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TBA Online: News & Features: February 2014

Couples in Theatre: 2014 Edition

Friday, February 14, 2014  
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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 at Shotgun.

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 outside."

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 the better."

Dale Albright is field services director for Theatre Bay Area.