Walt Cupit has been the theater manager and technical director at Stuart for 15 years. He spent his life in the theater, as both an actor and technical manager. Beyond the theater, Walt has also been an integral part of the Appalachia Service Project, a summer service experience that Stuart has been participating in for 40 years.
Tell us more about your job as Theater Director and anything else that you do at Stuart.
My morning starts with the car line where I open the door for kids in kindergarten through sixth grade, help with their backpacks and greet parents. Then, for most of the day, I am running the theater spaces and sound for any other events taking place on campus. At the end of the day is bus duty, and I've been doing both the car line and bus line for about 10 years. In addition to that, I’d say my biggest involvement is with the Appalachia Service Project. I've been either running it or on their trips for about 13 years. (More on Walt’s experience with ASP below)
What led you to a career in the theater? Have you always worked behind the scenes?
My interest in theater started in first grade when I was Donald Duck and had to sing “High Diddly Dee, An Actor's Life for Me” from Pinocchio. I always assumed teachers gave me parts because I was kind of verbose and quite the character in school. My parents also encouraged it and felt that if I was going to be up there in front of people, then theater should be in life. We’d go to the library, get musical soundtracks, and then my sister and I would listen to them over and over. I kind of followed in her footsteps in high school theater. When I went to Juniata College, one of my instructors was Nancy Kulp - Miss Jane Hathaway in the “The Beverly Hillbillies.” She took me aside and said I had what it took to be in show business. That blew me away. At the time, I thought I was going to either go into radio or broadcasting, but she thought I could be an actor? That was when I started doing community theater in the area up at Washington Crossing State Park and any community theater gig I could get to build a resume. When I was just out of college, I became a ski instructor for Shawnee Mountain. They had a theater up there, and I got involved because they were looking for someone to do some technical work. I became a lighting guy and then started auditioning for their shows. On the occasion that there was an all-female cast, I would stage manage for them. With that diverse skill set of the technical knowledge and acting ability, I was able to work with the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival and network with more people in the industry. Those connections led me to a job at Princeton, and then the person who was in charge of communications here at Stuart (also someone I had done theater with) asked if I was interested in coming to Stuart since they were just about to open Cor Unum. I was still acting locally and was able to build up my technical theater knowledge at Stuart.
Did you ever have an acting role in Stuart’s theater productions?
When we did Hairspray, I was the father in the show, and Chip Cash, who was the head of the math department, played the mother. I also designed and built that show, so when the power went out in the middle of a performance, I had to run around to the back and deliver my lines from the light board while everything else was in darkness on stage. We then moved everything into the cafeteria and finished the second act in that space - if you can believe it. Parents moved tables and chairs to the side, the cast used the faculty room as the backstage area, the band picked up all their equipment and moved in there, we rolled a piano down from the Middle School, and we did an entire second act like that for the matinee. Thankfully the power was back on for the evening.
You mentioned Nancy Kulp as having a pivotal role in your career in the theater. Have there been anyone else that served as a mentor throughout your career?
Mrs. Bryant, my high school teacher, had been on Broadway, and Sue Prue, my choir teacher, always encouraged me to pursue musical theater.
Bob and Julia Thicke at the Off-Broadstreet Theater in Hopewell was always fostering my interest in theater by putting me in their shows. When you do a lot of community theater, you often work with the same people, like Dale Simon, my mentor in technical theater and my counterpart at The College of New Jersey. There's not a time when I can't call him up and say, "Dale, wait a second. If I'm doing this, what would be the best thing here?" He’s also an incredible artist. When it comes to technical theater and painting, I go to him, and then when he wants to build something, he comes to me.
And then here at Stuart, I feel like I get a little mini class when I talk with someone about their expertise or subject area. By listening to the people around you, whoever they are, they can all be mentors.
Tell us more about your involvement in ASP. We know it can be life-changing for everyone involved - which speaks to why so many generations have ASP stories to tell. What have you experienced both as an attendee and mentor to our students?
When I came to Stuart, Doug Green was running community service and was looking for a chaperone. He asked if I wanted to go because of my experience and interest in woodworking. The trip completely opened my mind. This is truly Goal 4 — The building of community as a Christian value— and it’s one of the best jobs here. After spending time with the students, doing work that’s transformational for the homeowners and those of us providing services, you form a bond where they know you’ll always be there for them.
When we come back and gather around for reflections, we talk about the “God moment.” By the end of the night, these girls have all shared, and those who weren't going to say anything have talked for 10 minutes straight about what everybody meant to them. They’re crying, they're raw, they're so emotional, and you know that you've just broken through a wall where all of a sudden they are being themselves. It’s therapeutic and so cathartic that they can take this week and just be themselves without worrying about being who they need to be.
With so many years engaging with our students on a personal and meaningful way like ASP, do you have any final words of wisdom or advice that you like to give or live by?
I'm always talking to girls, and they're always looking at me like they know I’m going to come at them with some wisdom, but something I thought about recently was from when I did Outward Bound many years ago. One of the mottos is “to serve, to strive, and not to yield,” and so for a good long time, that was my mantra. If I could impart that to the girls, that's what I would do.