From the HeART: The Love Stories of Milwaukee Theatre
By Ryan Albrechtson
Photo Credit: Sarah Sallmann
There’s no business like show business. For many artists, their love of the arts consumes their lives… sometimes even including their love lives! We sat down with some of our favorite artist couples to talk about what it really takes to keep the romance alive while both building a career in the performing arts.
Marcee Doherty-Elst and Christopher Elst
“We actually met doing a show,” said Marcee, who met Christopher in 2008. “We were both in You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Christopher played Charlie Brown and I played Lucy!” Although they developed a friendship during the process, it wasn’t until after the show had closed that they began to date.
Their passion for theatre went to the next level in 2013 when the couple opened their own theatre company: Theater RED. And while they’ve worked together on many shows with the company, and with other groups, being in the arts means that their schedules don’t always align. “Being a theatre couple mostly means not seeing each other all that often,” said Christopher. “The good news is we both understand a theatre schedule, so we're not as put out as the average person might be when a production bites a month or two out of the standard social schedule.”
“The advantages of being a theatre couple are that you have someone who truly understands what it is like to audition, rehearse, perform and all the nerves, ups, and downs that go along with it,” said Marcee. “Christopher knows what it is like for me to go into an audition, nerves aplenty, and either walk out feeling great or walk out wanting to bury my head in the sand. Christopher knows the stress, exhaustion, and joy of tech week. Christopher knows the joy of getting a role you really want and the disappointment of not.”
Jane and Chris Flieller
“Chris and I met when I moved to Milwaukee from Detroit following my graduation from Wayne State University with a degree in Stage Management,” said Jane. “He had just gotten back from a summer at the Utah Shakespeare Festival… I worked as a stage manager for a company called Theatre Tesseract. Rehearsals started two weeks after I moved here, and Chris was in the cast. We began dating before the show closed and we've been inseparable ever since.”
Like Marcee and Christopher, Jane and Chris’s love of this art form led to the birth of what would become a large staple in the Milwaukee theatre community: In Tandem Theatre. “We realized that we wanted to work together, in our chosen industry and that the only way to do so was to form our own company - hence, In Tandem Theatre was born,” said Jane, who ran the company with her husband for over two decades. And while the dynamic duo decided to take a step back after 21 seasons, they’ve found that the freed-up nights and weekends has given them more downtime to spend together.
Laura Gray and Jonathan Wainwright
“We met in 1999 during a Ten Minute Play Festival produced by Playwrights Studio Theatre at the Miramar Theater,” said Laura. “It was my first show in Milwaukee after interning at Milwaukee Rep, and Jonathan was already working regularly with many local companies. Although we weren’t in any of the same plays, there was an immediate connection and interest in the other.”
Both Laura and Jonathan have built solid careers in the Milwaukee theatre community. And while their work spreads wide across a variety of companies, some of their favorite projects are when they get to work together.
“On occasion, we get to act opposite each other,” said Laura. “As well as providing a chance to spend more time together, many of these moments acting with each other have been personal and professional highlights. Also, you have someone who you can come home to who understands the job. A partner you can spitball ideas with, work through a challenge, speak the same language. An ally who knows the ins and outs of the process and the highs and lows of the profession.”
Susan and Andrew Varela
“We met on the National Tour of the show Evita,” said Susan. We became friends right away, but didn’t start dating until the tour ended.”
Susan and Andrew, after establishing themselves in New York, decided to make Milwaukee their new home. Both have performed with many local groups, and they’ve had the chance to work together on several projects, including Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables at Skylight Music Theatre.
“It can be challenging when a gig takes us away for weeks or months,” said Susan. “But we have a ‘three-week rule’ - we can’t go longer than that without seeing each other, no matter what. Even if it’s only for 24 hours!”
That commitment to their art, and to each other, has helped them find a successful work/life balance. “We feel grateful to be in the same business because we understand the requirements, schedule, and commitment inherent in this life,” said Susan.
Michael Wright and Ray Jivoff
“We met 36 years ago in San Francisco, while I was touring with “MASTER HAROLD” … and the boys,” said Michael. “Ray was in the audience on our opening night there and we met at this very fancy dinner afterward.”
Both Michael and Ray have had impressive performing careers, as well as taking on the hats of Artistic Directors. Ray served as Artistic Director of Skylight Music Theatre until last season, and Michael is currently in his last season as Artistic Director of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
“One of the greatest advantages is that we both understand the crazy highs and lows of a life in the theatre,” said Michael. “There can certainly be a lot of joy and fulfillment, but there can also be a lot of instability and stress. It’s a regular roller coaster. The greatest challenge is trying to find enough quality time together while we’re both dealing with the long days and erratic hours.”
With retirement on the horizon, the two look ahead to what other projects may arise. “It would be fun to act in something together. We haven’t done that since Guys and Dolls at Skylight back in 1997,” said Michael. “How about a gay Odd Couple?”
Jes and Jacob Sudbrink
“We met as performers in Malt Shop Memories, a jukebox musical written by a local artist,” said Jes. Since then, the pair have worked on a variety of shows and projects together. Their creative personalities led them to found the Sudbrink Performance Academy in 2015, a Waukesha based organization that offers classes and produces shows for youth performers.
The couple also runs the Main Street Song and Dance Troupe, another youth arts organization. With all of these intertwined artistic endeavors, they’ve found there can be good and bad moments. “It makes planning a show much easier. We can have more discussion about vision and other things more often to keep the creative team on the same page,” said Jacob. “Challenges come from being able to meet more often - especially if vision or ideas don't align. If you're not careful, that disagreement can carry into other parts of life.”
“Working on a show together has advantages because we can stay up late at night in front of the fireplace, planning in the comfort of our home,” added Jes. “We are often able to discuss a lot of the vision and intentions in the evenings and mornings, so we can arrive on the same page to meetings and rehearsals.”
Brenda and Randall Dodge
“It was a showmance!” said Brenda. “We met on stage in a 2005 production of The Pirates of Penzance at the Moonlight Amphitheatre in Southern California.”
Brenda and Randall opened Forte Theatre, a professional company based in Franklin. Their inaugural production, Miracle on 34th Street, ran this past December.
“The advantage of creating a theatre company together is that we wake up every day working side by side towards the same goal. The challenge is that we wake up every day working side by side towards the same goal,” said Brenda. “All kidding aside, it's pretty incredible to share the same vision and be in the trenches every day with your partner, colleague and best friend.“
The couple, and their new company, are quite the ambitious force. Currently, they are campaigning to purchase and renovate a historic hardware store in Franklin to turn into a new theatre space.
Tami Workentin and Jim Pickering
“Jim and I met when we worked on Exonerated, the inaugural production of Next Act’s new space,” said Tami. “Jim played a cop who interrogated my character, Sunny, who’s husband was wrongly accused and placed on death row.”
“Prior to the start of rehearsals, I reached out to Jim via email to tell him how nice it will be to work together. He responded back with a list of rules of when I was allowed to speak to him, which was not before noon, and a number of other star requirements. I had no idea he was pulling my leg!”
The two of them have a long list of theatrical roles under their belts, many of which have been shared together. Most recently, the duo was seen in Milwaukee Rep’s A Christmas Carol. “It's nice to have a shared experience especially during the hustle and bustle of the holidays,” said Tami. It feels like we truly experience the fullness of the season as we prance around in our Dickensian costumes like moving Xmas cards. I look across the rehearsal hall and see him kicking up his heels in the Fezziwig dance, then getting really frustrated with himself and his momentary two left feet, and it makes me giggle.”