15 after 20: Part 1: A Group of Ambitious Young Actors with Top-Flight Training Headed to New York to Launch Their Careers. That Was 20 Years Ago. Where Are They Now?

By London, Todd | American Theatre, September 2015 | Go to article overview

15 after 20: Part 1: A Group of Ambitious Young Actors with Top-Flight Training Headed to New York to Launch Their Careers. That Was 20 Years Ago. Where Are They Now?


London, Todd, American Theatre


For every person whose contentment comes from faithfully executing a predetermined script, there are at least 10 if not 100 who had to rearrange the pages and play a part they hadn't expected to, in a theatre they hadn't envisioned.--Frank Bruni, The New York Times

THIS IS A STORY ABOUT TIME, ITS PASSAGE, AND HOW IT SHAPES LIVES AND ALTERS AMBITION. It's also a story about the lens of time, because that lens shapes the stories we tell about our lives, too.

This story began 20 years ago, when its cast of 15 was made up of young actors, 23 to 33 years old, finishing two years of graduate work at the American Repertory Theatre and its Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., and heading off to New York City to embark on the rest of their careers. In other words, it began in the future tense, as each of these actors imagined and prepared for life in the profession they'd chosen and for which they'd trained.

I met them then, and, after trailing them for over a year, wrote a three-part article, under the umbrella title "Open Call," which ran in the January, February, and March 1997 issues of American Theatre. (You can find all three parts posted on americantheatre.org) Now, from the vantage point of their mid-40s and 50s, with all the life that happened in those intervening years, the imagined future these actors shared with me has morphed into a lived past. If graduation from ART in June 1995 was, as I wrote then, "a parting wave from the dock," these players are well into mid-sail.

ACTORS ARE NATURAL NOMADS, TRAVELING FROM SHOW TO SHOW, THEATRE TO THEATRE, TOWN TO TOWN. You'd be hard-pressed, though, to find one as peripatetic as Tom Hughes. Beirut, Rome, Sao Paulo, Melbourne, Abu Dhabi, you name it--his work has taken him there. And he's moved his family with him, from New York to Utah and back, to Connecticut, North Carolina, Southern California.

Hughes hasn't traveled the world as an actor, though, but in business class--first as an organizational psychologist and trainer for Booz Allen Hamilton, then for Duke Corporate Education, alternating with stints as a self-employed worker on contract. "This is the craziest life," Kristen, his wife of 20 years, says. "We just get yanked and yanked around." All in the name of stability.

This was not the plan. The plan was to act. In New York City, where I last saw Tom and Kristen in 1996, they were living in a sublet near Lincoln Center, later in a $680-a-month two-bedroom apartment at 181st Street. They were $50,000 in debt from school. Their first son, Steven, was born that November, just as my series of articles about Tom and his classmates went to press. Tom was going to stay home with the baby, audition, and continue to write books and short films based on Bible stories, as well as an interactive CD-ROM (remember those?) for his church. Kristen would teach. During summers, Tom would act while Kristen stayed home. But Steven's short stint as a baby-foot model for Parenting magazine was about as close to professional careers as they got.

Soon Kristen discovered that she wanted to be the parent on the ground, so Tom, on an 11th-hour tip from a friend, applied to an organizational psychology master's degree program at Columbia University Teachers College. With no relevant background or experience (but Ivy League cred), he was accepted into the program. Three semesters later, he had his degree and the assurance that he was at the "front of the curve" for hiring at one of the "big eight" consulting firms. Presumably because of his lack of experience, months went by. No job. In the meantime he did some acting and writing, including making a number of films for the church, in which he played some of the apostles and "Jesus twice." Just when the threesome had packed up their NYC apartment to move to Utah, a call came from the prominent Booz Allen with a job audition (consulting firms don't call it that, though) in Brazil. …

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