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 the resident 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 (Ah-ki-PIN-tee) had had a production company. 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 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!”
Village Players can now afford musicals. Sunday in the Park with George, the current production, cost over $7,000.
“We can take on bigger things now,” Occhipinti said.
Village Players can take on bigger things. Occhipinti is taking a different path. Tonight at 7 p.m. Village Players will throw him a sendoff party as he turns responsibilities for artistic director over to Dan Taube. Eveyone is welcome.
“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. Last 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
Occhipinti, 57, says he’s not burned out, but “I need a breather. I just want to slow down, acquire a life. I want to do deeper work.”
A massage therapist for 30 years, who moved his office to Oak Park so he could balance his vocation and his avocation, he’s planning 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 describes it as “magical.”
“I want to do this to fill my own vessel,” he says.
But he feels good about his time at Village Players.
“I’m proud of what we did,” he says. “Now it’s time for the next step. Dan [Taube] has the energy to take us there.”
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 the emotions. 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 says. “One did my emotional journey. One did Megan’s.”
His parting advice to Village Players?
“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.”
“I’ve been in the arts all my life,” says Dan Taube (pronounced Tobby), the new artistic director of Village Players in Oak Park. And he’s been a fixture of the Chicago theater scene since he graduated from New York University’s acting program in 1989. He earned a master’s in directing from DePaul University in 1992, then founded Thunder Road Ensemble, serving as artistic director.
In 2003, he was director of Chicago Styles Workshop, an acting studio, which led to contact with Village Players.
“I auditioned for How I Learned to Drive,” he recalls. A few years earlier, he’d interviewed for a teaching position with Village Players, and remembers being “impressed by what they had done, how grounded they were in the community.”
Village Players’ 180-seat main stage theater and the 50-seat black box studio space make a lot of interesting programming possible, Taube says. When he first saw the renovated facility, he was so impressed, he recalls thinking, “I’d move out here for this.”
Taube calls Village Players “a solid arts organization with a strong board and good staff.
“That’s very appealing,” he says.
And Taube calls what outgoing artistic director Carl Occhipinti has done in six years, “nothing short of miraculous, a true Phoenix rising from the ashes.”
Taube plans to maintain the strong relationships Occhipinti built, but says any organization needs to look to the future as well as the past. Taube admits “a passion for American theater, post-1960,” and hopes to bring works by Christopher Durang, John Patrick Shanley, Neil Simon, August Wilson and others to Village Players’ stages.
The coming main stage season will start with “where we’ve been” (the classic You Can’t Take It With You), will include the recent past (Chorus Line) and will add “where we’re going” (Christopher Durang’s Marriage of Bette & Boo). In the studio space, this year’s theme will be “women on the cutting edge,” starting with The Miracle Worker (Megan Wells directing) and John Patrick Shanley’s Savage in Limbo.
Taube plans to lengthen the usual production runs to five weeks in the black box studio and to six to seven weeks on the main stage. He also plans to continue the tradition of concerts and special events that Occhipinti established.
He hopes to work closely with Village Players’ regular actors, develop new talent and recruit proven actors. That, plus overseeing the building, and building the audience should more than keep him busy.
Former board president Jack Crowe says, “Dan has a somewhat different skill set. He has more theater management background. His challenge will be to grow the talent Carl has assembled at the theater.”
Taube is ready for the challenge. And, to be closer to work, he is in fact leaving Rogers Park and moving here.
“This is a wonderful facility and community,” Taube says. “Oak Park is a great place for the arts in general. It’s exciting.”