The theater troupe's new creative lead talks about moving to Columbus, finding a sense of community and executing her first shows, all during the pandemic of the century.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made 2020 a strange year for us all, including Leda Hoffmann. The new artistic director of CATCO has made numerous life changes, from getting married and adopting a rescue beagle mix to moving halfway across the country and starting a new job. Hoffmann and her wife, Katherine, moved from Chicago to Worthington this summer after an entirely remote interview process with CATCO.
At 33, Hoffman may seem young for the role—though that isn’t uncommon. “If I think about my peers across the country, some people are 30 years older than me and some people are right around my age,” she says. “I think, especially on the artistic director side, sometimes [leadership is] really excited to take risks and shake things up and go with somebody who’s younger." While she comes to CATCO from a 20-month stint as artistic director of a Chicago theater company, she says this is the first time she’s run a theater group of CATCO’s size. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Tell us about how you came to be involved in theater. What drew you to the art form?
My dad was a diplomat, so I moved to different countries every three to four years growing up, and theater was always the way I found community. Basically I would arrive, get to a new school, audition for the play and find my people. So that community aspect of theater has always been incredibly important to me.
As I grew up and got involved in college and started to think about career paths, I just fell in love with telling a story together. I think I would make a terrible novelist; I’m not that kind of storyteller. But the idea that we can all bring our ideas to the table and bounce things off each other and make something as a unit is why I absolutely love theater.
Did you always see yourself as being involved in community theater because of that initial connection, or have you ever had aspirations of Broadway or something like that?
Post-college, I got an internship at Hartford Stage in Connecticut, which is a big regional theater that transfers shows to Broadway sometimes. That first year, I worked in the education department, so I taught theater in schools and I got to watch the way that theater builds community. So even at this really professional, high level, I was part of a group that was intentionally doing theater for Hartford, Connecticut. And if it happened to transfer to Broadway or The New York Times gave it a great review, that’s a lovely bonus.
You were involved in education with the Milwaukee Repertory Theater, too. How do you think your background working with kids will inform your work with CATCO is Kids programming?
A really important part of theater, to me, is that we’re introducing theater to young people. It’s a big reason I took this job, and I think why people reached out to me in the first place to ask if I was interested. I would hate to have a job where I never got to think about that side of things.
I think that theater has a way of reaching people of all ages, and especially kids, that’s just different than other forms of media that we consume. I fundamentally believe that when you watch a play, you join in the shared collective experience and you think about things [differently]. The actors are, hopefully, right there in the room—but even virtually, the actors are from your community. They’re connected to you in some way, and you can feel like you’re part of that story. And if you can bring kids into the theater at a really young age, get them excited about that, then you have theatergoers for life who get to be a part of this art form.
What are your first impressions about Columbus since moving here in August?
It feels like a really wonderfully connected city. I was in Milwaukee for eight or nine years, and in many ways it feels like my hometown; it’s where I learned to be a part of a community as an adult and be a theater-maker. A lot of those things I love about Milwaukee, I’m finding in Columbus. People really care about the larger community. People are accessible; people want to help out. Just the number of people who have reached out and said, “Hey, I’d love to jump on Zoom and chat about what the city is and help you out,” has been really exciting.
We’re rehearsing “A Columbus Christmas Carol,” so right now I spend four hours a night on Zoom with the same group of actors and creative team members. I took a prop piece to the woman playing Scrooge a couple days ago; we’ve been working together on this and the Idris Goodwin short plays we did earlier for months, and just last week I met her on her front porch, handed her something, waved and drove off. But I feel like all these people are now my collaborators, my friends, people I know really well, even though we haven’t been able to meet in person.
What’s it been like rehearsing virtually for a play that will be presented virtually?
The biggest surprise, I would say, is that they feel a lot like regular rehearsals—just the patterns of getting to know people and talking about characters and what makes these different people tick, the way you approach a line—all those things about directing and working as a rehearsal team feel a whole lot the same.
The biggest challenge has just been figuring out that vocabulary—what does it mean to be a virtual play? It’s really important to me that this is a virtual play; it’s not a movie. We don’t have camera operators in people's homes; the actors are their own technicians. So it’s just been about figuring out what that vocabulary is and how we find theater solutions to storytelling that are different than movie solutions.
Do you think there’s a future for virtual plays after the pandemic ends?
What we’ve learned, from an accessibility standpoint and the chance to reach people in different places, has been really fantastic. I think that’s really where it’s going to go—we're going to be way more aware of taking footage of our in-person shows and being able to share it with people that way. And I think that as a national theater community, those are the discussions we’re having with the playwrights and the rights holders and the actors’ union and the design union and everyone involved about what that looks like. But it’s never going to replace that feeling of being in a theater together.
That’s why I’m a theater artist and not a different kind of artist. I believe in going to the same space together, hearing the sound in the same way, seeing all the same things, hearing the audience gasp or laugh at something. That’s what we’re all missing.
“A Columbus Christmas Carol” runs Dec. 16–27. What’s next on the schedule once it wraps?
It’s our New Works Festival. In the end of January and into February, we’re going to do three shows, and they’re all going to be full-length plays, but we’re going to do readings of them. They will have one week of rehearsal and then at the end, we’re going to share a reading. So it’s more about listening to the words than it is about blocking and costumes and all the other stuff that goes around it. The main goal of this festival is to help playwrights hear their work aloud.
We’ll do two plays for general audiences and one play for young audiences. My goal is to have two Ohio playwrights and then one non-Ohio playwright. I’m still selecting the plays, so they could be at a wide variety of readiness. Sometimes plays come to festivals and they just need this before they’re ready for the big time, and sometimes people want to workshop really early work and see how it’s going. It’s also a way for me to get to know some local playwrights and national playwrights and just start a conversation about what those works might be at CATCO down the road.