Stage Directions: Doug Hughes Reveals the Biggest Mistake He Ever Made as a Director

Interview   Stage Directions: Doug Hughes Reveals the Biggest Mistake He Ever Made as a Director
 
The Tony-winning director shares the one thing not allowed in his rehearsal room, the decision that changed his life, and how he makes such winning art.
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Doug Hughes Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“It’s a play about who gets to get educated in this country,” says director Doug Hughes. “It’s about parents and children, and parents’ dreams for their children, and children’s dreams for themselves.” Hughes is discussing Dan Cody’s Yacht, the new play by Anthony Giardina that he is directing at Manhattan Theatre Club’s City Center Stage I. The play stars Kristen Bush (Taking Care of Baby, Giardina’s The City of Conversation), portraying a schoolteacher who receives a financial proposal that could alter her daughter’s life.

Hughes won the Tony and Drama Desk Awards as best director of a play for John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt in 2005. Over his illustrious career, he has directed The Grey Zone, for which he won a 1996 Obie Award; Frozen, for which he earned a 2004 Tony nomination; Inherit the Wind, for which he earned a Drama Desk nod; Broadway’s 2010 revival of Mrs. Warren’s Profession; Off-Broadway’s Death Takes a Holiday, for which he earned a Drama Desk nod; Broadway’s The Big Knife and Outside Mullingar in 2013 and 2014, respectively; and The Father. Earlier this year, he directed Ayad Akhtar’s new play Junk, which was nominated for a 2018 Best Play Tony Award.

His résumé also includes the roles of artistic director at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, associate artistic director at Seattle Repertory Theatre and Manhattan Theatre Club, and director of programming at Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. He was resident director at Roundabout Theatre Company, where he is currently an artistic associate.

Hughes spoke about his career, his directing principles, Dan Cody’s Yacht, and his future plans.

Why he became a director:
“It would be disingenuous of me to skip mentioning the fact that I’m the son of two actors, Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg. My father was a Tony Award winner and my mother a Tony nominee. I always had an interest as a very young child in going where they were, being where they were. I loved the life that surrounded them, the kind of foxhole camaraderie backstage, and the mystery of going through stage doors and of curtains going up and curtains coming down. I was infatuated with that realm. I’ve said before that maybe it’s a kind of ethical nightmare that the son of two actors becomes a director. I really hope not.

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John Kroft and Casey Whyland Joan Marcus

“When I went to college I was trying to flee the family business. My primary interests were English literature—not dramatic literature but the novel, poetry—and biology. I really focused on those two things at Harvard, where at least in my day you couldn’t get a degree in theatre but there was a lot of extracurricular activity. A bunch of friends and I started a theatre that was about producing work written by students. I fancied myself the impresario, a kind of producer, but frankly, because I couldn’t find other people to do it, I found myself directing everything we did. I was a pretty young age—19, 20 —and I really found that I loved it. I had acted before, in Central Park in Shakespeare in the Park, I had performed at City Opera as a boy soprano, but there was something about the responsibility for the whole that just made me like myself better.

“Life is short, and we all know that, but somehow it’s not short enough for us to realize that we need to conduct ourselves with patience, philosophy, generosity at all times. But in the short span of a rehearsal period I found it to be much easier to feel that way about life, and to struggle to try to uphold those values. I can’t claim that I always do, but I continue to love the realm of it.

“That’s much more the reason for my commitment—the fact that the common good, [which Dan Cody says] is perhaps under siege in the larger society, persists in the theatre. The phenomenon of an audience coming together for a shared experience persists in the theatre. So in both the practice of theatre and in an audience’s connection to the theatre, something that I think is very precious and in danger of being lost is celebrated. That’s why I do it.”

His directing principles:
“The biggest one is the banishment of fear in the rehearsal room. I think fear is epidemic in society. One of my principles is to make sure that to the greatest extent possible fear and anxiety are banished from the room. Fear can be a creative force, anxiety can be a creative force, but I have found that they work a little better outside the rehearsal room, in preparation. Once inside the rehearsal room I like it to be a realm where it doesn’t feel as though there’s the potential for humiliation. There can be a wonderful focus, and wonderful chaos, and wonderful doubt.

“I also like to play the game in rehearsal of pretending we’ve got all the time in the world, that we can have second thoughts, we can have third thoughts. There’s often so much pressure on us in life and in working in the theatre that I think just to open the valve and conduct myself as though I have all the time in the world is exemplary action. I think that’s good for the work we’re doing.”

In the rehearsal room with an actor:

Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe
Frank Langella and Kathryn Erbe Joan Marcus

“It would have to be a particular instance, because you’ve got to be ambidextrous—you must tailor yourself to the personalities, the gifts, the temperament of every actor you work with. When I’ve worked with Frank Langella, who I think is one of our greatest, I spend a lot of time with him outside rehearsal. We talk about nearly every beat of the play, or what we hope to accomplish. There are actors I know [that] until we are up on our feet and there is a physical life to the play I won’t have much to contribute.

“Pretty generally I am lucky that most of the actors I work with, close to all of the people I work with these days, are fonts of ideas and potential and possibilities. And there’s a phase of our work together when we go from one extreme to another—more and more and more I find that in order to find the pitch, the rhythm, the core of a scene, I range pretty far afield. Then I think there is the moment where it’s important for me to impart to the actors a sense of the belief that reduction releases power. You begin shedding ideas, begin deciding which fantastic bit of invention is best saved for another day. What can you lose and [still] strengthen the core of what you’re doing? Those are two phases of work on a play.”

“And of course the audience is a great instructor about those matters. Because what we’re trying to achieve is a clarity that we don’t get out in the world, which is so filled with jangling, contradictory signals. Onstage, I like to think that we’re honing in. We’re very often after something that is invisible to us outside the theatre.”

A mistake he made that he learned from:
“There’s one that haunts me. I was doing John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves in Russia. It was over 20 years ago and it was in [Boris] Yeltsin’s Russia, that anarchic time—it must have been 1994—when everything was complicated and fraught and even felt a bit dangerous. It was an incredible experience. There was a lot to overcome in putting the production together. I was anxious. I know I speak about banishing anxiety, but I had some considerable anxiety myself. There was a marvelous and wild actress in this company I was working with. In the middle of a fiendishly difficult tech rehearsal, where I was working through an interpreter, and I was having trouble achieving various effects, she came up with an idea about a bit of business. And I didn’t have time for it. I moved past it. I didn’t let that idea blossom.

“And it has occurred to me so many times in these more than 20 years that I wish I had that moment back. I stifled something in favor of moving on. That’s the source of my sense of what I’ve said earlier: trying to forge the very positive illusion in rehearsal that we’ve got time. There’s always time for a good idea. That’s much more important than coming in on schedule.”

A good decision he made that he learned from:
“I made a very life-changing decision when I was 27. I was in New York and I’d been the associate artistic director at Manhattan Theatre Club, and I’d been having a bit of success with new plays, and André Bishop at Playwrights Horizons and Lynne Meadow at Manhattan Theatre Club had given me opportunities. And I’d been directing in my own right since I was 23. I had an opportunity to become the associate artistic director at Seattle Rep. And a lot of people said that was nuts. I was in New York and I was seeming to get some encouragement in a very tough racket.

“But I thought about it, and out there it was an amazingly well-equipped company in what you could achieve visually. But more important, there was this incredible cadre of actors, a kind of informal company who were always working and always showing up at that theatre. And there was repertoire. Out there I could do Shakespeare, I could do Molière, I could do Beckett, I could do Kauffman and Hart. I could be a polymath and range over so many things and do plays by dead authors.”

“Airlifting myself out there was a phenomenally good decision for me. First of all, there was a lot of pleasure and joy in it. But you asked something I learned from: I learned an immense amount from the years I spent out there with Dan Sullivan, who at the time was the artistic director.”

About Dan Cody’s Yacht:
“I’ve known and worked with Anthony Giardina for about 35 years. I read a play of his one snowy afternoon when I was the associate artistic director at a much funkier Manhattan Theatre Club. I looked him up in a telephone book and trudged through the snow up to 109th Street. I thought there was something neat and vivid about his writing. I commissioned plays from him when I was at Long Wharf and Seattle Rep. I did a play of his four years ago at Lincoln Center called The City of Conversation.

Georgia King, Jason Ritter and Christine Lahti
Georgia King, Jason Ritter and Christine Lahti Kevin Parry for The Wallis

“What I have always liked about Tony’s plays, and what I love particularly about this play, is that he has a very special gift to look at our society, look at something that is flooding through the bloodstream of our society, that is a major tidal force, and examine it on a very human scale. In City of Conversation it was about the death of any notion of cooperative, collaborative, compromising government in the United States, and yet it played out as a very satisfying family drama. In Dan Cody’s Yacht, he’s looking at the phenomenon of the lack of economic justice in our society, the loneliness that is pervasive, the fact that we seem ever more to be subscribing to an ethic of competition and forsaking any idea of collaboration, of the common good, even of common spaces. In this play there are two suburban towns outside Boston, one with a very healthy tax base, one that is struggling, and the two school districts. It’s played out with an enormous amount of wit that leavens a lot of emotional depth.”

The future:
“I’m going to go back to a production I did up at Hartford Stage, just before Dan Cody started, which is Doug McGrath’s marvelous adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence, which I did with Boyd Gaines and a company of actors who were all superb. We’re going to reconstitute that at the McCarter Theatre [in Princeton, N.J.] in the fall. I think that play ought to definitely find its way into Manhattan.”

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