David Hoover tells students to focus on ‘tangibles’
Photographed by Cheryl Gerber
Living in New Orleans was not in David Hoover’s plans. But in the spring of 1992, following a chance meeting with the University of New Orleans theater department chairman, he found himself headed for the Big Easy.
Hoover, a native of Missouri, had been teaching at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston. While attending an American College Theatre Festival, he bumped into UNO’s Phil Karnell, who mentioned a theater faculty opening. “I had missed the deadline and the department had no money to fly me in, but I decided the trip might be worth it,” Hoover says.
He made the trek to New Orleans, and it wasn’t long before UNO’s theater search committee narrowed its candidates to three, including him. He laughs about how his hiring came to be: “I was apparently the ‘compromise’ candidate: Phil wasn’t happy with the person the committee liked, and the committee was not happy with the person Phil liked, so I was offered the job.”
He arrived with a master of fine arts degree from New Mexico State University, where Tony-winning playwright Mark Medoff was the theater chair. Hoover also had a bachelor’s degree from Lindenwood University, a small private school in St. Charles, Mo.
“We had an amazing class of future writers, casting agents and university professors,” he says. “And then having the man who wrote ‘Children of a Lesser God’ as chair of my grad school — what more can you ask for when you’re training in theater?”
Those years laid the groundwork for his own teaching, performing and directing style. Since his arrival at UNO more than 16 years ago, Hoover has turned out scores of theater professionals, many of whom are still working in New Orleans. But through the years, not much has changed in his approach to training future actors and directors.
“If I have a style or a goal in my classes, it’s encouraging our students to deal with tangibles. It’s imperative to cling to that so
a good, clean, clear story can be told,” he says.
Also paramount is discipline, Hoover says. “An actor must be able to bring something to the table if he’s going to have longevity. He also must figure out how to fit into any genre, be it musical, comedy or even period. The actor who just plays ‘angry young man’ will find out soon enough how limited his career will be.”
Local actress Lisa Picone, whose comedic style is a cross between Vivian Vance and Carol Burnett, says Hoover encouraged her to try every genre in order to perfect her comic ability.
“He taught me how to find ways to react differently in comedic situations, and that always made the comedy more real,” Picone says. But this also helped me make more interesting choices when I was doing something as serious as Chekhov or as light as musical comedy.”
Hoover’s list of work outside of the university setting is as long as it is impressive, with performance and directing credits from practically every theater in the city. Wherever he plants his feet, mentoring those with whom he works is a priority.
“I do feel a responsibility to speak up when I see a lack of humility from anyone in a show I am working on. Usually it’s something small, but every now and again you have to remind them that theater is a collaborative art and not about any one person,” he says.
His collaborative nature is what impressed producer/actor Michael Santos, who is also a product of UNO’s theater program.
“David has this ability to locate the strengths in an actor, regardless of his or her level of experience,” says Santos. “He lets everyone have an idea, and if it works he uses it. That’s a rarity in theater. To David, doing a play is a true collaboration.”
The years since Hoover’s arrival in New Orleans have brought many changes in local theater, not all them positive. He describes the difficulty of keeping the UNO theater department adequately funded, especially in an economy where theater budgets are among the first to be cut. “When a school is state-funded, as we are, getting money to keep faculty can be tough,” he says.
UNO had 14 theater faculty members in 1968. Today, the school’s department of film, theater and communication arts has only four faculty dedicated to theater education. UNO graduates between five and 10 theater majors each year, Hoover says.
“We have a fantastic history, but it’s like you have to find a cure for cancer in order to get money to find a cure for cancer. We always have to be looking for ways to be successful to keep our department growing,” he says.
Hoover spends a good deal of time at out-of-town seminars and classes in his effort to continue improving theater at UNO. Budget frustrations aside, he says the rewards of his work are clear.
“It’s all about students, students, students. When I get sick of it all and I’m about to throw in the towel, something always happens. I’ll get a call from a student and he’ll say something like, ‘You made me love Ibsen.’ That’s when I just get back to the grind and keep going because I know it’s all worth it.” •