They don’t have a snappy portmanteau nickname like “Bennifer” or “Brangelina,” but C. Michael Wright and Ray Jivoff qualify as one of Milwaukee’s cultural power couples.
In their roles at two of Milwaukee’s most critically acclaimed theater companies, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Skylight Music Theatre, the couple has helped shape the city’s artistic landscape over the better part of three decades.
Wright has been producing artistic director at MCT since 2005 and Jivoff the associate artistic director at Skylight since 2009 and interim artistic director for the 2016–17 season.
Given their prominence, it may be strange to hear that the two came to Milwaukee almost by accident.
In the summer of 1983, Wright was based in New York City but on the road as one of the leads in the national tour of “Master Harold” … and the Boys. Jivoff was in San Francisco, working for a children’s theater company after graduating from San Francisco State University. When Wright’s show came to town, a friend of Jivoff’s invited him to the opening night party — and the two hit it off. It’d ultimately be the first day in their 33 years together.
After stays in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York — and a stint of bi-coastal commuting — they wanted to settle down. But none of those cities seemed a good fit.
“We were looking for a community to live in,” Jivoff reflects.
They would ultimately choose Milwaukee, thanks in part to “Master Harold” again. Years before, while on the national tour, Wright turned 30 and realized he didn’t want to continue playing the title role of Hally — a 17-year-old South African boy — much longer, despite getting multiple offers to do so at regional theaters across the country. “I said to myself, ‘I’ll do it one more time,’” Wright says. “So I said yes to the Milwaukee Rep (in 1984). And that changed our lives, on kind of a whim.”
Through performing in that show and others at the Rep, Wright had grown enamored of Milwaukee, as had Jivoff. When Wright got the offer to do a few shows at Skylight, the couple took that as a signal: Move to Milwaukee, and just see what happens.
WIDE INTERESTS, EXPERIENCES
Neither Jivoff nor Wright say their goal was to end up in arts administration when they arrived in Milwaukee in the late 1980s. Their current jobs instead grew organically out of their own interests, and the freedom Milwaukee gave them to pursue more than one of them at once.
“(Milwaukee) seemed like a place where there was potential that we’d be able to do all the things we liked doing,” Jivoff says. “I know I didn’t want to just act, and I don’t know that there’s that much work to just act.”
Jivoff’s overlapping interests in theater and education made him a natural fit as the drama director at Catholic Memorial High School, where he taught for 12 years. He’s also been involved in developing multiple theater education programs in the city. Jivoff is a frequent collaborator with First Stage, which opened the same year he and Wright arrived in Milwaukee, and he originated Next Act’s education program “Next Actors” before being hired to develop Skylight’s education department in 1999 and subsequently becoming associate artistic director a decade later.
Wright says he arrived in Milwaukee thinking of himself as an actor but open to other opportunities; those opportunities came his way quickly. As he got to know other artists, Wright was invited to direct and teach, broadening his range of skills. He discovered he had a knack for arts administration in 1997, when he was asked to join the staff of Next Act Theatre as an associate artistic director. After eight years, he decided that he wanted to run his own company, and fate again kept the couple in Milwaukee — MCT’s founding artistic director Montgomery Davis announced his retirement, and Wright was selected to replace him.
One benefit of taking the MCT job was that it brought Wright under the same roof as his partner, since both Skylight and MCT are based in the Broadway Theatre Center in the Third Ward. But the couple say their work schedules often keep them on nonintersecting paths during the day. “So many people think ‘Oh, you probably go there at 9 together and leave at 5 together,’” Wright says. “No, no, no, no, no (laughs).”
Their day-to-day work patterns speak to a greater pattern in their professional careers. Unlike many other theater couples in the city and state, Wright and Jivoff say they don’t work together much, either as fellow actors or in an actor-director pairing. “I’ve done a lot of children’s theater and musical theater,” Jivoff says. “It’s more my type; I’m loud, over the top. … He’s much more serious — does Chekov and stuff like that (laughs).”
But as the conventional wisdom goes, it’s those different personality traits that they admire most in each other. “He’s my main advisor and teacher,” Jivoff says. “I get a ton of advice and guidance from him and he keeps me calm.”
“For me,” Wright adds, “Ray provides a sense of levity. He makes it easy to laugh at some of the absurd situations we find ourselves in. And even just to remember not to take it all too seriously. We both are incredibly passionate about the work … but it’s important to keep it in perspective.”
OUT AND PROUD
Both Wright and Jivoff say they’ve felt they can be open about their relationship, both within the extremely accepting theater community and with Milwaukeeans at large. They say there’s no denying, though, that society’s response to gay couples has shifted dramatically in that time.
“I have no problem at all saying to someone ‘my partner’ now, but I do think when I first came it was harder. It’s more accepting now,” Wright says. “When we grew up, things were very, very different. As youths dealing with being gay, it’s easier now.”
It’s also only in the last decade or so that Wright and Jivoff have risen to a level of prominence that people might be aware of their relationship without being told, as they’ve taken on administrative positions. Wright remembers one pivotal moment about 15 years ago, when they were mentioned in a Valentine’s Day column by retired Journal Sentinel critic Damien Jaques. Jaques interviewed several theater couples including Wright and Jivoff. “That made us public figures as a couple. Before that, whoever knew, knew, and whoever didn’t, didn’t. Then suddenly there you are in the paper.”
In many senses, Wright says he and Jivoff have come to feel their administrative positions make it important for them to be open about being gay and partnered, to serve as role models for their community. “Because we’re in positions of power now, I think it’s our responsibility to be more vocal about it,” he says.