REALITY THEATER IN SAN FRANCISCO
by Karen D’Souza
Candy hearts and flowers are so passé in the age of Facebook, no? Silicon Valley couples are cordially invited to celebrate Cupid’s big day by vying to star in “How We First Met,” an evening of true confessions from online “be mines” to old-fashioned courtship.
Call it the “American Idol” of amour. Couples who win the competition will be interviewed live while actors re-create their first meeting in skits and songs. Part comedy, part romance and highly interactive, it’s a Valentine’s Day ritual that fills San Francisco’s 900-seat Herbst Theatre. Producers say the show, now in its ninth year, is such a hit because it’s so real.
“Transparency and openness are cool right now,” says Jill Bourque, the creator and host. “It’s sort of like reality TV and social networking sites. People want to tell their stories.”
Lynn and Carl Mortensen, who got their tickets from their daughters at Christmas, are among the contenders who have submitted their stories and are hoping to be picked in an online vote. Married for 35 years, the Menlo Park couple met on a singles ski trip. They hit it off because they both “speak science.” Why tell all?
“Truth is always more interesting than fiction,” says Carl, 64, a retired geophysicist.
Many lovebirds return every year. One couple entered three times before they got picked. Wooers have to be ready for their close-up because their faces will be projected onto a big screen.
“The audience wants to see the couples as much as the actors,” Bourque says. “They want to see how they react.”
In the era of YouTube, it’s all about sharing. If past generations coveted privacy, people today crave exposure. Sharing intimate details has become trendy.
“The audience is the star; they get to have their say,” Bourque says. “The techies seem to like us. Improv is the geekiest of comedy forms.”
But couples should be forewarned: The audience can be fickle.
“Sometimes they are in the mood for romantic,” Bourque notes. “Sometimes they want kooky.”
But what if your pickup line came out more Pepe Le Pew than P. Diddy? What if your first kiss falls short of Rick and Ilsa? Or what if you hooked up in some embarrassing way “… say in rehab or, gasp, online? No worries.
It was love at first click for Josana Kuivenhoven, a San Jose State University student who met her boyfriend, Alexander Shen, on Craigslist (after trying eHarmony with no luck). She picked him out of 100 responses.
“At first it felt awkward to admit it,” says Kuivenhoven, 25. But now she freely credits their meet-cute story to “the information superhighway and the free services available to frugal, half-drunk people.”
After 18 months together, the San Jose cyber-sweeties say their song is Del Shannon’s version of “Sea of Love.” Their big challenge is the cat sleeping between them.
Not to be outdone on the cute scale, Lynn and Carl still love to ski. After all these years, they are still waiting to have their first fight. Does V-Day get better as time goes by?
“You don’t have to guess what the other person likes,” says Lynn, 65, a retired bioengineer. “You can just relax and let go.”
Alas, not all love connections are that heartwarming. Over the years, cheaters, laxatives and one-night stands have played a role.
“You need conflict to have good drama. If it’s all cupcakes, you want to throw up,” Bourque says. “A strong couple is one that gets tested and comes through.”
Sometimes one lover gabs and the other clams up. Sometimes memories differ about how the couple actually met. Ouch. But so far no one has broken up after the curtain went down.
“Mostly they relive the moment and fall in love all over again,” Bourque says. “That’s the magic.”