October 26, 2005
Having gone through the ritual passages of Lamaze class together, Jody Hecht thought she could trust Rita Hunter. So when Hunter asked Hecht to come watch a rehearsal of Aspen Community Theatre’s “A Chorus Line” in 1985, Hecht didn’t suspect anything more than the promised evening of enjoyment.She shouldn’t have been so naive. Hunter, who had been producing ACT productions beginning with 1980’s “Night Watch,” was constantly on the prowl for potential theater participants. She has been known to ask complete strangers if they can sing, act or sew. And in her friend Hecht, Hunter saw a promising ACT ally. Hunter had no idea of letting Hecht off the hook after one night of rehearsal-watching.”If you can get someone there, and they can, and they can understand the commitment, you can probably get someone involved. Because it’s fun,” said Hunter. “There are lots of friends where I’ve said, come on. And you don’t know whether it’s a case of misery loves company, or come on, the water’s fine.”Hecht found the climate of community theater much to her liking. After watching the “Chorus Line” rehearsal, she was moved enough to enroll in an acting class at Colorado Mountain College. Two years later, Hecht, who had had no previous stage experience, made her ACT debut in the chorus for “Hello, Dolly!” Yes, she had been duped by Hunter, but for an ultimately good cause.
“It looked like so much fun. It was a world I didn’t know, and a community I didn’t know about,” said Hecht, who had owned the contemporary women’s clothing shop Bagallio, worked as a mortgage broker, and had limited her creative endeavors to craft-making. “Something struck a chord about the creativity part, but I didn’t know exactly what chord. I knew it had many facets, and I didn’t know into which of those facets my talent would fit.” After three more onstage appearances – in “Annie,” “Damn Yankees” and “The King and I,” always in the chorus – Hecht found that her calling was not under the spotlight. Beginning with “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1992, Hecht moved behind the scenes, to form a two-person production team with Hunter. This week, the team of Hunter & Hecht chalks up its 10th credit for ACT (and the 27th for Hunter). The two are co-producers for “Pippin,” which opens at the Aspen District Theatre Thursday, Nov. 3. Wendy Moore, who last directed for ACT with 2000’s “The Wizard of Oz,” directs the Roger O.Hirson/Stephen Schwartz musical about the son of King Charlemagne and his search – in war, politics, art and lust – for the meaning of life. Hunter and Hecht add “Pippin” to a list of ACT productions that includes such classics as “My Fair Lady,” “Mame” and last year’s “The Sound of Music.”Who’s the boss?Unlike Hecht, Hunter had a long history around the theater. As a kid in Southern California, she and her three brothers would stage original “garage productions” for cousins and neighbors. Hunter seemed to find her niche in theater early; she took on the role of producer even back then, “bossing her brothers around,” as she puts it. At high school in Sunnyvale, she appeared in musicals and plays before getting involved as a performer with Lake Tahoe Repertory Theatre in the ’60s.Hunter exited from the stage when she moved to Aspen in 1969, and even the founding of Aspen Community Theatre, in 1976, didn’t immediately draw her back. Not until 1980, when ACT presented the psychological thriller, “Night Watch,” did she return to the theater. Or tried to. Hunter auditioned for “Night Watch” but didn’t get a part; it would be her last audition for ACT. As a consolation prize, she was offered the chance to do costumes, which she accepted. And when the producer took ill, Hunter took over that job as well, and found that her place in the theater was just where she had started decades ago – calling the shots.”When I did that show, I realized that was my calling – bossing everybody around,” she said. “I’m very good at that.”Actually, what Hunter and Hecht appear to be especially good at is lining up the people to boss around. Aspen Community Theatre is community theater at an exceedingly high level. If it approaches a professional level, it is because of the team of genuine pros that Hunter and Hecht have assembled. Set designer Tom Ward and costume designer Kathleen Albert, both longtime regulars with ACT, bring impressive skills to the productions. (When the curtain opened on 1996’s “The King and I,” there was an ovation before a word was spoken, a response to Ward’s set.) ACT has often drawn from a pool of actors who have appeared with such local, professional outfits as the Crystal Palace dinner theater and Theatre Aspen. Lighting designer Gordon Wilder, sound designer Loren Wilder, choreographer John Goss and music director/conductor David Dyer all bring a wealth of experience to “Pippin,” as does director Wendy Moore.”If you find all the right people, your job is so much easier,” said Hunter. “We’ve got a Tom Ward, a Kathleen Albert.”
Hunter and Hecht define their role as making the director’s job as easy as possible. Their aim is to take everything off the director’s shoulders, so that the director can focus on creative aspects of the production.”What happens in regular community theater is the director ends up with a huge, huge job. Our job as producers is making that job easier, by taking care of a lot of details,” said Hunter, who contacts the press, helps sew costumes, and takes on any task where she is needed, from painting to prop-making, in addition to managing the production crew. (Among Hecht’s specialties is creating the program.) Hunter and Hecht are also on ACT’s board of directors, which handles fund raising and selects the shows. Hunter concluded her nine-year term as board president a few years ago; Hecht remains the treasurer. “Every ACT director will tell you this is a director’s dream,” continued Hunter. “Because we’ll take up all the slack. They can just show up and direct and not worry about all the other stuff.”In sharing the producer’s chair, Hunter and Hecht have formed an ideal partnership. The two are in a book club together and, until recently, were co-workers at Pitkin County Dry Goods, where Hunter still works. They raised daughters simultaneously (and watched their kids appear together in ACT productions of “Peter Pan” and “Oliver”). They finish each other’s sentences, read each other’s minds. About the biggest split between them is on the subject of sewing costumes: Hunter loves it, Hecht is happy to let her.”I’ve done shows by myself, so it can be done,” said Hunter. “But having Jody is about moral support if I’m freaking out. That’s what makes a good team, having a friend who can fill in the blanks, defrazzle you when you’re thinking, ‘This isn’t going to happen.'”The Hunter & Hecht showInterestingly, the place that Hunter and Hecht celebrate their friendship most is in the box office. Every night of every production, the two can be found there surveying the scene. When the last ticket has been sold, they dash to an empty seat if there is one, or the back of the house, or backstage to take in the show.”The interplay in that little room,” said Hecht, referring to the box office ritual, “greeting everybody coming in, knowing what’s going on in the theater – we see the community, we see their reactions. That’s the most fun we end up having.”While the two have assembled a fairly stable production crew, the onstage talent tends to be more of a rotating cast. The main actors in “Pippin,” including Paul Dankers in the title role, are virtually all new to the company. For the producers, this helps put the “community” in community theater.
“We meet so many new people, and then so many people come back to work on the plays,” said Hecht. “That’s a real blessing, a real addition to your life. Especially working creatively, and so much being together, working toward one goal.”Surprisingly few mishaps have arisen over the years. Hunter says the closest to a disaster came when the actor playing Tony in 1991’s “West Side Story” had a car accident three days before the show opened. Amazingly, Hunter found another local actor who was not only willing and able to take the role – but had played that very part two times before.For Hecht, the low point was in 1997, when she lobbied to do “Little Shop of Horrors,” but the board chose “Jesus Christ Superstar.” But ask her now what has been her favorite show, and she doesn’t hesitate in saying, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “It took my breath away every night,” she said. (P.S. ACT did a wonderful “Little Shop of Horrors” the next year.)Hunter and Hecht have become tied to each other, and tied to the theater. They both say they mark events in their lives by what show was being produced at the time. But last year’s production of “The Sound of Music” marked a significant point in ACT’s history – the first time a show had been repeated. With iconic musicals in short supply, revisiting past titles is inevitable in the near future. Which might be why the producers are examining their relationship to the company.”We keep thinking we’ve got to find someone to take this over. Because Jody wants to start being able to go away in the fall,” said Hunter.But Hecht isn’t so sure those autumn getaways are going to happen anytime too soon.”We can’t see ourselves doing this at 75 years old,” she said. “But at the same time, we can’t see not doing this.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org