When you have a handlebar mustache, you quickly come to accept a certain amount of staring. This could be unsettling, I imagine, but it can't be surprising. I have in fact, found it a great boost in confidence to be able to attribute any sideways glance, any uneasy interaction to the presence of an absurd hirsute appendage on my upper lip.
But always I end up cutting it. And then, that confidence is gone and the unsettling power of the stranger's stare is redoubled with my armor gone. I wonder if my fly is down, or my hair is crazy, or why my plain face would merit even a sideways glance.
Onstage, we are over-easy with staring. In real life the slightest glance is powerful and strange. You can feel it without knowing it. People don't stare at each other in an unmarked way. A flirting couple on the street will look in each others' eyes for mere seconds in ten minutes of conversation. Onstage this whole scene would easily be done without the actors ever breaking their gaze.
There are a few reasons why we might indulge in this eye-contact so frequently. First, actors look at each other like skydivers or trapeze artists look at each other: there's a lot on the line and they need to know their partner is on the same page. Second, I wonder if there's something in replicating the gaze that the actors' are feeling from the audience. Perhaps in a room where fifty people are staring at you, it feels less strange to stare at someone else, and directing your focus in this over-concentrated way helps distract you from the stares you are receiving. Lastly, and most likely, we have been intending to exploit the power of the stare as a means to heighten the action onstage, but, by overdoing it, it's become a genre-marker rather than a site for increased meaning. Let's reclaim the power of looking onstage by using it less and using it purposefully.