This summer two girlfriends of mine have been very busy doing something that not most of my girlfriends do: perform weddings for other people. Erica Reid Gerdes is a local performer and choreographer who not only officiates weddings but also has choreographed a few first dances in her lifetime. Bex Schwartz is a writer, director and performer in New York who, in addition to performing weddings in the past, this summer worked with a group of people to organize a “pop-up chapel” to marry two dozen same-sex couples in one weekend in Central Park. I just wanted to ask my friends what it’s like to officiate weddings in their free time.
How did you start performing weddings?
Erica: My “Friend Cousin” Chad, who is my step second cousin and a dear friend, got engaged to his longtime girlfriend. One day he called, and was like, “call me back—it’s important,” so I knew that it was. (We generally just leave really long voicemails for each other.) And when I finally was able to track him down, he told me of the engagement and asked if I would perform the ceremony. It was such an honor. I got ordained and it was the shortest wedding in history. From there, when people find out that my husband, Fuzzy, and I are ordained, it always makes people say things like, “really???? Hmmmm,” and I know their wheels are turning. Over the span of a couple years, I was asked to perform the weddings of 3 more couples (one with my husband—we did it jointly), all of which got married between April and August this year.
How difficult was the process of getting certified to ordain weddings?
Erica: Easy peasy. Through the Universal Life Church.
Bex: It is a piece of the cake, as they say! You go to the ULC’s site and click a few buttons, and, bam, you are ordained. If you want to perform weddings in NYC, you need to register with the City Clerk’s office as an officiant. You just need to get the ULC’s NYC Marriage packet which has all the paperwork you need, and fill out the forms with the city of NY. The you go down to the City Clerk’s office and exchange all the forms and then they bring out a giant book and you get to sign it. And then you start to get mail like credit card offers addressed to you as Reverend Schwartz!
What’s the furthest you’ve traveled to performing a wedding?
Erica: Biloxi, Miss., on the coast.
Bex: The longest I’ve traveled was up to the Finger Lakes. It was a 6 hour car ride, I think, with my little brother and my dad and his girlfriend, all of whom were attending the wedding I was officiating. (A close family friend asked me to perform her wedding and of course I said yes, and then of course my entire family was also invited.)
Why do you think people ask you to performing weddings?
Bex: I’m superduper secular but I have a strong background in Judaism (I can speak Hebrew if you’d like) and I’ve also studied Tibetan Buddhism pretty extensively, and I use the word “Universe” in place of God or god or whatever, and I love performing in front of large crowds and I’m pretty easy-going and sometimes I make jokes, so if you want a wedding ceremony that possibly includes Hebrew and might make people laugh (in a good way) and isn’t all about a Higher Power or what-have-you, I’m your girl.
Erica: I have some really really amazing friendships, and I am honored that some of them have asked me to be a part of their ceremony. I think I am a good listener and can stay pretty calm in stressful situations, so I am a good candidate for it. I think it is special to have a loved one perform such a sacred act—my husband and I had a friend write and perform our ceremony as well, and it added a whole level of comfort to the day, knowing that we were in good hands. I think that must be why. That, or they love seeing my gap teeth up close.
What do you typically discuss with couples prior to marrying them?
Bex: I talk to the couples about what aspects from their religious or cultural backgrounds they may want to include. We go over sample ceremonies from their respective faiths and figure out what’s significant to them and and their families. We also discuss the tone of the ceremony, and any stories or anecdotes they want their guests to hear about themselves as a couple, if there are any special stories about their rings or their chuppah or that sort of thing, and I often assign them homework to complete independently of each other — I’ll ask the groom to write what he loves about the bride, and vice versa, so I can surprise them with that during there ceremony and make them cry (in a good way).
Erica: I ask what type of wedding they want to have: quirky, traditional, long, short, family related or not, religious, secular, readings, songs, etc. Then what is important to them. If they want to write their own vows. We talk about how they relate to each other and how they communicate and function as a couple, and that helps with the meat of the ceremony (but I’ve known all these couples really well, so I’ve spoke mainly from my experiences around them). Then from there, I will do an outline and a rough draft of the wedding ceremony and we build upon it.
What’s the most challenging part of preparing for a ceremony?
Bex: The most challenging part of the ceremony is scripting it so it is truly unique and representative of the couple. Every couple is different and deserves their own special language and I need to make sure their ceremonies make them happy. (And work with my own set of beliefs. I’m not comfortable getting all religious - no sermons from me!)
Erica: Writing the ceremony is rough, ‘cause you want it to be special to each couple, and when I send it off for approval, I think that is the most nervewracking part—what if they hate it?! I get nervous if/when they send revisions. Also, a lot of times, we’ve been sort of the event planner/ stage managers, so it’s a lot of keep track of. A lot of running around and making sure everyone is ok. But I’ve gotten married and know what it is like in their shoes, so I don’t mind at all. I love it.
What’s your favorite part of the wedding ceremony?
Erica: Definitely the vows. That’s when you see unrestrained emotion and love pouring from the couple’s faces. So beautiful. It always makes me cry. Also, announcing the couple as married! It’s what everyone is there to see, and it means that my job is almost over.
How do you decide what to wear?
Bex: I normally wear a black dress and I try not to be too boobtastic! If I’m doing a wedding that’s Jewy, I will wear a tallis (my Bat Mitzvah tallis, no less) and once I even wore a hot pink yarmulke studded with rhinestones! If I’m doing a Christian-ish wedding, I have a red stole that Universal Life Church gave me for Pop Up Chapel so I’ll wear that.
Erica: This is a hard one! I have a special problem cause I can’t wear shoes without socks, but yet sometimes I want to wear a dress. So footwear is the issue for me, and I build the outfit around that. But also, you can’t wear white, you don’t want to clash with their wedding colors, but you don’t want to not fit in. Generally, I’ve gone with slacks and a blazer, or a nice dress with shoes I can get away with having sock liners in. For my friend Chad’s wedding, like an idiot, I got sunburned the day before, so I had to wear a shawl with my dress that I had picked out. We were on the coast, so we were outside at the beach all day. What made it worse, of course, I was only sunburned on one side of my body—I protected my tattooed arm side with sunscreen and didn’t think about the other one. Sheesh. I also ask if the couple and their families are ok with my tattoos. I try to be respectful if they don’t approve, but if that adds a quirk factor they want, then I let them show. Also, you don’t want to show too much boob (as Bex said.)
I would never ask you to pick a favorite wedding, but what have been some of your favorite moments of weddings you’ve overseen?
Erica: Definitely, when Kate referenced Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” in her wedding vows. It was hilarious and so sweet. But basically anything that makes the wedding special and unique to that couple is my favorite memory. Each one is special.
Bex: Oh man! So many amazing memories! During my best friend’s wedding, we were outside in her backyard and the wind made it impossible for the couple to light their unity candle and we sort of struggled up there for a while and then eventually we all started laughing. I loved that. During my friends Deb and Mark’s wedding, we were sort of stalling up on the bimah for a while and I think I made a funny hooting noise when we were ready to go and it broke the tension. I love those little unplanned glitches in the Matrix that sort of make it all feel even more real and personal. And of course, when I was performing weddings at Pop Up Chapel, especially for Jay and John who were together for 37 years and never thought they’d ever be able to be legally married in NYC and I pronounced them “husband and husband” and looked out and saw all their guests and all our volunteers and even the crowd of spectators with tears in their eyes — I will never forget that moment.