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His journey to managing artistic director at First Presbyterian Theater took a lot of detours along the way, but when Thom Hofrichter accepted that position in January 1997, he was returning home. And more than 17 years later, home is where he looks to stay. A graduate of Concordia High School, Hofrichter always wanted a life on the stage, but when he sought his first degree at Indiana University during the recession of the early 1980s, he chose accounting. His desire to perform, however, led him to a post-graduation move to Las Vegas where he eventually earned another undergraduate degree in theater at UNLV. Not content to rest there, he eventually earned a master’s at Marquette in Wisconsin and had nearly completed his Ph.D. work at University of Colorado-Boulder when he heard about the job back in Fort Wayne.
“I had finished my class work and had taken my comprehensives and was halfway through my dissertation when I saw the job here. My first non-high school show was at First Pres, and I had been working in a lot of different situations by that time. I was in Chicago at that point working as an actor/director/producer, but my mom was 75 by that time and my only brother was living in Texas. I just thought it would be good to be back here for awhile.”
Then Hofrichter began dating Nancy Kartholl, a veteran of local stages herself. After they married and he had a chance to settle into his new job, his plan to come back “for awhile” became more permanent.
“When I was coming back here, I didn’t think I was going to spend the rest of my life here. It surprised the hell out of me because I thought I had escaped – woohoo! But it didn’t turn out that way.”
During a particularly difficult period, Hofrichter and Kartholl lost three parents between them (his mother in 2006 and her father and mother in 2005 and 2008, respectively), but even with his original tether to the city gone, he discovered Fort Wayne was where his friends and new family were. And he had other reasons for appreciating the area.
“There is not a better community theater job in the nation,” he says of his position at First Presbyterian. “I love our space, and the mission of the theater and our statement of purpose coincide with my own belief that theater can touch us; it can change us. It’s more than mere entertainment.”
Hofrichter references those statements frequently, and upon reading, it’s easy to understand why. Its mission statement promises productions “which will both examine and celebrate our lives” while its statement of purpose which says, “If it is true that art speaks to many more effectively than sermons or lectures or study courses or fellowship circles, then it may also be true that, for many, artistic expression is the most natural and eloquent mode of speaking about the meaning of their faith”
Hofrichter says coming to First Presbyterian Theater helped him rediscover his own faith.
“I got into theater because I had many questions about life and the world, and for a long time my faith had pretty much disappeared. So it’s interesting that through theater I came back to a religious institution which brought me back to my faith.”
The aligning missions of First Pres and Hofrichter mean that he’s able to put together a season of productions that are typically more adventurous than many theaters can do. While he commends productions of the tried and true, the classic musical theater productions that draw even casual theater fans, Hofrichter is able to bring in some unusual and thought-provoking pieces. The upcoming season, for example, includes some edgy fare like A Foreigner, A Lesson Before Dying and The Savannah Disputation, all of which challenge a lot of conventional beliefs. Additionally, the theater will have its annual Christmas production and the musical spoof Nunsense. Of course, there will also be Hofrichter’s annual nod to Shakespeare with The Merchant of Venice, opening in late February. When asked about what he loves most about the Bard, his initial response is simple.
“The words,” he says. “Actually it’s all Kate Black’s fault. I had taken classes at IU and Marquette, and Colorado-Boulder had a festival every year. But I hated Shakespeare until I came here and had to find something substantial to do, and Kate Black was on our committee, and she kept pushing me to do Shakespeare. She wanted to do Shakespeare was the thing, and Othello was one that I had always kind of liked, so I staged an all-female production of it.”
Now solidly in Shakespeare’s corner, Hofrichter thinks that most universities have it all wrong when it comes to the teaching of his work.
“You can’t lightly read it; you really have to dig. You have to look at where the periods are and what it all means. I think if you want to really look at Shakespeare, you should spend all 15 weeks of the semester on one play instead of trying to stuff 10 or more into 15 weeks. And when we stage those plays, we have to make sure that the actors know what it means, so they know how to say it so that the audience knows what it means.”
His passion for Shakespeare has taken Hofrichter beyond his own theater. Each year First Presbyterian sponsors a bus trip to the Stratford Festival, this year leaving on June 20 and returning June 22. It’s a whirlwind trip with a Friday evening performance, two Saturday performances and a final Sunday performance before returning to Fort Wayne. Each day begins with a breakfast at which travelers discuss what they saw the day before and share their thoughts. These experiences as director, performer and audience have helped Hofrichter with his own search for answers.
“We have a limited lifetime on our quest to find out what life is about, and no one knows humanity like Shakespeare. Love, hate, jealousy, anger – it’s all in there.”
Hofrichter’s performance as King Lear at IPFW in 2011 was also an opportunity to delve into some fairly heady themes, as he grappled with his own mortality after the losses he and his wife had endured so recently.
“When I was playing Lear, I suddenly realized ‘I get this. This is about an old guy who’s losing his physical strength, his mental acuity. He’s decaying. He’s dying, and I just saw three people go through this.’ It taught me tons about what they went through, and it made me realize that it’s a privilege to age and decay. The alternative is not to.”
No longer looking for other career opportunities, Hofrichter looks ahead to securing the theater beyond his tenure when he retires. Now working with a new state-of-the-art lighting system, he also works to organize and digitize the archives and puts his original degree in accounting to good use in helping keep the theater on secure financial footing. In the meantime he still enjoys taking the stage from time to time, both at his home theater and in other cities to recharge his batteries. He knows now that any plans he may have once had to move on would have meant not fulfilling his own sense of purpose.
“I get to examine life through the stories I’m telling. It would have been silly to have left.”