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Acting Her Age

It Took Joan Hotchkis Years to Come to Terms With the 'Elements' of Her Life--but She Did It

October 18, 1996|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — "There had been deep stuff in me that had been brewing all my life, stuff I wasn't even aware of because it'd been covered up by a little-girl view of my parents," says Joan Hotchkis, whose one-woman show, "Elements of Flesh, or Screwing Saved My Ass" opens at the Huntington Beach Art Center on Saturday.

Hotchkis, a lithe, fine-boned 69-year-old beauty, obsessively bends and punches a tiny yellow Post-It pad in her studio as she tries several times to answer a question about the degree of autobiography in her work.

She's quick to joke that she's had more therapy than Woody Allen. But in recent years, coming to terms with her life as a woman and an actress has been an unusually public and sometimes painful process, beginning with "Tearsheets: Rude Tales From the Ranch."

The 1990 performance piece revisited her privileged childhood in terms that, as she has said, expose "the similarities between the raising of cattle and the raising of women."

The work was a bombshell for her relatives, wealthy descendants of early Orange County settlers who developed Rancho Los Alamitos as a 26,000-acre cattle ranch. Hotchkis had violated the proprieties of upper-middle-class family life by holding up its private beliefs and practices for public inspection. They accused her of "getting back" at them; one family member threatened to sue her.

Her next piece, "Elements of Flesh," which premiered last spring at Highways in Santa Monica, managed to offend utter strangers.

Highways has a reputation for presenting edgy gay- and lesbian-themed works. But the provocative advertising for Hotchkis' piece--featuring a photo of her with one buttock bared--and the notion of an elderly woman talking about geriatric sex were deeply unsettling to some younger people as well to as some of her peers.

The resultant publicity--and strong reviews--made "Elements of Flesh" a sellout show and landed her a spot this month on Buzz magazine's list of the 100 coolest people in L.A.

Making the transition from an actress speaking someone else's lines to a performance artist mining her own life and emotions was utterly terrifying, she says.

"It was the most courageous thing I have ever done and the most essential thing I could do, to come into my old age as myself," Hotchkis says.

"And that's typical of older people. . . . They're irascible; they're powerful. In spite of all the cultural pressures for them to be weak"--Hotchkis switches to her full-bodied acting mode--"to have Alzheimer's, pleeeease, so you'll come to our nursing homes, pleeeease, because we're making so much money off of you if you shut up and stay sick and then die!"

*

Clearly she will not go gentle into that good night.

Hotchkis was a nursery-school teacher a few years out of Smith College in Massachusetts when she made her first break from the rigid embrace of her family. She studied acting in New York, became a member of the Actor's Studio and debuted on Broadway in "Advise and Consent."

In her 40s, she acted in film and TV (she played Nancy in the "The Odd Couple" series) and regional theater in Ashland, Ore., Milwaukee, Cincinnati and Los Angeles. A decade ago she was still active, playing Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" "five or six times between Friday and Sunday, with a two-hour break between shows."

Then the work dried up.

"Being unemployed for longer and longer periods of time was very, very painful," she says. "It wasn't a question of money. The part that really hurts, even if you're really poor, is the corrosion of your self-esteem. . . . I had been forced by ageism and sexism out of acting, which is a theme I get into in the piece."

A new world opened to her in 1989, when she took a class from (O.C.-bred) performance artist Tim Miller. "He encouraged me," she says. "He's a born midwife."

*

After germinating for five years in her mind, "Elements of Flesh"--still a work-in-progress--began to take shape as a performance.

To prepare, she read and reread Betty Friedan's 1993 book, "The Fountain of Age," and interviewed people. With a few telling gestures and a different voice, she plays one of them--Chuck, a blunt widower colorfully recalling how his 80-year-old wife had the best sex of her life in her last 10 years.

Another driving force behind the piece, Hotchkis said, is her innate physicality. She has had to realize that she can't do the mambo or go swing dancing and that it's foolish to tackle an aerobics class as though she were only 40 or 55.

But there is still sex. At one point in the 75-minute "Flesh," Hotchkis wraps herself regally in the stage drapery and rhapsodizes on the many reasons sex is life-affirming. At another point, she slyly describes how she invisibly stimulates herself on a cross-town bus.

Yet, although "the subtitle lets you know it's not about nostalgia," Hotchkis says, the work is not meant to be shocking.

"The shock value is in being myself and wanting to say these things [about aging], and having the training in writing and acting to say them well, and having the age to say them in a way that's not confrontational, that people can take in. It's having a lot of dignity and a lot of just plain honesty, without anger."

* "Elements of Flesh, or Screwing Saved My Ass," opens Saturday at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St. 8 p.m. $8-$10. Continues Oct. 26 and 27. (714) 374-1650.

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