Before The Water Gets Cold, to be staged by Smoking Gum Theatre this August, is an experiment in sound, movement, and poetics, an unjudging exploration of love, romance, and loneliness in the digital age, and the modern struggle of monogamy.
In this series I will be grappling with some of the show’s themes, as well as its unique process, and do both with as much pretentious waffle as I can manage.
Part One: What is love? (Baby, don’t hurt me no more.)
As has been joked about multiple times in our rehearsal room (usually by me) I, the writer of Before the Water Gets Cold, have never been in a relationship. I’ve never dated someone. In fact, if you accept the rule that for an outing to be considered a ‘date’ it must be unanimous amongst all parties, then I’ve never been on a date either. I am the only person in our cast or crew for whom this is true. And yet, here I am, writing a play about the complexities of romance and intimacy in the digital age. Go figure.
Is dwelling on this fact self indulgent? Probably. Is it self-pitying, sure, it’s whiny and childish, and a clear indicator as to my own romantic insecurities that it comes up so much (again, mostly because of me) in this show’s process. That said, I think it is worth exploring how one goes about writing a show about love and loneliness without knowing, as they say, ‘what love is’.
Where do we get our ideas about love and romance?
In truth I didn’t need to look terribly far or get terribly experiential when conceptualising this piece, because the story’s been told to me so many times it’s written into my bones. As soon as we’re old enough to comprehend narrative, society bestows us with the gift of the heteromantic love story– the fairytale, then the bildunsgroman, the romcom, the paperback novel, the pornographics and erotics. We’re hard pressed to find a film or TV show that doesn’t engage in romantic tropes or storylines–and really, we don’t especially want to find them. True love, boy-meets-girl, happily-ever-after, til-death-do-us-part, are all things we are brought up believing in.
But, do these ideas come from the way we as humans have conducted our social lives? Or, does the way we construct our lives come out of these discursive frames we’ve created to make sense of our desires? Which came first–to thoroughly mangle an idiom–the chicken, or the movie about the chicken that taught the chicken its primary goal in life was to lay an egg?
The show is littered with things I’ve heard friends say about their partners, to their partners, to me about dating and romance, about past relationships and what went wrong; ideas from movies, TV shows, songs, plays, poems, novels; things musicians and songwriters have said, things the internet has said, things said to me or to others on dating sites or apps, and a healthy smattering of gender studies academia. It is, in that sense, the “biggest” thing I have evern written–and yet its subject matter is incredibly small.
Really, love as we perceive it is just the over-complication of survival instincts over time–safety in numbers, proliferation of the species. Our lizard brain isn’t so much concerned with self-actualisation, but instead with not dying. But, over time, we’ve given the instinct names, given it nuance, given it emotional resonance that often renders its practical applications obsolete.
In answer to the question ‘what is love’, the only accurate response I’ve come up with thus far is “I actually don’t give a fuck”. It’s something we’ve pieced together from fragments throughout history, something that is not found in its achievement, but in our striving for it. Really, love and relationships have never been the most interesting thing about writing this script, for me. What captured me from the beginning is what we do when we don’t have access to love.
What is loneliness?
When love is so frequently defined by human connection, it stands to reason that its antithesis is a lack of connection: loneliness. If we don’t feel loved, we are told, then we’re lonely. If we don’t give love, we are unfeeling and bound to end up alone. That doesn’t explain, though, the sense of underlying isolation that accompanies most of us throughout our lives. There is a kind of loneliness that doesn’t depend, necessarily, on who you’re with or who you love. It is, instead, the loneliness that hits us when we check our messages and find nothing new, when we run into a distant friend from years ago, when we stand at a busstop late at night. It’s the loneliness that makes us do stupid stuff, things we’d never ordinarily do–makes us push away a friend or a loved one, makes us enforce our own isolation.
The question I want to ask–of me, of you, of the universe–is, how do I stop feeling that? In my research, and in my writing, I have come up short for an answer. A WikiHow article entitled How To Stop Being Lonely (With Pictures) says: “Negative thinking can lead to a negative reality … If you think negatively, your perception of the world will be negative, too. If you walk into a party thinking no one will like you and you won’t have fun, you’ll spend the entire party on the wall, making zero connections and not having fun.”
Maybe, as Bo Burnham suggests in his 2016 show Make Happy, “to be able to live without an audience” is the answer to a happy life. Maybe it is our insatiable need for an audience that makes us lonely–though we can broadcast every moment of our lives to friends and strangers alike, though we can feel loved and validated digitally by those people, maybe it will never be enough. Maybe it’s a spiritual loneliness–the best thing about having a God is knowing you’re never alone. Maybe we’ve just become perpetually dissatisfied, having been sold an idea few people have any hope of attaining all our lives.
Once again, I have no clue what the answer is. Yes, this show is about a relationship, its rise and fall, its flaws and its gifts–but mostly it’s about me, reaching to understand why I am the way I am, why we are the way we are. As with all of us, I am constantly reach for answers and missing by a fraction. Which is annoying, because I want to write a show you can get something out of, something more than a facsimile of your own frustrations. That said, we’re still six weeks out, so who knows what will happen.