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‘Married to the Stage Can Be Stressful’ by Natalie McCabe

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“Married to the Stage” can be stressful.

Brad Frost (Edward “Ned” Alleyn), and Ellen Kahne (Captain Olivia “White Rose” D’Winter), during Finale at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, 2012.  Photo courtesy of Photography by Michael Ulrich.

Contrary to popular opinion, when both partners try to weave their careers around the trials and travesties that occur onstage, having a successful relationship, such as a marriage, offstage can be rather difficult. Between financial hardships, separations, and the inevitable missed auditions that make the rejection feel personal, keeping a marriage loving and sane in the insane world of theatre requires dedication and hard work.

So, how does one stay focused on the positives and keep such a marriage sailing as beautifully as a well-rehearsed dance?

Kahne and Frost during Finale at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, 2012. Photo courtesy of Photography by Michael Ulrich.

Such a question was posed to me a few weeks ago by Ellen Kahne, featured in the photos above, who currently plays the pirate, Captain Olivia “White Rose” Rose D’Winter, at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire. Her fiancé, Brad Frost, also pictured above, plays  Edward “Ned” Alleyn of the Lord Admirals Men at the same venue. (He is also my husband’s fight partner for Chess, seen in my earlier post here). The two young actors will be married not long after faire ends this fall.

Kahne wanted marriage advice. Though I am only 27 years old, I will celebrate my 5th wedding anniversary on September 21, which apparently makes me an “old married lady” in some eyes (just not the ones that try to card me while buying Lottery tickets. Yes, this actually happened.) Considering that I have not lived with my husband since before grad school began, my initial advice was, “Be ready for time apart.”

Preparing for physical separation during marriage is near impossible. Yes, Johnny and I spent long chunks of time apart while we were dating. Six weeks after our first date, he traveled to London for study with his MFA classmates for another six weeks and, afterwards, took the opportunity to visit his relatives in France for two weeks. Eight weeks spent apart early in our relationship was not easy, especially after the terrorist attacks in London tore apart the tube station nearest his flat. Still, our relationship was young – and we moved in together for school that fall-  so it did not seem as big a deal.

The following spring, I spent a semester studying abroad in Ireland. This time, our separation lasted for more than three months. Though I absolutely loved my time in Ireland, I missed my new fiancé terribly. Again, though, we were not yet married.

During the course of our marriage, we have spent up to seven weeks at a time apart. Now, shorter separations seem much longer. At the moment, my husband and I live two hours apart. When we had a car, this could be dealt with by a day-trip, at worst. Now, car-less, my trips are much more planned. With separate work lives in separate states, seeing each other as little as every two weeks becomes difficult. Thankfully, we have absolutely amazing friends who have no problem picking me up at various train stations and escorting me to and from the faire. (“God save the Queen!”- And the Gypsy King… And Sir Launch-a-lot… And, perhaps most of all, the Griffiths at Dragon Eye Creations).

Technology helps. Using video chats on Skype and contact on cell phones- texting or calling- helps lessen the strain of restricted time together. However, the faire grounds are a rather strange cell zone, so texts to and from Johnny and me sometimes arrive days later, in mixed batches. This makes for incredibly strange texting conversations. I have even witnessed several of my text messages from different days and times arriving on my husband’s cell all at once. Sometimes I wonder if this is a sign from the powers that be that certain modern advancements are not to be used at a Renaissance-themed venue. Still, I would indeed rather have “toilets that flush,” as Rowan and the Rose have pointed out. (More information about this duo, the faire’s true love story, in an upcoming article).

Johnny and Natalie, newly-married in 2007!

Some of the most important advice includes making the most of the time you do have together. Because, as theatre practitioners, you will probably have little cash for date nights, use simple things to enjoy each other’s company. For example, Johnny and I often watch movies when we are together. Normally, this includes DVDs we’ve rented or bought cheaply on sale. Meals out include relatively inexpensive places such as Five Guys, Subway, or, perhaps my favorite whilst in Lancaster, PA – seriously – Sheetz. (Sorry, fellow Philadelphians, but when you are in central PA, Sheetz far out-ranks Wawa. The convenience store/gas station has more made-to-order food and coffee concoctions than a standard diner menu AND a place to sit and enjoy said food. Fantastic. The three 7-Elevens I have within a half-mile of my apartment don’t even come close). If you’d prefer to stay in, you could always take some time at night to cook a meal together. In my case, my husband is the cook, sometimes for just the two of us, sometimes for us and the entire Bacchanalian cast, as was the case at last year’s Canadian Thanksgiving celebration – appropriate, since Johnny is from Montreal.

This also means finding time to have special moments together while at work. In 2010, during Johnny’s first season at the faire, he played French explorer Guillaume le Testu. Before his fight in Human Chess, he would declare to the Queen, “Your Majesty, because I am French, I must have the kiss of a beautiful woman before I fight!” Normally, on days when I was not there, he would kiss fellow actor Sarah Knittel, who played the Wine Mistress that season. (She currently plays the zealous Sheriff of the Shire, Penelope Jacket). However, when I was there, he would ask the audience for volunteers. Naturally, he wouldn’t pick a random stranger; unbeknownst to the audience, he was not looking for anonymous volunteers. He did it as an excuse to pull me out of the audience for a dip and passionate kiss. With the exception of Halloween, I’d typically dress in “civilian” (i.e. normal, non-Renaissance) clothing to make it appear that he fervently kissed a complete stranger – which inevitably shocked the audience. It was a special moment, and I certainly looked forward to it.

After two years of not being able to kiss my husband, you’d go a little crazy, too, much like Sarah Knittel, as Sheriff Penelope Jacket, shown here at the Joust at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, 2012. Photo courtesy of Photography by Michael Ulrich.

Of course, being around faire as much as I was – and still am – means that I get called upon to help from time to time. On short notice, I have worked during an incredibly busy wine-themed weekend where I refilled samples non-stop at the wine-tasting booth all day and was only able to finally sit down around 5 pm due to a “privy” break. However, working there gave me a reason to spend a few extra evenings with my husband, help our beloved Ren Faire, and pick up some extra cash – so I took advantage of the opportunity and went.

Being “married to the stage” isn’t for the materialistic among us, particularly when it comes to spousal “traditions.” For example, if you expect your actor partner to propose to you, diamonds should probably not be your best friend. My engagement ring – invaluable due to the sentiment associated with it – does not have a “rock” sitting on top of it –  small slivers of diamonds throughout the ring, yes, but no big stone where my man marked his territory. Because of this, many people assume that I am not, in fact, married. (Looking about age 16 probably doesn’t help). I won’t get into my issues with the history associated with such a custom, either, but you get my point. Yet, there is no dollar value – Canadian or American – that can be placed on my engagement ring. It was the wedding band of my maternal grandmother-in-law; my husband inherited it when she passed. Consequently, I feel defensive when un-engaged women claim that they would deny a proposal due to a ring’s monetary value. Certainly, they are entitled to such opinions, but, the way I see it, my husband didn’t buy me. Instead, he put a great deal of love, thought, care, and faith in me by entrusting me with a family heirloom.

Similarly, the other two (yes, for a total of three!) rings I wear on my “ring finger” were not expensive compared to most “standard” wedding rings, but they are full of meaning. My husband and I ordered wedding bands that were within our budget from a company in Ireland, and they are engraved with Celtic swirls and designs. The third ring on that finger is also from Ireland. My husband bought my Claddagh ring in “Claddagh Village” in Galway, where the rings originated. The rings are to be worn in a certain way, and married women wear theirs on their ring fingers in a certain position. I fell in love with many people and places in Ireland when I studied abroad there six years ago; my husband felt the same passion when he went out on a small boat off of Ireland’s west coast and saw the Cliffs of Moher rising above out of the sea. Ever since, Ireland has remained in our thoughts. Thus, my engagement and wedding rings are full of meaning, if not monetary value.

This belief remains with us. Just as we make the most of our inexpensive date nights, we find special items when we wish to give the other a material gift. Johnny, for example, spoils me rotten with little items nearly every time I visit: honey sticks (The Bee Folks), leather-bound journals (Red Falcon), perfume (thankfully, no “eau de Renaissance” here – Victoria’s Secret!), stuffed animals (a unicorn for my birthday!), and more. Scott Griffith of Dragon Eye Creations taught Johnny to hand-turn pens, so I have a few of those made by Johnny and Scott, as well. (More on that in an upcoming article!) For our anniversary last year, I asked my friend Keith Henley to make Johnny a quilt out of old tee shirts that he no longer wore but did not wish to throw away. These items have sentimental value, though they were not heavy on our wallets.

Additionally, we often create gifts for others for holidays and birthdays. This certainly helps our budget but has the added benefit of gifting time and memories to others. For example, Johnny made most of the Christmas gifts we handed out last year. As mentioned above, he learned how to turn pens and other items on a lathe from our “Dragon Eye” friend, Papa Scott. (The lathe and saw currently residing in my efficiency apartment in DC certainly make interesting talking points!) The Christmas before, most people on our list received scarves that I had knit. (Unfortunately, I can’t say my attempts at “quilling,” an historic paper-rolling craft, were quite as successful.) When we lived outside of Philadelphia, we had ready access to “Figgy, Jr.,” my mother’s abundant fig tree. With her permission, we made countless jars of fig jam for Christmas and other occasions. These gifts cost us little more than our time but were well-worth the effort. They were not “traditional” in the monetary sense; yet, crafting gifts for others has become a habit for us.

Perhaps the above is the most important lesson of all. Life is anything but conventional when your career is overtly theatrical, so create new traditions of your own. Don’t let lack of financing or face time get in the way. Enjoy the time that you do have together and make small events meaningful. (Taking a short walk hand-in-hand at night to watch the fireflies is incredibly romantic- and free!) And don’t shy from “public displays of affection.”

Johnny and Natalie at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, 2010. Getting wooed in front of thousands of people made up for the limited time with my spouse. Photo courtesy of Michael Erana and Serendipity Studios.

Rain or shine, sometimes chessboard kisses in front of thousands of people make the best memories when you are “married to the stage.”

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Read other articles in Married to the Stage.

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4 Responses to ‘Married to the Stage Can Be Stressful’ by Natalie McCabe

  1. Karen September 14, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your story, Natalie. I too met my husband while performing at the PA Renaissance Faire in 1987 (boy, am I aging myself). However, we did not want to be apart and often turned down jobs that would separate us. We continued to work locally at Ren Faires, Dinner Theatres, etc. until I got pregnant and we decided to switch careers. He now teaches and I’m an executive asst. We still perform in community theatre and SCA. It’s a small pond but one we’re happy to swim in…together.

  2. Amy September 17, 2012 at 3:28 pm #

    i understand all to well the times apart. my husband is not an actor, but we meet online, and after saying for awhile married. we’ve never lived together fir more than three weeks at a time though because i live in PA, and he lives near Montreal. Thankfully, your awesome husband gave us the info an immigration lawyer and my headband and i well finally be living together all the time (minus weekends when I’m working at faire) very soon.

  3. Amy September 17, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    I thought I commented on this, but seems to not have posted…
    I completely understand the being apart issue. My husband and I have never lived with each other for more that 3 weeks at a time. We met online and then after dating for awhile got married. But he’s from Montreal, and I’m from PA, and we’re just getting together with an immigration lawyer and getting everything going on that front, so soon we’ll be together all the time (except when I’m away working at Faire for the weekends). I think it shows how strong a relationship is if you can be apart and still be able to be just as much in love as when you are together.

  4. Peta Heberge January 10, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

    I guess my viewpoint on Ellen Kahne(Frost) is a tad less positive than shown above. I’ve worked with her, and found her talented, diva-ish, and slightly paranoid. I hope to be around her a lot more next year, though! P