Rachel Hockett and Arthur Bicknell
Rachel Hockett and Arthur Bicknell, founders of the Homecoming Players.

Rachel Hockett and Arthur Bicknell are similar to your typical Ithacans. They grew up in the area, attended Ithaca High School, have families rooted in the history of the town and they each emit a personality that is warm and welcoming to those they come in contact with. However, unlike other natives, the two found their lives heading outside the city limits, and were absent from Ithaca for roughly 40 years.

Now they are back, and this time they have a new passion in their hearts. After reconnecting on Facebook a few years ago, the pair returned to Ithaca in 2010 to start up a theater company, aptly named Homecoming Players.

"It's a fitting name for two children of Ithaca who are coming back after so many years," Hockett said.

Hockett and Bicknell both grew up in the area and attended Ithaca High School, before separating for their college years. Hockett left for Yale University, while Bicknell stayed local and attended Ithaca College. While apart, each pursued different career paths, but at the same time they kept their love for theater an important aspect of their lives.

Hockett and Bicknell said they chose to start the company for several reasons. Mainly, they wanted to return to their roots and join the flourishing arts community in Ithaca, but also, they were both ready for a change.

"I was in my tenth year at Merriam Webster in Massachusetts, but I was just burnt out," Bicknell said. "There was no excitement, and I needed a change. Rachel and I just felt a cosmic merge, and knew it was time to start something new."

Hockett had a similar feeling, but she was across the country in Berkeley, Calif. After attending her class reunion in the summer of 2009, and furthering her reconnection with Bicknell, she knew it was time.

"We were both at a point in our lives where we needed a change," she said. "So we just up and did it."

The decision is one that neither has thought twice about.

"There's a niche for us in Ithaca because it's such an art-rich community," Hockett said. "For such a small city, it's impressive. The audience turn out, donations and dedication to the arts is outstanding."

Hockett, who is the company's artistic director, and Bicknell, the dramaturge/resident playwright, plan to continue their company with plays by Bicknell, as well as with classical plays.

The blooming theater company will debut with their first play, "My Great Dead Sister," this weekend. The comic drama was written by Bicknell and is based on his life growing up in the gingerbread house on South Hill, which is now Alumni Hall on the Ithaca College campus.

"It's a memory play, and it means a lot to me," Bicknell said. "It's fitting to have it revived in Ithaca considering I grew up on South Hill. The family vegetable garden is now one of the college sports fields."

For "My Great Dead Sister," the production will be presented as a concert reading, which means there won't be a set or costumes, just actors presenting the emotions and actions in raw form. Further, the actors are all local Ithacans who tried out for the part in early April.

"We are committed to developing local talent," Hockett said. "The professional companies in town draw on New York City, which is great and they have fabulous work, but one of our points coming back is that we believe Ithaca is a place where local talent can be grown and developed."

This talent will perform the first Ithaca revival of "My Great Dead Sister" - its first run was as a one-act play, performed when Bicknell was an undergraduate at IC. The play was later picked up by a production company and produced off Broadway for a few months in 1980.

After a year of planning, the two said they are more than ready to start proving their presence in the town of Ithaca.

"We want to join the arts conversation in the community," Hockett said. "We aren't here to compete. There's always room for more good theatre, and we are definitely feeling the welcome by the theatre community so far."

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"My Great Dead Sister" will debut May 13 and 14 at 7:30 p.m. in the Hockett Family Recital Hall on the Ithaca College Campus. For more information, visit http://thehomecomingplayers.org/.

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