Joan Hotchkis—veteran actor, writer, screenwriter, playwright, and feminist performance artist, whose career spanned more than five decades—died on Sept. 27 in Los Angeles of congestive heart failure, according to her daughter, Paula Chambers. She was 95.
Hotchkis was the last surviving child of Preston Hotchkis and Katharine Bixby, civic leaders in Los Angeles with statewide and national influence throughout the last century, who led everything from the Metropolitan Water District to the California Historical Society. More importantly, Hotchkis was an exquisite human being: warm, generous, supportive, gracious, open-minded, and funny. She cared about each person she met and used her resources to uplift the downtrodden, especially women, artists, and elders. Hotchkis was also ahead of her time in writing and starring in plays, a feature film, and performance art with a progressive feminist viewpoint.
After earning a B.A. in psychology from Smith College and an M.A. in early childhood education from Bank Street Teacher’s College, Hotchkis taught nursery school in New York “for about 15 minutes” (her words) before becoming an actor in 1954 at the age of 27. She got work right away despite her inexperience. While home for the holidays, she auditioned for the leading role of Lizzie in The Rainmaker at the Players Ring Theater in Hollywood and got the part, earning praise and encouragement from other actors.
Returning to New York, Hotchkis became a member of the Actors Studio, where she studied with Lee Strasberg. She was cast in numerous TV commercials and guest spots. While shooting one of those commercials, she met director Bob Foster; they married in 1958 and had a daughter, Paula.
Hotchkis played Myra on the soap opera The Secret Storm, portrayed Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Northland Theater in Detroit, did summer stock, and debuted on Broadway in 1960 at the Cort Theatre in Advise and Consent, with Conrad Bain, Ed Begley, and Richard Kiley.
After divorcing in 1967, Hotchkis moved with Paula back to her hometown of Los Angeles, where she joined the Actors Studio West and quickly landed guest spots on various TV shows, including the role of Dr. Nancy Cunningham, sometime girlfriend of Jack Klugman’s Oscar Madison on The Odd Couple.
Hotchkis also had a gift for writing. With Method acting teacher Eric Morris, she co-wrote the now-classic acting handbook No Acting, Please. In 1974, Hotchkis became a playwright with Legacy, about an upper-class housewife who spirals into a complete mental and emotional breakdown. She starred in the play at the Actors Studio West, directed by Morris, and later adapated it into a screenplay. Shortly after the film was completed, she was diagnosed with meningioma (a non-cancerous brain tumor) and had it successfully surgically removed, allowing her decades more productivity.
It also changed Hotchkis’s priorities, as she gave up on TV and film and returned to the stage. At the Taper Too, she played Fluffy Mother in Cowboy Jack Street (1976), followed by Madame Irma in The Balcony at the Odyssey Theatre. At Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Hotchkis played Paulina in A Winter’s Tale, Lady Gay Spanker in London Assurance, and Judith Bliss in Hay Fever. At Milwaukee Repertory Theater, she played Isabella, Louise, and Mrs. Kidd in Top Girls, and Mrs. Sutphen in A Woman Without Means. In Los Angeles, she played Mrs. Temptwell in The Grace of Mary Traverse at Los Angeles Theatre Works in 1988. Hotchkis portrayed Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie four times: at Los Angeles’ Callboard and Fountain Theaters in 1981, at Nashville’s James Polk Theater in 1982, at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park in 1985, and at Los Angeles Theater Center in 1988.
Inspired by a “writing for performance” workshop taught by the legendary Rachel Rosenthal in 1990, Hotchkis transformed herself from actor to performance artist. Her first performance art piece, Tearsheets: Letters I Didn’t Send Home, directed by Steven Kent, was a multimedia solo work exposing the sexism and brutality beneath the pretty surface of her upper-class childhood. Hotchkis debuted Tearsheets at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, received rave reviews, toured it through the Southwest, and then to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it was the only American production to win a “Fringe First” award in 1992.
In 1996, a 68-year-old Hotchkis debuted Elements of Flesh, or Screwing Saved My Ass, a shocking, highly personal tour de force about aging and sexuality, directed by Clifford Bell and again produced at Highways. Joan performed Elements to sold-out audiences and standing ovations at Highways and throughout Southern California. The show got great reviews, and also hate mail—proof that she had dealt a blow to the sick and damaging belief that elders do not, cannot, or should not have sex.
Hotchkis was always very interested in social justice, supporting progressive nonprofits and mentoring bright young women from underprivileged backgrounds. She provided critical support to activists, including Torie Osborn, who would go on to become head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and Bogaletch “Boge” Gebre, defender of Ethiopian women’s rights.
As an actor, writer, producer, performance artist, philanthropist, mentor, and friend, Joan Hotchkis inspired countless people with her passion, courage, generosity, and delightful blend of elegance and playfulness. She is survived by daughter Paula and many loved ones who will miss her greatly.
Her memorial will be private, but donations can be made in Hotchkis’s memory to Highways Performance Space, which supported her transformation from mainstream actor to performance art crusader for the rights of women, artists, and elders.
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