Couples In Theatre 2020: These Creative Duos Keep It Collaborative
Wednesday, February 12, 2020
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
by Nicole Gluckstern
Ah, love! For those of us in the arts, our love might contain “multitudes,” encompassing a wide variety of creative partnerships. Here’s a snapshot of just four of the many inspiring artistic alliances working in our Bay Area theatre community, whose shared love of theatre has led to many fruitful collaborations.
The Life Partners
Mark Jackson and Beth Wilmurt. Photo by Kyle Adler.
It would be difficult to name a theatre-making couple more prolific than Mark Jackson and Beth Wilmurt, who’ve been together since they met at San Francisco State University in the early nineties. Since then, they’ve created a huge body of work, from early productions as Art Street Theatre, Jackson’s breakout Shotgun Players hit The Death of Meyerhold, and multiple creative ruminations on the Three Sisters, the first of which they devised together at the Deutsches Theater Berlin, in 2007.
Although their recent collaboration at Shotgun Players—KILL THE DEBBIE DOWNERS! KILL THEM! KILL THEM! KILL THEM OFF!—was billed as their first co-directed effort, the truth is, according to Wilmurt, almost every piece they’ve done together has felt as if it were co-directed. Jackson agrees, using their 2016 production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf as a reference.
“Beth playing Martha the way she did co-directed that production,” Jackson explains. “How Martha is played determines how George must co-pilot, and how Nick and Honey need to scramble to keep up...her approach had a big impact on the direction of that production.”
Of Wilmurt’s particular strengths as an actor, Jackson further observes that she’s “really good at noticing things beneath the surface...[and] I’ve learned from her how to wait, when staying in the question might yield deeper results.”
Over the years their creative paths have necessarily diverged somewhat. But whether or not they are working on a given show together, the dinner table frequently remains a place of inquiry.
“Every project I do, whether with Mark or not, feels now to me like it's all one long project,” remarks Wilmurt. “Even if one of us is not officially involved in the other’s project, we're always bouncing ideas off one another.”
The Power Duo
Idris Ackamoor and Rhodessa Jones. Photo by David Wilson.
After first meeting as two parts of a double-bill at the Savoy Tivoli in 1979, and becoming creative collaborators and erstwhile romantic partners in 1983, the artistic paths of Idris Ackamoor and Rhodessa Jones have remained deeply entwined to this day. As co-directors of Cultural Odyssey, they’ve dedicated themselves to supporting each other creatively over the course of their long association. While Ackamoor is probably best known as a musician, and Jones as a theatre practitioner and social activist, their early collaborations were deliberately interdisciplinary. As a duo, they toured around the world, performing their hybrid theatre-dance-music pieces to great acclaim, and setting the stage, as it were, for their long tradition of co-creation.
As long-time creative partners, Ackamoor and Jones have developed a body of work that they know to be uniquely theirs. Each has had the opportunity to direct the other in several solo performances, and Ackamoor’s music frequently makes an appearance in the pieces Jones creates with The Medea Project: Theatre with Incarcerated Women/The HIV Circle. They’ve led workshops, seminars, and classes together, and their spheres of influence are as wide-ranging as they are. And whether or not they’re performing together, Ackamoor points out that they “always solicit feedback” from each other regarding their works-in-progress.
Reflecting upon their many years together as collaborators, Jones mentions that one of the things she’s especially proud of is the way they’ve modeled black love for their audiences and classrooms.
“Our work as black artist couples has always insisted on love having the last word,” she muses. “When we are crafting scenarios, the work is always made richer when the...audiences witness the respect and joy we bring to working together.”
The Consummate Collaborators
Jan Zvaifler and Gary Graves. Photo by Jim Norrena.
For Jan Zvaifler and Gary Graves, co-artistic directors of Central Works Theater Company, collaborating comes naturally. Now celebrating its 30-year anniversary, Central Works has long been at the vanguard of the Bay Area’s rich tradition of new play development. After co-founding the company in 1990, Zvaifler met Graves at one of the local theatre hangouts which then led to their first collaboration, and he’s been a company member since 1997. All told, they’ve ushered over 60 world premiere productions into the world, from literary adaptation to from-scratch originals.
As the primary administrators of their company, they’ve settled into a comfortable division of labor over the years. As Graves describes their process, “Jan handles most of the financial management in the company. I function as a kind of production manager/tech director, and we share all decisions of artistic direction.” An actor with a long history of ballet and other dance performance, Zvaifler often appears onstage as well, while Graves frequently directs the action.
Pioneers of a months-long play development process they call “The Central Works Method,” they welcome creative input from everyone in the room, and are especially proud of the sense of “ownership” the process fosters in the actors and creative team. That they’re able to pay everyone an hourly wage to take part is another accomplishment they are proud of. Comfortably ensconced in the Berkeley City Club, they keep production costs low by using the space’s natural features as set, and keeping an emphasis on the performers rather than the production design.
“Together we get a lot done,” Graves points out. “Keeping costs down, in order to compensate for the marketing challenge of running a company that does all new plays, which is a tough sell in the theater, maybe the toughest.”
The Next Generation
Britt Lauer and Chris Steele. Photo by Emily Hunt.
When the newly-minted, queer theatre collective Poltergeist Theatre Project presented their first full-length production, The Julie Cycle, they brought a smart deconstruction of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie to the Potrero Stage. Co-created by Chris Steele and Britt Lauer—who first met while working with We Players—Poltergeist Theatre Project was born from a PlayGround incubator program, which they filled out the paperwork for “the day before” it was due. Their stated intention, to create a queer feminist company focusing on “problematic” classics, secured them a place in the program, and Poltergeist Theatre Project was on its way. Thanks to the fiscal and production support provided, their debut grew from the kernel of idea to a body of well-realized, creatively ambitious work that catapulted them to deserved acclaim.
When asked about their working relationship, both are effusive about the contributions of the other. Of Chris, Britt mentions their trust in the process. “I really like to have control,” she elaborates, “and...that’s not very conducive to an organic creative process. They’ve helped me a lot with that.” Of Britt, Chris marvels at her sheer stamina “coming to rehearsal after a full length day of work and five hours of sleep and [turning] out this jaw-dropping acting work.” A shared sense of theatrical aesthetics and artistic imperatives also fuels their creative relationship, as does, as Chris points out, the fact that they both identify as “unapologetically Queer AF.”
“We’ve learned to fight for space in an often unfriendly world,” Chris elaborates, “and we are both very conscious about using art as activism and as alchemy.”
Nicole Gluckstern is an arts journalist and theatre-maker in San Francisco. You can read her most current work in KQED Arts, or stalk her on twitter at @enkohl