How we stay together: 'You don’t have to make the other person be just like you'

Alexandra Spring

Names: Hilary Bell and Phillip Johnston
Years together: 22
Occupations: Playwright and composer/saxophonist

For Hilary Bell and Phillip Johnston, the secret of their enduring relationship can be likened to that of a good artistic collaboration. “You’re very vulnerable when you’re creating work,” Johnston says. “It’s never easy when you are writing, say, a score for a film or music for somebody’s lyrics and someone tells you, ‘No, that’s not right.’”

Even if the refusal makes sense, there’s something within that wants to argue, he says. Even a good collaborator will feel the initial urge to push back, but “what really makes the difference … is not someone who doesn’t have that emotion, but someone who knows how to manage it”.

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It’s the same in relationships: “Hilary and I are extremely different and our secret [to] how we stay together, and stay together happily, is our ability – that we’ve learned little by little over the last couple of decades – to manage that.”

The couple have collaborated from the start. They met in 1997 in New York, where the Sydney-born Bell was doing a postgraduate playwriting course at Juilliard and Johnston had been living and playing music for years. Both signed up for a two-week musical theatre workshop that paired up composers and writers with actors to create songs, with the trios rotated for variation.

As soon as we met, it just felt like this was the future.

Hilary Bell

Bell and Johnston were drawn together romantically but they didn’t work together until the final group. Their singer had just found out she was pregnant so she asked the pair to write a lullaby for her unborn baby. The pressure was on: “We knew that we really liked each other, but if our relationship was going to have any future we had to write a really good song,” Johnston says. “If we wrote a bad song, then it was all over.”

The resulting lullaby was called Upon the Waves and apparently it was a hit. “I think I can say there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Johnston says. “She loved this song [and] I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written.

It worked out for the couple too – they have been together for more than 22 years and have two children of their own. After eight years in New York, the couple settled in Sydney in 2005. In conversation they bounce back and forth, often finishing each other’s sentences. That first collaboration set the pace for the pair. Johnston encouraged Bell, as the librettist, to write the lyrics first, then he responded with music.

“I think that’s illustrative of a lot of the things that work in our relationship,” Bell says, “You let me set the course a lot of the time.”

“I let you have your own way a lot of the time,” Johnston retorts with a smile.

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After those first intense creative weeks, the couple were inseparable, even though they are quite different. There is an age gap of more than 10 years, they come from different backgrounds and they had very different attitudes to life. “I was much more, ‘Well we can’t do that because we’re not allowed to,’” Bell remembers, “And Phillip was, ‘Fuck it, it doesn’t matter.’”

At that stage, Johnston says he’d had a “more complicated life”. And when Bell’s parents met him for the first time, she remembers they were somewhat “bewildered”. She says: “Phillip was such a sort of foreign entity to them. He was a jazz musician. He’d been around the block a few times. He was older than me. He’s American as well, so I think that they just kind of thought, ‘Who is this person? Is he really going to be part of our family?’”

But their connection was undeniable, Bell says: “As soon as we met, it just felt like this was the future.”

When Bell’s US visa ran out, they decided to get married. It was “a no-brainer”, even if it happened sooner than planned. There was one caveat: Bell knew she’d want to go home to Sydney one day. “It was pretty early on. I said, ‘So could you imagine moving to Australia?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know where it is, but sure.’”

Their decision to have children was just as straightforward, Bell says. “There are these things that you think of as massive life decisions – and I’m an incredibly indecisive person – but for those milestones, they just seemed like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what we do next’.”

Their relationship did change once their two children came along, but what helped was that they shared the child-rearing. This was particularly true given the ups and downs of creative life. “Whoever has work, works; whoever happens not to have as much did the bulk of the cooking and picking them up and all of that.”

Now both successful in their own right, the couple have continued to collaborate and support each other in their work. As artists, they understand each other. “[Artists] worry about all sorts of things [while] the rest of the world doesn’t understand why that matters,” Bell says. “And they don’t worry about things that other people seem to think are important. And so there’s no need to sit down and explain to each other.”

Their creative lives are constant so they have each other to lean on: “What we do is what we love and it’s interesting to us, and sometimes of course, it’s problematic. But also, when we’re having problems with other collaborators around our projects, Phillip can completely understand and identify with what I’m talking about and help me solve problems and give good advice.”

Having someone in a similar industry helps to weather the ups and downs of a creative life. “It’s great that there’s always someone to walk the dog,” Bell says. “And there’s always someone making money,” Johnston adds.

The important thing is not how people think about things, but how they deal with the differences.

Phillip Johnston

Although the couple have similar values and agree on religion and politics, they have very different artistic tastes, Johnston says. “We often come out of a movie or a play and one says, ‘That was the worst play I ever saw.’ And the other says, ‘That was the best play I ever saw.’”

They have learned not to take it personally. “Initially, especially when you’re getting to know each other, you want to turn each other on to things you love,” Bell says. “So when that didn’t really work, it was hard not to be offended by it. Now, it’s kind of funny and it’s even more surprising if we both liked the same thing.” Johnston agrees: “When we find something [and] we think, ‘The other person might like this one thing,’ we present it that way, very gingerly. ‘I think this is actually something that I like that you might like’ – but it usually isn’t.”

They also have quite separate social lives too, with only a few mutual friends. “Sometimes it’s strange. Like when it was Phillip’s 60th birthday, I put together this book of tributes from his friends and I didn’t know a lot of them,” Bell says. “I didn’t have their phone numbers or addresses and so I had to go on this undercover research to get to them.”

Johnston adds: “And some of them said quite insulting things about me, which is one of the ways you could distinguish my friends with Hilary’s friends.”

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Having different artistic tastes isn’t that important, Johnston says. “The issue of whether you feel the same way or differently is not as important as how you deal with that difference [with] tolerance and you can generalise it to what’s going on in the world in a big way. The important thing is not how people think about things, but how they deal with the differences. If you look around the world, it seems like people are having a harder time tolerating people who are different from them.”

Considering their differences taught him an important lesson about relationships, Johnston says. “You don’t have to make the other person be just like you.”

Bell agrees: “The flipside of that is loving the fact that they’re not just like you and that they can open your eyes to things that you would never come across on your own ... Not just books or art or whatever, but ways of looking at things or people that you wouldn’t normally think about talking to.”

Even when they disagree, Bell says, they keep their cool. “We never shout. We’ve never called each other a name and even if you’re really upset about something, you never forget that that’s the person you love, and you never seek to undermine their dignity.”

She often looks to her parents who have been together for 54 years and considers what they would do in a similar situation. “Just coming from a background where the assumption is love, respect, dignity, listening, that makes it much easier to perpetuate that way of treating a person.”

Their commitment to each other has remained unshakeable. “Once you do commit to somebody, you don’t wake up each day going, “Am I still committed?” You just don’t even question it.” As Johnston puts it: “ If you’re committed, you don’t let minor things get in the way of your commitment.”

And Johnston’s is the final word of advice on how to stay together: “Don’t be a jerk.”

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