Linda Hancock with two of her ‘leading men,’ Michael Robbins and Harvey Landa
By Philip Pearce
LINDA HANCOCK, founder/director of The Listening Place, says her involvement in theater “was a genetic thing” inherited from her mother, who taught high school English and directed school plays in Iowa. “I grew up sitting in on rehearsals and attending local area shows. Theater was always a part of my life.”
Trained as a nurse in Iowa, Linda only worked steadily at that for a few months after her marriage and a move to California, where husband Joe had a dentistry internship at the U.S. Naval Hospital in San Diego “and hospitals didn’t hire pregnant nurses in the early 1960s.”
Discharged from the Navy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Joe set up his own practice in Salinas in 1964 with support from Linda, daughter Nancy and newly arrived son Tom. Whatever else happened, the Hancocks always budgeted time and money for local shows.
With both children in junior and senior high, Linda decided to develop that love of theater inherited from her mother. “I started theater-related classes under Ron Danko of The Western Stage, acting at first, but that turned out to be a kind of disappointment. I couldn’t do it the way I felt it ought to be done.” Then in 1981, “To my amazement, Ron asked me to direct a Western Stage children’s musical called Sacramento Fifty Miles. I showed up for the first rehearsal and faced a music director, a choreographer and a stage manager and I didn’t know what to do with any of them and just hoped the cast didn’t notice.” But, she says, it was miraculous. “Everything fell into place and that started my life as a director.”
Through the 1980s she combined directing and stage-managing at Western Stage with heading a group that did short drama sketches the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Salinas used to introduce Sunday sermons.
Then something happened which Linda calls another miracle. “Ray and Eleanor Harder, good friends and playwrights from L.A., had asked me to help develop a script from World War Two survivor Helen Colijn’s Song of Survival. The book tells about English and Dutch and Australian women imprisoned in Sumatra and the saving power of music they performed together in the camp. (The story was made into the movie Paradise Road that starred Glenn Close and Frances McDormand.) “Six years into the process we convinced Tom Humphrey, who’d become Western Stage artistic director, to include the show in the 1997 season and we ran for eighteen performances.”
Broadcasting on KUSP-FM, the late Peter Troxell called it “…an extraordinary and vital story brought to life in a powerful and moving play.”
Linda’s untapped nursing skills came unexpectedly into play in 1980, when part of a television version of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden was being filmed in Gilroy. An RN was needed to take charge of two local babies cast as the infant Trask brothers and a friend who was part of the film company recruited Linda for the job. “I took them from their mothers, dressed and wrapped them in sterile clothing. Then in one shot I put them into their cradle, and in another handed them to their screen father, Lloyd Bridges.” It was a new experience, but not her only or most important professional link with Steinbeck’s epic novel.
That came in 2000, when she stage-managed Western Stage’s massive third production of Alan Cook’s widely acclaimed three-part adaptation of East of Eden. “That let me work with very fine directors. I learned such a lot from that amazing experience.”
Asked what she looks for in a director, she told me, “one who watches the cast at work and lets them in many instances make selections for themselves.” As a director herself she added, “I see my role as a friendly dictator. I make the final decisions, but I want actors to offer choices, take chances, try different things. Then we hone it into what is going to be the whole project.”
Linda’s main project today is The Listening Place, which has produced 28 readers’ theater productions since its inception in 2007. That’s when friend and local actress Marlie Avant introduced her to Ibi Janko Murphy, recently returned from acting work in New York. “The three of us agreed we felt a bit disconnected from the existing situation in local theaters. We wanted to start some kind of group where we could make our own decisions about what we performed.”
What niche, they wondered, was not being satisfactorily filled by local production companies? Someone suggested what was lacking was high quality readers’ theater. The idea for The Listening Place was born.
When talk turned to possible material, Ibi Janko said her father, Dr Bela Janko, a retired Monterey ob-gyn, had wanted to play her stage father in David Auburn’s Pulitzer-winning Proof, which she had recently acted in New York. “Ibi called him and asked how he’d like to play the role here on the Monterey Peninsula and he said he would love it.” Marlie Avant took on the role of Ibi’s sister and Marc Nicholson was cast in the role of the young mathematician Hal.
First performances were at the Janko home high up on Jacks Peak. A friend of the new group who was active in local politics invited some Monterey City officials, including Michael Whittington of the Monterey Art Museum, to the second reading. He suggested The Listening Place might stage four productions a year at the museum’s La Mirada site near Monterey Peninsula College. Could The Listening Place handle casting rehearsals, royalties, all the practical production details? They sure could.
Since then, family responsibilities have kept Marlie Avant and Ibi Janko Murphy from regular theater work, though Ibi’s eight-year-old son George made a major hit in last year’s Listening Place Christmas show. These days, Linda’s right hand and “indispensable” administrative workmate is Susan Keenan, who has featured prominently in a succession of Listening Place performances.
And, Linda adds, she’s been “able to do what I do because I have an extraordinary support system.” That would include her husband Joe, who not only makes the coffee, carries props, costumes, music stands, and serves the refreshments, “but tolerates me unconditionally when my mood is less than sunny after a testy rehearsal or a shaky performance.”
Listening Place moved last year from La Mirada to the main museum on Pacific Street and the new venue has worked well. “It’s been an exciting story. We started out not knowing if we could attract audiences for two shows, and we’re now going into production number 29.”
Appropriately enough, that will be a revival of Proof in April with a whole new cast.
To Linda Hancock, Monterey Peninsula theater represents “an unparalleled creative outlet. I’ve had such wonderful opportunities at Western Stage and, as to The Listening Place, well, there’s such power in the spoken word, isn‘t there?”