For some performers, theater is in their blood. This statement could not be truer of Stuart Hepler, who stars as Beethoven in the current Fort Wayne Civic Theatre production of 33 Variations.
“I grew up in an artistic home,” Hepler says. “My older siblings (Sigurd, Sam and Hannalies) were involved in theater and music. My father was a music teacher and composer. Art was a significant part of our lives.”
Theater wasn’t so much a choice for the youngest Hepler as it was a natural extension of his being.
“I was a shy kid, but I fell into the role of entertainer trying to make my family laugh,” he says. “The more laughs I got, the harder I tried to be zany.”
Despite his desire to entertain his family, he admits, “I’ve never been an outgoing person. I feel a little out of place with the typical theater people, who are outgoing and funny. I’m more reserved.”
Hepler grew up in Leo but attended Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne.
“My older siblings blazed the trail for me in theater,” he says. “With the Hepler name, it was expected of me to be involved, even in middle school. I started out backstage and worked my way toward performing.”
In the 8th grade he had his first significant role as radio announcer Bert Healy in Blackhawk’s production of Annie. “I did most of the musicals and most of the plays during high school,” he says. “I was involved in fall sports, but I was in most of the musicals.”
Although he never made the conscious choice to make theater a part of his life, he did have a breakthrough experience as an audience member.
“When I was a sophomore in high school, I went on my first trip to New York City and I saw the musical Tommy,” he says. “It blew my socks off. I’d never seen anything like it. That moment, sitting in the back row of the St. James Theatre in New York, was a significant moment for me.”
The following year he auditioned for his first community theater production, The Secret Garden, at the Civic Theatre. “I only had a bit part,” he says, “but it was a good introduction to that world.”
Hepler also studied theater at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan during junior high and high school. “That was a great learning experience,” he says. “I worked with professional directors and with kids from all over the world.”
He went on to Moody Bible College in Chicago and studied history and theology. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with that education,” he says. “I performed there a little bit. I took voice lessons and acting lessons and did some acting workshops with professional directors.”
Now a behavior therapist, Hepler works with autistic children. He uses a more clinical approach in his job than an artistic one, but he reserves time in his life for theater.
Hepler was most recently a part of two high-profile productions, both directed by Gregory Stieber. He played Inspector Javert in Les Misérables at the Civic Theatre and Ryan White’s attorney in The Kid from Kokomo: The Ryan White Story with Fort Wayne Youtheatre.
Now he stars as Beethoven in another Steiber-directed Civic production, 33 Variations. The Moisés Kaufman play from 2009 shifts back and forth in time as a music scholar (played by Julie Donnell) attempts to discover why Beethoven composed not one, but 33 variations on a simple waltz written by a music publisher as part of a collection. Her obsession with this mystery parallels Beethoven’s apparent obsession with the variations. Taking the parallel one step further, they are both racing against debilitating illnesses and impending death: she has ALS; Beethoven suffers from alcoholism and its accompanying liver, kidney and pancreatic ailments in addition to his growing deafness.
Despite all his stage experience, Hepler was surprised to land the lead role.
“I thought I was way too young to play Beethoven,” he says. “Part of me wanted to say no. I was a bit taken off guard.”
He doesn’t regret his choice to take on the challenge.
“It’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” he says, “not just to learn the German accent, but to portray a broken, aging man, near death, who has experienced such physical and emotional trauma in his life.”
Hepler has taken a “method acting” approach to this difficult role, at least during rehearsals. To dampen his ability to hear his cast mates onstage, he listens to music on his iPhone via earbuds during his scenes. As Beethoven’s deafness intensifies throughout the play, Hepler increases the volume.
“It’s a challenge to interact with other people and not really be able to fully hear them,” he says. “I have found that I have to look at their mouths to understand them, which Beethoven would have had to do. It’s mentally tricky.”
Also tricky are the technical logistics of the play. Set both in the 18th century and the present day, 33 Variations features innovative set pieces and lighting design that convey the overlapping time periods, sometimes simultaneously.
Hepler has full faith in director Stieber’s ability to help his cast pull it off.
“Greg is one of Fort Wayne’s best talents,” he says.
Hepler also appreciates Stieber’s collaborative directing style.
“It’s exciting to work together to dive down into the character,” he says. “Greg’s greatest strength as a director is that he desires authenticity. Also, the actors can bring our unique vision about the character, and he’s open to our interpretations. He creates the space and freedom to tweak or experiment based on his suggestions, and this can bring out a lot of unique aspects to the characters.”
Through the creative rehearsal process and his own research, Hepler has gained a new respect for Beethoven as a man and as a composer.
“He had an abusive alcoholic for a father, his mother died, his romantic relationships all left him hanging with a broken heart,” he says. “And then there were his physical ailments and his deafness. It’s the most unique role I’ve ever played.”
Hepler compares Beethoven to a modern day, high-powered CEO who favors professional success over personal relationships.
“He’s a genius who created new musical forms and the greatest symphonic music ever composed,” says Hepler. “He was consumed, immersed, and passionate about his work, but he had fractured relationships. He ran over people. It’s his strength, but it’s also his weakness. He bulldozes people’s feelings, then wonders why everyone is upset.”
Hepler says he has had a lot of rewarding roles over the years, but this role is particularly special to him. “To play someone like Beethoven and act with such talented actors in such a beautiful and well-written play is exciting,” he says. “It’s been the greatest highlight of my acting experience.”
Thursday, April 27
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Community Unity — Community dinner, games and prizes, and neighborhood safety forum, 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, Jennings Recreation Center, Fort Wayne, free, 427-6028
Issues and Ales — Panel of experts discuss important issues in the community with audience Q&A , 7-9 p.m. Wednesday, April 26, Calhoun Street Soups, Salads and Spirits, Fort Wayne, free, 456-7005
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Chris Worth — Variety at Nick's Martini & Wine Bar, Fort Wayne, 7:30 p.m., no cover, 482-6425
Fort Wayne Comedy Connection — Comedy at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., no cover, 483-5526
Hubie Ashcraft — Acoustic at River View Tavern, Decatur, 7-10 p.m., no cover, 724-3500
Open Mic — Hosted by Mike Mowry at Pedal City, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 415-6167
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Classic City Karaoke w/Bryan Lee — Karaoke at Pine Valley Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 8:30 p.m., no cover, 490-9464
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Brian — Variety at AJ's Bar and Grill, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., no cover, 434-1980
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/Josh — Karaoke at Columbia Street West, Fort Wayne, 9:30 p.m., no cover, 422-5055
Fort Wayne Karaoke w/TJ — Variety at Chevvy's, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m., ,
Karaoke w/Bucca — Variety at Wrigley Field Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 10 p.m., no cover, 485-1038
Karaoke with Rooster — Variety at By: Belle Haven, South Whitley, 8 p.m., no cover, 866-716-9243
Shooting Star Prod. w/Stu — Variety at Office Tavern, Fort Wayne, 8 p.m., no cover, 478-5827
Shut Up and Sing — Karaoke at Duesy's Sports Bar, Fort Wayne, 7-11 p.m., no cover, 483-5681
Three Rivers Karaoke — at Dupont Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-1 a.m., no cover, 483-1311
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Little Shop of Horrors — IPFW Department of Theatre performance of Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical comedy, 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, April 26-29, Williams Theatre, IPFW, Fort Wayne, $5-$18, 481-6555
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37th National Print Exhibition — Juried exhibition featuring contemporary printmakers from around the nation, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
41st SOCA Student Exhibition — Works from students currently enrolled at USF’s School of Creative Arts, daily thru April 30, Weatherhead Gallery, USF Rolland Art Center, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Echolilia — Works from Timothy Archibald and his autistic son, Eli, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Diane Allen Groenert — Exhibition of local artist’s Downtown Series and new works, Monday-Saturday thru June 24, West Central Microcreamery & Cafe, Fort Wayne, 415-9293
Expressions of Existence — An exhibition of works by artists through history, including Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francisco Goya and others whose works have been influenced by disabilities, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
Fort Wayne Artist Guild Exhibitions — Works by Alice Siefert at Aldersgate United Methodist Church, Jennifer Caudel at Allen County Retinal Surgeons, Anita Trick, Citizens Square (2nd and 3rd floors), Darlene Selzer Miller at The Einhaus Group for Women’s Health, Patricia Weiss at Heritage of Fort Wayne, Emily Jane Butler at Ophthalmology Consultants (Southwest), Linda Binek at Ophthalmology Consultants (North), Carolyn Stachera at Rehabilitation Hospital of Fort Wayne, John Kelty at ResCare Inc. Adult Day Service, Wiletta Blevins at Town House Retirement, Karen Bixler at Visiting Nurse Hospice and Barb Yoder and Karen Harvey at Will Jewelers, thru April 30, fortwayneartistguild.org.
Fort Wayne Photographers Club — Exhibition featuring local photographers, Tuesday-Sunday thru April 30, Foellinger-Freimann Botanical Conservatory, Fort Wayne, $3-$5 (2 and under, free), 427-6440
Glass: A Medium in Art and Automobiles — Dale Chihuly blown glass and fiberglass auto, daily thru Sept. 8, Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum, Auburn, $7.50-$12.50, 925-1444
Jan Krist-Finkbeiner — Exhibition of ceramic reliefs, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 5, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195
Kathy Funderburg & Diane Schafer-King — Acrylic paintings (Funderburg) and works in marbled paper and fabric (Schaefer-King), Monday-Saturday thru April 29, Orchard Gallery of Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 436-0927
Outdoor Sculpture Invitational — Fifteen outdoor sculptures from regional artists, daily thru April 30, School of Creative Arts campus, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Rhoda Gerig: The Hope of Eagles — Photographic images of eagles, daily thru June 4, Clark Gallery, Honeywell Center, Wabash, 563-1102
Sharon — An exhibition of Leon Borensztein photographs chronicling the struggles he faced raising his severely disabled daughter, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 11, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $6-$8 (members, free), 422-6467
SOCA Graduate Program: Student Highlights — Juried exhibition of works by students enrolled in USF’s School of Creative Arts graduate program, Monday-Friday thru April 30, Lupke Gallery, University of Saint Francis North Campus, Fort Wayne, 399-7999
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Exhibition of works by IPFW graduation seniors, daily thru May 3 , Jeffrey R. Krull Gallery, Main Library, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring 2017 BFA Exhibition — Senior thesis projects from Bachelor of Fine Arts candidates Brenda Drayer (sculpture), Derek Hibbs (printmaking), Ellen Mensch (painting), Nathaniel Morris (sculpture) and Kyle Snodgrass (sculpture), daily thru May 7, Visual Arts Gallery, IPFW, Fort Wayne, 481-6709
Spring Palette — New original works by more than 50 nationally recognized artists, Tuesday-Saturday and by appointment thru April 30, Castle Gallery Fine Art, Fort Wayne, 426-6568