An Austin transplant in the mid-1980s, Barbara Chisholm recalls an open audition in which actors could see the other actors auditioning. As she watched Robert Faires, an actor and writer whose name she recognized from his writing in the Austin Chronicle, Chisholm remembers being immediately impressed—not only by his acting chops but also by his ability to take notes.
They were both cast in the play in question (A.R. Gurney’s The Dining Room at ZACH Theatre). Says Chisholm, “Here was this witty, handsome, urbane—to me—talented guy. And rich! He had a Rolex and crocodile belt!” Chisholm did what any sane, straight single lady would do in the situation: “I pulled the stage manager, who clearly knew him well, and asked her my three must-know questions: Is he married? Is he gay? Is he a felon?” The three no’s the stage manager uttered emboldened Chisholm, who would later discover she’d been correct in all her assumptions about Faires, save the wealth part—the Rolex and crocodile belt were hand-me-downs. “One lies broken in a sock drawer, the other broke years ago and is in a landfill somewhere,” Chisholm says with a chuckle.
Faires first took note of Chisholm during rehearsals. “At one of the first rehearsals, the six actors were asked to enter in pairs as if we were three couples, and as I was standing there, I felt an arm slide into mine, and she was there, and I thought, ‘Man, am I lucky!’” he says.
According to Faires, “It flamed into a romance very quickly.” He still has vivid memories from their early courtship, including a post-rehearsal outing that featured a very “Tracy-Hepburn” argument over the merits of football (Chisholm) versus baseball (Faires), their first date (a play, of course), and stopping by a rehearsal to bring Chisholm treats even though he wasn’t called.
Since they met, Chisholm has made her way as an actor and producer, while Faires still considers himself a theatre artist—primarily as an actor and director—even though he has been writing about theatre since 1984 for the Chronicle, where he became a full-time arts editor in 1993.
“The Chronicle has never had a formal policy about reviewing family members,” says Faires. “Maybe it’s the old alt-weekly rebelliousness. And in our first few years together, I went ahead and reviewed a few shows Barbara did.” But over the years, that’s changed. “Barbara was never really comfortable with it, and after a while, I began to see the wisdom in drawing that line,” says Faires.
“It’s a huge price for producers to pay, as his reviews are so thoughtful and insightful,” says Chisholm. “I imagine directors and producers have to weigh the benefit of me in a role versus the loss of a review from Robert. I’m not sure I’d always go with me in that balance.”
The complexities of conflicts of interest aside, the couple have acted together in some dozen different productions over the years. They recently did a reading of Kirk Lynn’s Fixing Toilus and Cressida, and earlier in the year costarred in Lynn’s Fixing Timon of Athens with the Rude Mechs.
When they aren’t sharing the stage, they have found other ways to work together. Faires has directed Chisholm in a few productions, and Chisholm produced Faires’s solo adaptation of Henry V. “As a present to me for my 50th birthday, Barbara and our daughter Rosalind offered to produce it for me, and when they presented the offer to me, they had already lined up a theatre for a three-week run, a director, and a lighting designer,” says Faires. “It was the most amazing gift I ever received.”
“It was so damn good,” Chisholm enthuses. “I watched every performance of both runs—not that I had to. Often I planned to make sure it got underway and then go do some work in an office, but every time, I became drawn in and wanted to see just one more bit, one more scene.”
The couple don’t have any ground rules per se, but Chisholm does say that kindness is a guiding principle. “We can disagree but we must be kind,” she says. Faires observes that over time they have both become better actors and have grown more patient with each other.
Asked for advice for rookie couples on- and offstage, Chisholm says, “You probably are drawn to your partner in part because you admire their art. Nourish that. Your art, their art, your art together.”
Faires concurs. “If working together feeds you as artists and as a couple, then don’t just wait for someone to put you together on a project; create those opportunities for yourselves,” he says. And though Faires allows that creating a project together isn’t quite like having a child together, “you’ll still feel some of the same fulfillment because you’ve made a thing together.”
One senses that after their years together Chisholm and Faires still have a crush on each other. Chisholm says, returning to a common theme, “I love talking about Robert—I love Robert.” Adds Faires, “This is going to sound corny, but the chief joy in working together is getting to be together more often. I still really love being with Barbara, and she still loves being with me, and working together in the theatre gives us more opportunities to do that.”
Playwright/performer Eliza Bent is a former senior editor of this magazine.