When you sit down to talk with Monica Raymund and Neil Patrick Stewart, you realize that this is a couple in love. It could be the way Raymund adjusts Stewart’s hoodie as heÂ talks, or the way he checks in with her as the interview goes on. They have taken on aÂ task that most married couples wouldn’t do — they have chosen to collaborate.
They are leading the Mechanicals Theatre Group’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man, which kicks off the group’s 2012 season, dubbed Inside The Classics: Outside The Box. Stewart is the director, while Raymund, as a member of the company, produces. This isn’t the first time the two have worked together, and they appear to understand what it takes to be partners, both professionally and personally. Over a dinner break, they offer a glimpse inside their working relationship.
Both have successful careers in their own right. Raymund is best known as an actress, having appeared on Fox’s Lie to Me and CBS’s The Good Wife. She’ll next appear in the new show Chicago Fire, from Dick Wolf, of the Law and Order empire. Stewart is a director and writer, as well as a teacher. While in New York, he was a co-founder and former creative director of Back House Productions ““ a company that developed more than 40 projects including the Tony-winning musical In The Heights.
Mechanicals Theatre Group chose to tackle The Elephant Man because of one of theÂ central themes of the play ““ art is permitted, but nature is forbidden. Raymund says, “WeÂ like this idea that Pomerance is going for, that everything is an illusion. If you are a kidÂ who’s been alienated and ostracized in school, you’re deemed this freak right? CreatesÂ who you become. When in fact, we are the freaks.”
This isn’t your typical production of The Elephant Man. She promises a different visionÂ for the play. “I haven’t been this excited in a while,” she says. “There’s a reason why we go see Hamlet a hundred times, because you want to see a great play re-interpreted over and over again.”
(And no, you aren’t seeing double. Coincidentally the Grimy Corp’s separate production of The Elephant Man is running at Theatre 68 in Hollywood)
While Raymund and Stewart are married (for 10 months, but they’ve been together for seven years), that relationship didn’t get him the job. Founding artistic director Eric Bilitch approached Stewart. “I was super intrigued by it,” says Stewart. Initially, he wasÂ wary because of the challenges of the play. While short, it can be dense, it’s stylized,Â there are dialects, and it’s a period piece. But as he spent more time with the play, heÂ became more and more excited. And he liked the idea of working for a non-profit theaterÂ company, “A chance to do art for art’s sake again”¦ you’re trying to do good work andÂ explore something.”
The first time Raymund and Stewart worked together was about two years ago, on Volleygirls, a musical they continue to develop with the playwright. Stewart had been slated to direct the piece. Raymund remembers how she got involved, “I had read the script, and asked, who was producing this? He said nobody, and I said, OK, I’m gonna try and do it. Working together was really a conscious decision.”
Stewart was nervous about it, for the same reasons one might expect ““ the danger of mixing your personal life with your professional life. “In the middle of the night, you get a note from your wife, it can be kinda intense.” Raymund laughs, admitting that, yeah, she did that. For Stewart, a relationship isn’t about having dinners together or opening a bank account, but having shared experiences. “The versions of each other that we fell in love with are intimately connected to the way we work.”
Raymund was also nervous about working together. In the beginning they moved slowly,Â to see how it would go. However, she says, “Once the shoe fit, we started running withÂ it, because it was very comfortable. Doesn’t mean we don’t get into fights.” And whileÂ they might fight, generally behind closed doors, the intention is to always come back theÂ next day as a united front. “To present our demeanor as being calm and in control, theyÂ [the cast] will be calm and in control.”
Stewart adds, “If they feel taken care of, they are going to do their best work.” And for him and Raymund, it’s all about arguing about the right things — art and telling stories. Stewart sums it up, “The point is we take these journeys together; in the end it enhances our relationship.”
A part of their successful working relationship is clear definition of the roles each takesÂ on. For Raymund, she is glad to have someone she can trust on the creative side, leavingÂ her to be able to fully focus on the budget. And while she does her best to find a way toÂ accommodate creative decisions, if it comes down to it, and it’s not able to happen withinÂ the budget, she’ll say no. “He needs to be OK with that answer, because he’s acceptedÂ what my role is. He has to trust that I’m making the best decision for our troupe as well.”
Stewart responds, “I’m never going to get the support and love from a producer that I’ll get from my own wife. She would walk to the ends of the earth for me, and I vice versa.” He checks in with Raymund, “Right?” She smiles, nodding. Laughter. He continues on, “There’s this trust there we’re not going to let the other down. We’ll give them the best of everything.”
“One thing that we’re good at is assembling a good team and creating a positiveÂ atmosphere,” Stewart reveals, when talking about the cast and crew of The Elephant Man. “You have people invested in ways they wouldn’t be otherwise.” And a part ofÂ that is the desire to communicate. Stewart jokes, “We try and emulate the Huxtables.”Â Well, maybe not the sweaters. “We talk about over-communicating.”
Raymund agrees that the work they have done on communication while collaborating hasÂ helped in their private lives. “We’re exercising the communication muscle every dayÂ when we’re working on a project.” When personal issues come up, they are able to useÂ the tools they’ve developed while working together. “I’m really bad at communication,Â like in relationships, personal relationships, but in business”¦” She stops and looks overÂ to find Stewart smiling.
He comments, “She’s getting better.”
Raymund forges ahead. “We’re learning how to listen to each other better, because weÂ have a due date with a project.”
They have considered other combinations, though Stewart ruled out producing. “I’mÂ not a natural producer and she is.”
Directing, however”¦ Raymund pipes in, “I think directing each other would be really fun.” One thing that seems to be in the cards is writing together, perhaps a much more intimate collaboration. As they talk about working on this script, you could see what makes their working relationship so successful ““ they support and balance each other. Raymund describes herself as not good at writing, but good at fixing scripts, good at story arc and dialogue.
Stewart interrupts her. “All of that is writing. You are a good writer. I have more experience writing sentences and putting them together. But she has a tremendous sense of story.”
Raymund nods, taking the compliment. “We may be a good team when we try and writeÂ together. We’ll let you know.” They both smile and nod.
As far as advice for couples thinking about collaborating? Stewart thinks, then, “BeÂ really cool with communicating and embracing the challenge of it. Making it this thingÂ you face together.”
In the end, Stewart offers an unexpected opinion of working with your spouse. “It’s also,Â at its best, it’s romantic.” He explains, “I think the versions of ourselves at work are theÂ best versions of ourselves. I’m far better when I’m in the rehearsal room than I am whenÂ I’m making nachos in the kitchen in my socks.”
The Elephant Man opens Saturday and runs through May 15. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Pico Playhouse, 10508 W Pico Blvd., LA. Tickets: $15 at mechanicalstheatregroup.com or $20 at door.
***All The Elephant Man production photos by Eric Bilitch