“I once asked Annie-B Parson how she felt about working with a spouse, and she jokingly said, ‘I would avoid it at all possible costs,’” says director Michael Silverstone, who, together with his wife Abigail Browde, helms the Brooklyn-based company 600 Highwaymen. Of course, Parson, who runs the 24-year-old company Big Dance Theater, is well equipped to give advice about working with a partner. Her husband, Paul Lazar, is Big Dance’s co-artistic director.
There are, without doubt, many reasons not to work together with your beloved. The lows are lower (“You pick at each other’s scabs,” Browde said). It’s hard to complain after a long rehearsal, because the other person was there too, and artistic disagreements are already messy enough in a rehearsal room—why bring that into the bedroom? Yet myriad reasons to give it a try can also be cited: The highs are higher (“You get to win an Obie together,” Browde exulted a moment later). A shared vocabulary and history can make experimentation easier, and it’s worth noting that a big part of why you’re in a relationship might have something to do with the other person’s talent, keen sense of comic timing or aesthetic eye.
In honor of Saint Valentine’s Day, American Theatre caught up with a smattering of couples across the country who frequently work together. Here’s what they said.
When Abby Met Michael
Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, artistic directors of 600 Highwaymen
Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone met as undergrads at NYU in a course titled “The History of the Avant-Garde” but didn’t immediately cotton to each other. “I thought Abby was stuck-up,” Silverstone says.
“I probably was,” Browde admits with a shrug and a smile. It wasn’t until five years later, when the two ended up on a trip with mutual artist friends (among them director Steven Brackett and actor/dancer/writer Sean Donovan), that they fell in love. At the time, Silverstone was directing new plays and Browde was performing with the ensemble Witness Relocation and creating her own performances. “I would invite Michael to watch my rehearsals but then bristle at his feedback. I was very boundary-based. You should only ask for the advice you want,” she recalls, before turning to Silverstone and asking, “Did you just let out a sigh?” He replies, “I probably did.”
The idea to work together built up gradually, and the year the two got married they decided to give it a try. “It felt like working together would be complementary in terms of our strengths,” says Browde. Meanwhile, Silverstone wasn’t wholly satisfied toiling in the land of new-play development, and the chance to work in a new way felt exciting. “I was frustrated by how busy I was,” he says. “I was aching to spend more time with Abby.” Moreover, Browde observes that both of them are “fairly obsessive and private, and so individual exploits were sending us down separate paths. We wanted to break that habit.”
Silverstone approached a church near the couple’s apartment to ask about space. “We got the key the same day,” he says. This Time Tomorrow, which premiered in 2009 at the Duryea Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, was the result of that first collaboration. The show, which trafficked in the mundane and magical, won critical praise, bowed again in 2010 and prompted the couple to give collaboration another whirl.
Their sophomore effort, Empire City, however, proved much more difficult. “There was a big learning curve,” Browde recalls. “Where does the marriage start and end? Where does the creative partnership start and end? Figuring that out was very important for our sanity. How do you not make your home life hard when a creative project is hard?”
The process, though messy, was ultimately worth it, and the couple made the decision to cofound their company 600 Highwaymen. Six shows and an Obie award later, the pair has settled on some rules of thumb. “When things on a project aren’t going well, it can be easy to blame the other person, so it’s important to make sure you’re not doing that,” Browde says, adding, “Don’t let your mouth run, because the work won’t be fun and the marriage won’t get any sexier. If a rehearsal ends at 9, don’t stay up until 3 talking about it.” Silverstone adds, “It’s also important to figure out why you’re working together and be clear and literal about what that thing is. For me, it was falling in love with the things Abby can do that I can’t do. We also always end the day laughing—usually about something pretty stupid.”
That laughter is possible even when the two disagree in the rehearsal room. “We don’t always share the same aesthetic,” Silverstone observes. “I often think our shows are the result of a disagreement. We’re putting something in the room and making something together we couldn’t make individually.”
Claybourne Elder, actor, and Eric Rosen, artistic director of Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Kansas City, Mo.
When Claybourne Elder auditioned for Moisés Kaufman’s production of Into the Woods at Kansas City Repertory in the summer of 2009, artistic director Eric Rosen was not involved. “I was at Sundance working on a new Carlos Murillo play, and later found out I was just 20 miles from where Clay had grown up,” Rosen says. Eight weeks later, when Into the Woods began rehearsals, Eric and Clay met and became fast friends. By the end of the run the two were dating. “By Christmas I’d met Clay’s whole family,” Rosen says. The two married in 2012.
“At first we said, ‘Obviously we can’t work together—that seems like a terrible idea!’” recalls Elder, who had never previously dated anyone working in theatre. “Clay was too busy to work with me,” Rosen sighs, adding, “I’d never even dated an actor!” But as their commitment to each other grew, they realized working together might have its benefits.
When Rosen directs, he acknowledges that casting Elder in an older play is easier than casting him in, say, a new musical. “With a new musical, everyone needs to agree he’s right for the part, from the producer to the book writer to the composer. I don’t want anyone to think casting Clay is an act of nepotism—we all have to believe he’s the right choice. Luckily, that hasn’t been an issue.”
The first time Elder auditioned for Rosen (for the musical Venice), Rosen recalls “laughing out loud,” but otherwise he treated it like any audition. During rehearsals the two try to maintain their independence. Elder acknowledges, “It’s important everyone feel safe and comfortable so that the cast can say, ‘Eric is such a jerk today!’ Or for the choreographer to say to Eric, ‘I’m not getting from Clay what I need.’” The two don’t drive to rehearsals together and usually spend lunch apart. On the flip side, they always try to do something together on days off, even if it’s as simple as grocery shopping. “We have great rules, but theatre is such a family environment—the fact we’re a couple often breaks down the wall immediately so the cast gets comfortable.” The couple’s dog, Diogi (say it out loud), often visits rehearsal, and their house becomes a cast hangout spot.
There are challenges. Rosen cannot always guarantee his collaborators that Elder is available for a particular project even when the role seems an ideal one. Sometimes the couple finds it easier to connect when they are across the country working on different shows than it is when they’re sharing the same geographic space but stressed. Nevertheless, there are lots of joys. “I love how we have a shorthand,” says Elder. “Working with someone you love, you feel more confident to break out of your comfort zone and do something scary.” Rosen feels like he’s become a more conscientious director since being in a relationship with Elder and points out that it’s also incredibly rewarding to watch Clay grow as an actor and get to support other theatres in the process.
As far as advice for others, Rosen says, “Think about all your work as a collaboration, and every now and then you’ll have an overlap. The best part about being married to Clay is that we get to inspire and challenge each other. That lasts a lifetime.”
Lovers Turned Actors Turned Producing A.D.s
Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, producing artistic directors of A Noise Within
As undergraduates majoring in drama at the University of Florida in 1980, Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott met doing a scene study in class. “Oddly, we can’t remember the name of the play or its author, except that was a pretty bad contemporary piece!” Rodriguez-Elliott says with a laugh. Undeterred, the two began dating soon after, went on to receive their MFAs in acting at ACT in San Francisco, and ultimately wound up in L.A., where they pursued acting work.
“Working together wasn’t a conscious decision at all,” says Elliott. “We happened to meet the owner of historic Masonic Temple in Glendale, who allowed us to stage our first production of Hamlet there; it was done with our combined life savings of $3,000! That space became the home for A Noise Within for nearly 20 years—serendipity, indeed.”
Rodriguez-Elliott points out, “When the director of our very first play, Our Town, didn’t quite work out, we took the reins.” Elliott chimes in, “In many ways, our work as directors was born of necessity. But even early on, we knew we had stumbled onto something wonderful.”
The hardest part of working together is also the best part. “Combining our professional, artistic and personal lives is a huge challenge—yet it’s also beautiful. You’re living your art virtually all the time, and sometimes the personal part of a relationship gets neglected. But that’s also a great gift,” Elliott says.
To that end, he advises couples who are looking to make the leap to working together to “make sure that the professional relationship happens organically, and that you’re not forcing it—and that your artistry actually grows stronger as a result of the relationship. The one reason never to make such a leap is to do so in hopes of shoring up a relationship, because that will never turn out well!”
Rachel Hauck, designer, and Lisa Peterson, director/writer
New York City
Rachel Hauck and Lisa Peterson, who met 19 years ago at the Mark Taper Forum in a workshop of Winsome Pinnock’s Mules, each recall the experience slightly differently. Peterson was on an errand when I first spoke with Hauck, who told me, “Lisa kind of designed the set and made me feel like I designed it, which is really funny in retrospect.” But when Peterson joined the conversation, she said: “I was smitten immediately. And Rachel made a beautiful set.” Mutual admiration, it seems, trumps specifics.
At the time of that first project, Hauck was involved with someone else. But when they worked together on an Alice Tuan play a few years later, Hauck was single, “The relationship took care of itself,” she says.
“It was a great working relationship, so I didn’t want to screw it up,” Hauck says, recalling some hesitancy on her part. Peterson, on the other hand, dove in immediately. She remembers a note Hauck wrote about a particular prop blanket. “That little note won my heart. Now, all these years later, we don’t know what it’s like to not work together. It’s deeply woven into the relationship.” The pair estimates that while Hauck designs approximately half of Peterson’s shows, Hauck’s own percentage of Peterson shows is lower. “Designers get around,” Peterson quips.
Many of the challenges of working together for the pair are logistical. As is the case with Rosen and Elder, sometimes producers presume that asking Peterson to direct means that Hauck will be available to design—but it’s not a package deal. Moreover, Peterson adds, “Sometimes people assume they can get to one of us through the other. So we always tell people, ‘Don’t communicate through us,’ especially regarding travel.” She then adds, ominously, “There is also a dynamic around meeting deadlines.”
At this Hauck begins to chuckle: “If I’m working with other directors, they don’t know nearly as much about my schedule, whereas Lisa knows everything.”
Counters Peterson, “I worry more with Rachel than I would with one of my other designer pals.”
“That’s because they can float you a smooth line,” Hauck replies, adding, “I’m very fast with big details but can get stuck on the small details, and Lisa watches that spin out in all its glory.”
But the pleasures outweigh the pains. “Part of what attracted me to Rachel was her aesthetic eye and way of problem-solving, and that’s still true,” Peterson says. Hauck loves the “incredible shorthand” they share and finds it “exciting to draw on nearly 18 years of shared history and not rip yourself off, but try to reinvent yourself.”
While it’s hard to not let work take over, they find that dinners often have tidbits of work threaded into conversations. As for advice to others, Peterson says, “Don’t be afraid, go ahead and do it. Especially when the work is art—it’s pretty fun to move through the world looking at things through the prism of art you make with someone you love. On the flipside, be sure to take vacations.”
Now that the two are touring An Iliad, which Peterson cowrote with Denis O’Hare, they get to do just that.
Defining a Partnership
Erika Miller, actor and development director, and Oanh Nguyen, director and artistic director, Chance Theater
Erika Miller and Oanh Nguyen met doing a summer production for Pacific Light Opera while the two attended different colleges. “It was the last time I played the lead. Ever,” Nguyen deadpans. Miller adds, “He had to wear bananas on his head—obviously, I swooned.” They both describe it as “a bit of a showmance.”
A year and a half later, in 1998, they met again working on a production titled Is Pepperoni a Vegetable and Other Mysteries of Love, a comedy for four actors. Nguyen directed and Miller performed. “It didn’t take long before we picked up where we left off,” recalls Miller.
As Chance Theater evolved, so too did their relationship. The division of labor was clear from the get-go. Miller is a performer through and through—her role as Chance’s development director helps ensure the theatre’s livelihood and hence opportunities to perform. While Nguyen’s directing initially put him at the helm of nearly all of Chance’s productions, he now serves as artistic director, supervising some productions at other theatres as well.
In the early years of navigating between their professional and personal lives, the couple felt like they needed to make a clear separation between work and life. “It took some time to figure that out,” says Nguyen. Eventually they switched mindsets from trying to find time for themselves to simply trying to find time for non-theatre activities. Nguyen says, “Early on there was a feeling of, ‘Maybe we aren’t carving out enough time for us. There’s something wrong!’ But at a certain point we realized, ‘Everything we do is for us. That’s okay. So let’s focus on our dog. Let’s do the laundry and carve out time for vacation.’ When you’re first married, you think there are rules for things you have to do—but you actually have to define your marriage and yourselves.”
Miller chimes in that the realization took time and many conversations. “It wasn’t all sunshine and roses. A relationship takes work, and so does a company,” she says. “We talked a lot about our goals for the relationship versus our individual goals, and made sure to align our core values,” adds Nguyen, who advises couples looking to mix business and pleasure to “make sure you want to go down the same path. Be prepared to make adjustments so that you can keep going on that path together.”
Nguyen notes that he and Miller are both Leos. “There are no rules. We are both crazy—but we aren’t allowed to be crazy at the same time.”
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