Stages of Doug Hughes

Doug Hughes

Something like a theatre express train has occasionally operated from Seattle to New York, conveying directors and executives eastbound. Notable passengers have been Dan Sullivan (Seattle Rep Artistic Director 1981-1997), Doug Hughes (Seattle Rep Associate Artistic Director 1984-1996), and Bart Sher (Intiman Theatre Artistic Director 2000-2010).

All became A-list New York directors. Laura Penn also hopped on that train. After serving in management positions at Seattle Rep and Intiman, where she worked closely with the three aforementioned directors, in 2008 Laura was appointed Executive Director of the important national organization, Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC). Just last year Ian Eisendrath left his position as Music Director of Fifth Avenue Theatre and is now working steadily in New York.

I saw most of the work these artists put up on Seattle stages, and have been able to catch some of their work in New York. I’ll confess to a little chest-puffing pride whenever I read of their successes in the big city.

Post-Seattle, Doug Hughes has been Artistic Director at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven (1997-2001), Associate Artistic Director of the Manhattan Theatre Club and director of artistic planning at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. He has directed off-Broadway and on Broadway. His most notable success has been John Patrick Shanley’s taut drama Doubt, for which he received the 2005 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play. Currently he is directing Ayad Akhtar’s new play Junk, featuring no less than 23 actors, which recently opened at Lincoln Center.

Last week Doug was interviewed by New York producer Ken Davenport, who posted the conversation as a podcast on his “Producer’s Perspective” blog. Doug talked about his professional journey and shared insights about the art of directing. Below are highlights of that conversation.

● Doug proudly admits he did not study drama in college. He majored in biology and then switched to English. He tried to avoid a theatre career because both parents, Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg, were New York actors (his father won a Tony for Best Actor in 1978). Despite his resistance, he found himself drawn to theatre as an extracurricular activity and when other students needed someone to direct a production, Doug stepped up.

● The biology training proved relevant to his theatre work. “For every show it’s like you’re looking at life in a drop of pond water. Trying to be observant, and sharing those observations and framing them in a way an audience can understand.” It pleases him that the platform on which you place a slide in a microscope is called the “stage.”

● On mentors. “The most phenomenal part of my evolution was when I was 26 I got a job as Dan Sullivan’s associate artistic director at Seattle Rep. At that time I was able to work off-Broadway in New York and people thought [moving to Seattle] was a bizarre notion, like going to the Yukon. But it was a beautiful theatre, a proscenium house. I could do Ibsen, Shakespeare, Kaufman and Hart, Samuel Beckett. I could just dive into the repertoire and it was amazing. The fact that Dan trusted me with that was immensely important in my life. . . . The thing I loved about Dan was that he could [come into a rehearsal], take a look, and say three things that revealed it was a good production, [and mentioned] three things that needed to be addressed. That kind of clarity, that kind of editorial mind, was invaluable.”

● His two basic criteria for assessing a script, especially when deciding whether to direct a new play:
1. When the play is over, you need to know something has happened. There are many plays that have texture, color, mood, but the world hasn’t changed, things haven’t landed somewhere.
2. He likes plays with arguments. “I think a great thing is when two characters are having an argument and you know when you’re reading the play that the author agrees with both characters. That’s what drama is for, the collision of things.”

● He likes plays that twist and turn. “I like strong first-act curtains. I love it when the audience gasps, when it sighs in recognition, when it is frightened.”

● New plays can take a long time to develop. Ayad Akhtar showed Doug his first draft of Junk three years ago. The play only recently premiered.

● How he develops a punch list of what to work on when a play is in previews. “I listen intently to an audience. I am a kind of placeholder for them. I love to look at the audience, the quality of the tension, where the laughs are, where the quality of silence is.”

● On handling notes during previews. “I like Elia Kazan’s advice: ‘Listen to everyone and then do what you want to do.’ That doesn’t mean defy what’s been suggested; it means you distill what you hear and that can be staggeringly helpful.”

● Does he read reviews? “I don’t actually. You’ve got to get the gist of them because you’re going to walk around in the world. They can buffet you, they can throw you. My better half, Kate, gives me a digest [of the reviews], my agent gives me the lay of the land, so I feel that I’m not a babe in the woods walking out there, I know what the story is. At this stage [of my career] I’m going to persist, it’s another day, I’m on to the next thing. And when the reviews are great, there’s not satisfaction in that; there’s a relief, and relief is not to be underrated. With a good review for a little while you go hmm, I’m going to enjoy this cup of coffee, I’ll let my shoulders come down, and that’s the most I’ll get out of a great review. A bad review can put a crimp in your day. If you get rhapsodic about the good review then you must take profoundly to heart the bad review.”

● How his approach to directing has evolved. “I left more to chance as a younger director; I’d see what happens. I’ve grown far more meticulous, [to the point] of actually storyboarding productions and mapping things out. I like to think that if a better idea comes along I can roll with it and tear my idea up. I feel that I have to walk into a rehearsal room the way a lawyer prepares to try a case. I find preparation is the best way to breed confidence in myself and therefore I can impart that to the actors. A huge part of my job is giving the actors confidence. There’s no substitute for that. . . I may overprepare and then I try to throw away a lot.”

● On commercial vs. subsidized theatre. “In the commercial world there is a fiendish focus on that production, it’s going to sink or swim, and it’s got to be zealously promoted and everybody’s all in about that. . . In the nonprofit world, there’s a season, and there will be another one after that. The focus is on the season, and the life or death or health of a particular project can get ignored.”

● What galls him the most about theatre today is how plays have become a luxury product. It’s often not affordable to the artists who make them or to anyone of modest means.

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