Married to the Stage: ‘Say Yes to the Dress’ by Natalie McCabe

My husband moves better in high heels than I do. I came to this realization about a year before we were married, during our studies in the School of Theatre at Penn State University.  My husband completed his Masters of Fine Arts degree in Acting in 2007, the same year that I earned my Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre with a minor in International Arts. I had no idea of his prowess in footwear mostly reserved for females until we were already engaged and living together in a little apartment in State College, PA.

Johnny in a dress (Betty) (left), Quetta Carpenter (Maud) (center), and Kate Spurgeon (Ellen) (right.) Pennsylvania Center Stage with Penn State University School of Theatre in 2006. Photo courtesy of Zachary Keller.

Our relationship began in the Reading Room of the then-Arts Building, now Theatre Building, on Penn State’s main campus. As part of his assistantship during his first semester, he was to maintain the Reading Room’s library for a set number of hours per week.  I ran in one day, clad in my “Everyone Loves an Irish Girl” long-sleeved tee shirt (which, to this day, Johnny insists I must never throw away.)  We met; we spoke in French, he fluently due to his upbringing in Montreal, me haltingly due to intermittent language instruction. When I left, witnesses to our meeting teased my husband for flirting with me. I had no idea I was actually flirting, though I preferred him over the other graduate students.  Six months later, we finally went on our first date, to see the film Sin City. Despite all of the “drama” that occurs in a drama department, our relationship flourished.

Johnny moves equally well in pumpkin pants and tights. Photo courtesy of Photography by Michael Ulrich.

I didn’t set out to marry an actor.  In fact, by the time I met my future spouse, I was fairly certain that I would not be an actor myself but, rather, a director. (By the following year, I realized that dramaturgy was the best path for me academically-speaking). Actors, after all, can certainly be divas. Still, despite poor financial prospects, I was attracted to artists both within and outside of the theatre realm. Who else can understand the life of someone who works in theatre? It is a rather unusual lifestyle with even more unusual work hours. (Ever seen that tee shirt that says, “I can’t; I have rehearsal”? Yup, that has been my husband and me many, many times).

This is how I found myself discussing high heels for the first- and certainly not the last- time with my husband in the fall of 2006. He had come home tired from rehearsal.  During our conversation, he sweetly stated, “Baby, please don’t ever feel like you need to wear heels to be sexy for me.  Now, please rub my feet; they’ve been in heels all night.” He mentioned that his female cast mates commented about how well he handled himself in such delicate footwear. I was not surprised; his area of expertise is theatre movement, no matter the footwear.

When Johnny’s heeled production opened, professors persistently asked for my opinion of the show. It was, after all, the thesis production of that year’s- and my husband’s – graduating MFA Acting class. Over and over, I replied, “I really do not feel that I can objectively judge this show.”

Such a reply was bound to startle graduate-level professors. I continued, “I just watched a show in which my fiancé kissed, feigned going down on, or otherwise ‘got with’ basically every one of his classmates.” He played Betty, a Victorian-era woman, in Act I and Gerry, a gay man in 1970s London, in Act II. Half of the time, he was in a dress. And heels. With a completely shaved face- and my Johnny needs his facial hair. (I can’t say I minded the tight jeans and shirt he wore as Gerry in Act II, though). On opening night, my seat just happened to be in the front row, dead center and extremely close to the stage when he delivered his monologue in Act II about finding a stranger to give him oral sex on a train.

Those of you familiar with theatre may have guessed that the play was Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9.  Churchill’s plays are bound to stir up controversy, though I actually enjoy several of them.  I was not trying to put down the show itself, just to explain that, sometimes, separating actor from character can be difficult.  When that actor happens to be your significant other, the separation can get even more difficult.

That was not the last show with which either of us was involved during our final year as Nittany Lions. However, it did show me the versatility of my husband and his fellow graduate students.  After all, most of the acting performances, my fiancé/husband’s included, in that show were excellent, in my obviously biased opinion. I especially enjoyed his scene with the actor playing Gerry’s lover Edward in Act II; the dynamic between them on stage was incredibly touching.

Johnny in a doublet; Natalie in a dress. Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, 2010.

Still, I maintain that there is room for only one actor per family. In our case, I am focusing on dramaturgy, which is a research and writing-intensive occupation, while my husband is the actor, whether in doublet and hose or a corset and long skirts. Yes, his shoulders are broad. His chest is hairy. His head is bald, but his facial hair grows quicker and rougher than a Chia pet on steroids.  Still, my husband moves better in heels than I do; thank goodness I look better in a dress.


Read Part One of “Married to the Stage.’

Photography by Zachary Keller.

Photography by Michael Ulrich.



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