Syracuse Stage's new director looks ahead to future seasons

Leadership team of artistic director Bob Hupp, managing director Jill Anderson and associate artistic director Kyle Bass aim for new play development.

If the new leaders at Syracuse Stage have their way, they won't be the only ones making debuts in the near future.

In January, the theater's board of directors announced that Bob Hupp, then producing artistic director of Arkansas Repertory Theatre, would succeed Timothy Bond as artistic director. Since Hupp started in July, he has made it known that new play development is a goal.

Photo: Syracuse Stage
Bob Hupp

“It will be very eclectic,” Hupp said of the 2017-18 season, which he is already planning. “Syracuse Stage has a reputation for doing wonderfully eclectic work, from the classics to new plays to musicals and dramas, and so that kind of mix will continue. We’re exploring how we might engage in conversations about new plays.”

The current season is a holdover from Bond, who announced his departure last May before securing a job teaching at University of Washington School of Drama. Other changes in leadership at Syracuse Stage include Jill Anderson, former general manager of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, replacing Jeffrey Woodward as managing director. In addition, resident dramaturge Kyle Bass was elevated to associate artistic director.

Bass said Hupp's commitment to new works was instrumental in his decision to join the team. “That's why I'm here,” said Bass, who has a standing weekly meeting with Hupp.

They first met last December during one of Hupp's interviews.

“My initial impression was that he was very open,” Bass said. “He was very eager to listen, he was very interested in how the theater could play a larger role in the community. I liked him, I liked him kind of right off the bat.”

Bass, a playwright himself, said he'd like to see Syracuse Stage become a “visible player in new play development.” Should a new play development program be established, Bass envisions the first production being staged three years later.

Although new works are financially risky, the pay-off could be important. As valued core patrons age out, theaters are trying to fill seats with younger audiences used to nights in with Netflix. And, if a new play is successful, it could provide an additional revenue stream for a regional theater, as well as lend some cache.

In recent years, Syracuse Stage’s revenue has stabilized after some years in the negatives. In 2011, the theater reported a $52,468 deficit in total revenue, according to its 990 tax form. Today, the theater operates with a budget of about $6 million and has a nearly balanced budget, which is generally the goal for a nonprofit.

Theater officials are hopeful for a strong start to the current season, which launched Oct. 19 with “Great Expectations.” Joseph Whelan, who handles marketing, reported that subscriptions to the six-play season are selling “steadily if slowly.” Right now, more than 3,000 patrons are fully subscribed, a slight increase from recent years, according to Whelan.

Although Hupp himself is not directing “Great Expectations,” he has a history of starting with success. The first play he directed as artistic director at New York’s Jean Cocteau Repertory Company – a revival of “Good,” a play about how a good man becomes a bad Nazi – was reviewed by The New York Times. In February 1989, the Times reported the production was “frightening and mesmerizing.

Hupp credits his career to the Jean Cocteau’s late founder, Eve Adamson. After getting a liberal arts education at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Hupp moved to New York City to study acting at the National Shakespeare Conservatory. Blown away by a production he saw at at the Jean Cocteau, Hupp made it his mission to work there.

“I wanted to know everything there was to know about a theater,” Hupp said. “I knew I didn't want to just be an actor.”

After working under Adamson as managing director for several years, Hupp decided it was time to “get serious.” A married man with three children, he considered going to law school to better support his family. When he told Adamson, she announced she was retiring and offered him her job.

He served as artistic director from 1989 to 1999, moving to Arkansas Rep for his family. There, he grew the theater's subscriber base and tripled its budget to $4 million.

Arkansas Rep was the only professional theater of its kind for 300 miles, Hupp said, so he expects Syracuse Stage will bring different challenges. Another change for Hupp is working at a theater tied to a university. When he arrived in Syracuse this summer, he was surprised to learn he would be teaching drama management at Syracuse University right away.

Hupp – who moved to Syracuse's downtown with his second wife, Clea, a professor of history – intends to spend the next year watching the drama unfold so he can find his part.

“It's not just about the two hours you spend sitting in the theater,” Hupp said. “It's about what happens before you get here, what happens after you get here. What are the things that you engage with when you're here? These are the things I’m still learning.”

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