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Women's Family Secrets Go Public in 'Tearsheets'

October 17, 1991|NANCY CHURNIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN DIEGO — A well-bred woman in Joan Hotchkis' wealthy Southern California ranching family was a silent woman. If you had the bad taste of having thoughts of your own, contrary to those of your menfolk, you kept them to yourself.

But thoughts about such taboo subjects as racism and chauvinism and art had a way of seeping out and being passed down from woman to woman.

Hotchkis' grandmother wrote poems that she never showed anybody--balling them up and burying them under seat cushions and in the back of books.

Hotchkis' mother took photos and wrote in a diary.

Hotckhis takes all the things these women never told anybody and weaves it into a show called "Tearsheets: Letters I Didn't Send Home."

The San Diego premiere of this one-woman show opens tonight at Sushi Performance Gallery and plays through Sunday.

It is a piece suffused with her love and anger about privilege and the price Hotchkis and the other women in her family paid for that privilege.

"Women of that class from birth are trained to accept and support the patriarchal system," she said, sitting with her feet up in Sushi's spartan performing space. "God forbid they should have an independent thought or a strong voice. The system would collapse."

The show, in which Hotckhis plays several characters--men, women, children and even a cow--is based on stories from Hotchkis' mother's family--the very rich Bixbys of Long Beach. The Bixby cattle ranch, Rancho Los Alamitos, once totaled 26,000 acres. Today, it has been whittled down to a public historic site with an adobe house dating from the 18th Century.

Hotchkis, a fourth-generation Californian, grew up in San Marino, near Pasadena, but she visited the ranch on weekends. She loved it then and loves it now--even though she hates it as well.

"The ranch itself is a metaphor for that hidden place inside all of us that's full of hidden beauty and hidden horror," she said. "It was always as wonderful as I thought it was. It was always as horrible as I thought it was. I was impaled on the paradoxes, and that's what I still struggle with today."

In one scene that she says both men and women identify with, a well-to-do woman is in a California club, begging a man in her life for money.

"Even though these women technically have money, they don't know anything about it. It's a milder form of not letting slaves learn how to read."

In the early part of Hotckhis' life, she tried to do what everyone expected of her. Fighting her own desire to perform, she was a dutiful student.

"I really wanted to be respectable and approved of and altruistic and unselfish and noble, but ever since I was a very little girl, I knew acting was my medium," she said.

At home, she learned to focus on others rather than herself. One can still sense that upbringing in her gentle demeanor, soft voice, almost deferential way of speaking.

At school, she studied social work at Columbia University in New York City and worked in that field for a year, but the supervisor reading her case studies told her she should be writing plays. She switched disciplines and went on to earn a master's in early-childhood education and taught nursery school and kindergarten for three years. She even saw a therapist who tried to cure her of her desire to get on stage. (She jokes that she is the only person she knows who has been in therapy longer than Woody Allen).

"Art was something you looked at," Hotchkis said she recalls being taught at home. "You bought a painting and hung it on the wall. It wasn't something you did with your life."

Finally, when she was 26, she broke free and went for it. It's a move she has never regretted.

"As soon as I got into theater and left teaching, I felt 100% less neurotic."

Her career took off quickly. She performed off-Broadway, on Broadway, in television and regional theater. She married, had a child and divorced (after eight years) in the late '60s and moved from New York to Los Angeles. But, despite her successes, which included starring in the 1975 film "Legacy" that she wrote herself, starring on the soap "Secret Storm" for two years, playing steady roles as William Windom's wife in "My World and Welcome to It" and being Jack Klugman's girlfriend in "The Odd Couple," there was still something missing.

It was not until she was inspired by a workshop with performance artist Tim Miller to write a show based on her mother's diaries and photographs, that she found her own voice.

The show premiered last year at Highways in Santa Monica and has since played at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions. After the Sushi run, she will take it to San Francisco from Nov. 7-9 and to Santa Fe, N.M., on Nov. 22-23. Ultimately she would like to tour it throughout the country and write another show drawn from this same source material.

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