Stratford Shakespeare Festival leading lady Seana McKenna can be “pretty spiky” in rehearsals, says director Miles Potter. “Other people in the room sometimes say, ‘Wow, are they having it out?’ She’s demanding. She’s a perfectionist. Other directors might be a bit surprised.”
Not Potter. He’s been married to McKenna since 1997 and has directed her more than two dozen times, most recently in the title role in Richard III last summer. McKenna, for her part, says it’s an easy working relationship built on mutual professional respect and a shared aesthetic – as long as she remembers not to bug him about what wig she’s going to be wearing, a topic he finds less interesting than she does.
Spouses directing spouses is commonplace in the theatre. In centuries past, Europe’s itinerant acting companies were often made up of family members, and those who work with their romantic partners today say they can share an artistic shorthand that really speeds up the creative process.
“It is often thought that having couples inside a production is a strength,” director Kim Collier says. She has regularly directed her husband, actor Jonathon Young, at Vancouver’s Electric Company Theatre, the troupe they first established as a collective with two other colleagues. “Trust, vulnerability, depth of relationship, all play a big role in our theatre work.”
Still, you do have to make sure you are not excluding other members of the company in what is supposed to be a collaborative process. “People don’t want to feel like there is a separate, intimate club in the room,” adds Collier. “I make sure that if I talk about the work with Jon at home, and we happen to discuss notes that are useful to his role, that I repeat these notes again in the room for all to hear.”
McKenna says she and Potter discuss their work extensively at home – though only up to a point. “Once rehearsals start, talk ceases. I don’t want to hear what he says about the other actors,” she says.
But aside from a certain discretion in not criticizing colleagues, theatre couples seem only too happy to take the job home. “We wake up talking about it and we go to bed talking about it,” says Soulpepper company member Nancy Palk, who is regularly directed by husband Joseph Ziegler. “It might be boring to some people, but it isn’t to us: We’re single-minded.”
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