slice of life

Relationship between drama department, professional theater company energizes Bob Hupp

Frankie Prijatel | Senior Staff Photographer

Robert Hupp lives in an apartment downtown, just a few blocks from colleague Jill Anderson.

UPDATED: Oct. 2o at 5:1o p.m.

Like many people working in the theater industry, Bob Hupp started out as a performer. But unlike many people working in the theater industry, he started out as a tap-dancing bumble bee in Kindergarten.

In third grade he performed in his first play, though he said it “wasn’t really” a play. He remembers going up to his teacher and asking to be in the play.

“I guess I’d been kind of performing my whole life,” Hupp said. “But I don’t know that I ever allowed myself the freedom to think that it was something I could do for a living.”

Hupp is now three months into his new role as the artistic director of Syracuse Stage, the fifth person to hold the position in the theater’s 43-year history. The Stage has just started its 2016-17 season with the opening of “Great Expectations” Wednesday night.

Before Syracuse, Hupp served as the producing artistic director at the Arkansas Repertory Theater in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he led the theater’s artistic and managerial direction for 17 years.

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“I loved my time in Arkansas. I loved working with the people, I loved being there, my kids grew up there,” Hupp said. “But as an artistic director, I felt like it was time for a change and time to challenge myself in new ways.”

One of the biggest factors in Hupp’s decision to leave Arkansas involved Syracuse Stage’s relationship with the university’s drama department, a relationship he called “unusual and unique” and unlike the one that ‘The Rep’ had with its neighboring universities.

He said he admired how students can learn from professionals and how the theater benefits from having the support of a large institution like SU.

“Students keep you honest because they ask tough, insightful questions. They are here to work and learn, and it shows in the optimism and energy that pervades in this building,” he said. “… The students that are set to be here and attend here are special young artists, and experiencing their passion really energizes me.”

As an aspiring performer, Hupp attended Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and joined the National Shakespeare Conservatory in New York after graduation, touring the country for a year. He then went on to work for Jean Cocteau Repertory before moving up the ranks and becoming its artistic director in 1989.

In 1999, Hupp became the second person to lead the Repertory Theater, where he stayed for 16 seasons.

“This is the first time I’ve been in a new position in 17 years,” Hupp said. “It’s been a whirlwind of getting to know people, but my wife and I knew almost immediately that we had made the right move.”

He moved to Syracuse in July and has already made a home in a downtown Syracuse apartment, living there with his wife, Clea Hupp, and their pets.

Though her profession is more rooted in academia, Clea has a background in ballet and was also a member of the Board of Directors of the Ballet Arkansas.

“I understand the performing arts really well, and I think that helps when it comes to things like the crazy schedule,” said Clea, who still teaches online at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “He didn’t really have to explain that to me because I know what it’s all about.”

Hupp’s office at the Syracuse Stage showcases many of his achievements: framed posters and magazine covers of iconic shows such as “Ragtime,” “A Chorus Line” and “Hamlet” line his office walls — some of the productions he’s been involved in over the years.

“Bob has very much of an open door policy,” said Kyle Bass, the associate artistic director of Syracuse Stage. “That’s been really exciting to be around since he’s bringing new eyes to the organization.

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Though Bass is the newly appointed associate artistic director, he has helped a number of positions at the Syracuse Stage and has worked with almost all of the artistic directors that have come and gone throughout the years. For Bass, what makes Hupp different is that he is making that transition from being a visitor to being a citizen of the city.

“He very much likes what he sees and hears, and he’s responding to his own pleasant discoveries about Syracuse by making sure Syracuse Stage is part of what he sees as a vibrant city,” he said.

Like Hupp, Bass is just one of the people stepping into a new position at Syracuse Stage. Hupp said this is one of the biggest challenges of stepping in as the theater’s artistic director — in Syracuse Stage’s history, there has never been such a large turnover of leadership and management.

Besides Bass and Hupp, there are also new members of the Board of Trustees under recently appointed president, Bea Gonzalez. Among the members is  Michael Tick, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, who started around the same time as Hupp.

Then there’s Jill Anderson, the new managing director of Syracuse Stage.

Like Hupp, Anderson was picked by a search committee and moved to Syracuse in July for her new position. She calls the situation an “arranged marriage,” as she and Hupp have never worked with each other before coming to Syracuse Stage.

“We also complement each other very well, I think. I don’t think of myself as a revolutionary artist, idea generator-type — that’s him,” Anderson said. “I’m more like if you have a great idea, I will stay up morning, noon and night to find out how to make it happen.”

Coincidentally, she added, both of them chose to live in downtown Syracuse just blocks away from each other. For Anderson, it speaks to the appeal that the community has not only to Hupp, but to newcomers in general.

Bob is not some mysterious artist trapped in his office. He’s out among the students, among the faculty, in the community. It’s all a part of who he is and how he approaches art.
Jill Anderson

For Hupp, this is what artistic leadership is about: bringing the creative voice of theater out of the building and among the streets of Syracuse. He wants to “listen” to the community and figure out its challenges.

What are its hopes, ambitions and dreams — and how can theater reflect that? How can he, as the artistic leader of Syracuse stage, show the greater community the beauty and significance of theater?

“The passion I have for language and words and the storytelling that erupts from those words is the core of what attracts me as a theater artist and director. It’s when you get to live in those worlds and in those words, and see an audience being transported to a time way back when,” Hupp said. “That’s where the real art of our profession is.”

CLARIFICATION: In a previous version of this article, the timeline of Bob Hupp’s childhood performances was unclear. Hupp started out as a tap-dancing bumble bee in Kindergarten.

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article, details regarding the productions Bob Hupp has worked on were misstated. Hupp has been involved with “Ragtime,” “A Chorus Line” and “Hamlet.” The Daily Orange regrets this error.

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