Megan Reichelt knew it wasn’t a normal curtain call when the music coming from the speakers switched to Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” her song with then-boyfriend Lee Liebeskind.
The other cast members of Neverwhere quickly cleared off the stage. Liebeskind got down on one knee and took a ring box out of a tool belt, part of his costume for the role of Hammersmith in Rorschach Theatre’s Neil Gaiman adaptation (“He looked so cute in that costume,” Reichelt recalls).
It took some serious maneuvering to even get Reichelt on that stage. While Reichelt and Liebeskind are both Rorschach company members, she was the dramaturg for the show and didn’t have an acting role.
“Lee had this convoluted idea of how to propose,” says Randy Baker, Rorschach’s co-artistic director. “He wanted Meg to be in costume when he did it.”
Liebeskind took advantage of Rorschach’s Kickstarter campaign, which was offering a walk-on role in the 2013 production in exchange for a $1,000 donation. The wife of a board member played the part of the donor, and the crew asked Reichelt to wrangle the non-actress on-stage to make sure she wasn’t blocking any entrances for actors. With costumes made for Reichelt and the donor, the two served as extras in crowd scenes. At the end of the show, they got to take a bow with the rest of the cast. That’s when Liebeskind made his move.
“Everyone was acting so weird that night, and I thought it was because of the donor lady,” says Reichelt.
“I thrive in chaos so I was calm, but everyone else was freaking out,” says Liebeskind. His biggest concern was whether the ring box would fall out of his tool belt. Plus, they were both fasting for Yom Kippur.
“I was not expecting it,” says Reichelt, who is also a company member at Flying V Theatre. “It was just perfect because the show was such an ‘us’ show.” The two, who met during Rorschach’s production of Rough Magic in 2007, were married this August.
Why were their colleagues at Rorschach so keen to help them out? Well, for one, this isn’t the first on-stage proposal the company has seen.
Baker proposed to his wife, Deb Sivigny, during the 2005 run of The Beard of Avon. The two met when Sivigny designed costumes for The Illusion, which Baker produced.In that same show, the relationship between Baker’s co-artistic director, Jenny McConnell Frederick, and her husband, sound designer Matt Frederick, blossomed. What was it about that production that made its participants so lucky in love?
“It was very hot,” Baker says, quickly clarifying: “No air conditioning.”
But Rorschach Theatre isn’t alone in seeing many members of its cast and crew couple up. Four Avant Bard Acting Company members are longtime partners who met each other during production of a show, according to Avant Bard Director of Communications John Stoltenberg.
“Of the people I meet in the theater community, most of their significant others are involved in theater,” says freelance stage manager Jessica Soriano. “That’s why I don’t want to date in the D.C. theater scene—you’re always dating someone’s ex.”
While many people end up dating in the workplace regardless of their career, those involved in theater say that there’s something special about creating a show together.
“As a performer, you have to allow yourself to explore different emotions and reveal layers of identity, so you need to have trust,” says Josef Palermo, an intermedia artist and performer who works locally in theater and visual arts. For Palermo, the personal relationships that develop make collaboration more fruitful.
And those late hours and going out after rehearsal can lead to something more.
“It’s all very heightened, very dramatic, appropriately,” says Jonelle Walker, director of New Works at Blind Pug and occasional City Paper contributor. “I’d liken it to high school. Each show is a separate class you’re in, and you build a shared history over time.”
It also doesn’t hurt that theater depends on attractive, charismatic people for castmembers, explains director Matt Wilson, whose production of Much Ado About Nothing just opened at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company. “Anyone who’s ever had a fan crush or infatuation with a performer might imagine what that’s like when you’re working with that person all the time very closely,” he says. “It’s not hard for artists to get swept away by somebody and to feel an intimate connection with somebody whose work they really admire.”
To the heady mix of intimacy and attraction, throw in a dash of odd scheduling.
“Theater has this unique thing where you work on a show for so many hours, but it’s finite,” says Baker, Rorschach’s co-artistic director. “You get to know a group of people very well over a very short period of time and then it’s over and you do it with a different group. That’s why so much romance develops.”
But romances even develop when troupes perform together for years on end, like at Washington Improv Theater.
“We really seem to rack up the marriages,” says Mark Chalfant, WIT’s artistic/executive director.
Molly Murchie met her husband Colin Murchie after their first improv performances in 2003.
“Improv gives you a chance to see the best and worst of another person,” she says. “In scripted theater, you’re using other people’s words, but in WIT, you get a pretty good idea of the person they actually are from seeing them perform, because you have to draw from your own personality.”
Unlike many offices that have strict rules regarding coworkers dating, “theater’s rules are fluid,” says Liebeskind, who also runs The Inkwell (a local theater incubator) and works as artistic adviser at Flying V. Because most actors work as contractors, theaters would have a tough time imposing a no-fraternizing policy.
“I don’t think you can put rules like that in place for what adults do in their own time, and most actors are very good at leaving that at the door,” Wilson says.
Not all actors can do it, though.
One technician, who would only speak anonymously, says that “one actor, who I didn’t know had a crush on me, saw me and my boyfriend in the street. He was so angry that I was in a relationship he wouldn’t talk to me. That was a problem because we really needed to communicate for the show to run. When these things go wrong, they really go wrong.”
One actor, who also requested anonymity, says he’s witnessed enough affairs to feel disheartened about the prospects of dating on set. “After seeing so many people cheat on their spouses with people in theater, I got pretty jaded.”
But even when they’re not doing anything taboo, many people try to keep their so-called “showmances” a secret. Stage manager Sarah Conte met her boyfriend Tyler Herman when she was working as an apprentice at Imagination Stage in Bethesda, and he was the lead in Perseus Bayou in 2011. “We kept it a secret because I was afraid I’d get in trouble,” she says. “I was embarrassed a bit at the time because I thought, ‘You’re an actor and I’m a lowly intern.’”
Herman also had his misgivings about starting a relationship with someone who worked on the show. “I had just been with-slash-not with another actor and it wasn’t going swimmingly,” he says. “I remember feeling worried that whatever happened or might happen, it might affect the work, and the show was very important to me so I didn’t want that.”
But once Perseus Bayou closed, the relationship faced a new set of challenges.
“The easy thing of showmances is that you see each other every day, and you can leave candies in each other’s lockers and do stuff like that,” says Herman. “When the show ended, we were trying to find the time to see each other.”
Not all productions are lucky enough to avoid showmance drama.
Liebeskind describes one theatrical tour which had three couples on it. “They were great, but for everyone else it meant that if you had a disagreement with one person, you actually had a disagreement with two people.”
Conte also notes some complications in dealing with couples. “It’s hard to navigate when someone wants to work with their wife and it’s like, ‘Your wife is awesome, but she’s not the best for the show.’ You can’t always work with your significant other.”
And because power dynamics are always shifting as people trade roles—from actors to stage managers to directors—these relationships face new struggles, as well.
In Rorschach’s 2014 production of Glass Heart, Liebeskind directed and Reichelt acted in it.
“We all thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is gonna destroy your relationship,’ but it didn’t,” says Baker.
Liebeskind and Reichelt put rules in place to make sure their relationship could weather the production. “No kissing during rehearsal, that was the only rule beforehand,” he recalls.
“I didn’t want anyone thinking that I had gotten the role because he was my fiancé,” Reichelt says.
“But you didn’t!” Liebeskind says. “Meg rocked it. The other people who auditioned were great too, but she just killed it.”
Liebeskind recalls another production he was in years ago where two young leads started hooking up. “It was adorable [but] it lasted a week and a half.” Once it ended, “the director had to reblock scenes because the passion wasn’t there anymore. Breakups can really destroy the chemistry of romantic leads.”
“Every time there is an extremely heightened showmance, it’s [between] the people who you don’t see interact with each other,” says Walker. “It’s always the people you don’t expect. Those relationships are always in the shadows, behind the curtain.”
Because most theaters do not have a human resources department, stage managers are the people who deal with most of the behind-the-scenes drama. “Stage managers are emotional ninjas,” Wilson says.
How do they do it?
“Basically, it comes down to treating people as individuals,” says Conte. “Never say to one, ‘Let the other one know this’ because you have to treat all actors as actors, regardless of their relationships outside that room.”
And if there is a problem, more often, it’s the relationship—not the show—that suffers.
“Shows can ruin a relationship, sure,” says Baker. “But I wouldn’t blame the show for that. It’s a pressure cooker. It’s like travelling. You know how they say you shouldn’t get married to someone until you travel together? Doing an intimate experience like theater can help you realize if you’re really meant to be.”
Illustration by Robert Ullman