Actor raised in Glenwood on tour with Broadway play
Post Independent Contributor
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
DENVER, Colorado – For more than nine months, Mat Hostetler has lived on the road. He’s landed in a new city nearly every week, slept in hotels and spent hours each day inhabiting the character of a World War I era veterinarian.
And he couldn’t be happier.
Hostetler, 37, who graduated from Glenwood Springs High School in 1993 and has been a film, television and theater actor since, is now acting in the touring Broadway production of “War Horse.” It’s a Tony Award-winning play about a horse drafted into the British Army during World War I and the boy who raised him.
The play opened at the Buell Theatre in Denver on Tuesday and runs through Sunday, Jan. 20. Hostetler said its North American tour will continue into June.
The story may be familiar to some thanks to Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film adaptation, but Hostetler says it was the play, which premiered in London in 2007, that inspired Spielberg to make the film in the first place. The play, in turn, was adapted from a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, published in 1982.
“It’s a great story, which deals with war, loss of innocence and friendship,” said Hostetler, reached by phone in Denver on Tuesday as he was preparing for opening night.
In the play, after a horse named Joey is tapped to serve in the army, his former owner enlists as well, hoping to bring the horse home to safety.
Hostetler says his character, the veterinarian, was a crucial figure in the days when animals played a larger role in war than machines.
“In many cases, veterinarians were as important as medical doctors,” he said.
Since “War Horse” premiered six years ago, it has gotten rave reviews all over the world. More stagings are planned for Berlin and South Africa, and a European tour is in the works.
Although the play is Hostetler’s first touring production, he’s already had a successful acting career, one that began more than 20 years ago in Glenwood Springs.
Hostetler’s first exposure to theater came in a Glenwood Springs High School acting class, shortly after he moved to town from Kansas City in 1989.
“Theater fit right away, and I’m actually surprised I didn’t know it earlier,” said Hostetler’s mother, Debi Billings, of New Castle. She is the marketing director for Grand River Hospital in Rifle.
Early in high school, Hostetler auditioned for a Colorado Mountain College production of the children’s play, “The Stolen Prince, the Lost Princess.” Former CMC theater program director Tom Cochran cast him in a lead role. Hostetler would work with Cochran again as a high school senior, playing Huck Finn in a production of “Big River.”
“I’ve worked with some good students over the years, but he was one of the most amazing,” said Cochran. “He had the drive and desire, which is what you’ve got to have if you’re going to make it at all, because there’s a lot of good people out there.”
After acting in several high school and Aspen Community Theater productions, Hostetler earned his undergraduate degree in theater at the University of Kansas, then moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting as a career.
Along the way, he frequently worked odd jobs to make ends meet, waiting tables and selling tickets in a theater box office.
“It’s part of an actor’s journey, that it takes several years to make enough money to live on,” he said. “I always worked between acting gigs.”
“He did what he had to do,” said Billings, “and he never complained. His goal is not to be rich and famous. This is his craft, and he wants to do it well.”
In L.A., Hostetler landed several parts in commercials, movies and TV shows like the military series JAG. Yet he wanted to get back into theater, and in 2006, he enrolled in Denver’s National Theater Conservatory, landing back in Colorado for three years for more formal training.
He’s been busy since graduation. Now based in New York, he has appeared in several plays off Broadway and landed roles in TV shows like Boardwalk Empire, White Collar and Smash.
On tour, the 36-member cast of War Horse keeps up a grueling schedule. In Denver, they will perform eight shows per week for two weeks, with Mondays as their only day off. Before Denver, they were in Chicago, and the crew will head next to Costa Mesa, Calif.
On top of that, Hostetler is responsible for far more than his part in the production.
“I’m an understudy for 10 different roles in the show,” he said, meaning he must keep 10 other parts fresh in his mind in case another lead actor can’t perform.
“I’ve already had to perform about five of those roles so far,” he said. “You have to be ready to go with just an hour or two of notice.”
During auditions for the play, Hostetler also had to try his hand as a puppeteer. “War Horse” has garnered huge acclaim for its use of puppetry, most notably a life-sized, 120-pound horse puppet controlled by three actors who use levers to move the animal’s ears and tail.
“A lot of our horse teams are dancers, they don’t actually come from puppetry backgrounds,” he said. “They learned by watching actual horse behavior.”
Since the tour began, Hostetler has performed “War Horse” more than 200 times, and he says the repetition has forced him to be creative in keeping the show new and exciting.
“I’ve learned the ability to tell this story every night, and keep it just as fresh as the first time we did it,” he said. “That’s something I’ll have with me for the rest of my career.”
After many months of the play’s frenetic road schedule, Hostetler says it feels good to have landed in Denver, his former home and a relatively familiar place.
“It’s been so nice to walk around and know where to go, and know where to eat,” he said. “I’m staying at a hotel right across from my old school.”
In the coming days, he’ll also be getting visits from some familiar Glenwood Springs faces: Cochran is heading to Denver this weekend to see the play, and his mother will head down with some friends next week.
“I’m just really proud that he’s on the stage at the Buell,” said Billings. “He decided what he wanted to do, and he did it.”
Tickets to the Denver production of War Horse are available at buell.theatredenver.net. The show runs through Jan. 20.
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