If physical rigor is the measure of mettle in a relationship, then actor/performance artists Becca Blackwell and Erin Markey have put themselves through the paces.
Together the collaborators/real-life couple have done the entire P90x sequence, a high-intensity home workout; they’ve done the elimination diet, to see what foods they have sensitivities to; and—this was completely consensual—they’ve “smacked each other in the face for two and a half hours” for money, according to Blackwell. That last one was part of a performance piece/experiment at the Museum of Modern Art that coincided with the 2010 Marina Abramović retrospective.
“Well, we both needed $100,” Markey explained. “But I was also curious. Basically, you have to slap each other in the face for as long as you can until someone stops. For us it took two and a half hours. We were in lab coats.”
“Sometimes the slaps were hard but also there were some soft ones,” chimed in Blackwell (who is trans* and uses the pronoun “they”).
At the time, Markey was performing in her solo show Puppy Love: A Stripper’s Tail, for which Blackwell played the bass. After the slapping engagement, they went downtown to do the show.
Their artistic adventures did not end there. This month, the couple pushes the limits of mental and physical exertion once again with Markey’s A Ride on the Irish Cream, a performance art musical in which they co-star. It runs in a production directed by Jordan Fein at Abrons Arts Center through Jan. 31, as part of the American Realness festival of dance-theatre and hybrid performance.
Blackwell and Markey met in 2010 while doing a reading by a friend and collaborator, actor/playwright Jess Barbagallo. But, said Blackwell, “I’d been checking Erin out artistically for a while.” The remark made Markey crumple in laughter. “Can you put a wink next to that in the article?” she said.
Before they met in person, Markey’s alt-cabaret songs for Our Hit Parade—an ongoing monthly series at Joe’s Pub that showcases cover versions of current Top 10 pop songs—had caught Blackwell’s Internet attention. After the reading, they Facebook-messaged Markey suggesting the two work together.
“I sent Erin the trailer for Mommy Dearest because it’s one of my favorite films. And Erin wrote back, ‘I like music.’ I took it as a brush-off,” recalled Blackwell.
“It wasn’t a brush-off,” Markey exclaimed.
“But I took it as a brush-off. So then, backstage at the reading we were both like ‘heeeey.’”
“After the reading Becca bought me a whiskey,” Markey clarified. “And I thought Becca was flirting because I think of whiskey as…”
“A lubricant for the heart?” suggested Blackwell.
Suffice to say, the two quickly became enmeshed in each other’s artistic and romantic lives. Or, as Blackwell put it, “Erin would need someone to walk across the stage wearing a backpack and scream ‘DAD!’”
“That wasn’t random, that was catered to your specific skill set,” Markey claimed.
Though they often wound up working on the same downtown shows, such as Jennifer Miller’s The Golden Racquet or Carmelita Tropicana’s Post Plastica, they didn’t share significant stage time with each other. That changed in 2013 when the two toured in Young Jean Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show and in Tina Satter’s Seagull (Thinking of You), dancing naked together (in the case of the former) and deconstructing Chekhov (the latter). Blackwell originated roles in both productions. (Full disclosure: I toured with the couple in Seagull and am a company member of Satter’s theatre company, Half Straddle.)
A Ride on the Irish Cream, however, feels like a departure from the touring engagements of the past, and a deepening of present coupledom. On the surface, it may about woman named Reagan who is in love with her family’s pontoon boat (played by Blackwell), but the metaphors run deep.
“Irish Cream uses the aesthetics of my childhood, along with text and imagery, but it’s deeply inspired by the dynamics and the way we have behaved in our relationship,” said Markey, who also composed the music alongside Kenny Mellman and Emily Bate. “It’s important that Becca is the person I do this with onstage. But more broadly the show is about what you take from your childhood into your adult intimate relationships.”
A challenge for Blackwell is to stay grounded, separating the personal and the professional. “There is an element of control, because Erin likes to keep her hands tightly on the reigns,” they said. “But as someone who is being written about and used as an actor, it becomes complicated.”
One way the two have made sure the art hasn’t negatively impacted their relationship is to have separate hotel rooms while on tour. “When you’re on a job, you need to take care of yourself. We need a sacred spot to do that,” Blackwell said. That sensibility has also extended into their regular lives; the couple used to live together but don’t presently. “It’s just about having a neutral space,” explained Blackwell.
“Looking at the dynamics of our relationship while writing about them can be suffocating,” said Markey, before adding: “Not necessarily in a bad way.”
Still, the artistic potential of that intimacy, as complicated as it may be, is a part of why Markey and Blackwell are still involved, both onstage and off.
“The intimacy makes the work feel stronger and makes me feel like I’m performing the way I want to perform,” said Markey, who likens being onstage with one’s partner to being married. “But for us, it’s much weirder and more dynamic. And on that level, it’s a joy to my heart that is interested in a kind of democracy,” she said.
Blackwell chimes in, “We’re at our strongest in Irish Cream. It’s queer bodies being vulnerable and sad and joyous onstage. And that, to me, is exciting.”