It seems that the friendship between Vivienne Benesch and Lisa Rothe has aged and matured as gracefully as the Chautauqua Theater Company.
As Benesch (artistic director at CTC) and Rothe (director of CTC’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) celebrate CTC’s 30th birthday, they are also commemorating three decades of friendship.
“It’s such a gift to be able invite friends to come and work with you in such a beautiful place over the summer,” Benesch said. “It’s even a bigger gift to invite your insanely talented friends to come and then work with you.”
Benesch stated that she has been lucky enough to accrue an artistic network of actors and directors that want to work and learn at Chautauqua Institution. Of course, getting Rothe to come to the Institution wasn’t a big challenge.
Cat marks Rothe’s fourth directorial role with the company. For Rothe, who has directed Ah, Wilderness! by Eugene O’Neill and introduced the new play Hold These Truths last season, coming back to CTC is not just an opportunity to direct; it’s also another chance for Rothe to engage with her one of her best friends.
Now a full-time resident of New York City, Rothe is a CTC veteran; she was a conservatory member when Benesch was a teacher with the company.
“When I was asked to come here, it was extraordinary because it was my first conservatory experience of really being embedded and immersed in the work and in a community,” Rothe said. “[The Institution] is from my youth; it’s in my DNA now. I had such amazing experiences and incredible friendships formed, and it was really just the beginning of the conversation of who I was as an artist.”
Fittingly, like a scene stolen from Romeo and Juliet (with a modern-day, Chautauqua-esque twist), the two women saw each other across the room at Andriaccio’s, where they met for the first time. However, they both already shared a common connection.
Both women credit Rebecca Guy, former CTC artistic director, for helping to initiate their now 30-year bond. Guy is an alumna of the University of Evansville, where Rothe received her undergraduate degree. Rothe said it was Guy who helped her get into the CTC conversatory. Guy was also Benesch’s high school acting teacher.
“I always say she was responsible for my entire career, but she was also responsible for many of my best friends,” Benesch said.
After graduating from the University of Evansville, Rothe was accepted to both The Juilliard School and New York University for graduate school. Benesch convinced her friend to attend NYU for acting, where Rothe would meet Andrew Borba, CTC’s associate artistic director, in 1989. Benesch and Borba were already friends, as they had attended Brown University together.
“To be in a friendship and artistic partnership with people, it’s like any intimate relationship where you have to accept change and be able to morph and move on together and create something else,” Rothe said. “It’s kind of amazing.”
For the trio, there is something incredibly nostalgic about working together.
“There was this moment last week,” Benesch said. “I literally had this this sort of physical reaction to feeling like we were 21 again. I saw us as 21-year-olds and thought, ‘Oh god, how did we get from there to here?’ Here we are.”
Rothe, who started out studying biomedical engineering in college, switched to acting and hasn’t looked back. With an impressive resume of works that she has directed both regionally and in New York City, the busy artist considers CTC somewhat of a second home.
“[Rothe] is becoming a constant here because she’s an artist with an incredibly acute sense of heart and head,” Benesch said. “With Cat, one of the things that I love so much about this play is that [Tennessee Williams] is this master playwright and [Rothe’s] sensibility, to me, lives in that murky membrane of poetry and form.”
One of the reasons Rothe has become a theatrical mainstay is that both Benesch and Borba respect her voice. Borba stated that the three of them have had similar training and share a parallel outlook when it comes to artistic vision. The shared vision is one that started with the Institution.
“There are so many Chautauqua audience members who have seen them as early, young, emerging performers, and now they can see them as later performers, they can see them wearing different hats,” Borba said. “There’s this sense that it’s kind of great to watch an artist grow up.”
Rothe will be leaving the Institution next Monday, shortly after Cat opens. Benesch isn’t sure exactly when the director will be back, but she’s positive that she will be back at the helm of another show in the future.
“They say you can never go home,” Benesch said, “but you can. To be able to come to an artistic home which actually lets you grow up is extraordinary.”