By Ken Trainor
Carl Occhipinti died last week at the age of 61. In his honor, we're reprinting the story we ran on Aug. 26, 2009, when he left his position as artistic director of Village Players Theater.
Six years ago, Village Players was finished. Oak Park's venerable community theater company was broke. In the hole, in fact, $39,000. The board voted to close shop.
Carl Occhipinti had done a few shows with Village Players and was part of theresident team of actors.
"We went to the board and said, 'Give us one year to turn things around,' " Occhipinti recalls.
It helped that Jack Crowe, then president of Village Players' board, got on board. In the ensuing six years, he and Occhipinti led a remarkable turnaround that did more than wipe out the company's debt. It led to a renovated exterior and lobby for Village Players Performing Arts Center, which is at 1010 Madison St., as well as a second performance space.
Occhipinti (pronounced Ah-ki-PIN-tee) had a production company before he got involved with Village Players. He knew what it would take.
"I was not going in blind," he says.
The most immediate problem was getting rights to any play. Royalty companies wouldn't give rights to a company in debt. So they raised $10,000 through an ad book and paid in advance for two years' worth of productions. Everyone involved in those productions, including Occhipinti, volunteered.
"No one was paid," he says. Village Players climbed out of debt, made a little money, did better work, earned a better reputation, attracted more notice and talented actors.
"We now have a $300,000 budget," he says. "It's a completely different place. I should do this in my own life!"
"Everyone is welcome" has pretty much been Occhipinti's mantra over the past six years. That and "Live the dream." When he took over, he threw himself into making connections. Living in Rogers Park, he said, "I didn't know Oak Park, so I went to every networking event offered."
Village Players hosted a Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours socializer, and Occhipinti was shocked by what he heard.
"Most said, 'I've never been in this building,'" he recalled.
The second shock was discovering an old rift in Village Players' history. He learned that the old guard wanted nothing to do with the new guard, so Occhipinti met with Mercita DeMonk, a longtime VP stalwart, and started mending fences. They held a Founders Night to honor those who established the company in 1961 and sustained it over the years. They decided to make it an annual event.
But Occhipinti is proudest of all the talent that has come to the company, where he's known as "the dream-maker." He designed plays around actors like Betty Scott Smith, who started acting in her 70s, and is still going strong in her mid-80s, as the recent black box productions of Trip to Bountiful and Driving Miss Daisy attest.
"I didn't care about their résumé," Occhipinti says. "I cared about their intent. Live the dream. If you have a dream, try it. Let's make it happen. What have you always wanted to do?"
He saw his role as mentoring and encouraging other people's passion.
"I always said, 'Yes,' " he recalls. "Storytelling. Opera. We opened the doors to pretty much everything."
Occhipinti had managed a cabaret in Chicago for six years, so he decided to do a series of cabaret-style concerts. Jack Crowe is an opera buff, so they brought in opera singers.
"Carl excelled in making other people's dreams come true, as long as they related to theater," says Crowe. "Not many theaters would have built productions around an 85-year-old actor.
"He is passionate about theater and about bringing new talent into the theater. He innovated with the black box series, added a variety of concerts, which has helped plug the inevitable financial gap. Who but Carl could have gotten Matthew Polanzani, one of the top 10 tenors in opera, to perform for free at a benefit?"
Occhipinti's "Yes" extended beyond Village Players. In the spring he even found time to direct an Ascension parish musical revue.
He likes to tell people not to let lack of funding be their excuse.
"I never think money's an issue," he says. "People give money to people, not to buildings." They turn into sponsors, he observes, "if they like your intent and passion. I'm not a salesman, but when I'm excited, it's contagious."
And many people were willing to help, donating their time and services.
"That's what turned us around," he says.
That and the fact, for six years, he made this his life — "seven days a week," he says.
He sees the physical renovation of the theater as a turning point in Village Players' comeback story. The new façade gave them more "street awareness," and having a second performance space made the theater community take them more seriously. In addition, they upgraded the lights and sound system.
"Our old sound board had fires," he recalls, "little fires, but still fires."
The next stage
A massage therapist for 30 years, Occhipinti moved his office to Oak Park so he could balance his vocation and his avocation. After he left Village Players, he took a two-month sabbatical of sorts to Esalen in California, longtime mecca of the human potential movement. He spent a month there about 20 years ago and described it as "magical."
But he felt good about his time at Village Players.
"I'm proud of what we did," he said.
Occhipinti performed numerous roles at Village Players, but his swan song, a single-night performance of A.R. Gurney's Love Letters, was one of his favorites. He teamed up with storyteller Megan Wells and they decided not to rehearse.
"I wanted to stay real to theemotions. I wanted to really feel the push and pull, dive into the deep end and just stay there."
Typical of his "yes" philosophy, Wells asked if she could bring in a harpist for background music. No problem. Turns out the harpist's husband also plays the harp. Could he play, too? No problem.
"We never met before that night," Occhipinti said. "One did my emotional journey. One did Megan's."
His parting advice?
"Come with a passion and live it. Live the dream that's inside all of us. Let yourself go. Follow that energy and let it lead you."