The road can make an actor weary.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a veteran of the stage or a starry-eyed 7-year-old who dreams of being as famous as Harrison Ford one day.
Living out of a suitcase gets old.
Sheffield Hocker knows this — and he’s only in the first grade.
Sitting backstage at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, the Sarasota boy who has spent the past four months on the road with the national tour of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” has less than an hour to spare before the show’s 7 p.m. curtain call.
Dressed in a blue Southside Elementary School cardigan, Sheffield, who left his classmates in October to join the 60-person cast and crew to play the musical’s precocious teacup Chip, looks sleepy.
“It’s hard,” Sheffield says of his new routine. “It’s a different schedule every day. You get a little bit busy, and sometimes you miss your friends.”
His mother, Julie Hocker, a gracious North Florida native with a sweet Southern accent, perks up.
She’s racked up the same miles as her son.
After Sheffield nailed his Chip audition in New York City earlier this fall, Hocker joined the tour to supervise and home-school her son while her husband, Ken, a real-estate developer, stayed home to care for the couple’s 9-year-old daughter Zanna.
“It’s been a life-changing experience for the whole family,” Hocker says.
The comment feels like an understatement.
The whole family is together backstage at the Van Wezel. Though it’s only a meet-and-greet room, the space feels like a living room. Not because it’s especially cozy, but because the Hocker family, curled up together on a loveseat, has unknowingly slipped into a state of domesticity, as if they might not get another opportunity to snuggle for a while.
The sound of the Beast (aka actor Justin Glaser) warming up his voice can be heard drifting down the hall. The sounds, sights and smells of a major theatrical production bring the Van Wezel’s concrete halls to life.
Zanna, who’s appeared in the Sarasota Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” two Sarasota Opera productions and one Sarasota Youth Opera show, is shuffled off for a backstage tour of the performance hall.
“It’s more pressure to do the show here than anywhere else,” Sheffield says. “Because you know a lot of your friends are watching you.”
Several of the actor’s Southside classmates turned out for the Monday night performance. As the show let out, they bombarded Sheffield with hugs.
“Every time someone would walk over they’d have their arms out like this,” Sheffield says, spreading his arms wide to demonstrate a bear hug.
“I think they miss you,” his mother interjects.
The Florida leg of the tour is almost over.
“Beauty and The Beast,” which touched down in Sarasota last week, will send Sheffield and Hocker off to Springfield, Mo., in two days.
To date, Sheffield and 8-year-old Chip alternate Sebastian Thomas have performed in a combined 136 shows in more than 20 cities across the United States.
In the 16 years Disney has toured the production, Sheffield is the youngest Chip to ever be cast.
“It makes me feel very unusual,” Sheffield says.
In two days, Sheffield and Hocker will hope a plane to Kansas City, Mo. and then board a bus bound for Springfield, Mo., where Sheffield will perform in a three-day run at Hammons Hall, followed by five days at the Civic Center Music Hall in Oklahoma City.
In between these two stops, he and his fellow Chip cast mate will perform a song and dance skit at a cabaret fundraiser with the rest of the “Beauty and The Beast” cast.
The tour, which has no end date yet, will likely carry on into the summer.
“We’re not like those stage parents you see that force their kids into performing,” Ken Hocker says.
“Sheffield loves it. He wanted to audition for Chip. He saw his sister in the opera, and he wanted to be on stage, too. When he gets up there, he just lights up.”
Other than “Beauty and The Beast,” Sheffield has performed in a talent show at Southside Elementary, a small holiday revue at The Players Theatre and last year’s Sarasota Youth Opera production of “The Black Spider.”
As tired as he appears right now, he says he has no intentions of hanging up his teacup costume anytime soon.
“I want to be on Broadway when I grow up,” Sheffield says. “It’s a real fun job. You get to see a different city almost every week and perform in front of a million, zillion, thousand people and play Legos in the dressing room.”
He fidgets in place, slips his Airwalk sneakers on and off and nestles up beside his father. His hair, dyed bright copper for the role, is disheveled.
Ken Hocker slides over to make room for his son on the loveseat. Sheffield, however, is more interested in sitting on the floor, where he ties and unties his father’s shoes and quietly announces that he’s run out of words for the evening.
His parents gently goad him into answering one last question: What has playing Chip taught him?
“To be on time,” Sheffield answers. “That’s pretty much it.”
DID YOU KNOW?
“Beauty and the Beast” is the seventh-longest running production in Broadway history.
In 2006, Sarasota child actor Austin Abrams played Chip in the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre’s production of “Beauty and the Beast.” Abrams has since gone on to star in the Cuba Gooding Jr. thriller, “Ticking Clock.”
Bradley Pierce, who voiced the original Chip in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” cartoon, went on to star in the Robin Williams flick, “Jumanji.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]