Hurrah for the Holidays: Three Cheers for Virginia's Leading Family Theatre Company
“When you study theater, you learn lessons about life.” This philosophy has been the bedrock of Hugh R. Copeland’s life work as a performer, educator and community leader. Raised on a small farm in Eastern North Carolina, Hugh grew up with what he calls, “a farmer’s work ethic.” This work ethic helped him earn a Masters Degree in acting from Smith College. His love of teaching and directing brought him to Hampton Roads to work with the Norfolk Public School system, teach at Old Dominion University (ODU) and found the Hurrah Players.
The Hurrah (“Hugh R.”) Players
Hugh founded the Hurrah Players (a name derived from combining his first name and middle initial “Hugh R”) in 1984 to be a shining example to both its students and the community that theatre arts can enrich the lives of its participants educationally, emotionally and socially. The Hurrah Players (Hurrah) focuses as much on education as it does on producing great family-friendly theatrical productions. “All anyone has to do to be in Hurrah’s educational programs is to want to be there,” Hugh says. If they have no money, Hurrah will find a place for them. Hugh adds, “Our performers range from age 5 to 84. Our very own Co Harrison, who is 84, was a USO dancer in WWII and is now our Musical Theatre and Babes on Broadway Instructor, as well as our Dancing Mrs. Santa Claus!” Some of Hugh’s students have made it big, including as cast members of Glee, Stomp and many Broadway plays.
Hugh has won a slew of civic and artistic awards over the years, including Equality Virginia’s Outstanding Virginian. Hugh recently married his partner of 21 years, Jerry Duck (who is Hurrah’s treasurer). When it comes to his sexual orientation, “I never pretended to be anyone other than who I am,” Hugh says. “To the children we’re just Hugh and Jerry. They know we’re a team.”
For years, Hurrah operated out of a church basement and out of a rented warehouse in Norfolk’s Ghent neighborhood, performing at various venues throughout the region. In 2001, the company started performing regularly in the newly-renovated Roper Performing Arts Center at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk (Roper Theatre), which seats about 860 people.
In June 2009, the company purchased the historic Old Norfolk Academy building in Downtown Norfolk. Constructed in 1840, the Greek-revival building served as a military hospital during the Civil War, a Red Cross building in World War I, a Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courthouse from 1920-1970 and as the City of Norfolk’s Chamber of Commerce since 1973. According to Hugh, “It was also the site of Edgar Allan Poe’s last public lecture.” In 2010, after months of renovations, Hurrah moved into the building, which now houses two large rehearsal halls, a student resource center, a box office, costume and prop storage and the Perry Family Theatre, a 100-seat performance venue where the company stages smaller productions and workshops. “Thanks to our new home and the generous support of our community,” Hugh beams, “we are able to conduct more outreach and educational programs than ever before.”
Continuing their growth phase, in 2014 Hurrah purchased the former Sutton Manufacturing building on Wilson Avenue in the NEON (New Energy Of Norfolk) District, Norfolk’s first official arts district. This 12,000+ square foot building, which will be named the Hugh R. Copeland Center, will provide additional classrooms and a rehearsal studio for Hurrah’s ever-growing educational programs, as well as a permanent design and creation workshop for performance scenery and props.
Hurrah’s Theatrical & Educational Activities
“Everything we do is built upon our mission statement, which is to inspire and empower the Hampton Roads community through affordable, professional quality musical theatre education and family friendly entertainment,” Hugh explains. Every year, Hurrah puts on six main stage shows at the Roper Theatre (mostly musicals) and four smaller studio shows at the Perry Family Theatre. Hugh notes, “We also do lots of community shows for hospitals, schools, community centers, civic groups and nursing homes. That’s very much a part of our mission.” Outside of Norfolk, Hurrah performs throughout the region, on the Eastern Shore, in North Carolina, DC, New York City, Disneyworld and has even performed at Pearl Harbor and the American Embassy in London.
One of the more interesting educational components of Hurrah is the Hugh School. “In this school,” Hugh notes, “we teach students how to greet people, how to acknowledge others and how to act in different social situations. It’s more than an etiquette school. It’s really about social awareness and development.”
Hurrah for the Holidays!
So what’s in store for this holiday season? From December 11-13, Hurrah is staging Hurrah for the Holidays at the Roper Theatre. This big holiday musical review features all of the best music of the season, a 20-foot tree, a 6-foot dancing snowman and a renowned precision kick-line. Additionally, “For the 24th year we are doing The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” Hugh says with a big smile on his face. Based on Barbara Robinson’s book, this production tells the funny story of what happens when a church play is hijacked by six of the worst kids in the history of world! This Hampton Roads holiday tradition is being performed on December 12 at 7:00pm at the Roper Theatre.
“For years,” Hugh recalls, “Hurrah was referred to as ‘that little theatre company.’” Now in its 32nd season, anchored in two prominent buildings in Norfolk and having achieved international recognition, the Hurrah Players has earned the rightful moniker of Virginia’s leading family theatre company. Hip Hip, HURRAH!!