Having celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, First Presbyterian Theater has already staged its first play of the season, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
However, the play Thom Hofrichter intended to stage next, Chapatti, was postponed in favor of Art, a decision that was based more on personal reasons than artistic ones.
The two-person play, originally meant as a vehicle for Hofrichter and his wife, Nancy Karthold, proved too taxing given more pressing matters.
What is friendship?
“We sold our home this year and are currently rehabbing a condo,” said Hofrichter, managing director of First Presbyterian Theater and director for Art. “It became clear that events were conspiring against us, and that there was no way we were going to have the time to do that piece justice. As that became apparent, I started reaching out to other actors in the community to fill those roles and wasn’t finding the right people.”
After deciding to postpone Chapatti, Art became a quick and comfortable solution for a variety of reasons.
“I’ve never directed Art, but I acted in it about 20 years ago,” Hofrichter said. “I love Art. It’s one of my favorite plays. What I love most about it is that it seems, on the surface, to ask, ‘What is art?’ But also lurking very, very close to the surface is, ‘What is friendship? How do we form and maintain friendships when you fundamentally disagree with someone?’
“It’s a very timely question, and I think in the last year, year and a half I have been increasingly looking for ways to look at that question. It’s something that we’re facing a lot right now in our current social climate. Can people overcome these fundamental differences and remain friends? The central question comes from a piece of art. One guy is thinking, ‘How can I be friends with someone who considers that art?’ The second guy is thinking, ‘How can he have so little understanding of modern art and not appreciate the value of this piece?’ Then the third guy is asking, ‘Can we just stop fighting and be friends?’”
Hofrichter's experience in Art as an actor has helped him prepare, perhaps subliminally, for the sudden shift to a new play he has never directed before.
“We know plays differently as an actor than as a director because an actor essentially has to be selfish and consider his own work. But when you’re an actor and director, you automatically think in different terms and can’t help but see how the characters work together. So it was a play that I already had access to and had some pre-work thinking that I’d already done.”
As the season moves to the holidays, First Presbyterian has two shows up its sleeve.
Fans of last year’s Christmas Songs and Stories will be happy to know that it will return this year but with a twist. While Hofrichter and Tom Didier shared the stage last year — with Hofrichter providing the stories and Didier providing the songs — the 2019 version will feature two woman in those roles. Karthold will be this season’s storyteller while Renee Gonzales will handle vocal duties.
As was the case last year, the first act will focus on the secular holiday favorites like Santa, snowmen and elves while the second act will focus on the birth of Jesus and the sacred aspects of Christmas.
The second Christmas production came because as the scheduling for the First Presbyterian stage was being put together, with both FPT and Fort Wayne Youtheatre using the stage for their holiday productions, the weekend before Christmas was open, and Hofrichter had a good idea how to fill it.
“We’d done The Santaland Diaries five years ago, and Kevin Torwelle had played Crumpet the elf,” Hofrichter said. “I asked him if he’d be willing to reprise his role, and he said he didn’t want to do three weekends but he might do a one-time thing. So that’s how that came about.”
The Santaland Diaries, written by the popular David Sedaris, will have only two performances and provides a very different point of view than the show that follows in January.
Beyond Glory, which tells the story of eight soldiers who won the Medal of Freedom, takes a powerful look at the stories those who serve bring home with them. It also provided a pragmatic solution to trying to stage a play in the middle of the busy holiday season.
“A lot of actors don’t want to rehearse over the holidays, so the January show is always tough to cast,” Hofrichter said. “But this play has eight separate stories, and I’ve already cast the show and have been able to work with each of them individually. There are even a couple of them who will be out of town for the holidays so we get to take a week off before we start tech week. But that’s why I’m already working on that show now, which means I’m currently working four shows at the same time.”
Tennessee Williams play
The next show on the slate is the one production not directed by Hofrichter. But there’s still no rest for the weary as he’ll still be central to the performances.
“When I was in a production of King Lear at IPFW, I played Lear and Brian Ernsberger played my fool,” Hofrichter said. “We’ve been friends for a long time, and I was talking to him one day when he asked, ‘Why don’t you ever invite me to direct one of your plays?’ I told him he never asked if he could.
“We were talking about what show we could do, and I wanted it to be a contemporary classic. We talked about Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, a few others. Brian was interested in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He asked if I would be interested in playing Big Daddy, and I do like to act at least once a year. But at that time I thought Nancy and I would be doing Chapatti, and I didn’t want to act in two shows this year. But when Chapatti was postponed, I decided I’d do it.
“It’s not one of those roles I’ve lusted for. I’m more of an Arthur Miller fan than Tennessee Williams and would love to play Willy Loman or Joseph Keller sometime. But Brian’s a smart articulate guy, and I’m happy to be working on a play with him.”
Rounding out the season, to no FPT fan’s surprise, is a Shakespeare play.
Now 20 years into a solid community tradition, Hofrichter decided to go a slightly different direction with this year’s Shakespeare production.
“A Winter’s Tale is a first for me,” he said. “I’ve never been involved with that play before, so I’m already looking at it even though it’s months away. I need a lot of time to get my mind around that. It’s not like Art where I had knowledge of it before this. I picked A Winter’s Tale because we’ve already done the ‘greatest hits’ and the histories interest me less than other more familiar stories because if you aren’t familiar with the source material, it can be harder for audiences to follow.
“The story of A Winter’s Tale is really timeless. Basically it’s about a guy who for no reason becomes very jealous, and he destroys his marriage and his family. He really starts going crazy, and the story then jumps ahead 20 years, and you see the result of destroying his family. But you also see that there’s always the possibility of redemption. I’m always drawn to plays for our season that have an opportunity for redemption. It’s a perfect fit for First Presbyterian because redemption is at the heart of the Christian message.”
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