MIAMI: Elaiza Irizarry, executive director of Miami Theater Center (MTC), and Fernando Calzadilla, resident artist at MTC, have been married for 22 years—but that’s only half of their story.
The two met in 1975 in Caracas, Venezuela, where their paths kept crossing. At first, they overlapped at various cultural institutions, including Ateneo de Caracas, where Irizarry worked as a secretary and Calzadilla worked as an actor. A few years later, Calzadilla wound up at New York University for a BFA. Upon returning to Venezuela, they began a production company together, along with a third friend, which scheduled touring Broadway shows. Then, at the National Theatre Company of Venezuela, where Calzadilla was a resident lighting designer, Irizarry was effectively his boss. And then there was the design office they began together.
“We were partners in business long before we were partners in romance,” says Irizarry.
What took them so long to get together? Well, they were married to other people. “But we were always friends,” says Calzadilla. “Elaiza was close to my children before she and I got married.” (Irizarry and Calzadilla divorced their respective partners in the early ’90s, then married each other in 1994.)
When work hasn’t overlapped, the couple has moved for one or the other’s ambitions. For example, in 1998, Calzadilla was accepted into a Ph.D. program at NYU, so they returned to New York. In 2003, however, when Irizarry was offered a position as director of operations at the Playground Theatre (since renamed MTC), they moved south to Miami. Calzadilla took a leave of absence from the Ph.D. program but ultimately wound up commuting to and from New York to complete course work.
Eventually, Calzadilla found a home in Miami, especially as he got to know Stephanie Ansin, founder and artistic director of MTC. “She had come over for lunch one day with her mother,” says Calzadilla. “It was a social gathering more than anything. She was directing Alice in Wonderland, and I asked her, ‘What is the conflict in Alice in Wonderland?’ She had written down the exact same question in her notebook the day before. So I was hired to be the dramaturg, and once again, Elaiza and I were working together, even though we hadn’t planned it.”
Calzadilla and Irizarry still work together closely. For example, when Calzadilla is designing costumes, he brings Irizarry along to consult on fabrics. Despite the intimacy of work, however, the two strive to maintain professionalism.
“I can be very dry,” says Irizarry.
“We have trained ourselves to be very careful with our body language when we are working together so as to not give any clue that we are engaged,” says Calzadilla. “We want to give the message we are working.”
To that end, they try not to discuss work at home, though, as Calzadilla observes, “I’m the resident artist, so Elaiza has to know what I am doing, but I don’t know everything she is doing.”
Can that cause friction? “If there is friction it stays in the professional arena,” Calzadilla says. “If I want to do something and we can’t do it, then we will think about trying to do something else.” Having a third party, like Ansin, also helps balance out dynamics; it doesn’t hurt that all three get along as well as they do.
Calzadilla and Irizarry agree that the biggest thing to cultivate in a relationship that straddles theatre and life is mutual respect. Professional envy should be avoided at all costs. “We have both seen couples that work together fail because of professional envy,” says Irizarry.
“Or when there is a competition between them,” says Calzadilla. “We have each had to learn to step back when it’s time to let the other person shine. Everything in life is about timing. Woody Allen once said, ‘Eternity is okay if you’re dressed for the occasion.’ When Elaiza is in the board room with the board of directors, I don’t say a word—it’s her time.”
Says Irizarry, “Other than respect for the other person, and respect for what they do, there is no other secret.” It may help that both Irizarry and Calzadilla had previous practice: Both were previously married to other artists (an actor and a dancer, respectively) with whom they worked. “You have to share the happiness, and you have to celebrate the success of the other person,” says Calzadilla.
“It’s a lot of work,” Irizarry admits. “But the rewards are huge—we feed each other professionally and artistically. The price is respect and tolerance.”