Musical man: UVA’s Robert Chapel exits stage left after decades of making his mark

The leading man of UVA’s Department of Drama for 25 years, Robert Chapel will retire at the end of the upcoming 2015-16 academic calendar. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto The leading man of UVA’s Department of Drama for 25 years, Robert Chapel will retire at the end of the upcoming 2015-16 academic calendar. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

The man who’s led UVA’s summertime Heritage Theatre Festival for the last 20 years (and the former head of the Department of Drama) will take his last bow in the coming year. But community arts patrons may not have seen the last of Robert Chapel.

Chapel says when he drove from New York City to Charlottesville in 1987 to guest direct his first Heritage show, he wouldn’t have guessed he’d spend the next 29 summers here. After guiding actors through his 54th Heritage production from July 28 to August 1, he’ll retire as the theater’s artistic director. And after he teaches his last drama classes at the end of the 2015-2016 academic year, he’ll take his leave of the school as well.

“I figure it’s time. It’s time for new blood,” Chapel says. “I love it and I am going to miss it, but it always is a good thing for an organization.”

Still, Chapel says he wouldn’t mind if the next head of the Heritage gives him a call and asks him to occasionally direct a production. He still enjoys being in rehearsal and working with actors, he said; he just doesn’t want to “run the whole show.”

Chapel has no doubt earned the right to an encore. Heritage and the UVA drama department have come a long way in the 29 years since he joined the cast. He’s brought with him a love of musical theater, a commitment to high quality productions and a knack for turning student actors and stage techs into professionals.

It’s a tough market out there for actors, Chapel admits, but he’s proud of the success his department’s had in placing production folks into set, lighting and costume design jobs. As far as the actors go, a number of Heritage alumni have found national success, Chapel said. Jared Bradshaw has gone on from the C’ville stages to win a leading role in Jersey Boys. His wife Lindsey Northen, who he met during a production of Return to the Forbidden Planet, is currently the understudy for Wicked’s Glenda on Broadway.

“I have probably worked with more than 1,000 actors in my time here,” Chapel says. “It’s been a lot of wonderful people, so I am very proud of that in terms of what we have accomplished.”

Then of course there’s the UVA drama department’s golden child, “a young woman by the name of Tina Fey,” who Chapel directed in his second year as head of the department. Fey played only one role for Heritage, instead often working in the costume shop, but she radiated greatness.

“She was one of our leaders. You knew she was going to do well,” Chapel says. “No one knows they are going to become a megastar. But you knew that Tina had a tremendous work ethic. She was a wonderful person. She still is.”

Chapel’s own shot at stardom never quite panned out. After earning his doctorate in theater at the University of Michigan, he spent a year in academia before heading to L.A. to make it as an actor. He had a few cups of coffee—a role in Herowork (a feature film with a national drive-in release), a speaking part in Brave New World, voiceover work for a “Tarzan” series—but he never got his big break.

The closest might have been in a film for which he was never credited. Chapel was tapped to play a homeless guy in The Muppets Take Manhattan, but the only thing that showed up in the film was the corner of a hat on his head.

“They found little guys to play the bums that lived with the Muppets, and we had some great scenes,” Chapel says. “I went to the opening screening at Lincoln Center, and Frank Oz came up to us and said, ‘Guys, we’re really sorry but time did not allow us to keep those scenes.’”

Hollywood’s loss was C’ville’s gain. After giving up on commercials, television and movies, Chapel returned to academia, first at his alma mater, than at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and finally at UVA. After that first summer directing for Heritage in ’87, he was offered the department chair in 1990. He became the Heritage artistic director in 1995.

Since his arrival, UVA’s drama department has grown to include three theaters. This summer, the Ruth Caplin will host Luv (June 25-July 5) and Almost, Maine (July 23-August 1), the Culbreth will feature Monty Python’s Spamalot (June 30-July 5) and Violet (July 28-August 1), and the Helms will house I Love a Piano (July 21-August 1). As he does every year, Chapel selected all of the plays, drawing on the dozens of shows he sees annually, and will direct two shows, this time Spamalot and Violet.

Chapel’s career in theater has taken him all over the world, from the West Coast of this country to Eastern Europe. But he figures when his run is over at UVA he’d like to stick around.

“I’ve appreciated all the support I’ve gotten over the years—a tremendous amount of support from the Charlottesville and Albemarle communities,” he says. “We’re here. We love Charlottesville. Never say never, but there are no plans to leave.”

Share your favorite memories from the Heritage Theatre Festival in the comments.

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