Act Three: Forgo the Hammock, Start a New Theater Company

 
 
 

WHAT WAS I THINKING?

Rachel Hockett

I’VE BEEN ASKED WHY, AT AGE 60, I hatched the harebrained idea to start a new theater company. (To be fair, “harebrained” is my adjective.) I might say: Because 60 is just a number; because creativity knows no age limit; because it’s better to stay active than to sit and do nothing (at any age); or simply, just because I could. All true, I suppose. But this question has inspired me to think seriously about the “third act” in my life.

Like others of my late (late) middle age who have had the good fortune to remain hale and hearty, turning 60 felt much more like an opportunity than a curse. (That is not to say that I have not had to wonder how on earth I could possibly be this old.) I look in the mirror at a face I see as still youthful and—occasional aches and pains aside—I feel young.

So there was no direct cause and effect, as in, “Now I’d better get on the stick and really do something with the years I’ve got left.” It was more a natural progression to the point at which it made perfect sense to seize the moment—and just do it.

Moving back home to “gorges” Ithaca in upstate New York was an idea that had danced in my fantasies pretty much ever since I left, way back in 1969, to go to college, but my evolving circumstances made it untenable. All that changed 40 years later, when I reunited with high school classmate Arthur Bicknell and fate found us both ripe for a return to our roots.

Theater had been an integral part of my life since high school (where Arthur and I were fellow drama nerds under the direction of an amazing teacher). I was a de facto drama minor at Yale, and studied with some of the best in the business. After college, I co-founded an Off-Off-Broadway theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which ran for five years and afforded many up-and-coming young actors, directors, and writers (including me) a showcase for their work.

Then there was “the hiatus.” During my children’s young lives, I filled my days with raising them and paying the bills with my other career, as a self-employed editor and book producer—a profession I practice to this day; and, not for nothing, I have recently published my first novel and founded a marriage equality page on Facebook that now boasts more than 115,000 members. It wasn’t until my younger child caught the theater bug herself that I reinvested in my own theater work.

Am I sorry I missed out on drama school, and then let so much time go by with no theater in my life? From time to time, I must confess. But another advantage in having some years under my belt is that I have learned to try to shed regrets. Remaining open to possibilities, and looking forward rather than back, enabled me to find Arthur again, to come home again, and to found the Homecoming Players.

You could say the Homecoming Players was born with a casual remark I made to Arthur at our 40th high school reunion in the summer of 2009: “You and I should move back here, get an upstairs/downstairs share, and start a theater company.” At the time, I had recently relocated to Berkeley, California, after 12 years of doing theater in the San Luis Obispo area. For many reasons, the Bay Area and I never hit it off—probably largely because Arthur and I were soon drawn by the siren call of Ithaca.

Since my return here in 2010, I have rediscovered all the reasons to be grateful to this wonderful place that started me. The sense of belonging—of being home—tops the list.

Arthur and I knew that Ithaca had a dynamic cultural scene, but we have found since our return that it is also reeking with theater talent and passion. Although we were aware of the academic theater programs at Cornell and Ithaca College, and of the two Equity houses in town, we had no idea we would find so many small, vibrant theater companies. Indeed, in one press interview, we were quizzed about our decision to start yet another theater in such a relatively small city. Were we nuts?

One of the benefits of being older is my conviction, born of experience, that collaboration makes just about every endeavor more satisfying and effective, and this is nowhere more evident than in the theater. From the start, our stated mission called for “contributing to the conversation in our arts-rich community, and to exploring the intersection of social justice with theater.” We never thought of the Homecoming Players as being in competition with other companies. In fact, we recently started another organization of Ithaca theater companies. Working together, we all make better art.

We’ve bumped up against our fair share of challenges and road blocks, as with any start-up process, but so far nothing we’ve faced has damaged our determination or our sense of fun.

Of course, there is one downside to starting a new enterprise at our age: The number of years in prospect is smaller than it would be if we’d done this at, say, age 30 or 40. But we also know that if we build it, we can leave not only our theater company but our example, to be picked up and carried forward by younger people—but, heaven willing and the creek don’t rise—not until many years from now.

Rachel Hockett is Co-founder and Artistic Director of The Homecoming Players in Ithaca, New York. She is also a writer/editor/blogger, as well as a teacher and equality activist. Contact: rachel@thehomecomingplayers.org.

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Forty Forward!

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