The Virtues of Gossip

Can theatre gossip bond the people who share it?


Illustration by Jason Stout

Well, do I have some news for you! A little scoop that you're just not gonna believe. I wouldn't share this with everyone, but ….

Gossip – you know, that backdoor tittle-tattle about who's doing what with whom, and what went down when This One ran into That One at the party thrown by The Other One, and why So-and-So really left Such-and-Such? – well, it turns out that gossip is actually good for you. Constructive. Beneficial. Better than Paleo.

Crazy, right? I mean, people have been running down gossip since somebody left an apple core in the Garden, how it's just talking smack behind folks' backs, how it's spreading rumors and lies like a social disease – just as nasty and twice as hurtful. To hear these pillars of rectitude tell it, those who traffic in gossip might as well be peddling horse to kiddies on a grade-school playground. That's the level of degenerate we're talking here.

But I don't buy it. See, I'm in theatre, and if there's one thing theatre people like better than the spotlight – better than applause, even – it's gossip. I mean, it's right up there with the post-show cocktail (and only a smidge behind the pre-show cocktail). Show folk have to spend a lotta time confined in a dressing room together – the hour, give or take, before each show is a little enforced sentence, like jail time – and one thing that's very natural for them to do while they're locked in this cell together is talk. Now, some of them will talk about what any people in a civil setting would discuss: the weather, work, weekend plans. But the overwhelming majority of people in a dressing room before a theatrical production are going to be, yes, actors. And while I've certainly met a fair share of actors who are courteous and considerate, the bulk of the breed when they're staring into a mirror for an hour, meticulously making up their faces, revving themselves up to take the stage and dazzle the crowd, well, they like chat with a bit more buzz. They dig the dish. Some even crave it, though they'd never let that show. When the dirt gets passed around their way, they're all like, "Well, I'll have a little, just to be polite."

There are those who'll say anyone born dying to get onstage in front of hordes of people to belt out show tunes or Shakespeare also has a genetic predisposition to bitchiness, and that's all there is to this showbiz itch for buzz. But now having spent more of my life in dressing rooms than in churches, I've come round to a different view. See, the thing to remember about gossip is that it's just breaking news. It's the dee-dee-dee-dee flash of something notable having happened, and who doesn't want to be there when "we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming for this important bulletin"?

That's the thing we all share with The New York Times, NPR, CNN, and Lois Lane: a jonesing for the scoop, the latest development, the "this just in" – even when the news coming in makes us miserable (maybe especially when it makes us miserable): an act of violence, act of God, the death of [insert name of beloved pop icon or tube idol from childhood]. Being in the know matters to us, and our personal antennae naturally swivel to any source that can serve up the skinny. Gossip does that pretty much like mainstream media does, albeit on a local level – make that hyperlocal level, as it delivers news flashes from inside a community of intimates: your blood kin, cubicle cousins, beer buds, other actors, … the folks you know really, really, really well.

As with atoms sharing electrons, gossip will bond the people who share it. That’s just chemistry. That’s science.

You can't underestimate the intimacy of the info where gossip is concerned. It's privileged, yes? Like what's in those daily briefings that the President-elect says he's not so keen on, or the files that Jim Phelps would get prior to one of his impossible missions. Not broadcast over the airwaves for all to hear. Not common knowledge. Other people may know it, but not that many, and the fact that it's coming to you the way a secret does, person-to-person, strictly entre nous, reinforces the idea that you belong to a select circle. Now, how boss is that? What a goose to the old ego to be invited into the private club, to be trusted with this inside dope. You feel better about yourself just listening to gossip.

And if you're the one sharing the dope? The stroke to the ego is just as substantial. You get the satisfaction of making someone feel good by bringing him or her into the in crowd, conferring that trust, that sense of belonging. It's comparable to feeding someone in your home, and the gratification that comes with them licking their lips; the sharing of dish is like the breaking of bread.

Then once the breaking news is broken, once the two of you (or three or however many are present when all is revealed) are fully up on the lowdown, it'll act as a catalyst to fuse gossiper and gossipee(s) together. As with a pair of atoms that have shared valence electrons, it will bond you. That's just chemistry. That's science. So if nothing else, you've gotta give gossip credit for that. And I can bear witness to the power of that bond in the dressing room lab. I've seen the tales told out of school there that forge intimacy among actors offstage go on to translate into enhanced intimacy among characters onstage, feeding the illusion that the relationships being observed are close as blood.

Of course, the benefits of gossip aren't limited to the connection of the secret sharers. It can extend to the person or persons being gossiped about – a notion that may have just caused a number of readers of this periodical to spit whatever beverage they were sipping all over the page or screen. Yeah, yeah, the conventional dirt on dirt is that it's nothing but trash talk, spiteful hearsay and outright falsehoods concerned with only the worst kind of behavior and typically fueled by resentment and rancor for whoever's butt is being scuttled in the story getting spun. I won't say such gossip doesn't exist, but my sense is that you'll find it in about the same proportion as you will critics that are embittered failed artists whose sole aim is to tear down and stomp over the creations and careers of true artists. In both categories, character assassination is but a small part of the whole.

You might be surprised by the amount of what could be classified as "sensitive intel" on the gossip scene, information that hasn't been widely circulated due to its particularly delicate nature – say, the breakup of a relationship, a personal health crisis, the loss of a job, a death in the family. This is the sort of news that someone might want others to know about – especially friends or close colleagues – but finds it a little painful to introduce into casual chat, as in "Hey, guys, I just got laid off from my job of umpteen years, and I don't know how I'm gonna make rent next month!" You can see why a person might not feel like putting that kind of thing up for public consumption, and as long as it's just making the rounds via the grapevine, it's gossip. But it's gossip that can be useful. No, really.

Here's the scene: You run into College Chum who you haven't seen in a dog's age. You smile, you hug. College Chum asks how you are, and you reel off all this news about how Amazingly Awesome your life is. Then you say, "But College Chum, what about you?" And you add enthusiastically, "How's [name of College Chum's sweetheart all through college and subsequent spouse of College Chum]?" Awkward silence. College Chum's face falls. Awkward silence broken by a sigh, which makes clear before a word is said that what's coming next is Not Good. And College Chum tells you about being divorced. Or widowed. Or what it's like to be the spouse of someone in federal prison for insider trading. Whatever it is, it is indeed Not Good. And you can see how painful it is for College Chum to relive the Not-Goodness of it in telling you. And that this isn't the first time College Chum has had to retell it. It's one more time, the latest of many, and each time it has to be retold, it takes one more little piece out of College Chum's soul. You feel bad for asking the question. College Chum just plain feels bad. You wince, you hug. And … scene.

Now, it's nothing to beat yourself up over. As a faux pas goes, this was innocence itself. In unexpectedly encountering an old friend, you were caught up in the exuberance of the moment and couldn't have reasonably anticipated your friend's life being marred by misfortune in whatever way it was. It was uncomfortable, embarrassing, maybe even regrettable, but lacking malice. Still, it might well have left you wishing you'd known about College Chum's situation before the two of you crossed paths.

Alternative scene: You're having a drink with College Roommate who, after ordering another round, leans in to you and says, "Have you heard about College Chum?" You shake your head. College Roommate proceeds to tell you about College Chum being divorced. Or widowed. Or the whole prison for insider trading thing. Whatever. Anyway, later you run into College Chum, and you smile, you hug, then you tell College Chum, "I'm so sorry to hear about what happened. Please let me know what I can do to help. I'm here for you." College Chum smiles, another hug. And … scene.

How much better is the second scene? Seriously. It's gossip that allowed that "sensitive intel" to reach people when it couldn't be conveyed by the source, and it has not only helped you avoid inadvertently pouring salt into the wound of an old friend, but also made you into an agent of compassion and comfort. Thanks to it putting you in the know, you haven't caused a problem but have possibly helped allay one. You've gone from making two of you feel bad to making both feel better. It's enabled you to be proactive in the life of someone you care for.

This time, it's providing solace for a loved one who's hurting. Next time, maybe it'll be stepping in to keep a loved one from hurting himself. (Not all of those dressing room "Have you heard …"s about some local Li'l Indiscreet showing up at performances or rehearsals in an inappropriate altered state have been waved off with smirks and giggles; some have been met with grave concern and led to life-saving interventions.) In other words, you can find real meat in gossip; it ain't just dessert in that dish.

That's not to say that the theatre's buzz-meisters and scuttlebutt-lers don't savor a little schadenfreude when told of the downfall of some notorious reprobate or comeuppance of a pompous ass – or that their audience won't be eager to spread the news to the next pair of ears on the tittle-tattle trail. That's just human nature. However, the next time you hear some sharpened tongues clucking over the wicked propogation of tales behind folks' backs, just let 'em know how much good gossip can and does do. It's the dish that keeps on giving.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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