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Interview with Stephen Hope

When I first met Stephen, I was impressed by his warm, friendly personality and his charming ability to laugh at himself. But once he started explaining how he understudies 21 different characters, from ensemble roles to Bounders, I realized that his approach to his job is "all business." No matter what role he is covering, he seems to do it with such joy that you actually look forward to finding one of those little white slips of paper in your Playbill, and knowing that Stephen will be on stage.

NR: Where did you grow up?

SH: I grew up all over. I was born in Savannah, Georgia. I spent three years in a little town called Pembroke, Georgia, right outside of Savannah. The majority of my family are all in southeast Georgia. My parents were in college so I went from Pembroke when I was about three to Macon, Georgia where my father graduated from Mercer University and my mother graduated from Wesleyan University. Then when I was in third grade, we went to Gainesville, Florida, for my dad to get his doctoral work done. He got his PhD at the University of Florida. In 1970, we moved to St. Louis, so that he could do post-doctoral work at Washington University, and then in 1972, when I was a sophomore in high school, we moved from St. Louis to Louisville, Kentucky, where they both were working at the university. Now, they're back in Gainesville working at the University of Florida, but I went from Louisville to Cincinnati, Ohio, where I went to CCM (College Conservatory of Music), and then from there to New York.

NR: So, when did you decide you wanted to act?

SH: Wow. When did I decide I wanted to act? I don't think there was ever a decision there. I always knew that I loved doing it. We did the living room shows, the backyard shows, things like that where you go out and you play a dog...the breezeway shows, this is what it was. I guess I was in St. Louis where it really happened. They were doing a production of The Wizard of Oz in junior high school, and they had cast the people. One of my best friends had been cast as the Cowardly Lion, and I think I had been cast as a Munchkin because I could do the Munchkin voice. And he said that he didn't want to do it, that he wanted me to do it. I look back on it now and it is such an amazing thing, that somebody in eighth grade did that. It's an amazing thing. I don't remember his last name. His first name was Kermit, and he was a good friend as far as I was concerned. Well, I don't know, I probably mugged my way through it and did everything under the sun. I remember my parents rented a costume that had a big lion head on it - a paper mache lion head and of course it was totally wrong. It wouldn't work. There was no tail, which was totally wrong, and I remember my parents making a lion mane with ears, and they took my mother's bathrobe tie and dyed it and made a tail out of it. There was all this involvement of the family. I must have done a pretty good job because I remember getting a lot of laughs. Well, that was the beginning. That was the beginning of the end I think. The real moment came in high school. The musical was Camelot, and I was lucky enough to get to play Arthur. One night after the show my father came up to me and he said, "This is what you need to be doing." I think I'm a pretty fortunate guy. Instead of my parents saying, "Be a doctor, be a lawyer, be an engineer, do anything" he said that. My dad's a scientist, and we're talking LOGIC here. I didn't lean towards any of that. I always leaned more towards music and literature. But, that point was it, and from there on out, no matter what I did, I always kind of gravitated back to theater.

NR: Can you explain the difference between an understudy, a standby, and a swing?

SH: These are the differences as I understand it. First of all, an understudy only understudies principal roles. I am a swing and an understudy. Jimmy Van Treuren is a swing and an understudy. A swing covers generally all of the ensemble and as many roles as they want to, however they want to divide that up. A standby is a different thing altogether. As I understand it, a standby is somebody who is ready to go on only for the lead. They would not necessarily be ready to go on for anybody else but the lead.

NR: So that would have been Nat Chandler, or now Bryan Batt?

SH: Yes.

NR: So, the standby is not in the show unless they're doing that part?

SH: Right.

NR: What type of rehearsal time do you get?

SH: It depends. When I first started, back in January a year ago, they rehearsed me one entire week, and then I followed pretty much for that second week. At that time, I was thrown on as Ozzy. That's just the way things happened. And so, the first part I did was a great part. Very different, I was a different kind of Ozzy, and Ed (Dixon) was a tough act to follow. But, now we can rehearse up to 12 hours a week, understudies and swings. Sometimes we rehearse both Thursdays and Fridays, sometimes it's just one or the other.

NR: Most people assume that an ensemble player would rather have a lead. Do you feel that's true?

SH: Yeah. But, also I think there are varying degrees of that too. There's a lot of responsibility with a lead. Everybody in this ensemble has done a lead part. A lot of it involves the ability to be creative, to be out there and hold the stage on your lonesome. What a challenge! It's an extremely wonderful feeling to be out there on stage on your own. So, yeah, I think that's true.

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Interview conducted and photographs by Nancy Rosati.

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