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An actor's director? There's no doubt

Doug Hughes may have inherited his love of the theater, but he earned his Tony nomination.

June 01, 2005|Jeremy McCarter | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — Directors don't laugh. According to the conventional view, directors get better results by withholding laughter in rehearsal. Yet during rehearsals for last season's revival of W.S. Gilbert's satire "Engaged," no one laughed longer or more loudly than director Doug Hughes.

"I don't fake it, I just don't stifle it," he said recently, with another laugh. While acknowledging that the "withholding Svengali" approach works for many directors, he finds it an uncomfortable fit. For Hughes, every production ought to be "a joyous conspiracy," one full of bonhomie.

"It's fun to run away and conspire with your mates to put on these plays," he says. "That spirit -- I know I love it when I'm walking to work every day."

Who can argue with the results? After spending much of his career as an administrator and director in regional theaters, the 49-year-old Hughes has become one of the most admired practitioners of his craft -- and one of the busiest. In addition to "Engaged," his recent far-flung projects include Stephen Belber's political drama "McReele"; Michael Cunningham's family epic "Flesh and Blood"; Bryony Lavery's serial-killing-pedophile play "Frozen," which earned him his first Tony nomination; and John Patrick Shanley's hugely celebrated "Doubt," which has just earned him his second. At this year's Obie Awards ceremony, Hughes picked up an award for sustained excellence.

Not every show has been a hit, but Hughes' batting average has been high. Over lunch, he ducks his head when asked to explain his success, finally attributing it to "very good plays and the very good company I've kept with them."

His collaborators do not share the self-effacing view. Lynne Meadow, artistic director of Manhattan Theatre Club, which produced "Doubt," calls Hughes "a wonderful director and smart guy." Cherry Jones, star of "Doubt" and "Flesh and Blood," risks bruising other directors with her blunt praise: "Honest to God, I think he's the best we've got. There's just no question, to my mind."

Paradoxically, Hughes is making a name for himself with his anonymity: He leaves no fingerprints on his shows and so finds himself increasingly able to leave his mark all over the American theater.

Hughes spent half his career -- 12 years -- working for Daniel Sullivan as associate artistic director of Seattle Rep. Like his former boss, Hughes has a transparent style, emphasizing story and character, not flashy gestures. "Doubt" is a striking example. Jones plays a stern nun trying to determine if a popular new priest (played by Brian F. O'Byrne) has been acting inappropriately with a student. In Hughes' hands, the search for the truth unfolds like a thriller. But, as with so many Hughes-directed shows, the only clue of his hand in it is the fact that it's so good.

When pressed to reveal the secret of Hughes' method, his colleagues cite "atmosphere." He fosters an environment in which actors, designers and playwrights feel comfortable and free to experiment, usually inspiring their best work. "He sort of flops in the chair, laughs and says funny things -- then gives you a really lucid piece of direction," says actor Jefferson Mays, who worked with Hughes twice before winning a best actor Tony for "I Am My Own Wife."

This dynamic is by design, a method Hughes has sharpened over a quarter-century of stage work. "Doug is like a therapist," said Tim Blake Nelson, who has worked with him as actor and playwright, and now counts him as a close friend. "He doesn't seem to be prescribing changes, rather he orients you toward finding the changes yourself -- even though he might have had them in mind in the first place."

"He understands the psychology of actors better than anyone I've ever worked with," adds Jones. "He knows when to layer things in and when to leave you alone. He knows how to push you in a way that is comfortable for you, and to grow with direction, not become less confident with direction. He knows just how to work us."

"Perhaps," she mused, "it's because he's Barney and Helen's son."

That would be Barnard Hughes and Helen Stenborg, accomplished actors whose parental love and kindness their son repaid by choosing a career that he jokingly suggests may have been some kind of "Oedipal revenge." His easy rapport with theater folk owes something to his having spent his entire life around Broadway. "It still gives me a great thrill to go through the stage door," he said. "That gypsy lifestyle -- it was hugely seductive for me."

Hughes wasn't just influenced by his parents' lifestyle -- how they attained it proved crucial as well. His mother left her home in Minnesota at 17 for a life on the New York stage. His father came from an old-school, first-generation Irish Catholic family, where he was sometimes humiliated when out of work. "They were making radical choices. They came at it as: 'I can't believe my good fortune to be in the profession.' "

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