At the theater critics’ annual Craig Noel Awards ceremony, recipients thank fellow artists and friends for support. But just what does that support entail? What, for example, is it like to be married to an award-winning artistic director?
“If you want a story about a subservient wife,” says Minola Clark Manson, “you got the wrong woman.”
She’s married to Calvin Manson, artistic director of the Ira Aldridge Players, Noel winner in 2009 for Looking for an Echo. “I should have known better than to be involved with him,” she laughs. “A director and an administrator? You’d think that wouldn’t be a good match, but there must be something there. We’ve been together 20 years.
“Anytime Calvin does a show, it’s all-consuming for him. But not for me.” During rehearsals, the cast will invite her to join them, but she stays away. She isn’t being rude. “That’s Calvin’s work,” she tells them. “I don’t want him in my work. I don’t intrude in his.”
She’s program manager for the Behavioral Health Education and Training Academy (BHETA), which provides classes and conferences for San Diego County’s behavioral health system. She has a master’s in clinical psychology from the California School of Professional Psychology (“When I reached the doctoral dissertation, I decided I was done”).
“I’m a whole-picture person. When Calvin’s rehearsing, I can’t see the show for beans. It’s all parts and only he knows the whole.”
Early in their marriage, she says, she thought she “knew stuff” about theater. Calvin used to ask her how a scene looked or where a song should go, and she always had an opinion. One day, he wanted to insert a poem into Passion and Honey and asked her to read it. The poem was so horrible, she says, she can’t even remember the title. “Don’t put that in,” she urged him, “it’s nasty.”
But he did, “And it made something really beautiful. If it had been up to me, it wouldn’t have been there.”
The incident became a reality check: “One of those times you realize you aren’t all-knowing. You’re no longer that teenager convinced that what’s important to you is important to the entire world. There are unique things about me and other people, but the recognition came that ‘you’re just a human being, just like the rest of us.’ This was humbling — and reassuring, especially in a relationship with an artist. I don’t have to be as talented as he is.”
He still asks at rehearsals, but she no longer pretends to have answers. When the show nears opening night and she can see the big picture, however, then she makes suggestions, “and I can be very critical.”
Minola was a military brat who traveled the world in her youth (“I was in the womb in Germany”). Her father served two tours in Vietnam. From 1973 to 1976, she went to high school at the International School of Bangkok, Thailand. Insurrections were common. The family lived next door to the police commissioner. He’d happen by and tell them, “Save water, there won’t be utilities for a while,” or “Stay inside tomorrow.” “And the next day, there’d be shooting in the streets.”
As a junior, she had a choice: buy the yearbook for $25 or, for the same amount of money, go on a ten-day camping trip to Cambodia. She decided on the yearbook and would make the trip the following year. In the interim, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge overran the country. “Being a true teenager, I was mad I couldn’t go, not that Cambodia fell.”
She has grown up around creative people: her father is an accomplished photographer, and many in the family have artistic talents. What she discovered: “People can be creative in different ways.”
The graduate school journal published her poetry. But, she says, she only writes to express herself. “Once it’s done, it’s done. There’s no need to go back.” For anyone else reading her poems, “They become something wholly different” and no longer her experience.
As an example of private expression, she recalls a flight she, Calvin, and their now-19-year-old daughter Maisha (“life” in Swahili) made to Maryland. To pass the time, Minola drew a line on a piece of paper. Then she handed it to Maisha, who connected a line to the original and handed it to Calvin. He drew a line. Back to Minola. A “fantastical creature” began to emerge. The drawing absorbed their full attention. When they finished, they felt a “gladness: a joint creation we could never repeat. And since you can’t know what it was like — the process? — I can’t share it with you.”
Unlike the drawing, she says, “Artists have a driving need to show their work, to express themselves outside of themselves. It’s not enough to write something or paint something; it has to be out there. I have no need to see my work in public. My ego’s too precious for that.”
She can understand the need for an audience intellectually but “can’t feel it.”
“Most people choose what they do, within the choices they can make. I can choose to go to a movie or read a book. Calvin has no choice. Art is all of who he is with no space for anything else. He must do what he must. Get there, and when you don’t, terrible things happen. Not making art means not being you.
“Calvin will be up all hours worrying about something being just right.” The only parallel in her life, she says, is parenting: “a drive to have my daughter healthy, balanced, and functioning in the world, independent of me.”
The question always arises: how much to push for him to be in his art, and how much to pull for the relationship?
“It’s a dance,” she says. “When you blend thoughts and desires with another person, you always need to be careful. You may lead or follow, but you are never solo. It’s always hard to have that blend without overpowering the other. There are times when I pull back; others when the art has to take second chair — and may have suffered as a result.
“It’s easy to watch your child be thoroughly engaged in something. You encourage it. You may even draw parental pride and strength. But when it’s your spouse, it’s different. How do you find joy in your spouse having another love?
“Because when he’s not doing art, he isn’t Calvin. His work actually makes us both better. But as in all relationships, there must be constant reevaluation, reestablishing the boundaries, changing the steps, the rhythm…the dance.”