Stuart Hughes is quite familiar with the Grand Theatre having played in it as a child, acted in it as a teen and even sleeping in it while searching for the ghost of original owner Ambrose Small.
Although he has been home “infrequently” over the years, the 53-year-old actor and director is currently back in his hometown to direct the Grand’s upcoming performance of Yankee Tavern, which runs Feb. 12 to March 2.
“I grew up here, went to public school, high school here in London,” Hughes said. “To be back at the theatre is a real treat. I feel very blessed, it is a great space, the crew is great.”
As a teenager, Hughes attended Saunders Secondary School and played in the school orchestra and band. He performed in school drama productions and also had roles in plays at Theatre London.
Hughes left the Forest City to attend York University before going on to become well known for his leading roles at the Shaw Festival, Stratford Festival and Soulpepper Theatre Company, of which he is a founding member.
Hughes returned in his mid-30s for a production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but it has been a while since he has had another opportunity to entertain crowds from the stage of what he calls “one of the gems” of the Canadian theatre scene.
“I think Susan (Ferley, the Grand artistic director) had seen me directing at Soulpepper and when she came across this script, I guess I came to mind,” Hughes said. “So she called and asked me about directing. I didn’t hesitate, I said I would love to.”
Hughes said upon reading the Yankee Tavern script, he knew he had made the right choice. “I read the play and thought it was a very intriguing piece, an entertaining piece, it has a lot of laughs, but at the same time it has a great mystery to it too. It encompasses a lot.”
Hughes explains Yankee Tavern takes place in “an old, beat up bar” in New York City. A series of people come in with stories to tell that centre around 9-11. Then a fourth character comes in, implying he has some hand in the “urban myths” that circle around the 9-11 story.
At that point, they mystery begins as the other characters in the bar have to decide what is really true in this story.
“It is just riddled with great humour; it is very funny at time. Then it also gets quite scary too,” Hughes said. “When I read it, I thought it was a fantastic piece, it starts out one way as one kind of play, then like a great Hitchcock film, it takes you by surprise.”
Hughes said he always thought about returning to the Grand, but expected it would be as an actor. However, despite currently preparing for a pair of Toronto shows he will be performing in, Hughes has been doing more directing of late.
As such, Hughes said he is looking forward to bringing his directing talents to his hometown. In particular, Hughes said he is looking forward to working with not only a powerful lineup of actors, but also, “the most fantastic stage management team” he could hope for.
Yankee Tavern stars Nicholas Campbell as Ray, Hannah Anderson as Janet, Stephen Gartner as Adam and Maurice Dean Wint as Palmer. Two weeks into rehearsal, Hughes said he “couldn’t be happier” about how the show is coming together.
“Everyone, from day one, has just jumped right in. We really hit the ground running,” Hughes said. “I get so exhilarated and enthralled; I am working with four incredible actors, they are just all fantastic and at the top of their game. So for me to be able to sit and watch them, the hours just fly by.”
Hughes said he can’t wait to move from the rehearsal hall to the main stage. That excitement may stem from his childhood, running around the theatre while his father, a musician in his own right, rehearsed in the Grand’s music pit.
But the other part of his excitement, Hughes said, comes from working with the Grand’s well-renowned production team.
“I just have to think about something I need to help tell the story and it just suddenly arrives,” Hughes said. “Everyone is here to tell these great stories. It is like being in a great sandbox. If I can imagine it, they can create it, and that’s great.”
While clearly excited to bring Yankee Tavern to his favourite stage, Hughes said he has unfortunately been too busy to get out and see just how his hometown has changed.
“I thought I would have all this time to take in London, see what has changed, but it has been a very short path from the theatre to where I am staying and back again,” Hughes said. “My time has really been full, so I haven’t had the time to get around. It is a full time for sure, but it has been a lovely time.”
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