In Which Everyone's an Actor and Our Relationships are the Stage

"Death on the Battlefield" by Stefano della Bella

In each relationship, there exists the private and the public. And in each of those, we have different ways in which we project how we want to be seen in the world. In this way, our relationships are reminiscent of the theatre, which has a front of house (performance space) and backstage (technical and rehearsal space). The backstage and performance space correlate with private and public spheres, respectively, that are defined by each individual relationship. The questions are: who are the audience, how do you establish the rules of the performance, and why do we perform?

These kinds of spaces, our relationships, exist without clear finales and without clear start dates. There is no set performance run. The roles each person play might shift, and the constrictions and sets of rules might change over time, like an intricate improvisational score. It is often unspoken, but there is a decision made on what you as a unit choose to share with the outside world, what you present to the audience. But even more important is the question of who you choose to define as the outside world.

Is that outside world your larger friend group? Social media? Your family? Or the generic big wide world out there? Each relationship has its own exterior spaces and unspoken rules, so the way you and your mother decide how to perform your relationship is probably vastly different than the way you and a coworker might.

That dichotomy can exist within the relationship itself, as well. In these types of relationships, each person becomes both audience and performer. Sometimes that leads to performing the idea of the relationship for each other more than for outside eyes. Still, maintaining the performance for each other doesn’t preclude the existence of a personal backstage area into which the actors can step. There, they have a different way of relating to each other—perhaps more private, intimate, or difficult—where issues are hashed out beyond the bounds of the stage, and where both actors are performing roles outside of their own personal sense of self.

There are different levels of privacy within any given relationship, an understanding of which can give clear direction about when to step into the backstage, the more intimate sphere, or when to stay on the stage and continue the performance. Stepping into the backstage space is akin to hitting pause on a TV show, or the intermission at a theatre. It give all parties a chance to refresh their memory on how they are supposed to interact during a performance.

Often, actors return to the backstage area because the rules of their performance have become unclear. And for clarity, the performance space, or front of house area, we’ve been discussing harbors the daily operations of the relationship. It’s the space all parties typically exist in as they go about their day. When people step into that backstage area together, probably privately without any audience observers, that time can be used to discuss or argue over what exactly the performance is, as defined by both parties. With full knowledge that they will need to go back and continue the performance, it's obvious that the goal is being able to go back on stage with a shared sense of the next lines, or at least the next scene.

These actors are building their relationship’s specific rules based not only on the constrictions and restrictions they place on themselves, but also the assumed expectations of their audience. To continue with the metaphor here, if the audience is expecting Othello and they get Legally Blonde, they will be confused and unhappy and probably write up a terrible review. Therefore, it's typically important for the people in the relationship to make sure it lines up with outside expectations.

The need to step off-stage for a ‘rehearsal’ or ‘notes’ often arises when there is a shift in the relationship. Perhaps it’s the awkward time in which a person is navigating the transition from childhood to adulthood, and all family relationships need new rules and ways of existing in personal and public spaces. Or it could be the shift from friendship into a more romantic or sexual relationship.

These kinds of transitions are often the most obvious times in which a return to backstage can be useful, but this isn’t to discount smaller moments when expectations don't align with actions. For example: picture yourself choosing between telling someone outright what your expectations are and having a private chat about it, versus continuing on acting the way you always have without addressing the issue. In Option One, we see a moment in which you are deciding to return to the backstage. Option Two is staying on the stage and continuing the performance, despite the possibility of miscommunication and the anxiety of mismatched expectations.

Particularly in the sense that most relationships don't have clear endings, merely transitions, figuring out the changes in the rules of the scene becomes a key aspect of how to relate to each other. Sometimes those changes are discovered on the fly, and the new roles have to be defined in the moment. If the audience is outside the relationship, they may even be able to see the moments when the performers lose track of their new roles and ways of relating to each other. If the audience is also the performers, they have to to shut off the knowledge of those private spaces left for rehearsals, costume changes, lighting cues, etc. They have to allow themselves to be charmed and exist in the joint space of performer and audience.  

We are all doing this daily. Navigating the differing spaces in which we exist with each other and how to perform that for others. Performance is ingrained in us, grouped in with the manners and decorum we are taught as children. It is a way to protect ourselves and establish spheres of operation, like work spaces verses home life. Some people don’t want their audience to know that they are much kinder and soft-hearted than they show. Some relationships protect these secrets by acting differently. Think about your own circles of friends: you do it, too. You are doing it right now.