Hugh Hughes: “I met a friend recently who said ‘you shouldn’t work on a question, the question should work on you.’ Sometimes people are so clever – they really help you out don’t they?”
Who is Hugh Hughes? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. Hughes is an emerging artist from Wales – Llangefni, Angelsey to be precise. He is naïve, optimistic and charmingly puppyish and he likes to tell stories from his life to theatre audiences, though he has recently branched out into radio, film and digital platforms. His new show Stories From an Invisible Town is all about his childhood and is currently touring. “I don’t know if there’s a word for what I do,” he says, “I just stand there and try to tell people what I’m up to, although I have started doing a little bit of acting – I’ve started playing the characters in the town, doing different voices.”
Audiences have been enjoying hearing what Hughes is up to for seven years now. His first show Floating won the 2006 Total Theatre award and he has since toured the world receiving numerous accolades. Hughes, however, is not an actor and his shows are simply him and his life experiences on stage. Stories From an Invisible Town grew out of the experience of returning to Llangefni to pack up his family home. Collaborators and fellow performers on this project are Hughes’s sister Delyth and brother Derwyn. Hughes explains: “Basically it sort of happened to me. I went back to Llangefni in 2007 when my mum was packing up our family home and I was completely surprised how many memories came back to me whilst I was packing up the house. Can you imagine that experience?”
Hughes’s performances are always an open invitation to engage, to be drawn into his world whilst at the same time letting it work upon our own personal worlds. He says: “I hope they [the audience] are going to have a really great time. I think we also want to make people think about the relationships they have within their families and how they might be able to make the most of it. A lot of what we’re doing is about how’s it possible to make the most out of our lives?”. The work opens our imaginations, allowing us to say “Yes, I can imagine that experience, of course I can”. Perhaps Hughes’s work holds in balance the realm of the imaginary and the real so easily because he is made up of a mix of real life and fantasy himself.
The fact is, Hughes is the alter ego of Shôn Dale-Jones, artistic director of Hoipolloi theatre company, who created this character out of a mixture of boredom, love of creating comic characters and a desire to put a “playful distance between myself and theatre”. Dale-Jones didn’t want to put himself on stage but wanted to use a character to enable him to find ways in which to make his own life stories universal. Playing with this alter ego has been a way to explore the “difference between our real lives and what goes into a story” and so Hughes really exists in the gap between fantasy and reality. Dale-Jones admits that with the Hugh Hughes project he really just followed his nose, having no idea that the character would expand and develop the phenomenal way it has. Having been making theatre with Hoipolloi for a number of years Dale-Jones felt stuck, having “lost a connection with what I was doing on stage”. What he wanted to do was “throw everything up in the air, to reconnect with storytelling and understand what a story does”. Which is exactly what he did:“I filled a room with everything I’d never worked with and refused to do anything I’d ever done before”.
Hughes adds: “We’re using film in very different ways, we’ve got some Super 8 films which create an atmosphere of the past I suppose. Then we’ve got other films that are basically documentaries about the three of us. There’s lots of audio material, there’s lots of live music, we do a bit of singing live as well. There’s a scene of dancing, there’s some funny stories and some jokes, there’s also live fighting, kind of tomfoolery. There’s some poems and there’s also some dramatic re-enactment, like theatre – but not so much of that.”
This process he describes as “consciously trying to innovate” which is a surprisingly candid statement in a world where innovative is the one thing everyone wants to be called. However, it is because it is growing from such an open, honest and simple desire to explore stories in unexplored ways that the Hugh Hughes project is so innovative and, at the same time, welcoming to an audience. Sometimes we try so hard to push forward and be new that we forget to look back; to consider what theatre is, where it came from and why it exists and to tell stories. Dale-Jones explains that – although the work of Hughes may address large philosophical questions – he always takes an emotional route in, following the advice of Yann Martel: “narrative exists to express emotion”.
Writing this material, Dale-Jones says, “Feels really easy because I understand why I’m doing it, and what I’m connecting to, and where I’m trying to get to in an audience”. There are no concerns about how to stage it or what audiences and critics will think because “you just embroil yourself in the material”. With Stories From an Invisible Town the material is being shared not only on stage but online with digital audiences. On the show’s specially designed website you can explore Hughes’s family room, uncovering the multitude of memories that lie behind each door. Hughes says: “It’s like a massive field, imagine you can put everything you remember in a massive field and label it. Well the internet grabs as much of that as possible and puts it on the internet and what the show does is it tries to organise the material in a way that gives a particular picture of our family life.”
The online space is one that can “liberate you from storytelling structures” explains Dale-Jones, and moving into this arena as well as film and radio is how he sees the life of Hughes extending. Gently probing whether he can see a time when the only option might be killing Hughes off warrants the response that “there are so many stories left to tell”. So it would seem that Hughes will be with us for at least the foreseeable future, and I imagine when it is time for him to go the stories of him will live on – for as he shows, stories can be powerful things: “There’s a story about the bathroom where my sister was running a bath and my brother stole the bath. At the time when he did that it caused a big incident in the house, so we talked a bit about this when we were together and we were able to laugh about it. My brother then said what we didn’t know was that when he was in the bathroom – not only did he steal my sister’s bath – but he then weed in her shampoo bottle. But we didn’t know that, and then she wouldn’t talk to him for weeks again so it kicked it all off again. It made something extraordinary happen. That’s what’s always been interesting, that sometimes the smallest things create the biggest explosive effect.”
Find out more about Hugh Hughes and his explosive world at www.hughhughes.me or catch Stories from an Invisible Town on tour until 8th December, next visiting the New Wolsey, Ipswich on 6th and 7th November and finishing the run at the Barbican, 28th Nov – 8th Dec. You can also visit its digital space atwww.invisibletownstories.co.uk.
Image credit: Jaimie Gramston