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.”