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Quirky new comedy brings graveyard mayhem with a message to the stage

"David's plays are funny and heartfelt,"says Hofrichter, "without trying to, they tug at the heartstrings."

New Haven’s resident funeral director, David Rousculp has written another off-beat comedy called The Sexton.

When lingering earthly issues prevent a cluster of spirits buried in Section 13 from passing over, who knows what trouble is in store for these not-quite-dearly departed, or how they will ever find eternal peace?

Directed by Thom Hofrichter, The Sexton opens Friday, March 3 at the Studio Theater in Purdue Fort Wayne’s Kettler Hall.

This production is part of Hofrichter’s own Playground 630 project, a new Company in Residence at PFW’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.

We took a look at the production’s quirky charm as well as its deeper message with Hofrichter and Rousculp, and how Rousculp’s dual professions drive these creative endeavors.

Event Information:

Playground 630’s production of The Sexton
The Studio Theatre, Kettler Hall, Purdue Fort Wayne
Friday, March 2 - Saturday, March 3
Thursday, March 10 - Saturday, March 12
7:30 p.m. curtain
Sundays, March 5 and March 12
2:00 curtain
Admission: $20.00

For tickets and more information go to THESEXTON.eventbrite.com

Rousculp (foreground) surrounded by the Sexton and his group of "not-quite-dearly-departed."
Courtesy/The Sexton
Rousculp (foreground) surrounded by the Sexton and his group of "not-quite-dearly-departed" spirits with their guide to "the other side."

Below is a transcript of our conversation:

David Rousculp: Thank you so much.

Julia Meek: David Rousculp, Thom Hofrichter welcome.

Thom Hofrichter: Thank you. Thanks for having us.

David Rousculp: Thanks, thanks a lot.

Julia Meek: So David, your offbeat slice of afterlife comedies are becoming legend. You've got a double career in the funereal world and theater. What drives this passion to combine the two?

David Rousculp: I think I've shared before that when you're a funeral director, it's almost like running a theater because you're putting on a show in a way, you've got performers lighting, makeup, so they do have a connection in a strange way, if you look at it through my eyes, so...(chuckles)

Julia Meek: And your sense of humor...and your thoughtfulness which put them all together, that is something special.

David Rousculp: We try, we try.

Julia Meek: So this, your second work, takes place in a cemetery, our hero, the Sexton is taking care of business. Okay, what in the world happens?

David Rousculp: So the Sexton, that's a person who can take care of a cemetery, the sextons are also caretakers of churches, but also at cemeteries are called a Sexton. And our character Wally performed by Pastor Chuck Fenwick, out of New Haven, at United Methodist Church, he is able to see and hear ghosts.

And so he comes across five ghosts who are trapped there, and they just don't understand why they're there. Why didn't they cross over? And so it'll be Wally to maybe help understand that talking with them that maybe he can understand why they're there, and maybe what's holding them back. That's a big part of the story.

And we really get to hear some in-depth stories of the actual ghosts and their background. And I think a lot of people in the audience will definitely connect with one or two of the characters, or at least know somebody like them.

Julia Meek: Because of that life and death and everything else that's happening there?

David Rousculp: Correct.

Julia Meek: I'm sure our listeners would like to know, at this point, how do you come up with these wonderful ideas? (chuckles)

David Rousculp: Well, in this particular case, back in Tipp City, Ohio, where I grew up, we used to do a thing at the local cemetery where they would pick three or four famous people of our town, and an actor would dress up and sit by the headstone with their lawn chair, and people would walk by or drive by, and that person would tell you the historical facts about that individual.

So that kind of set with me, I did a couple of those for the cemetery. And then as a funeral director just walking around, I always thought, wouldn't it be interesting if you really could hear their story other than just their name and their dates. You know, what if they were stuck, because you always hear about ghosts.

And most of the time when I go to the cemetery, a minister might say out of John, I think it's 12:25, "Whoever loves his life loses it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." And that sticks with me. I think, like maybe because you don't like your life, you're stuck with it and you're stuck here.

Julia Meek: That's a powerful one, yeah, yeah.

David Rousculp: So I kind of ran with that. Also the thought of how can I write a play where it's on a limited stage space, because a lot of theatres don't have a lot of space. And that's kind of what the direction was with that.

Julia Meek: Very, very interesting. And thank you for sharing that.

David Rousculp: Mmmhmm.

Julia Meek: Now. Thom, you have had the pleasure of producing David's first work. What makes it so special?

Thom Hofrichter: A lot of what David said; it's the quirkiness, the oddness, I mean, the first show, "My Dead Clown," a funeral director accidentally brings a clown who's died in a circus explosion back to life by giving him the wrong formaldehyde. Okay, kind of weird.

Julia Meek: (chuckles) Lovely premise!

Thom Hofrichter: But yeah, very, very funny, and the other thing is, I mean, My Dead Clown comes back in order to help set people's lives straight. And basically in some ways, the same thing is going on here.

As David was talking about the five ghosts that can't crossover, one of them is an Elvis impersonator, a female who escaped her life by pretending to be Elvis. (chuckles) Each of them in some ways refuses to accept their lives and at some point in order to have a happy life, you have to love your life and you have to accept who you are.

Julia Meek: Yeah, in a way, an ancient little morality play going on.

Thom Hofrichter: Yeah. And the other thing this play reminds me, one of my favorite, I would argue pound for pound the best American play ever written is “Our Town” which has the cemetery scene where they have to sit there, Thornton Wilder puts it, "till the earth burns away in them."

In some ways the same thing is going on here just in a much wackier way. (all laugh) Yeah, David comes up with these crazy ideas that just really really kind of suck me in.

Julia Meek: To directing it--great!

Thom Hofrichter: Yeah, it's been fun, good group of people. And I think it's funny it makes you laugh, but there's a sweetness to the plays to--without trying to be sweet.

We talked about the Sexton as helping the ghosts but the Sexton in some ways again, if you think of the "Sixth Sense," in that movie Haley, Joel Osment had this gift, and somebody helped him understand it.

In some ways the same thing is kind of going on in this. The ghosts are helping him come to terms with who he is in his life. So yeah, it's it's a really well constructed play.

Julia Meek: It certainly sounds it and casting wise you this was a little hand selected, how many parts are there?

Thom Hofrichter: Ten roles. Twice we did two readings of it; back in 2020 we did a Zoom reading of it. And then we did a reading of it six months ago.

And so we heard a number of local actors. And so we made selections from who read the play if they were interested.

Julia Meek: And David, that's really special because your Harper's Community Funeral Home, originally, the Harper family.

David Rousculp: Correct.

Julia Meek: And Mitch is the son.

David Rousculp: Yes, you know he's part of the Harper Funeral Home family, still is a big fan and comes over and gives me information all the time. (chuckles)

And he started in the acting field, I think around when My Dead Clown came out, he got the bug, he said, and so he walked in one day, and I said, "Hey, do I have a part for you?"

Julia Meek: (laughs) You are being literal I take it?

David Rousculp: Yeah. And he said, "I'm in!'

Julia Meek: Fantastic.

David Rousculp: Absolutely. It's fun to have Mitch in there.

Julia Meek: So you guys both have acting experience, what does it take to throw oneself into such a role with such an incredible story, all of its plot twists and turns, make it believable, make it real?

Thom Hofrichter: That's like everything. Everything in theater is make believe, except the human communication. The human communication is God's truth.

You talk to each other honestly, on stage, and regardless of what the show is, whether it's Shakespeare, whether it's Shaw, whether it's a contemporary comedy, it's the human communication.

So in some ways, it's no different than any other show, because it's human beings talking to each other.

Julia Meek: This piece, indeed, is loaded with sweet and quirky charm as the critics and everyone that is familiar with David's work lovingly describes it. How do you keep those attributes fresh and balanced? Are you ever stumped or blocked in just finessing how to keep everything, whimsical or not, going and being believed?

Thom Hofrichter: Well, it's kind of... it's there or it's not. If it's in the script, it's there. It's kind of like if a flower has a certain smell, you can't tell the flower, "No, you need to smell a certain way." (chuckles)

It just, if it's in the script, it'll come out through the honest human communication. (chuckles) So it all kind of goes back to that and different genres, different styles, different kinds of writing, and David's plays are funny and heartfelt. They just, without trying to they tug at the heartstrings.

Julia Meek: David, is it difficult to keep this timeless and irrelevant?

David Rousculp: It doesn't matter how much time goes by, hundreds of years, I think everybody's still contemplating death and where they are, and who am I? And where am I?

And where do I stand in this world, be it whatever century it is. So these topics in their own way, are addressed all the time.

Thom Hofrichter: And now that I'm old, more, so than before (all laugh)

Julia Meek: You're on this end of the food chain, we are looking at it a different kind of way. But David, how does it feel to be able to tackle topics like this not only in your daily life, which you do well at the funeral home, but then to be able to creatively handle them and share it with other people?

David Rousculp: You know, as a funeral director, we see a lot of things we see every type of person that you can imagine come into our building, who are all grieving, and people that don't always come out in public or want to be seen come into our place because they have lost somebody.

So be it these characters that I've written, they are real people. I know these people, I've talked to these people. So these are real feelings and things that they have gone through. My goal is to not only listen to them as a funeral director, but try to give them some guidance as well. We're the first contact people have when they're grieving before they even get to a minister sometimes.

So we're the ones to kind of set it up for the putt. And so these characters that I've written, we're trying to show not only their problems, but then how can we resolve it? How can they get through it if they open their eyes, because so many of us don't even see that we might be wrong. We think we're just so right and so many times, but the key thing in most cases is forgiveness.

If we just learned how to forgive if we can forgive people that did it wrong, or forgive ourselves for doing something wrong, the weight off our shoulders is immense. We're just trying to show that.

Julia Meek: And this is the advice that you give day in day out really, now you're able to put it on a theatrical platform.

David Rousculp: Right My goal is not to be such a downer. I don't want to write a play that my gosh, people are like ready to stab themselves after it's over. (chuckles) So I've always learned to throw in some comedy to keep it light. And so there's a lot of light comedy in this, you know different characters that will make it fun.

You know, you gotta laugh but you're also going to have a tear drop too; my goal is to have people say, Well, I thought it was going to be a comedy, but I've kind of left there thinking about things now I got a pretzel in my brain! Guess I gotta go home and contemplate my life a little." I'm like: "That would be great!"

Julia Meek: (chuckles) That was the point. So yes, you know you're a success!

David Rousculp: Yeah, you know, GOAL! (laughs)

Julia Meek: Good for you. Good for you. Now, Thom a quick word on the theater space that you're using for this project. You have brought your own brainchild Playground 630 to life at Purdue Fort Wayne's originally Pitt theater; that brings up Larry Life as a matter of fact, tell us a little about the space and how this play's intent and purpose and intimate nature fit so well into that space.

Thom Hofrichter: Yeah, it all kind of happened by accident. I was no longer at First Pres and was thinking, "do I want to produce on my own? Do I not?" And John O'Connell offered me to be a Company in Residence at the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Purdue Fort Wayne.

And part of that is I could use they now call it the Studio Theatre in Kettler Hall. But those of us who have been around forever, it's the old PIT that Larry used and as a high school student, I saw some amazing work in there in the 70s and in the 80s, and is one of the things that made me want to do theater for the rest of my life.

So it's a lovely little black box, holds 90 people. It's not an extravagant theater, you're not going to see lavishly produced shows, but it's perfect for these small stories that we've been telling. And in some ways "Playground," the whole idea was a playground, a place where new work could come about.

Ruth Tyndall Baker's play about the Hamilton Women was about a year ago and now David's new play. I'm always looking for local playwrights that have a voice that we can produce simply in that space,

Julia Meek: And quite an amazing creativity with those of the last, those pieces that you've mentioned. and good for you for all of that. Now, who do you expect to see in the audience for this crazy madcapped and also very thoughtful tale?

Thom Hofrichter: Anybody that's got 20 bucks. (all laugh) I joke but no not really. You know, one of the things I'm committed to is doing plays that aren't musical theater, because I think, I think there's an audience out there and there's less of that than there was even five years ago.

So that's kind of one of the reasons I hope that people that love theater, love going to a play will um, will come take a look at this.

Julia Meek: You've always historically been about the thoughtful, about the other side of something interesting too.

Thom Hofrichter: Absolutely. Mmhmmm.

Julia Meek: And with David's work like this, that should be a real treat to be sharing this in that space for sure.

Thom Hofrichter: Absolutely.

Julia Meek: So this has a full two week, weekend run. Where might it go after that, David, and what is happening with your other production in the rest of the world?

David Rousculp: So my goals right now are to package My Dead Clown as well as The Sexton. I'm trying to get both published. A key thing, folks is that if I can say we sold out all the shows at Kettler Hall, that's a big selling point with publishers. So come on out and fill those 90 seats each night. (chuckles)

But yes, I will be trying to go at least in the state of Indiana theatres, trying to get these shows out there again, because I've had a lot of people wanting to see My Dead Clown again. And I think a lot of people are going to be very moved by The Sexton. I think it is the next notch up. I think they're really going to be impressed.

Thom Hofrichter: Yeah, people definitely should come, because like David said, it's a thought provoking play that people should see and it'll help him sell this play nationwide.

Julia Meek: And what a wonderful thing to be sharing, indeed.

Thom Hofrichter: Absolutely.

Julia Meek: Now what about Playground 630 Thom, what else is coming up this season?

Thom Hofrichter: Two friends of mine came and said, "We're too busy to do a play, but we want to do a play. Can you find a show?" They're two African American gentlemen. So we're doing “Topdog/Underdog,” the Suzan-Lori Parks Pulitzer Prize winner from 2003--Suzan-Lori Parks’ amazing work!

It's a little darker with a little language. In some ways It's more like the stuff Larry life used to do out at the old PIT (chuckles) but that's coming up the last weekend in April, first weekend in May.

Julia Meek: We'll look forward to that. And as regards storytelling, The Sexton is a deceptively powerful piece. And it's absolutely charged with empathy, understanding, for the most basic of human fears.

So my last question, what does it do for the two of you from start to finish to be able to really touch lives and make a difference by sharing such a tale?

Thom Hofrichter: For me, I love plays that make me think about my life. And I see those five unhappy spirits in the cemetery. And I go, Tom, what about your life are you actively doing that is making you unhappy? And why don't you change that?

Julia Meek: David?

David Rousculp: It's a thrill to write something from your gut and your heart, to see someone find an interest in it, to sit in a chair and watch these actors bring it to life and put air in their lungs.

It brings tears to my eyes to see this thing that was inside my head, you know, being presented. With Tom directing it, it’s got to be at its top. Tom has taken it to a whole new level. And it's just fabulous. It's a dream come true.

Julia Meek: David Rousculp and Thom Hofrichter are author and director respectively, of The Sexton. Your story is a great one guys, thank you so much for sharing it. Have a great show.

Thom Hofrichter: Thanks for having us.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.