Playing a new role: Chapel has big dreams for UVA

When Bob Chapel tells me his parents enrolled him in dance class at the age of three, I imagine a tiny version of the man in front of me turning precise pirouettes across hardwood floors in a sun-soaked studio.

"I was never a good dancer," he admits, "but I was one of those kids who was a ham at an early age."

Hamminess has its rewards. By the time he was eight, Chapel was appearing regularly as an actor on an educational television station in his home city, Detroit. "I knew then," he says, "that I only wanted to do theater for the rest of my life."

And he has: he performed in over 200 radio dramas as a teenager, earned a doctorate in drama from the University of Michigan, headed the musical theater program at San Diego State University, and for the past dozen years has chaired the Drama Department at UVA. He also acts as managing director for the Heritage Repertory Theater Company (HRT), the department's professional summer troupe.

For the past two years, however, Chapel has stepped into a new role: chair of the Virginia 2020 Commission on Fine and Performing Arts, a group of faculty and administrators at the university who are working to develop a way to give the arts a prominent place in UVA's future.

The committee has big dreams: a complete "arts precinct" complete with new music facility, a new fine arts building, a new museum, a new performing arts center, and expansion for the School of Architecture and the Drama Department. If all goes as planned, the Culbreth Theater Building, where Chapel teaches, will add 23,000 square feet of space, comprising additional classrooms, a dance studio, and another thrust-stage theater.

Planning for the changes in the UVA landscape and in its arts curriculum is a mammoth task. Chapel, 57, is accustomed to large chores, though. Managing the Heritage Repertory Theater Company means hiring annually at least 100 actors, technicians, and office staff as well as raising a budget of close to half a million dollars.

As artistic director, Chapel is also adept at pulling things together with style. The first show of the HRT season this summer, the 1930s musical Anything Goes, went from first rehearsal to first performance in a matter of weeks and played to enthusiastic sold-out crowds.

When asked what happens next, he talks about the upcoming drama season and then focuses on the grand plan for the arts precinct.

"I would love to leave this place having made some of these dreams happen," he says.