Stage & Dance

Rich Copley: From New York to Lexington, with love

Ellie Clark and Evan Bergman met in 2009 while working at a New York City restaurant and pursing acting careers. In 2010, they moved to Lexington, Clark's hometown, where they direct Project SEE Theatre. They are starring as Stanley and Stella in SummerFest's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," July 18-22 at The Arboretum, 500 Alumni Drive in Lexington. Photo by Rich Copley | staff.
Ellie Clark and Evan Bergman met in 2009 while working at a New York City restaurant and pursing acting careers. In 2010, they moved to Lexington, Clark's hometown, where they direct Project SEE Theatre. They are starring as Stanley and Stella in SummerFest's production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," July 18-22 at The Arboretum, 500 Alumni Drive in Lexington. Photo by Rich Copley | staff. Lexington Herald-Leader

It was a rainy day in New York City.

At the corner of 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue, Evan Bergman and Ellie Clark were heading for the subway station and some shelter from the elements. Bergman grabbed Clark's hand, turned her around and kissed her.

"I was like, 'Oh, he does like me,'" Clark says.

Says Bergman, "It was a hot kiss in the rain."

It was just three weeks after their first flirtation, when Bergman started playing with Clark's ponytail at a mutual friend's birthday gathering.

Three years later, Bergman and Clark live in Lexington, Clark's hometown. They have become one of the area's prominent theater couples through Project SEE Theatre, which they co-direct with Transylvania University theater director Sullivan Canaday White, and they work for other area theaters.

This week, they will play one of the stage's iconic couples, Stanley and Stella, in SummerFest's production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Opportunities such as Tennessee Williams' classic are what brought the couple from New York to Kentucky.

Clark grew up in a theatrical family. Her mother, Trish Clark, directed the drama program at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School for years. Ellie Clark was in that program and then studied theater at the University of Kentucky.

In 2001, she scored a coup for a young stage actor: She was accepted into the acting apprentice program at Actors Theatre of Louisville, working there for much of 2001 and 2002.

After that, like many aspiring actors, she moved to New York, trying to break into the theater. And like many aspiring actors, she worked in a restaurant: Sambuca, an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side of New York, less than a block from Central Park.

It was a nice job that allowed her time off when she got roles, even ones that required her to travel to theaters around the country. Eventually, one of her tasks at the restaurant was training new employees, including another aspiring actor, Evan Bergman.

It wasn't love at first sight.

"I was training Evan to replace me while I went to do this regional theater gig in Hilton Head, South Carolina," Clark says. "So I went away for at least two months and came back, and he was still working there."

But they didn't see each other much.

She had worked at the restaurant for six years and was working "good-money nights" including Fridays and Saturdays, when the tips were best. Bergman was the new kid, pulling early weeknights.

But Cupid worked at the bar. Her name was Alison Simmons, and she told Clark, "I really like Evan for you."

"I told her, 'I have no sense for what kind of person he is and I am so not into dating right now.' But it's always when you're not looking for it."

Simmons had a birthday get-together and invited Clark and Bergman. Things began to warm up between them.

"Once we started talking, we never stopped," Clark says.

They shared that storybook New York kiss, and that was it. Then came a complication.

Clark was coming home to Lexington for that summer in 2009 to teach at Kentucky Conservatory Theatre and star in its production of Charles L. Mee's Big Love.

"I cried like a baby getting on the airplane because I had just met this guy, and you can't do long distance after three weeks," Clark says.

Bergman says, "She warned me she was really bad at long distance, which was probably another reason I thought, 'I really need to get out there.'"

Bergman read Big Love. He had a feeling somehow he was going to be coming to Kentucky, probably to see the show. But it turned out they needed an actor to play the leading man opposite Clark.

She knew Bergman said he was an actor. She didn't know whether he could act.

After a couple of phone interviews with White, Bergman came in to play the part.

"I remember being at the first rehearsal thinking, 'Please don't suck,'" Clark says.

He didn't.

That production is where the seeds were planted for their move to Kentucky.

A year later in New York, both were frustrated with all the work they put into getting acting opportunities and with what those opportunities turned out to be. It was Bergman, the New York native, who said, "Why aren't we in Kentucky?"

Yes, they were pursuing the New York acting dream. But it wasn't really coming true, and they both knew there was a vibrant theater community in Lexington where they could work.

"I was spending so much time just trying to get the audition for something I may not find fulfilling, and I said, 'What's the point of this?'" Bergman says. "I love plays. I love playwrights. That's what I wanted to spend my time on.

"I have one life, and I want to spend it with you doing the work," he said, referring to Clark.

One thing that distinguishes Bergman and Clark from other theatrical couples in Lexington is that they have played opposite each other a lot, including Project SEE's productions of Boom last fall and Burn This last month.

"We didn't really intend to and we keep saying this has got to be the last one," Clark says.

Their shared stage time, they say, is partly because Project SEE is a new company. "When you can't offer people much and you have such a small audience, you're scared to ask people to invest that much time. But I think we're getting braver with that."

A Streetcar Named Desire, she says, is a bit of a relief because they are responsible just for the play, not the whole operation.

They feel a need to avoid playing opposite each other so much, but they do see advantages, particularly an extremely high level of comfort that gives them license to take chances they might not take with other actors.

And then there is that bond, which can come in handy when playing roles such as Stanley and Stella, who don't have the easiest time but are still crazy about each other.

"It helps that I really am in love with the person playing Stanley," Clark says.

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