OUTstanding Virginians 2012

Hugh Copeland

Stage Struck

The first thing you need to know about the Norfolk-based theatre company The Hurrah Players is that the name is a mash-up of the founder’s first and middle names, Hugh Raiford. The second is that Hurrah is far from Hugh’s first venture in theatre. He founded his first company when he was seven years old, in a barn on the family farm in Eastern North Carolina. “I fixed the barn door to open like a curtain,” he said, “and used tomato plant boxes for seats.” He wrote out the scripts and doled out the best parts to friends who treated him right. Those that didn’t found their lines cut. “I’m sorry, but that’s what the script says,” he would tell them.

Hugh credits his career on and behind the stage to a nurturing family. “My father didn’t understand why I wanted to do plays all the time, but he supported me anyway.” From his dad, who passed away in 1994, Hugh acquired what he calls his “farmer’s work ethic.” As he explains the analogy, “A good crop won’t come up well on its own; you have to weed and water it constantly.”

All that tending has grown outsized, prize-winning success. Hugh has won a slew of civic and artistic awards, including the Old Dominion University Founder’s Day Rita Costello Community Service Award for Hurrah’s education programs; Norfolk’s Safe Harbor Award for dropout prevention; and the Roanoke Island Historic Association’s Unsung Hero Award for establishing acting camps to support the Lost Colony plays. While directing the Norfolk Public School system’s city-wide theatre program, he was voted Teacher of the Year and the Jaycees’ Young Educator of the Year, and he was Virginia’s representative to the Southeastern Theatre Conference.

Even more satisfying to Hugh than titles and awards is the success of the students he has taught. Some have made it to the big time, including cast members of Glee, Stomp and many Broadway plays.  One student, Adrienne Warren, became the first black Annie in 1997 and has since starred on Broadway in The Wiz, Dreamgirls, and other hits. “She was so shy, she was happy to be ‘the third girl on the left,’” Hugh recalls, “but she was always studying and had a passion for acting and dance.” These weren’t privileged kids with stage moms managing their careers, he adds, “just normal people who applied themselves.” All anyone has to do to be in Hurrah’s educational programs is to want to be there, according to Hugh. If they have no money, Hurrah will find a place for them all the same. And once there, students learn far more than technique. “You learn lessons like working together, understanding other people, acceptance,” he says.

Teaching and expecting acceptance extends to Hugh’s gayness and his almost 20-year relationship with his partner Jerry Duck. “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.” No doubt, they also think it pretty cool that this duo co-produced the annual Miss Virginia telecast for nine years. And to the older students he teaches at ODU, Hugh feels it’s important that they see the pair as an example of what can be accomplished by partners in a committed relationship. “All of us are entitled to love as who we are,” he says.