This is it! April 9. It was on this day in 1997 that six artists — all graduates of The Theatre School at DePaul University — held the meeting that launched what would become TimeLine Theatre Company. While the company officially would not be incorporated until December 2, 1997, it is this day that we remember as the historic start — our actual 15th birthday!
To celebrate, we reached out to five of the six founders (one, Brock Goldberg, no longer lives in Chicago and unfortunately has been out of touch with TimeLine for many years), inviting them to think back on that first meeting and the first year of the company and share their personal reflections on TimeLine then and now. The five are:
- Nick Bowling, Founding Artistic Director, current Company Member and current Associate Artistic Director
- Kevin Hagan, founding Company Member, former Resident Designer and former Artistic Director
- Juliet Hart, founding and current Company Member and current Director of TimeLine’s Living History Education Program
- Pat (Tiedemann) Hofmann, founding Company Member and former Managing Director
- PJ Powers, founding Company Member and current Artistic Director
Many people have come to love and respect what this group of people created and built from scratch way back when. Since there’s a lot of story here, we’ll roll out their extensive recollections in five blog posts this week. We hope you enjoy this walk down memory lane as we hear from them about how it all happened!
Let’s get started. Nick, you are credited with being the person who brought together this gathering on April 9, 1997. How did you decide whom to invite, and what do you remember about how it all happened?
Nick Bowling: In the summer of 1994, I had started a theatre company called Two Planks Theatre with a fellow MFA directing student at DePaul University named Eric Kerchner. Ironically, we had rented Baird Hall (TimeLine’s current home) from its then-resident European Repertory Company for our first production. It was my first professional directing job in Chicago (I use that word “professional” loosely) and although we folded later that year, there were a few things I learned from that experience. First, I realized how hard it was to start a company. Second, it became clear that Eric and I had a mission that was more focused on us and our careers than it was on finding a place and a purpose for a new company in Chicago. Finally, the most important thing I realized was that I wanted to try again, and this time, I wanted it to be a company that would last and find a purpose in Chicago.
The first step I took was to contact another student from DePaul — an actress named Lily Shaw. Lily and I met for drinks at Glascott’s Bar in the winter of 1997. I had asked her to help me figure out how to put a company together because she seemed like the only artist I knew who would have the ability to create a company.
I remember it like it was yesterday. The first thing she said was, “What is going to make your theatre different from all the rest? What void is it going to fill in Chicago theatre?” I hadn’t expected that question. I had no idea what the answer was. I just knew I wanted to start a company again, one that would last longer than a year perhaps — a company that could have a real life beyond the initial founders. I knew the people I wanted to be in the company, but that was it. Then Lily asked me the $10 million question. “What are your interests besides theatre?” The first thing out of my mouth was “antiques.” I love knowing about where they came from and how they were used and how they changed — the history behind them. She looked at me and said, “That’s it. That’s your theatre company.”
From that moment forward, the company’s mission has had history at its core.
From that moment forward, the company’s mission has always had history at its core. All because of that question Lily Shaw asked me. Lily ended up rejecting my request to join the company, the only one who did. She said she knew the kind of commitment it would require and she wasn’t able to give that. She moved to New York about a year later and is currently working at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.
My next goal was to bring together a group of people who would change the trajectory of my life (and theirs). I knew it had to be made up of artists I respected, but I also knew we couldn’t all be the same. I called five of the people with whom I had worked closely at DePaul: Three actors (PJ Powers, Juliet Hart and Pat Tiedemann), a designer (Kevin Hagan), a literary manager (Brock Goldberg) and me, a director. Sometime later, we added a seventh Company Member, Lara Goetsch. She was working as the Director of Marketing and Public Relations at The Theatre School and had produced and marketed theatre, and we knew we were going to need her help as well.
The Theatre School at DePaul is at the very core of TimeLine. It’s not just where we came from, it’s how we were taught to think about theatre. The work of Jim Ostholthoff, Joe Slowik, Ric Murphy, John Culbert, Bella Itkin and all the faculty at The Theatre School laid all the groundwork for the company’s artistic aesthetic and work ethic. In fact, we still work on the same rehearsal calendar as the one we had at school. These are the people who are truly behind the success of TimeLine and laid the very first foundations.
I don’t think I had told anyone exactly what the meeting was going to be. I wanted them to be surprised (although I think they all knew what was coming). They each had very different reactions to the idea of starting a company together and to the mission. Juliet was about to get married, PJ’s acting career was really taking off, and Pat wasn’t sure she wanted to give up what she knew she would have to in order to help drive the business side of the company. Kevin was a good friend and was really ready to join a company. Brock was hard to read but I suspect he was just happy to have a home since he was far from his family. It took a lot of convincing — especially PJ — beyond the first meeting. I kind of suspected that it was going to be all or nothing. Each person added a certain flavor to the group and I’m not sure we would have done it without all six. I had the initial idea, but PJ was the energy, Pat was the business, Juliet was the fun, Kevin was the dreamer, Brock was the unknown, Lara was the know-how — and everybody was talented and smart.
Almost no one liked the mission at first. They were worried that it would be too limiting and would grow stodgy. No one could see it as an opening — just a closing off of plays. References were made to Abraham Lincoln plays and the life of Lizzie Borden — all of which sounded awful to us. I didn’t know exactly what plays we could do — but I knew that focusing the mission was the smartest choice we made.
In fact, over the years we all toyed with ideas of expanding the mission or flat out changing it to include plays we just wanted to produce. We never did that — a decision that has been key to the success of the company.
So PJ, it sounds like you needed the most convincing. Why did you hesitate, and what changed your mind?
PJ Powers: Nick’s impassioned pitch to me is what brought me to that meeting. I had been out of school for about two years, armed with my BFA in Acting, and while I was working fairly steadily as an actor (if not quite blazing a path to stardom), I did find myself quite often wanting a say in the bigger picture of what I was working on. Nick enticed me with the notion that I could be a part of a team and have a strong voice in how a theatre was run, what plays it would produce, what conversations it aimed to ignite, and how it wanted to treat its artists and audience. That was intriguing, attractive, and also terrifying. But, what the hell! It was just a meeting! It was just a one-night commitment at that point so what did I have to lose …?
And the rest? What do you remember about Nick inviting you to that first meeting? What ultimately sparked your decision to attend?
Juliet Hart: I think I was flattered and curious, as most young actors would be early in their career, just to have someone say, “I believe in you, and I want to work with you.” I had no idea what I might be getting into, but I really do love teamwork. Being an actor can be very lonely if you don’t have a home, and I think having an artistic home was a dream I may have been too young and inexperienced to articulate, but probably hoped for very much.
Pat (Tiedemann) Hofmann: I don’t remember the exact conversation. What I do remember is thinking the people he proposed being involved were people I could really get excited about working with — people I felt had a common artistic language and a similar artistic vision, and people who were both passionate about making an artistic statement and capable of bringing a vision into being.
So, it was the people, the passion, the possibility! I think the possibility of impacting theatre in Chicago and having my voice heard in a much more dramatic way than I felt I could solely by auditioning and performing in plays about town, was intoxicating and inspiring — certainly enough to investigate the possibilities!
According to TimeLine lore, the first meeting of TimeLine’s six founders took place on April 9, 1997. What do you remember about that night?
Nick: It was at the basement of Susan Leigh and Stephen Gray, two of our faculty members at DePaul. I had asked the five potential Company Members, a couple friends who were interested in helping us grow and a woman named Dezhda Mountz who had worked as my assistant director and who was one of those people along the way who gave a lot of time and energy and really made a difference. There were a lot of them.
I remember [that first meeting] as looooong and gooooooood … the way you stay up all night talking to a new love. Exciting in a freeform, exhausting, naïve, brainstorming, out-of-the-box, anything-is-possible, expansive sort of way.
Pat: My recollection is more emotional than factual probably. I remember it as looooong and gooooooood … the way you stay up all night talking to a new love. Exciting in a freeform, exhausting, naïve, brainstorming, out-of-the-box, anything-is-possible, expansive sort of way. The endless, excruciating, how-do-we-manage-the details meetings came later. We would laugh that eventually meetings would surely get shorter and less frequent … and they did … eventually. But I wouldn’t buy back a moment of my life from any of those early meetings. They sparked the passion that kept the fire burning through the business meetings, and it is the combination of the two (embraced and enhanced by every new Company Member) that have continued to make TimeLine sustainable, I think. (I daren’t go so far as to say an eternal flame, except that I do so like a good extended metaphor … and 15 years sure is more than I expected 15 years ago!)
Kevin Hagan: I recall the first meeting took place in the basement of one of our teacher’s home and near the school. I also recall bringing some type of agenda (I’m sure I have a copy buried away somewhere) and it was roughly based on how to start and grow a theater company with lots of goofy references to planting seeds and watering — you know we designers love our metaphors …
PJ: Oddly, I have so many extremely vivid memories of countless events over the first 15 years of TimeLine. But that first night?? It is strangely foggy. I do remember it being in a basement of one of our former college teachers who graciously let us use a room to meet. And I do recall it being late-ish in the evening (starting for some reason around 9 pm??). And the whole thing felt like a weird first blind date … for six.
PART 2 of our interview with TimeLine’s Founding Company Members — about choosing the mission and actually making the decision to start the company — published on April 10, 2012.