05 April 2010

Gary C. Hopper


"Theatre is my life!"

I received most of my formal acting training in the undergraduate program at Virginia Commonwealth University. Lots of factors contributed to my decision to attend college there. For example, I didn't make it into William & Mary; had I, I would have definitely gone, and my parents would definitely be much poorer, even to this day. When I enrolled, I wasn't even committed to being an actor -- I was just in the habit of approaching colleges as an actor, or theatre student, because that was the mode in which they were most likely to have already heard of me, through the conferences I attended in high school. I still had an abiding love of all things literature (except Dickens [even to this day]) and hoped to double-major.

VCU was an interesting program, one whose curriculum was in a state of near-constant flux during my four years there. Teachers and administrators came and went. In fact, the gentleman I auditioned for was no longer there by the time my first day arrived. This general situation caused me a good deal of angst during my time, fretting over the state of my and and my fellows' education. (To be fair, causing me angst in those days was not by any stretch a challenging maneuver.) Not to put too fine a point on it, I was often pretty pissed. At the most difficult times of that struggle, I think the only thing that kept me enrolled was returning to the foundation we actors received from the guy who insisted he teach each and every incoming freshman actor: Gary Hopper.

Mr. Hopper was, and delighted in embodying, an amiable terror to the freshmen. He made it clear, with a blistering smile all the while, that we were there to work and, furthermore, to work with enthusiasm. I can still hear his voice in my head as he jogged around the room with us in our daily warm-ups, quasi-facetiously pepping up our teenage slack-i-tude with interjections of, "Acting!" and "Theatre is my life!" There's a philosophy of teaching, I believe, that makes good use of the teacher as a character, as someone intriguing and idiosyncratic, who fascinates and keeps one on one's toes. This approach makes the students a little bit like gladiators, wily and ready to adapt: engaged -- if it works on them. It certainly worked on me, but it's an approach that is full of risk and takes a lot of commitment and energy. Sort of like, you know, good acting.

Now, I don't know if Mr. Hopper intends to be as eccentric as he can be, nor whether it's to this end. My guess is he does, but I also believe most of his idiosyncrasies are ones he comes about quite honestly. He really is a man who sees the purpose in life to be inextricable from living with energy and intention. He really would like to yank the cigarette out of every smoker's mouth, then have them thank him for saving minutes of their lives. And yes, theatre is his life. In my time he directed one main-stage show per year, and often a second-stage or regional show to boot, and these were always, always something to experience. Every show wasn't for every audience member, but that goes with his territory. That's risk-taking, and that's art. I could tally off every show of his from the Fall of 1995 to the Spring of 1999, and would enjoy the hell out of it, but just take my word: Must Sees.

Of course, I was involved in a few of those. As a sophomore I ASM'd his Little Shop of Horrors, which involved various misadventures with a turntable (oh, that f&#$%ng turntable), Intellabeams and an honest-to-goodness motorcycle. And, as a junior, I did what I'm afraid was an astonishingly mediocre job in his adaptation of the play Stand-Up Tragedy, which, Gentle Reader, involved risky stunts and fights, a life-size, bleeding Christ sculpture and -- most terrifying -- me, rapping. Finally, in my senior year, I had the excellent good fortune to work with Gary on a farce: Hotel Paradiso. Holy crap: THAT was FUN. I'm not sure any show I'd done before has influenced my adult career so specifically and completely. I knew before Hotel that I had a unique (being kind here) sense of humor and an appreciation of pratfall, but it was this show that taught me how important these were to me.

In fact, I probably owe the man royalties (nothing substantial, I regret to admit). Firstly because I believe to this day -- in spite of years of experience prior to college -- that I didn't learn how to act until I studied with Gary. It can be hard, more than a decade on, to trace the sources of one's techniques back to their origins. In spite of this, I very definitely carry on in a specific G.C.H. tradition, both in my acting and in my teaching. "Actors must be athletes," is an axiom that gets included in every single commedia dell'arte or acrobalance workshop I lead, and a great many of my exercises and challenges are taken directly from the Hopper repertoire. I still score my scripts, feeling somehow delinquent if I haven't done so by opening night, and I continue to subject my poor, poor actors, when I direct, to the STOP method of line memorization.

STOP is a good way to illustrate the infuriating and exacting way Gary has of demanding not just better, but the specific best from his actors. In this exercise, everyone gathers in a tight, standing circle, and we run lines, with the stage manager (never the director; I learned how important this is the hard way) on book. Whenever someone misses, transposes or paraphrases a single word, the SM says, "Stop." And only: "Stop." It's then up to the actor to repeat the line and, by the timing of "stops" figure out his or her mistake, and correct it. Believe me: It is not for the weak (nor the humorless).

Of course, college is about a hell of a lot more than the classes one takes, or even the productions a theatre student may be a part of. Gary had his small, yet profound, influences on me there as well. None of it is of general interest, all of it proved very important to the person I've become. College for me was personally tumultuous, and very probably that was a result of my own doing, and growing. I suspect that is not uncommon, yet when you're in the thick of it the experience is a rather difficult one of which to take a long view. Gary's spirit, his approach to challenges and belief in rooting all that ecstatic expression in solid groundwork, provided me with an example of how to be both exuberant and responsible in life. Plus, without ever tearing me down (more than I needed it) he constantly reminded me not to take myself too seriously. To say I'm grateful to him doesn't quite cover it.

Sometimes when I'm in the midst of a warm-up on a tougher day, I'll start (quite unconsciously) whispering to myself "Acting!" and "Theatre is my life!" And I smile, and I can't help it. Gary's spirit is unsentimental and infectious, and it would appear I remain infected to this day. Happy birthday, Gary, and thanks for all you've done for us.

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