LA PLUME — The final lines of the Keystone Players’ weekend performances of “Dearly Departed” by David Bottrell and Jesse Jones were followed by the closing of two curtains: one physical and the other metaphorical.
The production marks the end of Jane Honchell’s role as director of the Keystone College theater group after 19 years (the past 16 were consecutive). Although she plans to continue teaching as an associate professor in the fine arts division at the college, Honchell will move on to senior half-time faculty status in the fall. Stepping into the role of director of theater at that time will be Rachel Strayer, assistant professor in the college’s communication arts and humanities department.
Actress Brink Powell, who portrayed the character of Raynelle in “Dearly Departed,” worked with Honchell in nearly 20 shows over the past 10 years and has only good things to say about the beloved director.
“She has taught me so much about the craft of theater,” Powell said via email. “Not just in the acting sense, but about directing, stage managing, set design. I’ve learned something about pretty much every single aspect because of her. …I’ve enjoyed so many opportunities in community theater that all lead back to Jane pushing me to go for it. That’s just a small part of my story and I know there are dozens and dozens of other former students and players of hers with similar sentiments.”
Strayer agreed Honchell presents a tough act to follow.
“But what makes me know that it’s manageable, is that Jane will still be here to mentor me,” she said. “I really appreciate her theatrical sense, her abilities, and I’m looking forward to consulting with her on a lot of things as I move forward.”
The Keystone Players present two plays per year, one in the spring and the other in the fall. Honchell said she always tried to include a mixture of genres and play styles, including classics, modern pieces and several Pulitzer prize winners. It was never so much about the plays, however, as it was about the people.
When asked what she enjoyed most about directing the Keystone Players, she said, “I think it’s the nature of the people I work with. I’ve always opened casting to students, alumni, faculty, staff, the community – I like to get a really good mixture. It’s just been an indescribable pleasure to work with all these people over the years. Especially to watch the students go from mostly not knowing a whole heck of a lot about theater or acting, to see them really blossom and watch their talents develop. And to me, that’s really exciting. And it’s been very gratifying.
“And it’s fun – they make me laugh,” she added with a chuckle. “Most of the time.”
She also learned a lot from her students, actors and actresses over the years.
“That’s the thing about theater,” she said. “You never can learn it all. So every single time I direct, I learn something new, whether it’s about the play itself, or staging, I’m always learning something.”
One of the biggest lessons she learned is the importance of what each person has to contribute to a production.
“It’s not just the director,” said Honchell. “Everyone has a different perspective and just so much to offer, and I believe that makes each show richer than it could have been if it were just up to me.”
She said her final play, in particular, “surprised” her.
“When I first read it, I thought it was this kind of stereotypical southern comedy,” she explained. “I didn’t really think that it had much depth to it. But as I’ve been watching my actors, and they’ve become more and more intimate with the play, I realized that there’s some really intense scenes, and the characters are so much more multifaceted than I thought they were. And I don’t know whether that’s the playwright, or whether that’s my actors. Because they really are superb. I’m very lucky.”
As she “passes the torch” to Strayer, she is confident the program is going into “capable hands.”
“I know she’ll do a great job,” Honchell said. “And the students really like her.”
Strayer, in turn, looks forward to the opportunity.
“I love theater, and I think it’s a wonderful way to communicate truth, so I’m really excited to work one-on-one with the students to help them see theater in that same way,” she said. “I want for them to experience a love for it the way that I do, and I want them to be able to see theater as an opportunity to communicate larger truths to the world.”