Finding out where love fits: an interview with Neil Redfield

For Decent Company April: beginnings & endings, Neil Redfield will be performing a monologue as a recently heartbroken Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Neil sat down with Decent Company producing director Josh Boerman to talk about all the different kinds of love and why they matter.

NRedfield - head shot cropped

JOSH BOERMAN: So, last month, for those who didn’t have the pleasure of attending—

NEIL REDFIELD: The carnal delight.

JB: —attending our February, yes, carnival of—

NR: Carnal.

JB: Well, I was thinking, our carnal carnival.

NR: I see. (LAUGHS)

JB: In February, you did a piece where you were the personification of lust, Eros. And this time around, you are playing Aphrodite, who is known for a few other things. So tell me a little bit about that.

NR: Well, so this is— for both of these pieces, I’ve sort of rewritten some mythology. In the classical canon, Eros and Aphrodite are sort of more umbrella concepts or things. For these pieces, I’ve specified them to one exclusive aspect of our experience of love. Eros was lust, and Aphrodite is the experience of romantic love. Being head over heels in love.

If you read the academic literature that studies love, there’s this great concept called limerence, which is basically that feeling of being head over heels in love, and being obsessive, and that’s sort of what it’s called in the academic world.

JB: And what is your exposure to— have you studied this academically? Is that part of your background, or—

NR: Not formally, but in the past six months I’ve been reading a bunch of stuff. It started with research from this pretty popular anthropologist named Helen Fisher. She has these great TED talks online. And went from there.

And from her research, I then read a bunch of other poetry, as well as classical literature and more contemporary research. And as part of this whole thing I read Plato’s Symposium, I read Lang Leav, she’s a contemporary poet, she writes really good little short poems about love. And Dorothy Tennov, who coined this limerence term.

JB: What has been the big takeaway from all that research for you?

NR: This has really been a process of exploring where love fits into our lives, and my life personally, as humans. And I think one big takeaway for me is that we confound so many things under one name of love. Like, we confound so many different experiences, and I think that causes a lot of confusion and suffering. And it certainly has for me.

We confound sexual attraction with this limerance, with being head over heels in love, with long-term attachment, supportive bonds. So my big takeaway right now is that these things, these three things – and maybe there’s more than that – but these three things that are sort of highlighted in the literature that I’ve come across, in the work that I’ve come across, are all different aspects of this thing we call love. And it can be incredibly useful to separate those things.

JB: In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the interview that I did with Cristina in February, where she was talking a lot about the difference between sensuality and sexuality—

NR: Sensuality and sexuality, right.

JB: And how often we conflate those, and also how unwilling we are to just let certain things be certain things. And I feel like that also applies to how we approach love, in a lot of ways. That we are unwilling to maybe feel, you know, if you wanna call, like, a bromance, for instance. Which is generally more of a platonic love. But I feel like there’s a little bit of that romantic love that creeps in there too—

NR: Yeah.

JB: —just in the sense of, like, you really find yourself caring about another person, who maybe you don’t “love” them, but you love them.

NR: Right. Right. And it’s that thing that you just did of, like, the air quotes around “love” versus love, that is the whole sort of thing that I think started me on this research. Of, like, that word means so many different things to us. And there’s a reason, linguistically, because they’re all related, I think.

But the fact that it’s all interconnected. And, I mean, you know, the thing about bromance and these different kinds of loving relationships we can have, there is just so much. I mean, I wanna say, you can read Epic of Gilgamesh to see.

JB: I was about to pivot to that. (LAUGHS)

NR: But one thing I do wanna say before we switch topics is that my big question in that, looking at these different ways of being in love and these different aspects of love, is that I have big question— and especially with the thought of, like, this limerance, this romantic passion, does not really help us actually find partnership in a lot of cases.

Sort of acknowledging that, I’ve been asking a question: what role does love really play in our lives? ‘Cause it’s not just romantic union, and it’s not just partnership. And that’s just a question that I’ve been asking.

JB: That’s cool. So—

NR: So, Epic of Gilgamesh. (LAUGHS)

JB: The Epic of Gilgamesh also plays a major role in this play. Tell me a little bit about the Epic of Gilgamesh.

NR: Yeah. Well, so I read Epic of Gilgamesh as part of this project, someone suggested it to me.

JB: Oh, so just, like, a few months ago.

NR: Yeah, and I read it in November, I think, for the first time. And I was immediately like, “This is amazing.” I have a really great translation, I have a translation by N.K. Sandars as part of the Penguin Epics series. It’s got this beautiful holographic cover, and it’s only like 60 pages.

And the translation is so well-written, and it reads kind of like a play. It’s very narratively interesting and poetically interesting. And so I got to the part in Epic of Gilgamesh—

JB: Yeah. For those who are not familiar, why don’t you just break down real quick what happens, who’s Gilgamesh, why does it matter.

NR: Right. So Gilgamesh is a Sumerian king, Sumerian mythic hero who is half god, half human. So he’s too powerful. The gods create another being to be his match. And so they fight when they first meet, but then they become best friends.

JB: Right. And that’s this bro named Enkidu.

NR: Yes. And then they basically go off and destroy this big scary forest monster, and then Enkidu gets ill out of revenge from Ishtar, from the love goddess. Enkidu gets ill and dies. And then the rest of the epic is Gilgamesh trying to find eternal life to bring his best friend back to life.

And so, it’s just so— it’s really quite beautiful. And at one part of the story, after Enkidu and Gilgamesh have met and they have defeated the forest beast, they come back and Ishtar, the Sumerian goddess of love, offers her hand in marriage to Gilgamesh. And at that point, there’s this beautiful speech of Gilgamesh basically chewing out Ishtar and how capricious and unpredictable she is.

JB: As opposed to his bro Enkidu, who is just straight up there for him all the time.

NR: Right. Right. He’s the key to immortality, or the closest they get to immortality is their relationship. So I read this passage, and my mind was just, like, blown. One, at the thought of that this is the kind of thing that every heartbroken person wants to sit love down and be like, “Why the fuck are you so unpredictable? Why do you cause me cause me so much pain? I don’t want you.” There’s that every point of a person’s heartbreak where you want to sit down and do that, and you wanna just throw love away and not deal with it at all.

JB: And Gilgamesh does. He just fuckin’ tears her a new one.

NR: Yeah, he tears her a new one. So I read this thing, and I was like, “Wow. 2,000 years ago, there were people that were having this same experience that wrote it down, and presumably found it as moving in the same way that I did.”

JB: But that’s why great stories stick around, is because they continue to—

NR: Mean something. It talks to our experience.

JB: Mean something, touch something in us.

NR: Yeah. So I was struck by that, the persistence of this experience. And I do believe that love and romantic love is a human universal that exists in all cultures and has existed for all the history of humanity. And so I read this thing, and I was like– I knew it would be a part of this project that was just sort of burgeoning at that point.

And it turns out that it’s going to be part of this show, as Aphrodite. And you’ll see how it is that part when you come see it.

JB: Oh, you’ll just have to come to the show to find out. (LAUGHTER) There we go.

And that’s another thing, too. In this play, you are playing Aphrodite, and you are just straight-up doing it as a man portraying a woman. It’s not campy, it’s not drag. It’s just, you are basically getting more in touch with your feminine side. Tell me a little bit about that.

NR: Yeah, well, that’s interesting for me because I’ve never really been interested in gender play or drag. But it’s something that I think is called for for the piece, and so I’m happy to do it. And I think it’s necessary, because I wanna play with the notion of who Aphrodite is.

And that’s really the whole concept of Aphrodite falling in love, is it comes from when I had to read Hippolytus for this class in college. And there were all these great speeches about Aphrodite being the most powerful of all the gods ’cause you can never predict when her curse will hit you, and it destroys your life. You know, echoes to the sort of things that Gilgamesh was talking to Ishtar about in Mesopotamia.

And so then when reading that play in college, I had this thought of, “Huh, what if Aphrodite is victim to that same thing that she supposedly has control over?” And so I think the piece really does call on this background of Greek knowledge and this interest in Greek mythology.

JB: But it doesn’t require that the audience have that knowledge either.

NR: Not necessarily, yeah. I think you get a little more about it, I think, with it. And so that’s why I really think Aphrodite is female, because it fits into that history and that familiar canon.

I just read this great article on masculinity and gender roles yesterday, and I think there is something that’s— we’re a little more comfortable seeing a heartbroken women than a heartbroken man, to explore the depth of that emotion. So I think there are a myriad of reasons, cultural as well as literary.

And it’s interesting as a performer too, because you explore what does make someone feel feminine, or come off as feminine versus masculine. And I’m really fortunate to have long hair at this point, and happy to use it. But there’s like a hesitation or a way of carrying your body differently that’s just fun to explore as an actor.

JB: Sure. Well, because conventionally in our culture we don’t give men the permission to act that way.

NR: Yeah, right. Right. And so when we get the chance to, it’s informative and it’s interesting.

To buy tickets for Decent Company April: beginnings & endings, click here.

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