Interviews and features

The Boston Globe :: August 15, 2008

At Harbor Stage, he runs the show – and performs in it

by Terry Byrne

Brendan Hughes in the audience of the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater Harbor Stage

Brendan Hughes is trying to describe his job: impresario.

“It’s the best job title I’ve ever had,” he says, “but I have no idea what it means – producer, performer, director, circus barker, ticket seller; I do a little of everything.”

At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Hughes does indeed seem to do everything, at least at the theater’s smaller Harbor Stage. In addition to directing all three plays and performing in one at the 90-seat theater, Hughes is coordinating a late-night variety show, performing in his own one-man show, creating a short film for the theater’s website, called “This Is Harbor Tap” (a theatrical spin on “This Is Spinal Tap”), and even working the box office and occasionally tearing tickets.

“Jeff Zinn [WHAT’s artistic director] wanted to keep the gonzo attitude of the Harbor Stage going while he was focusing on the new Julie Harris Stage,” Hughes said. “Jeff picked the plays, then we chose a company of four actors to perform in all three, and then we just went a little crazy with the late-night stuff.”

In addition to Hughes’s own play, “Oomphalos,” the Greek word for navel (Saturdays at 9 through Aug. 30), which he describes as “my attempt to double click on the universe,” Hughes has also been playing host to a variety show called “Low Tide” (Sundays at 9 through Aug. 31) which features members of the acting companies at both theaters as well as talent from the Outer Cape.

“I play the David Letterman role, introducing each act,” Hughes says. “I go out and find some acts, including comics, filmmakers, and some musicians. Others just come to us. One of the actors in ‘The Pillowman’ did a three-minute version of the play as a monologue. It was hilarious. I guess the goal is creative chaos.”

Zinn says Hughes is the perfect person to manage the chaos.

“I like the title ‘impresario,’ ” Zinn says, because “it encompasses both the artistic and the nuts-and-bolts types of things. I wanted to convey to Brendan that the whole operation was under his control.

“I also like the fact that Brendan’s choices, especially with the late-night programming, have helped differentiate our work at the Harbor Stage from our work at the Julie,” Zinn says. “Originally, our plan was to rip out the seats at the Harbor, put in tables and make it a cabaret-style theater, with actors having 15 minutes to put together a set and the audience really being a part of the scene. We ran out of time for zoning approval, but Brendan knew the atmosphere we were going for.”

Although Hughes had directed only three plays at Wellfleet before taking over as impresario, his entire career has been about jumping from one challenge to the next. A Dorchester native and the son of Patrick Hughes, who started the Walk for Hunger, he dropped out of UMass-Boston to run the Theater Cooperative in Somerville.

Based on his experience as an artistic director there, Yale School of Drama accepted him into its graduate program despite his incomplete undergraduate degree. At Yale, he ran the Cabaret, which, he says, was the perfect training for “Low Tide.”

But how do you possibly follow up a summer as an impresario?

“Well, I fly back to Los Angeles after ‘Sexual Perversity in Chicago’ opens [Aug. 27] and the late-nights end,” Hughes says. “I spent a year as a production assistant on Showtime’s ‘Weeds’ and learned what a grip is, so my friends and I are now launching a film project, creating 26 short films about emotion called ’26 Reasons (To Get Out of Bed).’ Each emotion gets four minutes. We’re starting with guilt, and then we’ll see what happens after that.”

The Boston Globe :: May 19, 2006

In Wellfleet, a tale of adoption with a techno twist

by Catherine Foster

In Rolin Jones’s ”The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” a young scientific genius who was adopted from China by white American parents decides she wants to find her birth mother. But because she’s agoraphobic, doing so presents a bit of a problem. Her technological wizardry leads her to an innovative solution.

The play, which Jones describes as ”instant messaging with excitable music,” was a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize and begins previews Wednesday at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater. Director Brendan Hughes, who has been close friends with Jones since both were at Yale School of Drama, spoke recently about the play.

Q. How did you come to direct this play?

A. My family’s been going to Wellfleet since I was a kid, and I started seeing plays here in the ninth grade. I have a relationship with Wellfeet, I directed two other plays here (”Private Jokes, Public Places” in 2004 and ”Art Room” in 2003). I’m thrilled to come back. I’ve seen ”Jenny Chow” before and always wanted to get my grubby paws on it.

Q. What about the play appeals to you?

A. It appeals to me because it absolutely belongs in the 21st century. The play has nothing to do with 9/11. But everything about it, from structure to style, looks to the theater of the future and [doesn’t have] anything to do with the theater of the past. The entire framing of the narrative is an instant-message chat. The play is very technological. The main character has obsessive-compulsive disorder, which has devolved into agoraphobia. She’s a mechanical whiz who spends all her time in her room on the Internet. She built a robot, which she calls Jenny Chow, to fly to China and find and meet her birth mother. Her name is Jennifer Marcus and her birth mother’s name is Chow. So the name reflects the alternative reality of her life, had she not been given away for adoption.

Q. Does the robot fly to China?

A. Yes. There’s even a flying sequence in the play. We’re doing it in a low-fi way, it’s more immediate and more fun and keeps it in the realm of the theatrical. If you’re trying to make it too slick, it distances the meat of the story from the audience.

Q. Reviews of previous productions have said that it’s funny and fast-paced but takes a steep curve into drama at the end.

A. It’s extremely both — comedy and drama. The interesting thing about this play is that it doesn’t spend a lot of time making connective tissue between being funny to being moving; it switches like a roller coaster. The audience moves with it.

Q. Do you have to be a technophile to enjoy the play?

A. The techno stuff makes a more interesting environment for the real human drama to take place. It’s about motherhood in all its complicated beauty. As for the downturn at the end, it’s setting up for Jennifer’s triumph over her feelings of abandonment and the coming of age that we know is on its way as the lights come down.

Dorchester Reporter :: April 21, 2005

Dorchester’s Hughes Directs Gagarin Way for Sugan Company

by Dave McLaughlin

“The experience of seeing good theater is closer to going skiing than it is to going to the movies,” says Fields Corner native Brendan Hughes. “It’s just totally different than television or film. With good theater, audiences are signing up for something really intense.”

We are having lunch at Lucky’s on Congress Street, discussing Gagarin Way, the play that Hughes is currently directing for Boston’s Sugan Theatre Company. An electric, dark comedy by the Scottish playwright Gregory Burke, Gagarin Way uses the high-voltage story of a botched kidnapping to explore its characters’ conflicting impulses toward apathy and outrage. Two dispossessed factory workers decide to make a political statement by kidnapping an executive from the factory’s multi-national corporate owner. The problem is that the Cold War is long since over. The workers are too late for the revolution, and they find that their hostage challenges their assumptions about the evils of the global economy.

In Hughes’s words, “These two guys desperately want to care about something, but they struggle with how easy it is not to care.”

Hughes, 30, is someone who cares. He says that his insights into this play are rooted in the two years he spent doing community service work with Boston’s City Year program. That experience left him with the clear knowledge that working to connect people is far more rewarding than the apathy and self-absorption that our point-and-click culture so often seems to breed. At heart, though, the play isn’t about abstract political ideologies; it’s about individuals struggling with a sense of being powerless to effect change in their lives and in their communities.

These days, the theater is where Hughes connects people. After graduating from Boston Latin School, he studied acting at UMass-Boston. He shifted his focus to directing primarily because a production came up that offered him the opportunity to work with an actress he had a crush on. Hughes doesn’t say what became of that actress, but he does say that the experience of directing that UMass play set him on a new path.

Not long afterward, Hughes dropped out of UMass to take over the Theater Cooperative in Somerville, running it with friends for four seasons before departing for New Haven to study at Yale Drama School. Since completing his studies last spring, he has used New York City as a home base while bouncing around the country to direct shows.

Just back from a gig in Florida, he has been in Boston since the beginning of March, rehearsing for Gagarin Way. This month, he will head to New Haven to direct an opera at Yale, then to New York for two more productions, before returning to St Petersburg for a September production at American Stage.

The common thread in the shows he directs, says Hughes, is dark comedy. He looks for plays that challenge audiences while also making them laugh. The Gagarin Way cast says that Hughes’s blend of intellect, compassion, and love of laughter is what makes him so special as a director. They credit him with creating a supportive rehearsal environment, one in which risk-taking is encouraged, while also making everybody laugh so much that the rehearsal process doesn’t feel like work. “With Brendan, the work stays really fresh during rehearsals, so the play keeps its spark going into opening night,” says the Welsh-born actor and Cape Cod resident Dafydd Rees, who plays the kidnapping victim in Gagarin Way.

Gagarin Way is the third and final play of The Sugan Theatre Company’s 13th season of bringing contemporary Irish and Celtic plays to Boston audiences. Hughes admires Sugan founders Carmel and Peter O’Reilly, calling them “so courageous” for their commitment to producing high-quality, challenging work in the Celtic tradition. And he is excited not only about the opportunity to direct a Sugan play (the company very rarely employs guest directors) but also about the play itself, and the ways in which it speaks to young audiences, entertaining them with its fast, edgy pace even as it challenges them to find a way to meaningfully shape their communities.

The Yale Herald :: November 12, 2004

‘Bright Room’ brings viewers into its war room

by Trevor Swett

The Dramat’s choice of Tony Kushner’s A Bright Room Called Day for its fall mainstage marks a departure from its recent avoidance of politically-charged material and is a gesture of protest and thoughtful reflection about the consequences of the election. When asked about the political commentary of the play, the director, Brendan Hughes, DRA ’04, responded, “It would be easy to fall into the trap of trying to make a statement with this play, but the great thing about it is it raises more questions than it provides answers.” That said, Hughes said hopes the play will be “a night of thinking, not of feeling” that will challenge the audience to seriously contemplate the current political situation and their beliefs.

Set in Germany in the ’30s during the fall of the Weimar Republic, the play depicts the struggle of a group of artists to preserve themselves and their friendships in a time of political turmoil. According to Hughes, the play gives the audience “an opportunity to deeply probe their own humanity” through a close examination of the consequences of their political beliefs. He also believes it speaks to the implications and responsibilities of being a liberal, explaining that while those on the right generally adhere to a “simplified worldview,” being a liberal requires one to think more deeply about one’s convictions, and often to work harder to persuade others of them. A Bright Room Called Day confronts “the real-world consequences of a complicated worldview,” he said, adding that by looking at the experience of “a group of bohemians in ’30s Berlin and what they could’ve done to oppose the right,” today’s liberals can discover what they can and should be doing better.

It is no easy task, however. “Republicans are on to something. They offer the rich money and the poor God,” Hughes said. “And all we [liberals] have as a counter-offer is tolerance and a deeper understanding of the world in all its complexity. Anything that’s worth having requires something of you. There’s a cost. And there’s no cost to being a Republican.” While avoiding this cost may be most appealing in the short-term, Hughes anticipates that the nation will likely pay dearly in the future. “The generation in power is killing the golden goose,” he said.

While Kushner wrote the play in the ’80s as a reaction against the Reagan administration, those involved with the play this time around have attempted to apply its lessons to today’s political situation. The play attacks “the swing to the right in America,” and although Hughes stands firmly behind this political message, he hopes that the play will generate political dialogue between the left and right, rather than simply confirm people’s liberal or conservative viewpoints. Likewise, he has tried to make the performance a cogent “examination of issues rather than using the [University Theater] stage for a soapbox.” For him, it is exceptionally exciting to be doing the show at Yale, where one finds “such a cross-section of political ideologies” and has the opportunity to affect “the education of people who will make big decisions and become powerful officials.”

A BRECHTIAN DRAMA, A BRIGHT ROOM CALLED DAY attempts to break down the fourth wall between the audience and actors. There are moments when the cast addresses the audience and makes very clear that what is happening is a play. Accordingly, the Dramat’s set design left the fly space of the theater exposed—brick, scaffolding, and all. This lack of scenery leaves the audience feeling exposed and uncomfortable with the fictional world that is being created because it deviates from their expectation of what a play should be. Instead of defining itself as the sphere of a beautiful, artificial reality, the dwelling place of sentimentality and emotional indulgence, the bare set creates what Brecht called the “alienation effect.”

Hughes explained that the idea was to “keep an audience alienated from their emotions so they can think.” As Zoe Kazan, ES ’05, the lead actress in the play, said, “Brecht was trying to make the audience active from his theater: that they would go out, be incited to action, and change the world.” She added that this experience had already come through for her in rehearsal: “I feel like just experiencing this play has made me more active in my politics, and I hope it does for the audience as well.”

Kazan emphasized that the elections provided a unique setting for rehearsing the play. “My art was informed by the politics, and my politics have been informed by the art, which is really kind of amazing,” she said.

This exploration of current and past politics was something the whole cast engaged in. Hughes praised their extraordinary dedication and intellectualism in this regard. Stefano Theodoli-Braschi, SY ’07, went so far as to have his father find a rare book about Tolstoy for him and send it over from London. At one point, Claire Siebers, SY ’07, brought in a roster published by The New York Times of all the Americans killed in Iraq during the war and the occupation. The newspaper clipping contained a small photo of each one of them, and the cast taped it up on the wall to remind them of why they were doing the play. “We taped these thousand pictures on the wall,” Hughes said, “and really sourced off them. It really allowed us to focus well.” It was this audience of the dead to which they played to during rehearsals.

WHAT SPECIFIC ISSUES DOES THE PLAY CONFRONT that are relevant to today’s political culture? “Complacency, paralysis, and denial,” Hughes said. “I think our generation is in a constant battle to prove that they don’t feel these things politically.” He recalled a T-shirt sold by Urban Outfitters on which the line “Voting is for Old People” was printed. Not surpisingly, he laughed, “Urban Outfitters is owned by a huge Republican donor.” But he agreed that political apathy has many causes beyond this typical example of the vast, right-wing conspiracy. Hughes thinks it has as much to do with our popular culture as anything else. “The overall message coming out of the TV is that you are the center of the universe. The idea of community and civic engagement is an anathema from everything we hear from every corner of life,” he said. For Hughes, the young generation he is a part of must overcome this cultural handicap, and has “an obligation to prove that we are a soulful group of people.”

Not surprisingly, the cast members anticipate the play will be well-received, considering they will be playing to a largely liberal, Democratic audience. Siebers said they thought there might even be a few hecklers in the audience if some staunch right-wingers came to see it. How would the cast deal with that? “We would continue to act. We would continue to play,” she said. “If people heckle us, it just means that they’re invested and involved in the play itself, that it ignites some fire within them, which is the point.”

LINDSEY FORD, TC ’05, PLAYS A CONTEMPORARY woman reacting to the action of the play taking place in the ’30s. When asked if performing plays like A Bright Room Called Day has any political value at a liberal campus like Yale’s, where most are inclined to agree with its point of view, she said: “To say that you’re not doing theater for people who have the same views as you is ridiculous because you could be expressing what other people are thinking and feeling in a way which they can’t engage with in themselves.” As an example, she mentioned a speech by the character Gotchling in the play. “It was just everything I ever wanted to say about my beliefs, but could never do it,” Ford said. “And obviously, Tony Kushner is a much better writer than I am and he did it perfectly. So there’s something to be said for doing theater for people who do share the same ideas as you.”

In Hughes’ words, as “a bunch of strangers gather in the dark for the most intimate discussion of our fate,” that intimacy and spontaneity is unmatched in any other art form. “Film forgives you and manages your experience in a way that theater cannot. My job as a director is to manage the spontaneity of theater, and to make it sing.” A Bright Room Called Day will undoubtedly sing with all its lyric resonance in the University Theater this weekend, and resound with all the political urgency of our particular time and place.

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