How Austin's Theatrical Couples Keep Romance Alive Love's Labors Won
By Robert Faires, Fri., Feb. 9, 1996
Romance wreaks its exquisite havoc all the time in the theatre. Lord knows, I've seen my share of offstage coupling (so to speak), most of it brought on by the theatre's perfume of fantasy and the stimulating sense of comrades engaging in a mutual campaign to mount (now stop it!) a play. I myself am guilty of a theatrical affair or two, including one which resulted in a marriage that has just entered its 10th sweet year.
Which brings me to the curious thing I've noticed about theatrical twosomes, at least ones in this town: A lot of them make a long go of it. Of the two dozen thespian duos that I know, most are couples of longstanding, by which I mean several years: directors Michelle Metcalfe (Sherlock Holmes) and Robi Polgar (The Beggar's Opera): five years; actors Janelle Schremmer (Water Into Light) and Troy Schremmer (Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet): five years; actor Lorne Loganbill (The Homecoming) and actor/composer Sterling Price-McKinney (The Late 20th-Century Love Affair): seven years; actor/musical director/composer Allen Robertson (Trio) and actor Meredith Roberston (Trio): 10 years; actor Katherine Catmull (The Homecoming) and actor/director Ken Webster (The Homecoming): 11 years; actors David Stahl (Tons of Money) and Hans Venable (Shear Madness): 13 years; writers/actors/directors Freddy Carnes (The Shoemaker and the Elves) and Mary Alice Carnes (The Beggar's Opera): 14 years; and that's just the tip of the valentine. These stage couples are playing out their love stories in seriously extended runs with no closing dates in sight.
Now, this goes against the grain of the theatrical tradition. The couples whose passions we most glorify on the stage are those that have a spectacular liaison for a brief period, then either are separated or one partner or both buys the farm. (Blame old Will Shakespeare for most of this; all by his lonesome, he gifted us with three of theatre's most luminous and tragic love duos: Antony and Cleopatra, Othello and Desdemona, and, of course, those rebellious Venetian teens who couldn't keep their paws off each other.) We revere the couples who had romances like Roman candles: blazing light for a moment, then darkness and the smell of smoke. Perhaps in tribute, most offstage playhouse liaisons follow this example, putting out a lot of light and heat for a short time -- say, about as long as the run of the show in which the ardent artists are taking part -- then abruptly going the way of all flesh. (It should be noted that some misguided theatre types have come to equate the brevity of a romance with the luminosity of the lovin' and will ignite and extinguish a backstage affair between an evening performance and the next day's matinee!)
Perhaps because we're so conditioned by the tragic glory of drama's love duets, we expect all theatrical couples to be short-lived. That might explain why, when we encounter a relationship of longevity between two playhouse plebes, we stand in awe, whispering their names: Tandy and Cronyn, Lunt and Fontanne. How ever did they make such a go of it in the theatre? we wonder.
According to the couples themselves, they've done it -- and continue to do it -- much the same way any couple does in a successful marriage. They talk to each other. They listen. They take care of each other. "Always listen to the one you love -- and set aside your own problems or joys," counsels actor David Stahl. "If your relationship is truly mutual, it's the most perfect and pure form of give-and-take -- and it's wonderful." "Because we have each other," says Robi Polgar of his and Michelle Metcalfe's union, "it makes it easier to get through the crummier times. We can talk it out any time."
That's not to say that the life of a couple in the theatre is exactly like the life of any couple outside it. Not every relationship involves one half of the pair watching the other half get hot and heavy with another person in front of a hundred spectators. Not every relationship involves one half of the pair being empowered to give the other half professional direction. Not every relationship involves one half of the pair publicly reciting word for word the observations and thoughts of the other half. Not every relationship involves the two halves falling in love again or carrying on a screaming match or, god forbid, killing each other on a nightly basis for the entertainment of a bunch of strangers. No, much about the existence of a theatrical couple is peculiar, in every sense of the word.
Take, for instance, the propensity of many of these pairs to realize their romantic inclinations with dramatic flair. Laura and Marc Pruter of the comedy troupe Monks' Night Out first "got starry-eyed at a charity `Love-in' for the Center for Battered Women where we were dressed as hippies." They became an "item" three days later, on Valentine's Day, recalls Laura, "after Marc hocked his car to buy me a heart-shaped garnet ring." Troy Schremmer proposed to sweetheart Janelle during a student cabaret production at Wichita State University. According to Janelle Schremmer, "Troy secretly prepared a little song and dance to the Beatles' `When I'm 64,' ending it with a dramatic `Will you marry me?' Our friends will never let us live that down; it was an exciting and emotional moment for everyone." The wedding of Cathy and Ken Bradley, who met during a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (Aha! that Shakespeare guy again!), was itself a production, an echo of the play that united them. "Ken and Damian [Gillen, partner with the Bradleys in the theatre group The Company] made this girl's dream come true," says Cathy, "by transforming already beautiful Lockhart State Park into my `midsummer's dream': white Christmas lights in the trees, music to dream by -- to dance to, a campfire in the middle of the festivities, champagne and Shiner, white flowers of all varieties."
Even the unions that are less theatrical in gesture still have the stuff of the stage: in the convoluted comic missteps of destined-to-be lovers going through two acts of trauma before they finally drop into each other's arms. It took years for Janelle and Troy Schremmer to realize what everyone else did, that they were meant to be more than pals. When they "decided to officially start dating," says Janelle, it was "to none of our friends' surprise." Lorne Loganbill and Sterling Price-McKinney were struck by each other when they met at a party in 1982. Loganbill says, "I was attracted to Sterling the moment I laid eyes on him." Price-McKinney says, "I only remember that after a charming time Lorne had to leave, and when he said goodbye, I saw true regret in his eyes. It is his shining eyes in that moment that began his endearment to me." Despite this shared swoon and successive encounters in which, as Loganbill describes it, "I got that same gooshey feeling I had the first time I met Sterling," the two didn't realize their mutual interest until six years later when Price-McKinney invited Loganbill to take a part in a show he was directing at the Bastrop Opera House.
Katharine Catmull and Ken Webster suffered a similar dance of covert glances and hidden agendas, and for comedic angst, it rivals the first play they did together: Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Webster directed the production; Catmull auditioned for it with then-housemate Bill Friedman. "Bill had already been offered a role and he dragged me along," she remembers. "I thought Ken looked scary and kind of mean, actually." Webster, meanwhile, mistook the housemates for a bona fide couple: "I thought it would be interesting to cast real-life lovers as the Danny and Deb characters. It turned out they were just platonic housemates, but I cast them anyway." Catmull strikes back: "So he says, but I learned the true story later. His stage manager told me that Ken had in fact hated my audition, but he'd hated everyone else's, too. So, yes, he cast me as Bill's lover because he thought we were lovers in real life. Ken always denies this story, but I don't see why that stage manager would lie. Anyway, my audition was indeed awful; my auditions are always awful." Soon, she says, "I developed a terrible crush on Ken, which got worse during the next play he directed me in. I was already crazy about him by the time we had an actual date." As Catmull squirmed in Pinter-esque silence, Webster was, he says, "having strong, uncontrollable feelings of lust for Kathy. But I vowed to myself not to act on them, because a) I had a girlfriend; b) she had a boyfriend; c) I thought it would be inappropriate to date someone I was directing; and d) I figured that she didn't feel the same way. Shortly after Kennedy's Children closed, I broke up with A, she broke up with B, and I wasn't her director any more, so we went on a date at the Hole in the Wall for coffee. We confessed to each other our mutual lust, then went to her house and made out like teenagers. We started living together within a month."
While the romance of the theatre encourages glamorous visions of actors playing lovers and finding a passion in themselves that echoes their characters', the experience of most playhouse pairs is more prosaic: an attraction blooms between an actor and a director amidst the weird give-and-take of that relationship; an actor and a stage manager give each other the eye when calls are made to the dressing room; a couple of actors who barely speak to each other onstage have a chat offstage. Such was the case for Allen and Meredith Robertson, as Allen wryly recalls: "We met doing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Abilene Christian University. It was the big homecoming musical. Meredith was a junior, I merely a freshman. She was a bride . . . I was `Shop Owner.' I had two lines: `Millie, get out here, I got a dozen men a-bellerin' for some vittles,' and `I think poor Tabby has the croop.' My interpretation of these literary jewels won her heart. We had our first real conversation during strike; we were supposed to be working. Some things never change."
Once together, couples face a host of unique situations, not the least of which is having one's partner play a love scene with another actor. Perhaps to the surprise of some, stage couples get less worked up over it than you might think. Janelle Schremmer explains that for her and Troy, "It's no big deal because we know the technicalities of such a thing. Both being actors takes the pressure off that stuff." Now, reactions may vary depending on the circumstances. Ken Webster says, "It depends entirely on who the love scene is with. I've been alternately jealous, unworried, and grossed out." Bill McMillin admits to "being a little shaken" watching his wife Mary Furse kiss actor Eric Henshaw in a staging of Uncle Vanya. ("Wow! What a kiss!" he notes.) But "when Mary kissed an actress onstage, I didn't feel odd at all. Only when numerous people in the audience turned and looked at me to see my response was I at all nervous."
A source of much greater friction is the respect with which partners treat each other professionally. Furse and McMillin describe their situation: "We have to work very hard at not crossing over into each other's territory. Mary can't act as stage manager or producer, and Bill can't give acting notes. We have high standards for ourselves and each other. If everyone sticks to their own job, things are okay. Otherwise, even `helpful suggestions' feel like harsh criticism." When Webster and Catmull work together, almost always he directs her. The one time the roles were reversed, Catmull says, "It didn't go so smoothly. Ken kept `forgetting' all my notes. So one day in reherasal, I asked him icily if he needed a pencil. He shaped up after that, though not much. But he was awfully good in that show despite not listening to me, or because of it."
Working together can also lead theatrical couples to the same problems faced by other couples who share an occupation. Asked what they like about working together, Freddy and Mary Alice Carnes say, "We have access to each other night and day." Asked what they dislike, they say, "We have access to each other night and day." "When you go `home' at the end of the day," they say, "it's with the same person you've been with all day. Sometimes it can be hard to stop working and relax." Janelle and Troy Schremmer agree: "When we're working together, we are non-stop talking about the process that we're experiencing. The trick is to `leave our work at the office' and talk about other things, too." "Theatre takes so much commitment, dedication, and hard work," notes Cathy Bradley, "that although Ken and I are working together, we don't seem to have enough time during a production to devote to being romantic partners. We have to take time every so often during a production to hold and hug each other backstage before a show or stay after everyone has left and just smooch and reassure each other that we still adore each other!"
Even with the pitfalls that exist, most theatrical couples profess to enjoy working together. Their reasons range from the profoundly tender -- David Stahl and Hans Venable's "We get to be together that much more" -- to the profoundly practical -- Allen and Meredith Robertson's only partly tongue-in-cheek "We like the car pooling." Freddy and Mary Alice Carnes, in their roles as heads of the Children of Light Players children's theatre company, enjoy the way it allows them to complement each other creatively. "I write," says Freddy. "I edit," says Mary Alice. "I start," he continues. "I finish," she concludes. "Working together gives us great freedom and creative license," say Marc and Laura Pruter. "We constantly surprise each other with new characters and jokes and comic bits on stage." Ken Bradley says, "There is and always has been with Cathy a level of comfort in working that is unmatched. What this allows me is the opportunity not only to exchange ideas, but to stretch them in directions that would seem impossible if I was not working with anyone as optimistic and innovative as Cathy."
Working together enables most couples to renew the appreciation for each other's talents. "My most meaningful roles have been those I've shared with Troy," says Janelle Schremmer. "He's just the best actor there is." Of wife Michelle Metcalfe, director Robi Polgar says, "Directing 'shel on stage is easy because she's such a gifted actress." Karen Carver Sneed, director of the upcoming production of Texans and Their Guns, reports that her husband Don once told her that having her as a director was "like having Joe Montana in the huddle -- nice, huh?"
Those partners who work frequently together are able to bring their intimate understanding of each other into the playhouse and enhance their collaborations. Allen and Meredith Robertson have developed, they say, "the ability to work in a kind of shorthand; some things just go faster." Katharine Catmull echoes this sentiment: "Ken really understands me as an actor -- I love being directed by him. We share a lot of similar strengths and weaknesses as actors, so he knows how to, for example, pull me out of what I think of as Delicate Understatement, but which is in fact Acting of the Living Dead. Also, we've worked together so often and been together so long that he can direct me with shorthand phrases without a lot of explanation. He can say `pitcher's duel' or `scene 2, you've got Webster's disease' to me and I instantly know what he means and how to fix it. But mostly what's important to me is how well he understands me. Ken can see right through what I'm pretending to do to what's really going on inside me and say just the right words to get me back on track. I'm extraordinarily lucky to get to work with a director like that."
What comes through clearly from all these longtime couples is that an honest admiration for each other's artistic identity and desire to support that is at the core of their relationships. "There may be many that say I'm lovestruck still, but I really believe that Ken is a powerful actor and I find myself getting `lost' in his performances." Michelle Metcalfe says of Robi, "When he's directing, I'm just beaming with pride at his work." Bill McMillin shares similar feelings: "I feel very proud of Mary when she opens a show, proud of her and her ability as an actor."
That support often takes its most important forms when one partner is in a show and the other isn't, in helping the active partner run lines and seeing the show in which he or she appears. "Going to see your spouse in their show is extremely supportive, don't you think?" ask the Carnes. When Price-McKinney is in the thick of a project, partner Loganbill says, "What I try to do most is help with the little things -- the details that get aggravating to deal with when your mind is on so many different aspects of the show. I help pick out clothing, iron shirts and slacks, fix flat tires, run errands, make sure Sterling eats a good meal on a somewhat regular basis, and keep the refrigerator stocked with Dr. Pepper." Allen and Meredith Robertson have even found that "having dinner ready or the house clean when one gets home from an opening is nicer than flowers."
In the end, the success of these relationships seems to have a lot to do with the place of the theatre in the couple's shared life. For these twosomes, the theatre is not a source of false passions and ego amplification but a source of strength, a place in which partners, separately and together, can share their talents. Sometimes it is a source of unexpected epiphanies, as for Stahl and Venable when they did Our Town together for Big State Productions. "We drew so much from that experience as a couple," they say. "We fell into a deeper love for each other and certainly became more acutely aware of how precious life is and our love for each other is in this very short life we have together." Sometimes it offers enchantments straight out of a fairy tale, as for the Schremmers, when shortly after they were married, says Troy, "we got to play the newlyweds in Prelude to a Kiss. So we kept getting to have a wedding each night!"
That could only happen in the theatre. It is, as the song says -- and this may be the only time the B-52s edge out the Bard -- "a little old place where we can get together. Love Shack, ba-a-byyy!" n