Growing up, Pete and Lynne Simpson (nee Livingston) were neighbors in the small town of Cody in northwestern Wyoming. In fact, they lived across an alley from one another. But due to the nine-year age difference between them, Pete thought nothing of the little girl whose backyard he’d sometimes cut through on his way through the neighborhood.
It wasn’t until 1959, when Lynne was home for a Christmas visit, that Pete took note of the young woman she’d become. At the time, Lynne was living in New York City pursuing acting, and before long Pete was in New York pursuing Lynne. They courted for 13 days before becoming engaged.
“All of our courtship was spent in theatres, seeing ballet, opera, plays, and films,” Lynne recalls. “The performing arts have been an important part of our marriage ever since.”
It wasn’t long before they found their way back to their home state of Wyoming (with a side trip to Oregon, where Pete earned his Ph.D. while Lynne performed in plays at the university there). The only downside of returning to Wyoming was finding theatre opportunities in the state—so they made their own, founding Spontaneous Theater Production in Jackson. Their first production was an adaptation of The Little Prince, for which they received the first grant from the Wyoming Arts Counsel in 1974. Says Lynn, “Allen Ginsberg loved it!”
Over the years the two have starred in, produced, and directed The Gin Game, Painting Churches, The Fantasticks, and Our Town. They change hats easily: A production of Oliver! in Casper, Wyo., featured Pete as Fagin with Lynn directing the production, in a home for neglected kids who played the show’s pickpockets; meanwhile The Belle of Amherst, in which Lynne starred and Pete directed, toured to six different Wyoming towns. When they lived in Sheridan, Wyo., Lynn became artistic director of the local community theatre, directing some 24 plays while both continued to operate Spontaneous Theater Productions. “And so it went for many years,” says Lynne.
Their most recent collaboration, On Golden Pond, which bowed in June at the Snowy Range Summer Theatre Festival in Laramie, featured the couple as costars. “After 55 years of being in the theatre together, we have a mutual trust and sense of each other onstage that can’t be explained, except by the many years,” says Lynne.
As far as challenges go, says Lynne, “I think we have learned over the years how to give direction and how to take it, avoiding the word ‘criticism.’ We’ve earned each other’s trust in this area, which is a red button for many folks.
“At our age, we don’t have room for anything of a negative nature,” she continues. “We are completely dedicated to what is best for the play, and love the work it takes to achieve excellence. This is a gift of old age.” While the couple doesn’t impose any rules on working together, they do establish a performance routine and plan their days carefully.
Their son Pete is also an actor (with Elevator Repair Service, Young Jean Lee, and Blue Man Group, among others). “We are very proud of him for many things, but mostly that he has been able to put a life together in New York—no small feat for a Wyoming son,” especially in a “career that has no peers in terms of being difficult.”
As far as advice for other couples in the theatre, Lynne takes a macro view.
“I think that couples who work together in anything know that they have to cultivate a special sensitivity toward each other: respect, deference, listening exciting each other’s creativity.” She adds, with a fillip of frontier wisdom: “If it is not fun, don’t do it.”
You can hear an interview with the Simpsons here.