First Encounters: Michael Colgan and Doug Hughes

‘He’s got an ego but it’s an adjustable ego’

 Michael Colgan and Doug Hughes: “He’s sort of like a brother.”

Michael Colgan and Doug Hughes: “He’s sort of like a brother.”

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 01:00

Michael Colgan is artistic director of the Gate Theatre, Dublin, and a film and TV producer. He has brought Gate Theatre productions to the the US and the UK and recently staged two Beckett plays in Germany. He has lived in Dublin all his life and has three children and three grandchildren

I don’t quite remember when we met, I just know that Doug suddenly surfaced as a terrific friend. I knew Doug’s father, actor Barnard Hughes and met Doug in the early 1990s. I got on with him immediately. Doug is that wonderful mixture, an American with a European sensibility. He has an attachment to Ireland, carries an Irish passport, and an attachment to things European that makes him a very formidable mix.

Then there was a hiatus. We bumped into each other at stuff in America, began to connect more, to have a lot of lunches. The extraordinary thing about Doug and I is that, unlike, say, plumbers and lawyers, there are a lot of those around, there are very few artistic directors directing. We’re on the same wavelength, I can discuss things with him. It’s a friendship that has survived an ocean: I go to New York quite a lot, I’ve been up to his place on the Hudson a couple of times and he stays with me here. He says “You’re family”.

The wonderful thing about Doug is that we’re completely in sync, one plus one becomes five. There might be only two or three people at most in this world who I’d listen to, take advice from. Advice is easy to take when it’s in accord with what you were going to do anyway. To take advice against what your instinct is, that’s really rare. Doug would give it and I would take it. He’d be very honest and very incisive. He’s sort of like a brother. We’re very close.

Doug is going to be upset with me saying this, but there are things about him that are sort of English. He queues up, which I won’t, he’s always on time, usually 20 minutes ahead just in case he could have been late. He’s very honourable, very fair, has this sort of English gentleman thing. Even though he’s reserved and I’m ebullient, he doesn’t object to me.

Directors do come under pressure, you need to be a saint not to lose your temper. Doug is always calm, always gets what he wants. He has the rare ability to be calm, quiet, reserved – and not a pushover.

I admire how emotional he is about his work. For example, at one of the previews a phone went off: Doug sits up -- I can only describe it as like a meerkat. He turns in his seat and stares back to find the culprit. The phone stops. You’d think he is done . . . but no, he wants to find out who it was. He can be the most benign, mannerly, gentlemanly, honourable man I think I have ever met. But if you talk during his show or your phone goes off, my advice is, leave the country.

I’ve known Doug for 20 years, we’ve been quite close for the past 10. We are in some ways unbelievably similar. Yet at the same time, he can be more sensitive, more loving of his work, a greater artist.

Doug Hughes is a Tony award- winning American director who has been artistic director of a number of theatre companies. He is currently directing a play at the Gate, the second time he has done so. He lives in Manhattan and in Cragsmoor, New York with his partner, actress Kate Jennings Grant

My father, Barnard Hughes, came over here in the early 1990s with a revival of Hugh Leonard’s Da. That’s when I met Michael. We got on fantastically well. All of us who know him and love him know there’s a fantastic, vivid rascal quality about him that is really magnetic.

He’s rare as a producer in today’s theatre, in that he remembers the joy, that it’s supposed to be fun. He brings great soul to it, loves the drama, loves actors, even seems to love directors and he loves literature. I did know of Michael before I met him and of the great work of the Gate theatre. I had been coming to Ireland since I was a teenager, had family here – both my father’s parents were born here.

I always say that Michael should have a slogan on his T-shirt that says “I’m only saying what you’re thinking”. I’m rather reticent, and except in a rehearsal room, rather retiring and reserved. Michael is the opposite: he’s helplessly committed to speaking his mind. I think it has served him immensely: he observes the dictum “to thine own self be true”. He adores people but he doesn’t care what you think. That’s invigorating. In a precarious business where there’s so much anxiety about performance and success, he wonderfully glamourises the phenomenon of putting on plays.

There’s a great line somewhere in an essay by Patrick Kavanagh that says comedy is an abundance of life. And I really do think Michael has an abundance – there’s always just so much of it wherever he is. I’ve found it easy to be Michael’s friend and it’s also easy to say will you shut-up, enough already. He’s got an ego but it’s an adjustable ego, he’s capable of mocking himself, which is crucial.

We became sounding boards for each other: he’s a great person to unpack a dilemma with, very incisive about the component parts of tricky situations. I’ve certainly leaned on him that way and I hope that I’ve been a little useful to him.

He has an immense instinct for how a play’s going, does great big-picture thinking about the arc of a production. He can focus fiendishly on the smallest detail, that tends to drive you a little nuts. But I am also a kind of control freak, I sympathise. We don’t come to blows; it’s fun to argue with him in the safe assurance it won’t do our friendship any damage.

We’re doing a play about brothers who have a troubled relationship. I have only one sibling, my sister Laura, who I adore. I haven’t had the luxury of having a brother, but I feel I’ve had a wonderful dose of it hanging around with Michael.

The Price, by Arthur Miller, directed by Doug Hughes, continues at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, until August 2nd

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