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Married actors Jim Pickering and Tami Workentin tell ‘Love Stories’ at MCT

This holiday season, local actors Jim Pickering and Tami Workentin are going to get up on the stage of the Broadway Theater Center’s Studio Theater and tell some love stories — as themselves.

The two are perfectly suited for the task, being both longtime members of the Milwaukee theater community and more recently partners off stage as well. They met several years ago during a production of The Exonerated at Next Act Theater and married a few years later. Love Stories, directed by Paula Suozzi, uses as its conceit the idea that the two are in rehearsal for a trio of one-act plays about love and relationships, which causes them to reflect on their marriage. Suozzi previously directed Madison actors Colleen Madden and Jim Ridge, also married, in the world premiere production at Forward Theater in 2012.

With a play in which the lead actors play themselves, there seems no better way to get at the heart of what it’s all about than to ask them directly. WiG sat down with the couple to learn about the show and what they’ll be bringing to the stage.

How did you get involved with this production?

Tami Workentin: Michael came to us. I had him over for dinner one night and I had said to him, “I think it would be a really nice idea if Jim and I did something together.” With that, he suggested this show, which we had heard dear friends of ours, Colleen Madden and Jim Ridge, had done at Forward Theater. 

Jim Pickering: It was when I was in Spring Green, a year and a half ago. Michael plans ahead. 

What about the idea appealed to the two of you?

TW: Working together. 

Because you’ve only worked together once before?

JP: And never to this extent. The only time we worked together before, I played a cop who arrested her for murder. 

TW: (The Exonerated) was about death row inmates. So not nearly as happy. It was together, but it was in a cast. 

JP: There was a lot of people. 

TW: So this one is really a two-hander.

JP: It’s a cage match.

How would you describe the structure of Love Stories?

TW: There are the three one-acts: “Village Wooing,” by George Bernard Shaw; “The Jewish Wife,” which is by Brecht; and “Here We Are,” by Dorothy Parker. 

JP: It was Jen Uphoff (who put the plays together).

TW: Jen Uphoff Gray had done this when she was in college; she put these three together. To say that we have a full understanding of what the framework is yet — not really, because we’re still figuring it out.

JP: We’re still forming it.

TW: But the framework is that Jim and I — as Jim and I, as ourselves — are coming to a rehearsal process where these interns are there in attendance. We’re going to give part of our own life and all of that stuff in between.

JP: It’s weird. It’s taking place in the theater itself, so we just decided the rehearsal process is at the place where we’ve left the rehearsal hall and we’re just getting into the theater for the first time. There hasn’t even been tech and stuff like that. So it’s rehearsal props and rehearsal furniture, though some of it’s the “real stuff,” the way you would do with a regular rehearsal process for a play. 

I think it’s going to be really easy to identify that that’s the stage (of rehearsal). But exactly what our interaction is with one and other, and with the stage manager and with Bobby (Knapp, acting intern) and Erika (Kirkstein-Zastrow, acting/dramaturgy intern) and Megan (stage management intern) is evolving. We’re figuring that out as we go.

Why these particular plays? Why do you think they go together?

TW: Why (Gray) picked them would be a better question for her. But I think…

JP: They’re all about…

TW: Love at different stages. Relationships. What I love about “Village Wooing” is that this couple are at a later point in their lives. His wife passed away and this woman is past her prime a bit. So she’s feeling a desperation to get married and she finds this man. He doesn’t know yet that he should be in love with her.

JP: But she does. (laughs)

TW: So there’s something about that kind of love, and that kind of pursuit of love, that’s different from younger people’s. Certainly that abandon they have. “The Jewish Wife” takes place in 1935, in Germany, and she’s Jewish and he’s not. So she’s making a choice to leave and he’s not fighting for her to stay. 

JP: So “Village Wooing” examines the very beginning of a relationship, the progress of a relationship. “Jewish Wife” is the end of a relationship. And it’s not a comedy. 

Then, Dorothy Parker, who wrote all kinds of satirical and scathing stuff about men and relationships — all her poetry is kind of about that — is writing a partly satirical but very poignant comic piece about two newlyweds on a train on their way to New York for their honeymoon. And the tensions that go along with that. It’s three real different angles of looking at love stories between two people. 

We’re playing people who are younger than we are, but so what? (laughs) Michael wanted to use us because we got together late in life and after things that happened during the earlier part of our lives. There’s something harmonic about that.

Would you say those plays contain situations that are similar to your own life or vice versa?

(Both laugh)

JP: You can write down “They laughed, heartily.”

TW: Oh, hell yeah.

JP: Which is just — I mean it just tells you how good the plays are. 

TW: We’ll be in a conversation — and I’m going to use the word “conversation” very loosely (Jim laughs). There’ll be something that harkens back to the play, and Jim — more often than I, because I’ll be in the middle of it — he’ll go, “Baby this is just like in the play.” And it really is.

JP: “But shut up while I make this point.”

TW: Or, “Shut up because I’ve got to be right about this one.” (Both laugh) Yes, yes and yes.

How has it been for you as actors to prepare to reveal elements of your personal lives to an audience that may not know anything about you off stage?

TW: We don’t know the answer to that yet.

JP: It’s not going to be like — This ain’t like Real Housewives of Bay View, we ain’t opening up that far. Just hinting, I think.

TW: A crack in the door.

JP: For peeping Toms.

What has the rehearsal process been like? How would you describe getting to work together this closely?

JP: It’s exciting. It really is exciting.

TW: And you’re learning each other’s way of going. It’s interesting. When you work with someone, there’s a point at which you have to stop working. 

JP: Cause you’re going to go home and you have to live with this person.

TW: Or you’re going to kill each other. So there’s a point on the trip home where we have to open the windows of the car and let everyone out.

JP: Let everybody else out.

TW: Except for he and I. And we really have parameters for when we can talk about it.

JP: Yeah. There’s a point at which we ask permission to talk shop. You just have to set up rules like that, otherwise it’s chaos.

TW: We also have a younger son who’s home too, who’s 13. He comes home with his life, and you’ve got to be ready to hear about his day too.

Would you say you’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work together more closely?

TW: I think it’s a gift.

JP: It certainly is.

TW: It’s a crazy world; you (usually) don’t get to go to the theater for your job with your spouse. It’s kind of nice, to share it. So much of what you do in front of people is a shared experience, and it’s great that we then can get in the car and go “Wow, that felt great.” Or whatever. Art is evolving. It isn’t a movie. It changes every night. And a look or a gesture or a breath makes it different. When you’re up on the stage with someone, it’s scary. And if you’re up there with somebody who has your back, is in it with you, and you know them on a whole other level too, that’s pretty outstanding.

JP: We’ve done two plays together. Fifty percent of the plays that we’ve done have been just the two of us. That’s pretty good, I think. When Michael (asked), we were so glad. We wanted to do something together, we just didn’t know what it would be. This was the perfect situation.

ON STAGE

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s Love Stories will run Nov. 25 to Dec. 20 at the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets are $34 to $38, and can be ordered at 414-291-7800 or milwaukeechambertheatre.com.

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