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Nancy Kartholl, one of Fort Wayne’s most prolific and respected actors, never had childhood aspirations to be anything other than an actress or singer. Like many performers, she got her start as a youngster, putting on neighborhood variety shows with her sister and friends.
“I was probably 10 or 11,” she recalls. “We’d set up lawn chairs in the driveway, perform in the carport and make our entrances from the garage.”
She appreciated the support these early audiences gave her to boost her confidence. “These must have been torturous events,” she says, “but all the spectators were good sports.”
These variety shows led to a successful audition for her grade school production of The Wizard of Oz at St. Jude School. “I was the Cowardly Lion,” she says. “I auditioned with a pretty good roar.”
Thus began a long and illustrious relationship with community theater.
She wasn’t the first in her family with a theatrical bent. Like many performers, she inherited the performance gene.
“My dad was quite a talented singer, as were his brothers,” Kartoll says. “It was always a joy to hear them sing together, and my favorite part of our family Christmas gatherings was when it was time to sing. Sometimes his sister Mary would play the piano for them.”
In fact, when her father was stationed in the Philippines during World War II, he was assigned to produce a Christmas show. “If I am remembering the story correctly,” she says, “he found wood from a demolished bridge to build the stage.”
Kartholl didn’t outgrow her theatrical aspirations. Her first bachelor’s degree was in acting and directing from Barat College in Lake Forest, Illinois. However, her mother convinced her to add a business degree as well. “And of course,” Kartholl says, “she was right.”
Kartholl spent several years in the mortgage world but currently works as the merchandise coordinator at Do it Best Corp. Although she doesn’t get to use her performance skills, the entertainer in her comes out in her humorous departmental emails.
“[My husband] says the bankers never ‘got me,’” she says, “so I’m glad the hardware co-op gang seems to take me in stride.”
Over the years Kartholl has appeared in countless productions – musicals, comedies and dramas.
“I’m just not a very complete person if there is too much time between shows,” she says.
She has a number of “bucket list” roles she hopes to perform in while she still can, including roles in Wit, Mary Stuart, August: Osage County and The Year of Magical Thinking. She would also like another crack at Mama Rose in Gypsy. “I played her in 1994 when I was far too young,” she says. “I think I get it now.”
The performances she has done are too numerous to keep track of (“I can’t even remember the names of some of the plays I’ve done,” she says) but she tries to do two or three productions every year. One role she will never forget is the first one she took in 1997 for First Presbyterian Theater’s new managing artistic director, Thom Hofrichter.
“I saw the first show he directed here and loved it,” she says, “and I had also heard good things about him as a director. I certainly wanted to work with him, so I auditioned for Tartuffe that fall.”
The young but versatile actress was surprised to be cast as the 80-year-old mother of Dick Ver Wiebe’s character. Kartholl hesitantly accepted the role, both because she wanted to work with Hofrichter and because she didn’t want to make a bad first impression as an actor refusing a role. She also knew that because the show was a French farce, the audience would already be suspending disbelief, so seeing her in the role wouldn’t be too jarring. The experience paid off in more ways than one.
“Thom and I were dating before the end of the run,” she says.
She was charmed by his irreverent sense of humor. “He said, regarding [a particularly badly written] play, ‘You can’t make an apple pie out of a turd.’ I think I nearly did a spit take.”
Upon the advice of mutual friend Ranae Butler, Kartholl pursued the relationship, and the couple was married six years later (“I had to make sure he wasn’t an axe murderer first,” she jokes).
Ten years of marriage hasn’t changed her respect of her husband’s work as a director.
“I know I’m biased,” she says, “but I love working with Thom as a director because he makes good actors better and coaches inexperienced actors from zero to 60 in six weeks or less.”
She also respects his knowledge. “He is a walking encyclopedia of the theater,” she says. “He sees the big picture as well as the minutiae and really knows how to analyze a script and help actors understand structure, pace, action, context and whatever else we need to know to serve the play. I trust him completely. So I keep coming back to First Pres.”
Working with a spouse has other advantages, she says: “It’s nice to see him in the evenings,” she says.
Their latest collaboration at First Presbyterian Theater is the Emily Mann drama Mrs. Packard, the true story of a 19th century woman who is put into a mental asylum by her husband for disagreeing with his religious beliefs. The shocking part of the story is that this wasn’t unheard of in the late 1800s. In certain states, including Illinois and Massachusetts, a man could legally incarcerate his wife in a mental asylum and have her declared legally insane, without benefit of a trial, for absolutely any reason.
Mrs. Packard fought for her freedom and wrote a tell-all account of her experiences in the asylum and the inhumane treatment of the inmates (including waterboarding). As a result, legislation was passed giving women the right to a trial before being declared insane.
Kartholl was attracted to the script, she says, because she was “simultaneously appalled and fascinated by Mrs. Packard’s story. We 21st century American women owe her a debt of gratitude for her sacrifice and perseverance, for her role in the arc of our journey.
“But aside from that,” she adds, “it’s just a compelling and eye-opening story from beginning to end.”
Kartholl says the story is “important, well-written and thoroughly engaging,” and the subject matter has created what she says is the biggest challenge she has ever faced as an actor.
“I am really having trouble putting blinders on my 21st century eyes and viewing the action and dialogue in the play from the perspective of a 19th century woman,” she says. “My natural instincts in developing this character are generally not the right ones. Usually my instincts for character development are pretty good, so re-thinking my choices is difficult for me.
“But it’s good for me to stretch.”