asked for my help to win him over, given my role as his fictional other half. If I refused, I risked losing her friendship, and even messier, I would have to figure out how to explain why I couldn’t help her — open can, worms everywhere. So, I agreed to help.
Rather than try to sort out my emotions, I threw myself full-tilt into the production and being with my show family. Whispers were circulating about our chemistry, and while I denied them, it did nothing to stop the rumor mill and only spurred me on. It was not my finest moment.
However, the more time went on and I got to know my onstage love, the more I actually got to know him. In doing so, I realized something very important: I hadn’t actually known him at all, and I certainly wasn’t infatuated with him. I was attracted to the character he played. My heart longed for his perfectly written stage self in the same way I longed for Heath Ledger’s Patrick Verona from “10 Things I Hate About You.” That was who gave me butterflies in my stomach. I was swooning over the words he spoke to me night after night and the passion he had been told to emote. The real guy was nothing like the man I was pining for.
When the show came to a close and for a short time after, we tried to meet up and hang out together as a group. But the thing that had ultimately bonded us was no longer, and we couldn’t recapture the same magic. The post-show grief hit me like a ton of bricks at the time. Because the end of a production is like the end of a good relationship, it hurt because it mattered.
I came out of my grief long enough to notice a real guy I’d been neglecting in favor of my fantasy man. In spite of the complete brush-off I’d been giving him for nearly two months, he’d come to see the show. Twice. He’d known how important it was to me. As it turns out, the romance I’d wanted had been right in front of me the whole time.
I know this all sounds like the basis for another “High School Musical” movie, and in truth, said guy and I split up a year later. But my first foray into showmance territory did leave its mark on me. I took away some very important lessons that helped me see things with clearer eyes when the opportunity to date a castmate came up again:
1. Your cast-mate is not their character
And neither are you. Any actor who is worth their salt will play the character so convincingly that they are transformed right before your eyes. For those few hours a night, they are the person that they play, taking on their emotions and experiences. But then, the curtain falls and they go back to being the person you may not have anything in common with. Get to know the person offstage and make sure you like them just as much.
2. Chemistry is not always transferrable
Just because you have electricity onstage doesn’t mean you’ll have it in reality. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, and it works out that you have just as much fire outside of the theatre. My married friends who began their relationships as showmances can attest to that. But it’s not always the case. That being said, it doesn’t mean you can’t forge a great friendship instead.
3. You’re too close to be objective
Ever heard the phrase, “It’s hard to see the forest through the trees?” In this case, it’s true. Just because you think this is a romance for the ages doesn’t mean it is. They may not even feel the same way about you. Always remember that objects in the mirror may appear closer than they really are.
4. It’s not worth ruining friendships over
My friend quickly recovered from her crush once our show wrapped, and we remained close for several years after. Neither of us ended up with that guy, and I’m glad we didn’t, since I would have missed out on a beautiful friendship.
5. There is no such thing as secrets backstage
Few secrets can be kept under wraps when you spend so many waking hours with a group of people. Rumors will start, but try not to get swept up in the excitement or let it sway your decisions. Just trust your gut and be sure you’re ready for all the scrutiny.
6. The show ends eventually
You’re in it, mind, body and soul. So while it may feel like the whole experience of the show and the people you’re with will last forever, it doesn’t. You will grieve and feel like you’ll never find something that good again, but ultimately, you will. It won’t be the same, but it will be fantastic in its own way.
It’s been years since my first showmance experience, but I like to think I’ve grown somewhat wiser in the romance department. My heart no longer flutters at the sound of every well-delivered romantic line. Unless it’s uttered by Heath Ledger in front of a 1964 Dodge Dart with a gorgeous apology guitar. Some things never change.