Bill Hartnett and Ellie Shepherd (2008)

CEA Hall of Famers make beautiful theater together

Oct 30, 2009 at 2:06 pm

[Bill Hartnett and Ellie Shepherd were the 2008 CEA Theater Hall of Fame inductees. This profile article originally ran in CityBeat on Aug. 20, 2008.]

Bill Hartnett likes to tell stories. Ellie Shepherd, his partner — in life and frequently onstage — listens to him patiently.

Sometimes she prompts him or fills in a detail. They almost always end up in hearty laughter.

They've had a lot of time to figure each other out. They first acted in a play together 30 years ago with Mariemont Players, and they've enjoyed doing theater in one another's company ever since. They were married in 1982.

For their body of work on local stages, Hartnett and Shepherd are being honored with the League of Cincinnati Theatres' 2008 "Continuing Achievement Award." On Sunday evening they'll be inducted into the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards Hall of Fame.

The pair came to theater via separate paths and lives. As a young broadcaster in Buffalo, N.Y., Hartnett would take his kids to the theater and had opinions about the performers he saw.

"I would say to the kids, 'This guy sucks. I could do better than that.' I kept doing that apparently," Hartnett says. "One night at supper, there was a note on my plate saying 'Put up or shut up.' Under it was an article from The Buffalo News saying that there was an audition for Inherit the Wind at Hamburg Community Theater.

"I didn't want my kids to know I was going to try out for this thing. I didn't want to be embarrassed. So I went down, and I got cast as the reporter. That was in 1972."

About 10 years earlier, Shepherd, who had moved to Cincinnati from Lebanon, Ohio, joined the Junior League and got involved with the Children's Theatre, which the League sponsored.

"I wound up chairing their board for a year, and I thought, 'Well, this is fun,'" she says.

Shepherd located the Walton Creek Theater, the home of Mariemont Players not far from where she was living in Indian Hill, and soon became a regular, directing children's plays, acting, painting scenery and handling all sorts of other tasks that engage volunteers in community theater.

Mariemont Players holds a special place for the pair, a fact that leads to another of Hartnett's stories. Another community theater was holding auditions in 1978 for the musical Annie Get Your Gun. Hartnett had arrived in town a year earlier to work in the news department for WKRC-TV, but he still had the theater bug.

"I went to audition for the part of Buffalo Bill, but I had laryngitis and I couldn't sing anything," he says. "So the director said, 'I'm not going to choose now.' He had a business trip and said he'd contact me when he got back. He did, but I still had laryngitis, still couldn't sing, so he said, 'I just can't cast you.' Then I saw auditions announced in the newspaper for Night of the Iguana at Mariemont. I got that part, and if it hadn't been for that director I wouldn't have met Ellie."

Hartnett played an ex-minister, Rev. Lawrence T. Shannon, in the play by Tennessee Williams; Shepherd was Hannah Jelkes, a strange spinster with whom Shannon's character establishes a deep bond. Their bond lasted beyond that production — they were married four years later.

Today the devoted couple lives in a rambling Victorian farmhouse, still just a mile or so from the Mariemont Players' theater, where they've performed frequently. But all of Cincinnati has become their stage, and their home is full of photos and memorabilia from their happy theatrical careers.

A spacious living/dining space has large windows looking out over rolling hills and woods; its walls and an adjacent porch are decorated with many of Shepherd's props and set pieces — a stylized horse head from Equus, a grate from Man of La Mancha. When you walk into their study, it's a gallery of images from three decades of community theater. An adjacent hallway features a floor tiled with theater program covers varnished in place.

Asked to enumerate the theaters where they've performed, they help each other recall, ticking off a list that includes more community theaters (The Drama Workshop, Beechmont Players, Fitton Center's Mad Anthony Players in Hamilton and Fort Thomas' Village Players) and other companies ranging from semi-professional groups like Ovation Theatre Company, Showboat Majestic, Covedale Center, Clear Stage Cincinnati, IF Theatre Collective, Kincaid Regional Theatre in Falmouth and Foxrock Theatre Company at Covington's Carnegie Center.

Sometimes they've produced their own work — at venues like the upstairs at Carol's on Main or at the Aronoff Center — and they've been in productions by Cincinnati Shakespeare, Ensemble Theatre and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. But they have a special affection for a small community group that's no longer around, Indian Hill's Village Theatre, where in 1987 they first performed D.L. Coburn's 1978 Pulitzer Prize winning play The Gin Game.

Shepherd recalls seeing an excerpt of the play about two lonely people at a nursing home, Walter and Dorothy, who strike up a friendship around playing cards — a relationship that has considerable ups and downs. The TV production they watched featured another pair of veteran actors, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. Shepherd says she and Hartnett looked at each other and said, "Let's get that script."

"I was at the time president of Village Stage in Indian Hill," she says. "It was a very small group, and we could do whatever we wanted to do. We directed ourselves."

They achieved considerable success with their production, entering it into the Association of Community Theatres' annual excerpt competition and going on to be recognized at the state level for their performances. Shepherd remembers, "At the excerpts when we walked out onstage, before we started, we had a standing ovation."

"We thought someone (else) had come in," Hartnett jokes.

But even 20 years ago, the pair were both beloved and appreciated by other theater performers. They've reprised Gin Game at several other theaters; they're rehearsing it once again for a return engagement at the Fitton Center.

Many audiences know Hartnett for two one-man shows he's starred in, Give 'Em Hell, Harry!Mark Twain Tonight. Truman once said, "Three things ruin a man's life: power, money and women. I never wanted power. I never had any money. And the only woman in my life is up at the house right now." about President Truman and

Whether that line is in Hartnett's portrait of the feisty president, I suspect it's a sentiment he understands, in part because Shepherd is always close by even when he's performing solo. Life seems to suit them best when they're working on performances hand-in-hand.

The Truman and Twain shows are the product of their collaboration: He acts, she directs.

"We did Harry first over at Village Players (in Fort Thomas)," Shepherd says. "We had a videotape of James Whitmore doing it, and we said, 'Wouldn't that be neat?'"

Hartnett continues: "We proposed it at Village Players," which needed three plays for a season but had only two in mind. "We threw this one in for the hell of it. We didn't think they would take it. Most community theater boards think that the larger the cast you have the more people you'll have to come in, relatives and everything."

Village Players took the chance, however, and had a hit on their hands.

The success of the Truman piece led the couple to another noteworthy one-man show, Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain impersonation, which Hartnett initially performed with admirable presence at the Showboat Majestic. His work was recognized with a nomination in the very first Cincinnati Entertainment Awards back in 1997.

Asked about favorite roles, Shepherd singles out a character she played in a summer production at Ensemble Theatre, Dorothea in Lee Blessing's Eleemosynary. She portrayed an eccentric older woman in a cast that included another CEA Hall of Fame actress, Dale Hodges.

"I loved that character," Shepherd says with a smile. "She was free-spirited and believed anything could happen. She tried to get her granddaughter to fly by jumping off a tower. I loved her imagination."

Asked if her affinity for the character was because Dorothea's personality resembled her own, Shepherd pauses and then replies, "Could be. Could be."

The roles Hartnett treasures have an emotional impact on audiences.

"I don't know how many older men," he says, "have come up to me after Give 'Em Hell, Harry! to say, 'Truman saved my life when he dropped the atomic bomb.' "

Additionally, he cherishes playing Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, a part he's filled three times. (For his third outing in the role, a production by Foxrock Theatre, Shepherd finally had her opportunity to play opposite him as Willy's long-suffering wife, Linda.)

With a sly grin, Hartnett says, "Go ahead, say it: I like this role because I'm a loser!"

More seriously, he observes, "Guys say, 'My father was like that,' or an uncle. Someone close to them. Sometimes they're grown men in tears. When you affect people like that, it keeps you going."

It's obvious that Hartnett and Shepherd enjoy their theatrical partnership.

"We like working together," he says.

"We trust each other as actors," she adds. "We fight like furies."

"We like to fight," he responds, saying it's part of their creative process.

It's a challenge for actors to create believable connections between one another onstage, so when a couple like Hartnett and Shepherd makes a career of it, it's truly magical. Asked about other theatrical outings, Shepherd mentions their efforts on behalf of an organization called Cincinnati Creative Aging.

"We go around to nursing homes and do a cut-down version of Mark Twain and a show called Love Letters for senior citizens," she says.

Early in 2008 they played Nagg and Nell in Cincinnati Shakespeare's production of Samuel Beckett's absurdist play Endgame. As the elderly parents of a cold-hearted blind man, they spend their lives in trashcans, yearning for rare moments of human contact.

"The most memorable part was climbing under the platform to come up in the trash cans," Shepherd says. "We have a wonderful picture of the two of us."

At this point her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper: "We're going to put it on our Christmas card. People always want to know our theater news."

Their friends will no doubt be amused. But the real news from Shepherd and Hartnett is that they continue to find ways to make audiences love coming to the theater to watch them ply their craft.