Portland arts power couples dish on the sparks that fly in creative collaboration and cohabitation.
By Brett Campbell
Coupledom is a collaboration. Composing a life together requires cooperation, compromise, constructive criticism, and can bring comfort, joy, and rewards impossible to discover alone.
Art partnerships work the same way. Much of what delights audiences arises from creatively tense teamwork, a sometimes delicate dance in which partners try to bring out each other’s best without compromising away the volatile energy that fuels creativity, to make something better than either could have concocted alone.
But what happens when your creative partner is also your life partner?
“In many ways, it’s a great advantage to have the lines blurred between home and work,” says fEARnoMUSIC Artistic Director Kenji Bunch. “We can work stuff out at odd hours and in odd places that most administrative partners don’t end up together. It feels natural to collaborate professionally as well as personally.”
Such constant collaboration can double the rewards of togetherness, but its inherent tensions as well. The friction that sparks creativity can also singe romantic relationships.
“When you work, live, and create art with a partner,” notes Imago Theatre’s Jerry Mouawad, “it’s 24/7. Nonstop. It’s very challenging and rewarding, yet you need to know how to relinquish your ego and your needs for the sake of sanity.”
We asked five of Portland’s artistic power couples to dish on the ups and downs of creative collaboration and to provide tips for any couples who live and create together. As The Portland Ballet’s Jim Lane says, “Co-creating/cohabiting is something that picks you. It either happens, or it doesn’t.”
Ashley Roland + Jamey Hampton
Heating Up Though
Though the two of were in one another’s orbits prior to their first meeting, they first connected at a Pilobolus workshop in Washington Depot, Connecticut, in July of 1983. As Ashley puts it: “Let’s just say we were on a collision course to connect for the early part of our lives. Upon my first sighting, I was inexplicably drawn to him.”
Jamey adds, “Ashley was an extraordinary dancer: athletic, powerful, funny, unique. We used to do the class and workshop stuff all day, and then a group of us would go up to a studio after dinner and dance until midnight or one in the morning.”
“When we first started working in Portland in 1997, we spent three months building Carmina Burana. It was liberating to be creating something so powerful and beautiful in Oregon and not in rural Connecticut where we had been for so long. It was a regeneration of creativity,” Jamey recalls.
Ashley’s assessment is characteristically on the more ethereal side: “Our representative moment is BodyVox. It’s not a moment; it is the present, and we live within it constantly. Our collaboration is 24/7/365.” Jamey agrees that the couple is a conduit. “Art (in our case, dance) is a beautiful thing that wants to come through us and into the world.”
In the spirit of allowing flow, Jamey shares, “It is best when we are not mired in our own ego.” A sentiment with which Ashley wholeheartedly agrees: “Our collaboration is a constant exercise in remaining egoless. Friction always creeps in if one is operating from a selfish place.”
It’s not only about putting one’s ego aside but also about being fearlessly open both possibility and the often-ensuing madness. “The only way to succeed is to go all in, and going all in means it’s going to be a wild ride,” says Jamey. “Have a couple of kids on top of that; run a company; do several shows a year, and go on tour; be there on time for soccer games and school plays… Yes, it’s a wild ride. And I couldn’t do it without a partner who does the other hundred percent.”
When there is conflict, they are both keen on responding quickly to find a solution, with culpability and communication key to their approach. And when all else fails, says Ashley, it doesn’t hurt to laugh. “Our company has witnessed us having friction, and the remedy to many a stressful moment is often humor. I think we laugh more than any dance company or any group of people around.”
Jamey adds, “I think over time you get pretty efficient at settling conflict because you tend to have seen it all, and you have developed certain tools to get you through a tough time. We are all still capable of making bonehead mistakes, but the best thing is to recognize your own contribution to the conflict; drill down into what’s really bothering you; realize that your partner is probably not the problem. It must be the kids. Blame it on the kids!”
Carol Triffle + Jerry Mouawad
Writer/Directors Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad founded Imago Theatre in 1979.
Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad met in a ballet class taught by Danny Diamond, who shared a studio space with Richard Hayes-Marshall, who co-ran a theater school called TheatrElan, where Jerry had studied the pioneering movement theater of French actor, mime, and teacher Jacques Lecoq. Jerry was working on a mask production and asked Carol, a Portland State University dance student, to help. Their collaborative creature stole the show; they began inventing more, then touring, and the rest is Imago history.
The night before a crucial performance at Connecticut’s Shubert Theatre, “we had a penguin problem,” Jerry recalls. A scene involving a penguin just wasn’t working. At that night’s rehearsal, they rewrote the whole piece, turning it into series of musical chairs follies. Fearing a flop at the show the next day, they started the scene with the music playing and the penguins circling. Then, the music stopped, setting off a penguin scramble for the chairs.
“The audience roared, and the piece stole the show,” Jerry says. We went on to New York confident that we had fixed our penguin problem.” The musical chairs sketch went on to delight thousands during the long run of Frogz.
According to Jerry, the two hatched a plan to maintain harmony at the outset. “Early on, we decided that there could not be two directors at one time.”
Fire Prevention “In shows where we collaborate (Frogz, ZooZoo, La Belle), we always know who is in the room directing, and the other gives leeway (most of the time),” says Jerry.
The rules of engagement are well-defined, with a fairly bright line illuminating the work/home divide, according to Jerry. “Never discuss work at home after 6 p.m., unless it’s new, creative ideas. Current projects are often quarantined. The business of theater and its complications are minimized at home.”
For these two creators, effectively combining forces includes individual space and respectful encouragement. The formula? “We give each other plenty of room when the other is directing their own work. We are supportive and never try to discourage or derail the other from their vision. It is a journey of a trio of visions: Carol’s work, Jerry’s work, and the work we do together.”
Murphy + Sharon Maroney
Broadway Rose Theatre
Producing Artistic Director Sharon Maroney and Managing Director Dan Murphy founded Tigard’s Broadway Rose Theatre in 1992.
While Dan reveals himself to be a hopeless romantic who didn’t waste any time with his attempt to lock Sharon down, she apparently took some convincing. As they say, a river cuts through rock, not because of its power but its persistence.
“We met in 1984 in summer stock, performing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Brookside Playhouse in Shamokin Dam, Pennsylvania. Sharon was the Narrator, and I played one of the brothers. I think I asked her to marry me 11 days into the run; she said no and told me I’d had too much to drink. Eventually, I wore her down.”
The theater staged a production of Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit’s 1991 musical, Phantom. On July 8, 2001, the show sold out—the very first sold-out performance. “We looked at each other and thought, ‘Wow, a sold-out show. We have arrived,” says Dan. Sharon adds, “I felt like it was a message from the universe that we were in the right place at the right time, and after 10 years, we were headed toward success.”
Like most families, the pressures of raising children and pursuing professional dreams weighed on the couple. “[It’s] always been a difficult balancing act, and raising two daughters while running a theater company is insane. There was a time when the office for the theater was in our house. The boundaries were so muddy that we went to the board of directors and, with their help, found some office space so we could separate our home and work life,” remembers Dan.
Fast forward a quarter century, the couple has come a long way from using the dining table as a base of operations with a gorgeous, permanent venue in Tigard, Oregon—their own New Stage Auditorium.
Fire Prevention “Now that we are empty nesters, the rules still apply—such as, after a certain time of night, no more talking about the theater.” says Dan.
“One of the bigger challenges we have is recognizing how we speak to each other at the office,” continues Sharon. Dan adds, “We have learned that, rather than expose the staff to some of our marital eccentricities, some discussions are best held behind closed doors. That way, if one of us throws something, it is less likely to strike a valued member of the staff.”
Monica Ohuchi + Kenji Bunch
Concert pianist Monica Ohuchi and composer Kenji Bunch became Executive and Artistic Directors, respectively, of veteran Portland new music ensemble fEARnoMusic in 2014.
Though Monica and Kenji are both from the Pacific Northwest, they met in New York City. After Kenji had graduated from Juilliard, he started teaching viola in the pre-college division (a high school prep program) and needed a pianist to work with some of his students. Colleague Toby Appel recommended Monica, who at that time was finishing her undergraduate degree in piano.
As Monica remembers, “One of the first times I played for him, I noticed his Oregon driver’s license in his viola case. I’m from Seattle, and we got talking about the Pacific Northwest and how we both missed it. From the very beginning, our love for the Pacific Northwest was one of the things that drew us to each other. We’re married 10 years as of May 14.”
“Our biggest collaborations to date (other than our two kids) have been the piano concerto I wrote for Monica in 2011 and the set of performance etudes (Monica’s Notebook) she recorded. That project was something she conceived and planned herself, and I was honored to write the music for her.”
“Sometimes running an arts organization is like playing defense in a basketball game. Good defense involves a lot of communication, as well as anticipating and reacting to breakdowns in coverage by rotating to assist a teammate (‘help defense’). Any kind of conflict involves some degree of miscommunication. Collaborating creatively can certainly lead to this at times. Sometimes one of us can be further along with such an idea before realizing we haven’t talked it through together yet, and that can lead to confusion or blindsiding the other person,” Kenji shares.
“If we aren’t communicating clearly,” he continues, “we can both assume the other has taken care of something, and then, to our horror, we realize we’ve dropped the ball. But we’re both quick to blame ourselves rather than each other, which keeps things from getting unpleasant.”
How do these two minimize conflict? “Easy. Usually, I’m right!” Monica says with an ironic smile.
Kenji offers a slightly more pragmatic take on the strategies that work for them. “What makes our professional relationship work is really the same as our personal relationship—namely, there’s a real foundation of mutual respect and a secure understanding of each other’s commitment. Beyond that, I think it’s important to recognize what each of us brings to the table and how to complement that skill set, rather than compete with it.”
Even with the best intentions, Monica adds, having balance between the two spheres of their relationship sometimes requires a hard reset. “Occasionally, we force ourselves to turn off our work minds and take a weekend to focus completely on our family life. We set ‘away’ messages on our emails and clear out meetings, rehearsal, and teaching. And then, we spend the weekend going to Oaks Park and playing princesses and superheroes.”
Nancy DAVIS + Jim Lane
The Portland Ballet
Nancy and Jim Lane founded The Portland Ballet in 2001.
Both Nancy and Jim grew up in the Los Angeles area, took classes from some of the same teachers, and attended School of American Ballet in New York. Still, they were never in the same place at the same time until 1976, when their mutual acquaintance, John Clifford, offered Jim a job with the one-year-old Los Angeles Ballet to partner with Nancy, a founding member.
“She’s 5’9”. I’m 6’1”. We were a great match,” Jim says. “I was immediately attracted to her, but there was a slight obstacle. Nancy was already hooked up with the company manager—the guy who wrote the checks! We danced together pretty much nonstop and got to know each other very well. When you work so intimately with someone, you really get to understand how they think and feel. The more we danced together, the more we got to understand (intuitively and intellectually) each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
The breadth of their vision comes into sharp focus as Jim shares the origin story of their luminous, newly renovated headquarters. “One day, we were driving down the hill from Salvador Molly’s restaurant in Hillsdale and saw a rusted-out, old auto repair garage on the corner of SW Capitol Highway,” Jim remembers. “There was no ‘For lease or sale’ sign up, but we both thought, ‘That’s a great place to have a ballet academy!’ We pulled into the parking lot, looked in the windows, and saw that the interior was pillar-free and supported by four, giant, 100-year-old trusses. Three remodels, 16 years, and thousands of ballet students later, we know TPB is our magnum opus!”
For Nancy and Jim, the yin and yang that forms of the bedrock of their success is also the root of many challenges in their working relationship. “In many ways, we have very different personalities and approach things from different angles,” Jim explains. He blames the stars. “Nancy is a Taurus. I’m Sagittarius. I’m quick to embrace a new project but tend to get bored with it after a while. Nancy takes more time to jump on the bandwagon, but when she does, she is all in, and there is no stopping her. So, typically, the rub is at the beginning of something new. I’m halfway to the finish line, and Nancy is still checking out the course.”
Fire Prevention Not to miss a chance for a Dirty Dancing reference, these two keep the peace by respecting one another’s dance space—a lesson that took some time. “We’ve been together so long that we now know to give each other space when we need it. Of course, this understanding took time to mature. When we were dancing together, we’d bicker in rehearsal so much that Clifford would just leave the studio!
“When you create something from nothing, it’s like having a child. You can’t and don’t want to stop thinking about it. I’m not really a balanced work/home kind of person by nature, so it’s good that Nancy and I collaborate. Otherwise, I’d drive her nuts!” Jim confesses.