Veteran OSF actor Michael J. Hume flexes his directing, writing muscles
Although the pandemic brought about a sort of enforced retirement for Michael J. Hume as an actor, he counts himself among the luckier ones, old enough to pick up two pensions and Social Security.
“I have younger actor friends with two toddlers and no income,” he said. “It just boggles the mind.”
With more than two dozen seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival under his belt, Hume was cast as Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Mollusk and ensemble in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” and as Gonzalo and ensemble in “The Tempest” for the 2020 season — until the theaters went dark only a few days in because of COVID-19.
He has been busy, nonetheless, with writing projects, directing gigs and connecting with family and friends.
Hume is directing “Tiny Beautiful Things” for Rogue Theatre Company July 15-25 at Grizzly Peak Winery. It will be produced “in the round” on the winery’s outdoor Oak Grove stage.
Based on a book by Cheryl Strayed (author of “Wild”) and adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”), the play stars Renee Hewitt, Geoffrey Riley, Mia Gaskin and Carlos-Zenen Trujillo.
“It is a tremendously human piece of writing,” Hume said. “Strayed had an online advice column called ‘Dear Sugar.’ She collected a wide assortment of life questions and her responses into a volume that became the basis for the play. It’s filled with the generosity and wisdom of a life lived with grace, loss and mistakes.”
It was named a “Critic’s Pick” by the New York Times and received glowing reviews. Chicago Onstage said it was “wonderfully comic.” The New York Times said “it works beautifully as a sustained theatrical exercise in empathy.”
Before OSF, Hume worked for several theatrical organizations, among them the American Conservatory Theatre (San Francisco), South Coast Rep (Costa Mesa, California), Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Portland Stage (Maine), Hartford Stage (Connecticut), Manhattan Theatre Club and Manhattan Punchline (New York City). He was a co-founder of Lexington Conservatory Theatre (New York) and Capital Rep (Albany, New York).
“We came to Ashland and OSF from New York with babies, seeking a 10-month contract,” Hume said. “Plus, family lives here. I figured we’d stay for a year or two.” That was 29 years ago.
He has enjoyed OSF’s rotating repertory model.
“Doing eight performances a week is the professional norm,” he said. “Doing the same play eight times a week can be mind-numbing, but you do it.”
However, with rotating repertory, there’s more variety.
“Doing eight performances of two to three different roles is a luxury,” he said. “It keeps you on your toes, keeps you thinking freshly. It makes you love going back to a role, sometimes after up to 10 days. If there is a downside, it is fatigue.”
In any format, actors have to be able to keep it fresh.
“You stay humble,” he said. “And you listen.”
His preparation process depends on the role.
“There are different demands, different processes. With Shakespeare, it’s language first. With musicals, it’s songs first.”
Shakespeare can be a challenge for some actors. Any advice for actors new to the Bard?
“I know it’s rather out of fashion right now, but getting some idea of iambic pentameter would seem to me essential,” he said. “For a young actor coming to OSF with no experience, my advice is to find a coach before you come. And read out loud to yourself, constantly.”
Hume is big on research for a role.
“I always keep a notebook,” he said, “filled with copious notes and detritus. Then in rehearsal you can throw it all away and just play.”
Hume has demonstrated his vocal chops in several plays, most recently and notably as the father, Maurice, in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” But he’s had no formal training.
“To my great personal shame, I had no musical training after third-grade piano,” he said. “My life would be so much easier if I could read music.”
When asked about his favorite roles, Hume said he’d stick with the tried and true and say his last role is his favorite. But there is a special place for Mr. Antrobus in “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a role he played at OSF in 1995.
“It has significant resonance for me,” he said. “My mom (Patricia Riordan) was in the original Broadway production in 1942, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Tallulah Bankhead and Fredric March.”
He said his mom told stories about March chasing her around in the dressing room while his wife, Florence Eldridge, was one dressing room over.
“She left the show mid-run to marry my dad in Albuquerque,” he said. After she was divorced and widowed, she moved to Ashland in 1985, volunteered at OSF, and shared her piano playing and singing of songs of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s with residents of many senior care facilities in the Rogue Valley.
Hume directed a production of “The Skin of Our Teeth” when he was at Capital Rep, and 12 years later played the lead at OSF.
It was also in 1995 he faced what he regards as probably his most challenging role, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
“It was initially thrilling because it’s such a brilliant, difficult part,” he said. “I was immediately told by every actor I knew, ‘Congratulations, you will get the worst reviews of your entire career.’”
He understood their meaning after he researched the role and discovered that Lionel Barrymore, Charles Laughton, Albert Finney and Peter O’Toole all considered themselves failures in the role.
“If you do the work correctly, you have to descend into very dark pits,” Hume said. “It’s ugly work, even scary work.”
He said there are two types of actors who take on the role. Those who know how to start out the play, but flounder in the latter half; and those who don’t know how to enter the arena, but thrive when the blood and madness start to flow.
“I generally don’t read reviews,” he said. “But enough people were coming up to me and saying, ‘I just want you to know, I disagree with the San Francisco press,’ that eventually I just thought, MY GOD, WHAT ARE THEY SAYING?!?”
So, he peeked at the reviews.
“I was eviscerated. So, ultimately, even though I did the correct work, and know that I was clear and concise with that amazing language, it’s tough to know that it’s being rejected to a very large degree.” He said it was definitely a learning experience.
Hume was born in Pasadena and grew up in Tustin, 50 miles south. His was a family of creatives. His mother, grandmother, aunt and sister were actresses. His father and brother were artists. “And we all took piano lessons,” he said.
He started taking acting classes in the fifth grade at Newport Beach Children’s Theatre Guild. “I played Bottom in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ which got the ball rolling.”
As a teen, he apprenticed at the Tustin Playhouse, painting sets, cleaning toilets and selling donuts.
Post-high school, he studied at Cal State, Fullerton; Professional Theatre Workshop, Hollywood; American Conservatory Theatre’s Advanced Training Program; and at Herbert Berghof Studio in New York City with the renowned actress and teacher Uta Hagen.
What’s next for Hume involves exercising his writing muscles.
He and two collaborators, Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner, have been working on two musicals for the past several years.
“The Magician’s Secret” was commissioned by the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte and Orlando Rep.
“It’s an original story with songs about a young masters of magic competition that turns into a ‘Scooby-Doo’ kind of mystery,” Hume said, “without the dog.”
Originally scheduled to be performed before the pandemic changed everything, it may go back into production come 2022, he said.
The other play is “Parcel from America,” an Irish Christmas musical based on a story by local Irish storyteller Tomaseen Foley.
“It’s autobiographical and based on his holiday experiences, growing up in rural western Ireland in the 1950s,” Hume said.
“We’ve been working with composer/arranger Kevin Corcoran from Dublin and J.R. Sullivan, artistic director of the Irish Theatre of Chicago.”
Hume said they hope to mount it at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin, then move it to the ITC.
“In the meantime, we’d love to do a staged reading with local actors and musicians sometime this summer in Ashland,” he said. “Kevin and Jim will be joining us and maybe Irish producer Hugh Farrell. We’ve lined up a cast and a band and are now waiting to hear about a space.”
Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at firstname.lastname@example.org.