Couples in Theatre: 2014 Edition
Friday, February 14, 2014
By Dale Albright
Couples in Theatre: Nina Ball and Jon Tracy
"Work. Work, work, work, work, work." That's how set designer Nina Ball
and writer, director and lighting designer Jon Tracy describe life in
their busy household. "We love to work and we need the work…so we work."
And indeed, it would be hard to find a couple that is more immersed in
the world of theatre. "When one of us isn't working then we are looking
for work. When one of us is done with our work we help the other with
their work." And that constant hitting the pavement pays off. Right now,
Nina's set for Gidion's Knot is being utilized in Jon's production at
the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley; she is also working on designs for
Shotgun's Coast of Utopia, San Jose Rep's The Big Meal, Marin
Theatre Company's Failure: A Love Story, SF Playhouse's Into the
Woods, and Cal Shakes' The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's
Dream. Jon, meanwhile, is currently directing the MFA students at
American Conservatory Theater (where he is adjunct faculty) in his
adaptation of the "Oedipus" cycle called Kalos Kai Agathos. He is also
prepping Twelfth Night for Shotgun; his play The Farm goes up for
its third production in Mountain View in May.
Masters of the "selfie" photo, Jon Tracy and Nina Ball. Photo: Nina Ball
Not surprisingly, this couple met in theatre. While working at Shotgun
Players on Mark Jackson's Macbeth (Nina did the set and Jon did
lights) they got to know each other as collaborators. Later on, when
both were single, they met up for a drink and realized that maybe there
was a little more there.
The two work together quite a bit, averaging two to three shows a year.
When asked how it works, the couple responded (via email): "We work
really well together. Jon has a strong sense of what he wants
aesthetically and Nina tries to interpret those ideas and make them into
her own as well. It is at once both wonderful and challenging living
with the person you are working with as spontaneous design conversations
spring up at all hours. This can be hard if one of us is ready to talk
about the color of the wallpaper and the other is trying to concentrate
on the play he is writing. We get laughed at sometimes at production
meetings as we try to be very respectful and polite to each other, even
in charged moments."
What are the major challenges they face as a busy theatre couple?
Understandably, the meshing of schedules can be immensely challenging.
"Who is going to walk the dog when we're both in tech?" And Nina brings
up another challenge: "Jon is really weird and it is probably the
theatre that made him that way. We deal with it like you would deal with
any sickness. Luckily he's lovable."
Clearly. The couple's first baby is due at the end of this month. Seems
like the scheduling thing is going to get a little more complicated.
Couples in Theatre: Will Dao and M. Graham Smith
Romance can start in the most unlikely of ways. Actor Will Dao recalls meeting director/teacher/producer M. Graham Smith at a reading, where Will had a temperature of over 100º and, as he says, "had stuff coming out of my eyes, nose and mouth." Maybe it was the resulting "Barry White" voice, or maybe it was the scene in Eugenie Chan's play where Will played a teenager that gets off by imagining having sex with race cars, but that first night the only thing they said to each other was, "Bye." Shortly after that, the two worked together on a postmodern, postapocalyptic comedy based on the myth of Cain and Abel. Graham says, "[That's] a weird, yet perhaps perfectly appropriate place to meet someone you fall in love with."
The members of "WHam": Will Dao and M. Graham Smith. Photo: Tracy Ng
Talk about busy schedules. Graham is a freelance director, teaches
acting and produces the Global Age Project at Aurora Theatre. He's
currently directing She Rode Horses Like the Stock Exchange at Crowded
Fire this spring, Harry Thaw at Shotgun, an untitled play about
actress Olga Knipper at Profile Theatre in Portland and another project
down at Occidental College in Los Angeles. On top of this, he teaches at
Waterfront Conservatory, ACT and a school he cofounded in Barcelona.
Will (who has a side gig in construction management) is busy too; he'll
appear in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon at Bay Area Children's
Theater, The Crazed at Central Works, and, fortuitously, Harry Thaw
Yep, the couple (now collectively called "WHam!") has a show they are
working on together coming up, which is not something that they take
lightly. Will says, "We met working on a show and decided not to work
[together on another] for a while after that. We wanted to get the
relationship free and clear from work and to eliminate the
actor/director dynamic. There can also be the impression that an actor
is getting cast for reasons other than that he's the right actor for the
part, and I didn't want to create that impression." Graham continues,
"We didn't work on anything together for two years after we met. When I
cast Will in [a] workshop, I asked Amy Muller, who was producing, to see
him audition. She was like, 'Why?' and I said, 'Because he's my partner
and I don't want my perceived bias to be an issue,' and she was like,
'I don't have time for this Graham. Don't be silly. Just cast him.' So I
did. It was immediately clear how the relationship actually improved
our collaboration. We were both a little more fearless, a little more
willing to push the other, to experiment, to play because we built a
solid foundation of trust." Will adds, "Well, that and if one made the
other look bad in front of an audience, he'll have to sleep on the couch
for the rest of the show's run. So the pressure was on."
Graham articulates the benefits to a two-artist relationship. "It's
probably easier for us to understand why the other person is always
rehearsing late, is emotionally focused somewhere other than the
relationship. I think that part is hard for couples where one person
isn't in the theatre at all."
They both agree: relationship before work. Says Graham, "We're often
working even when we're home, so it's good to have a partner who can
say, 'Hey, stop working! It's Sunday morning and this is the only time
we are going to have to ourselves.' It's a great reminder to not work
24/7 and enjoy that other part of life that's not theatre." Will adds,
"It's always a challenge to find time to just be a couple. We review our
calendars almost every night to lock in days, or even hours, when we
can hang out. But, he concludes, "Someone has to do the dishes."
Couples in Theatre: Rebecca Ennals and Ryan Tasker
Little did actor Ryan Tasker know when helping Rebecca Ennals (artistic director of San Francisco Shakespeare Festival) move into a new apartment two years ago that eventually it would be his home too.
This relationship was a long time coming. When they initially met in 2005, circumstances were very different. Rebecca was married when she saw Ryan in a theatre Q/Dragon Productions performance of Cloud 9 at the Pear Ave Theatre in Mountain View. Soon after, she cast him as Proteus in a touring production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. For many years, they were "theatre acquaintances" whose circles would occasionally cross. Circumstances changed when they found themselves both single and living in San Francisco; they attended Cutting Ball's production of Pelleas and Melisande together...and the rest is history.
Artists sojourning in Paris: Ryan Tasker and Rebecca Ennals. Photo: Cathi Tasker
While they haven't yet had the opportunity to work on a full production
together, Rebecca directed Ryan in scenes for some of SF Shakes' "Free
Shakespeare in the Parklet" pop-up readings. And the work is the better
for it. Rebecca says, "I want to be the best director I can because I
want to impress him with my insights. It makes me work hard and strive
to be better. Ryan concurs: "The 'Parklet' scenes have been a blast. The
shorthand that we have, along with this freedom of exchange of ideas
between us, makes the collaboration more fun and fruitful."
As busy artists, oftentimes geography is a huge barrier, but not one
that can't be overcome. Sometimes it's Bay Area geography. For instance,
Rebecca's last show opened on a 10-out-of-12 tech day of Ryan's show
and he wasn't able to be at her opening night (or any of the
performances). He drove from downtown San Jose to Los Altos and back on
his break, leaving a bouquet of flowers and a congratulatory note at the
box office for her. "I was hoping that would let her know how proud and
pleased I was for her, even if I couldn't be there in person."
Sometimes the geography is a little more challenging (and, sure, maybe
even more exciting). Last year, Ryan spent a month in France with Word
for Word. Rebecca says, "I definitely missed him, but then I got to go
to France to visit him, so that made it all worth it."
Having an artist as a partner (as opposed to a "civilian") can certainly
be an advantage in some ways. Rebecca says, "I used to think I'd get
jealous watching him romantically involved with other women on stage,
but strangely I don't at all! There was this lovely part of [Word for
Word's] You Know When the Men Are Gone when he kissed Arwen Anderson,
and it reminded me of how sweet he is to me, and it really touched me,
like seeing a little piece of my life up on the stage. Not a lot of
people get to see what their love looks like in that way, from the
At the end of the day, it's all about coming home and being together.
"Schedules and money are among our biggest challenges," Ryan says. "Like
many an actor, I work another, almost full-time job to make ends meet.
It keeps things interesting, but makes reconnecting on a quiet night all
Dale Albright is field services director for Theatre Bay Area.