$50 in the hat
This week we’re taking a trip down memory lane with an extensive interview with five of TimeLine’s founding Company Members, commemorating the 15th Anniversary of the meeting that started TimeLine on April 9, 1997. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here …
My mother told me that I was throwing $50 away. It would never turn into anything. And I didn’t have $50 to waste.
What are the three words that describe TimeLine to you in that first year?
Kevin: Determined. Exhilarating. Passionate.
Pat: Provocative. Energetic. Inventive.
PJ: Confident. Focused. Ambitious.
Nick: Provocative. Scrappy. Organic.
Juliet: Ambitious. Hopeful. Relentless!
You obviously had great hopes for what you were building together. What was your dream for TimeLine’s future?
Kevin: To create innovative and inspired productions, to be truthful to and fully embrace such a unique mission, and to create a passionate place to grow and watch others grow as artists.
PJ: The audacious dream was that someday TimeLine would be on the list when people rattled off the top theatres in Chicago; that TimeLine would be a place where every artist wanted to work and every audience member wanted to have a ticket.
Nick: My dream is the same as it is today. That it would be a company that would make people think and feel. That it would help us to remember to look back, take stock, respect and learn from our past in order to make our present and future better. Finally, to become the thing that we could leave on this earth to make it a better place.
But the road ahead was tough. How long did you really think TimeLine could last?
Kevin: I don’t think any of us doubted that TimeLine would be around for quite some time. It never felt like we were saying, “hey let’s give this a try.” It was more like we just jumped in knowing it would somehow work given our past experiences together. Even as we made leadership changes in the first few years to accommodate other artistic endeavors or dreaded day job schedules, each time it felt like folks really wanted to see the company go on.
Juliet: To be honest, I can’t imagine I was thinking 15 years down the line … but I knew I didn’t want TimeLine to stop. And that commitment fueled a lot of decisions for me, both personally and professionally.
Nick: I knew it could last for a long time. I still believe that. And I mean a long time. I hope well past my lifetime — and I’m expecting to be around for a while.
PJ: In so many ways, in those first couple years it was just about putting one foot in front of the other, getting to and through the next meeting, next assignment, next item on the “must do” list. It was hard to think beyond the current week, since we had literally about $30 in the bank.
And yet, in other ways, every single thing that we were doing — slowly, methodically — was very intentional. And the intent was to build this thing to last. We had seen plenty of companies that produced AMAZING shows and were garbage behind-the-scenes. And they ultimately flamed out. We knew that we didn’t want that to happen and from the get-go we were big believers in “slow and steady will win the race.”
So now, in year 15, it seems crazy that we’ve gotten this far. And it also feels like we’ve done it just as we hoped.
It was all-volunteer during those first years. What “day jobs” did you have to support yourselves as the company was getting started?
PJ: I was living the glamorous world of retail. I worked at the store Anthropologie on State Street from 7 am – 4 pm. And then I’d do TimeLine stuff from 4 pm until the wee hours of the morning. But I had the most amazing boss who supported my crazy schedule and devotion to TimeLine. And it is through that store that I also met two people who have been a big part of my life in the last 15 years. The first is Brian Sidney Bembridge, who was my co-worker at the time, before he went on to design sets and/or lights for countless TimeLine productions and become an Associate Artist. And while Brian is important, he really pales in comparison to the second person — my wife Shelley, who I also met through Anthropologie.
Kevin: I was freelance designing at other theater companies, working at my day job and helping to start TimeLine at night and weekends. I’ve been working for the same corporation since I left grad school.
Juliet: I worked in DePaul University’s College of Commerce, and after he left Anthropologie, PJ worked at DePaul downtown too. We spent many lunch hours thinking, scheming, planning and dreaming.
Nick: I was waiting tables at Big Bowl on Erie. But about a year after we started the company, I got a job at the Court Theatre. I was the Casting Director and eventually Associate Artistic Director there. I tried to make both jobs work for a while, but it soon became clear that was going to be very hard (both theatres needed an enormous commitment). Since the Court was my only income at the time, I had to go with that job and leave the TimeLine Company. It was tough, for me but more for them. I was the leader of the ship at that time and I had to abandon ship.
Kevin Hagan took the reins as Artistic Director for a short while, then PJ took the position. I have often said that at the time, I didn’t know if PJ would have the leadership qualities it was going to take. I knew he had incredible commitment and drive but he was in his early 20s. He proved me wrong, which he has done several times over the past 15 years. It was his drive and commitment and the strength and resilience of the Company Members that not only saved the company I had started, but made it into what it is today.
What was the very first step you all took once you decided, “yes, we’re starting this company”?
PJ: Ah, the now-famous $50 in the hat.
I feel like I’ve told this story about a million times. But it’s a good story. And, unlike most good stories, this one is actually true.
Each of us each donated $50 to get the company started. Nearly all of this seed money went toward the filing of our not-for-profit license with the State of Illinois.
And my mother (god love her) told me that I was throwing $50 away. It would never turn into anything. And I didn’t have $50 to waste.
Kevin: If I remember correctly, we worked a lot on the logo and planning a first benefit!
Juliet: Well, I guess we scraped together our money for incorporation, and we started figuring out who could do what best. We also wrote bylaws. We met very regularly to talk all this out.
Nick: We started having meetings. A LOT of them. I think we met two nights a week for almost a year. We grew sick of each other but we also got to know each other very well. We tried to make these meetings fun by having snacks or drinks and mixing business with art. So often, we would talk for two hours about the mission or the finances, then spend two hours reading a play out loud.
Pat: $50 each, you gotta have a staff position, an artistic position and a board position, and we’re gonna be meeting a LOT!
Seriously, that meant that even before we chose the first play, I think, we were planning how to incorporate the company, looking into not-for-profit licensing, company structures, mission statements and business plans. We all stepped outside of our main interests a lot to research and plan how to make TimeLine more than a “one shot wonder!” There have been lots of companies who do one or two or even three amazing, spectacular, incredible shows and then collapse or fade away or disintegrate because the artistry was high but the business foundation was tenuous. It was a year, almost to the day, from our first meeting to our first show. That was a long year of delayed gratification, but from the start, we wanted to build a business foundation strong enough to support high flying, risk-taking artistry.
It sounds like a crazy but amazing first year. What was the hardest part of that time? And were there any easy parts?
Nick: The easiest part was being with a group of people who all cared equally — who all worked their tails off. We would argue about every detail, but in the end, we all knew we wanted the same things.
Juliet: Some things made it easier. In the early years, we always said, “We do good theatre, we do GREAT parties!” And to be honest, good parties speak to good community, and that is a value we still hold close to our hearts.
Pat: Oh, there were a few tough things. First: Can choosing a name for the company really be so bloody impossible? Really?
And me as Managing Director … because I can balance my checkbook? Really??
Most significant was the difficulty of having a life outside TimeLine. Like a fire, TimeLine was hot, brilliant and all-consuming. And I was willing and eager to give all my fuel to build the fire. Now that I am a mother, I think of it in many ways like that first sleep-deprived year with my newborn, where you are needed all the time for everything. I let other things slide, put other parts of my life into a holding pattern, and though I tried to sustain and support friendships, I lost a few very dear ones.
PJ: I don’t recall a single easy thing. Honestly, I get exhausted just thinking back to it.
It was fun because it was all so new. But it was a lot of grunt, pain-in-the-ass work that I think I was able to do because I was very young and somewhat stupid.
Although, truthfully, I don’t even have a right to complain because the true hero is Pat Hofmann, who was our Managing Director because she took on the challenge of all of the logistics, legalities and red tape involved in getting established as a not-for-profit organization. She deserves crazy amounts of credit. I could never have done what she did.
Juliet: I have distinctly terrible memories of breaking down our first show all night out of the church/theatre space at the Second Unitarian Church on Barry, including an incredibly heavy “ceiling” that we had hung. We stuffed everything into Kevin’s basement and I got very grumpy at about 2:30 a.m.
Kevin: I think the hardest part of the first year was getting a pipeline going of plays for consideration in future years. Trying to find a balance between what was appealing to us, what would make the biggest statement about who we were trying to become, what would be appealing to audiences and potential patrons and donors, and what we could actually afford was difficult — especially given that we had already limited ourselves to plays that were genuinely inspired by history.
Nick: We had seen so many companies try and fail, so we wanted everything to be right the first time and it took us forever to come to resolutions. We weighed out the pros and cons of the slightest decisions. Of course, we are still like that. We should have been called the Tortoise Theatre Company. But the tortoise does win the race!
TO BE CONTINUED …
PART 4 of our interview with TimeLine’s Founding Company Members — with reflections on others who were part of the company early on and the story of the inaugural production — will publish tomorrow. Subscribe to Behind the ‘Line (see links at upper right) so you won’t miss a thing!