HOTSEAT- Dr. Theater: Chapel prescribes <i>South Pacific</i>

The story of Matthew Shepard, the murdered gay Wyoming college student, had a lot to do with Bob Chapel's decision to direct Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic South Pacific as the opener for this summer's Heritage Repertory Theater. 

Chapel first saw the musical when he was eight years old, and has wanted to produce it since he first came to town to direct Heritage Rep in 1987. "For one reason or another, it wasn't the right time," says Chapel, in the midst of rehearsals two weeks before the show's June 22 opening. Especially if another group in town already was performing it.

Last year while on sabbatical from UVA's drama department, Chapel was directing The Laramie Project at his alma mater in Ann Arbor.

"There's a church in Kansas that protests any time that play is done," says Chapel. He describes 400 University of Michigan students surrounding the protesters and singing "Amazing Grace." As he watched a man carrying a "hateful" sign with a four-year-old child, Chapel realized the relevance of South Pacific with its song, "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught."

"I decided this was the time to do South Pacific," he says.

The show will mark his 104th production as a director. "I still try to do shows I haven't done," he says. "And I care about doing musicals with a good book." 

After 15 years as department chair, Chapel is clearly digging the freedom from administrative tasks. "I loved being chair," he says. "But I've realized how much more time I've had for the creative side." And that's meant time to direct in Moscow, Tasmania, and back again in Ann Arbor for the opening of the new Arthur Miller Theater. 

Chapel grew up in Detroit and started performing as a child. His mother, a teacher, "saw at an early age I was a little ham," recounts Chapel. In college, he cast his lot with showbiz, and obtained a Ph.D in theater– and then headed to Hollywood for eight years.

He supported himself doing commercials, until the day his agent called about an audition to be a raisin in a trail mix commercial. "I segued," he says, "into producing." Even so, he adds "It came to the point I looked in the mirror one day and asked, 'Is this why you got a Ph.D?'"

Serendipitously, the University of Michigan called, and he was back on the academic track and back into theater.

"The thing that troubles me– the big challenge is getting young people interested in coming to the theater," says Chapel. 

And the particular challenge with Heritage is that it's "establishment" theater compared to the edgier productions of, say, Live Arts. As artistic director, he has to find shows that will bring people of all ages to the theater. "We have to fill up 600 seats a night," says Chapel.

This summer is the first season Heritage won't be doing a drama. "People tell me in the summer they don't want to see anything serious," explains Chapel.

The opening of South Pacific doesn't offer him a breather. Immediately after that, rehearsals begin on Sunday in the Park with George, a production Chapel hopes will incorporate broad appeal and a bit of edginess.

One other thing: Chapel's name is pronounced "Chay-pel." Pourqoui?

"I have not a clue," he admits. "My father told me that's how it's pronounced and he had not a clue why."

Further muddying the waters, he adds, "We're French."

Age: 60

Why here? Spent the summers of 1987, 1988, 1989 directing for the Heritage Repertory Theatre and then I moved here permanently to take a wonderful job offer to be profesor and chair of the UVA drama department in 1990.

What's worst about living here? You can, usually, only play golf 10 months out of the year here instead of 12.

Favorite hangout? I'm torn– the main rehearsal hall behind the Culbreth Theatre or Keswick Club Golf Course.

Most overrated virtue? Moderation

People would be surprised to know: I play poker with librarians, and they consistently take my money.

What would you change about yourself? Slow down my back swing.

Proudest accomplishment? My body of work as a theatre director.

People find most annoying about you: Some of my closest friends describe me as a "live nerve end."

Whom do you admire? I deeply admired him when he was alive and I continue to admire Joseph Papp, former producer of the New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theatre (even though he has been dead a number of years).

Favorite book? Peter Hall's Diaries, because they show how vulnerable and insecure even one of the world's greatest theatre directors can be, and I can relate to that.

Subject that causes you to rant? George Bush

Biggest 21st-century thrill? Teaching workshops in singing American musical theatre last fall at two major theatre academies in Moscow, Russia.

Biggest 21st-century creep out? How America has alienated itself from thte rest of the world in a few short years.

What do you drive? 1998 Toyota Camry

In your car CD player right now: The original Broadway cast recording of Sunday in the Park with George.

Next journey? Back to Moscow in November/December of this year to direct Sweeney Todd at the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? When I was a freshman in college, I loaned my three-week-old, brand-new Volkswagen bug to a friend after my parents, who had purchased it for me, had asked me not to– and he subsequently totaled it. (Fortunately he was not hurt.)

Regret: Not apologizing to my dad for an argument we had had the evening before he left Charlottesville to return to Michigan and not telling him I loved him. I never talked to him again as he passed away suddenly the following week. Never let your loved ones leave with either of you angry– make peace. 

Favorite comfort food: Popcorn

Always in your refrigerator: Bass ale

Must-see TV: The Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship

Favorite cartoon: BC by Hart

Describe a perfect day. Golf in the morning, rehearsal in the afternoon, and then a lovely dinner followed by a movie or the theatre with my wife, Maria.

Walter Mitty fantasy: Playing 18 holes at Augusta National with Tiger Woods (to add, "and beat him" is beyond Walter Mitty-land).

Who'd play you in the movie? Richard Dreyfuss

Most embarrassing moment? I have them daily as I'm terrible at remembering people's names or in what context I've met them.

Best advice you ever got? You don't have to eat everything that's on your plate.

Favorite bumper sticker? My karma just ran over your dogma.

Bob Chapel