Theater and Intimacy: A Conversation with Caitlin Ryan O’Connell & Xandra Clark

Photo by Ashley Garrett

The following is distilled from a conversation shared between director Caitlin Ryan O’Connell, theatermaker Xandra Clark and myself over lunch. Xandra had just performed the first full showing of  her play Polylogues, and Caitlin had just come over to my apartment with chicken and donuts. 

Rachel Kauder Nalebuff: Xandra, tell me about Polylogues.

Xandra Clark: For the last year and a half, I’ve been interviewing dozens of people about their non-monogamous relationships. I’ve edited these conversations into short stories. During the show, I perform those stories: I listen to the edited audio in my ear and speak the words exactly as I hear them.

RKN: How did you order the stories?

XC: There are characters whose stories we return to and other one-off monologues throughout. Overall, there’s a loose arc that traces peoples’ search for an alternative from their traditional relationships, their struggles along the way—particularly around power and privilege, and then a coming to terms. Audiences come in thinking this show is going to be about threesomes, and the show does go there, and there’s a lot of celebration and laughter, but ultimately, it’s a show about love. It’s about the work it takes to be intentional and respectful with our decisions and our communication in relationships.

Caitlin Ryan O’Connell: Have you read Emergent Strategy by Adrienne Marie Brown? I would lend you my copy but…

RKN: I have it!

CRO: There’s this one part about liberated relationships that made me think of Xandra’s show. She (Brown) talks about the practice of radical honesty and also allowing relationships to evolve and transform beyond the constructs we feel bound by.

RKN:How did Polylogues begin?

XC: I had gone through a really hard breakup. I was heartbroken, and I needed to know how to make relationships work. I had so many questions! Research was my way out of that labyrinth. All About Love by bell hooks was especially pivotal, and I started talking to friends of mine in non-traditional relationships. When I shared what I learned with others, I realized how many other people had the same questions as I did. So I kept digging and conducting more interviews, and I realized just how much wasn’t being talked about but was needing to be talked about. Putting together a play seemed like the only option.

RKN: How has Polylogues changed how you think about relationships? Is there a line from an interview you carry with you?

XC: One woman I interviewed spoke about commitment. She talked about how commitment in a partnership is the commitment to embrace your partner changingand to embrace your own changing.

RKN: Imagine if that’s what people said during wedding vows.

RKN: Do you think we are having a cultural ‘moment’ about intimacy right now? From Esther Perel to the work we’re all making, is there a pattern? Or have we always talked about intimacy? What is your grand theory?

CRO: I don’t want to make a grand theory about anything…

XC: Oh, me neither. I’m pro-questions and pro-conversation.

RKN: I’m asking you to!

XC: Okay, here’s an observation: with an increased fear of the other, I think we become more removed from ourselves. We contain so many forms of ‘otherness’ within, so when we push others away, we push ourselves away.

CRO: I’m doing a lot of work to re-educate myself right now. I’ve been in school my whole life, but after 2016 I realized there is so much I never learned about our country. My education and privilege allowed me to be blind to so much. I couldn’t fully comprehend how we got here and I knew it was my job to catch up. This residency I have with New Georges right now has allowed me to make a thing based on twenty non-fiction books I’ve been spending time with for a year now. And with this re-education comes new value systems about everything. Including intimacy. Especially if I’m going to be a person asking to be listened to, I need to know how to do that responsibly. It takes a lot of self awareness.

XC: I was thinking about that so much—how do you make a self-aware one-person show? There are a few moments when the people whose stories I perform speak my name. I want audience members to remember that all the conversations are filtered through me. Nothing is objective, I’m the one they’re speaking to. And the use of headphones is crucial too—that I’m listening to the recordings and relaying the stories, rather than performing in a more traditional sense. I love Anna Deavere Smith’s work, but I don’t want to fully disappear into these characters. In Polylogues, the audience is watching me, and specifically me trying to listen. You’re watching that effort.

CRO: Active listening as a task is so thrilling. This tasked-base theater is the theater we need. Because it’s actually alive and happening!

RKN: You’re demonstrating, mechanically, what you hope happens for audiences. That we’ll leave that room and be more open to listening to different kinds of love.


All About Love, bell hooks
Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Marie Brown
The Company She Keeps, Celine Condorelli
Opening Up, by Tristan Taormino
The work of Esther Perel and Alain de Botton

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