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It Had to Be Hughes

With project after project on his plate, Doug Hughes is directing as fast as he can! logo
Doug Hughes
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Forty months ago, Congress contemplated authorization to enter Iraq; My Big Fat Greek Wedding blazed its way to sleeper smash-hit status; and Doug Hughes took his last breather from directing plays.

Since then, Hughes has embarked upon quite an impressive streak of work in New York and around the country, including helming Rebecca Gilman's adaptation of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and three productions for the Roundabout Theatre Company: Jon Robin Baitz's The Paris Letter, Richard Greenberg's A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, and Eugene O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet. Plus, he captured his first Tony Award and just about every other theatrical award in existence for his direction of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Doubt. In recent weeks, Hughes returned to Doubt to acclimate new cast members Eileen Atkins, Ron Eldard, and Jena Malone, whom he says bring "indelible touches" to the play.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, he's been busy directing the Manhattan Theater Club production of Shanley's latest, Defiance, scheduled to open on February 28. Set in the military world of the 1970s, the play stars Stephen Lang, Chris Bauer, Chris Chalk, and Margaret Colin. "I'm devoted day and night to John Patrick Shanley," Hughes says with a laugh. He finds that familiar threads resonate through Defiance, which he calls "a cluster-bomb of evocative questions that goes off on a nightly basis." Huges remarks that, like Doubt, the new play "is about hierarchies." But whereas much of the conflict in the earlier work has to do with the workings of the Roman Catholic Church, Defiance focuses on the military chain of command.

The director came to Doubt with his own parochial education as a reference point; but since he has no record of military service, research played a critical role in his preparation for Defiance. "We wanted to foster a climate of expertise about that time in American history," says Hughes. "The idea of rank, honor, and commendation are all reflected in the dress and bearing of the characters. We spent a lot of time on about-faces, salutes, and the proper way to give and receive an order. Plus, I actually spent three days at Camp Lejeune, reading back issues of the base newspaper from the 1970s and going into the officers' housing. My assistant took 100 photographs, which we've used very much in application to the show's design."

Hughes relishes being ensconsed in Shanleyworld. "In the stuff John is writing these days, words land like bullets," he says. He will direct the national tour of Doubt this fal, with Cherry Jones re-creating her Tony Award-winning performance as Sister Aloysius. And he would be thrilled to tackle the new piece that Shanley is writing, which will complete a thematic trilogy with Doubt and Defiance. "It would form a very natural progression," he remarks.

Stephen Lang and Margaret Colin in Defiance
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Next month, Hughes is finally set for a respite -- but only a brief one before readying Greenberg's A House in Town, which will open at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater in late spring. "It's time to just sit down and shut up for a while," he says, acknowledging that his breakneck pace has required some personal sacrifices. At the same time, he says: "Everything I did I would have regretted saying no to."

Besides tackling an enviable depth and breadth of subject matter, Hughes draws great joy from the sheer process of making theater. "I love getting inside a rehearsal hall," he says. "The door closes and there's only one world in front of you. Sometimes, I think life outside can be far more exhausting than life inside." But he may change his mind about that soon, since he has committed to a project that requires exceptional energy: directing the brand-new Broadway musical Ever After. Based on "a very charming film version of the Cinderella story," as he describes it, the show will mark the Broadway debut of songwriters Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich. It's tentatively scheduled to open in 2007.

Ever After will also mark Hughes's first return to the realm of musical theater since his undergraduate days at Harvard, where he put together shows with the likes of Hairspray scribe Mark O'Donnell. But his musical roots go quite deep. The son of legendary actors Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg, he had a brief career as "a little boy treble" in some major New York children's choruses. And while Hughes acknowledges that the transition to the musical theater process from the world of straight plays will be a challenge, he is drawn to the form's greater time for development as well as its enhanced degree of collaboration. "You are sitting at a table with a lot more company, which is something I relish," he says.

Hughes knows quite a bit about sitting at the table with others, especially from his tenure as artistic director of the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. "I always trained and prepared to run a theater," he remarks. "It's an extraordinary thing to do, and it's an aspiration of mine to do it again some day, but you get to spend far less time in the rehearsal hall. Right now, I feel much more like a battlefield commander than a chief executive."


[Editor's Note: Doug Hughes and fellow MTC director Daniel Sullivan (Rabbit Hole) will participate in a special edition of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation's One-on-One Conversations Series at 6:30pm on Monday, March 13 at Manhattan Theatre Club Stage 1. The event will be moderated by Mandy Greenfield, MTC's director of artistic operations. Tickets are priced at $10 for the general public, $5 for MTC subscribers and SSDC members. To order, call 212-391-1070 x252 or email [email protected]]

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