Doug Hara | Performer of the week
It’s been 14 years since they first jumped into the pool, but the cast of Metamorphoses fearlessly leaps back into Mary Zimmerman’s play in a beautiful revival at Lookingglass Theatre. Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Broadway production that earned Zimmerman a Tony Award for Best Direction, the revival features eight actors who appeared in the original cast, including Doug Hara. Among other characters, Hara playing Phaethon, son of Apollo, and Eros, god of love, giving a performance that shows off his incredible versatility. A native of Manhattan, Hara was involved in after-school theater programs that introduced him to Broadway directors, landing himself a role on Broadway in 7th grade when he starred in John Peilmeier’s Vietnam War drama The Boys of Winter, a failed production that closed after exactly one week. When one of his after-school mentors chose to attend Northwestern for graduate school, Hara looked into their undergraduate theater program, enrolling as a freshman when many of the Lookingglass Theatre founders were seniors. He built a creative and personal relationship with the artists, dovetailing out of college straight into Lookingglass, where he would eventually become an ensemble member. Hara lives in New Jersey with his wife and children, but still considers Chicago his artistic home. He speaks to us about working with Mary Zimmerman, the cultural impact of Metamorphoses, and how he prepared to let it all hang out as the nude Eros.
When you were first cast in Metamorphoses, were you familiar with these myths?
Yeah. Like a lot of people, I grew up with Edith Hamilton’s Mythology on my bookshelf, so yes, I was very familiar with a lot of them. Metamorphoses started out as a student production—not a student production, Mary directed it and wrote it, but it was at Northwestern so it was done with college kids. At Northwestern it was called Six Myths. And we all went up there to see it. Mary was at the time considering doing another version of The Odyssey, which was a show she had done in the early days of Lookingglass, she was thinking about doing it in a pool of water. And basically the idea of doing this show for her was to audition the set, to see what it would be like to do a show in water. And surprisingly, of course, it became something bigger than anyone expected it to be. It became a better show than she expected to be doing, it became something special. She never ended up doing The Odyssey in water, this show eclipsed that idea because it was exactly right. When she proposed it to the company, she wanted to take it a bit further. She added a couple of myths, she added the Eros and Psyche myth and a couple of other things into the show between the student production and the original Lookingglass production.
Has the show changed for you since the original run?
I have to believe it has changed. It’s like an old song, you hear it again and this familiarity is so strong and acute. So in a lot of ways it’s exactly the way that it was. These stories are deceptively simple, these are the stories that the entire Western canon of literature has its roots in, these are the foundational stories of our culture. Ten years is not going to do a whole lot to stories that have been around for thousands. But that being said, the reason we wanted to do it again, and a part of the reason I was excited to sign up for it again, was that I wanted to bring the show circularly back to the home we have for our theater, which we didn’t have when we began it. And in the interim, I’ve had two children of my own. I’m 14 years older than I was when I first started working on this part, and I think it was all of our hopes that we could bring our increased skill and increased depth as people and as artists back to these simple stories and make them better than we had done. I think we’re very proud of the work we did back then, but it’s the hope whenever you revisit material, that you can bring whatever new wisdom you have to it to make even more meaningful, more important choices. And make the work even more sublime than it once was.
What is it like working with Mary?
That’s an interesting question. Mary’s an old friend. We have a history together, like everyone in the ensemble. It’s a marriage. We’re together, we are not going to throw each other out and we’re committed to each other. My personal experience is that she gives me a really long leash, which I love. I do naturally what I think she would like me to do, so she lets me run a long way before she starts to adjust me, and I like that because I get to do a lot of exploration and find what’s natural to me. She can be very exacting, and sometimes finding a common language can be challenging, but that’s true with any director. I think she is a master of the language of visual style and design. In some ways, and I’m sure she would say this herself, she’s really a designer. She’s an expert designer, and I include language in that umbrella term. I’ve never seen someone work so in concert with her set designer and lighting designer and costume designer. The language of the visual is clearly very important to her work, and I think she really is a master of it. And as a performer, you’re challenged to find out how you’re going to fit into that design; where she wants you to be and where you feel like you should be, and finding that happy place where everybody is on the same page and we’re serving the story together.
Eros is nude in his myth. When you first played the role, did you have to psyche yourself up for the nudity or are you fairly comfortable with that?
I can talk about it back then and I can talk about it now. When [Mary] hired us, she asked all the guys if they would be willing to be nude, because I don’t think she knew who was going to be playing Eros at that point. So at the very beginning we knew there was some possibility that there would be some nudity, and at least all the guys had been approached to be OK with it. The most nerve-wracking part—yes, it was certainly a scary thing, it was nothing I had really done before—but the most nerve-wracking thing was taking off my clothes in front of my friends at tech for the first time. Because there’s a certain distance you have from an audience. Some of them know you, they’re your friends or colleagues or family or whatever, but there’s this performative distance. But when you’re at tech, you’re at work. You’re at work with your friends, especially the people who are in the show with you, and it’s a whole different thing. My heart is always racing a little bit, even today, but I am a lot more used to it.
During tech, when it was finally time to do it without the bathing suit, I was panicking, I wanted to make sure I had my costume down. There’s this race to get everything in place, because he’s just a visual, but there are questions being asked and answered about Eros and Psyche as the scene goes on. And so my job is to just be a picture, so in a way the nudity is my costume. The blindfold and the wings, it’s strange, but I feel protected by the costume. I remember once, the blindfold was missing during a production, we couldn’t find it, and I had to go on without the blindfold. I never felt more exposed than that day. It definitely helps. I’m behind a little bit of mask, it’s not really me.
Metamorphoses is performed and studied in high schools and colleges—why do you think this play has such a strong impact?
There are probably several answers to that. As to why its popular in schools, I think I would go back to the very simple answer that these myths always have been and are still the foundation stories. They’re plots that are very accessible, we still understand greed and redemption and love and loss, these things are never going to not be human characteristics in life, whether you’re living in ancient Rome or Greece or modern day New Orleans or New York City or Los Angeles. These are things that will always be part of our human experience, so I think these stories succeed on that truth. This particular show, it caught a wave. It is probably Mary’s most efficient, well-constructed piece; I love this show, I always will. When the show was first produced, it felt like a new idea, performing in a pool of water. That was really interesting to people, and the water itself became a character in the show. And a really appropriate one, not a gratuitous one. It has this expressive quality that I think was really astonishing to early audience members, and I think audience members now, even though we’ve seen a lot more of it in the 14 years in the interim.
It’s not an untold story that we premiered the Off-Broadway production weeks after the September 11th attacks. We were in rehearsals, going into tech at the time, and this show and the way it tracks death and transformation and love came into a city that was reeling from an enormous collective tragedy and grappling with these amazing feelings themselves. The story took hold in a way that—who knows what would have happened to Metamorphoses had that not been the case. It may still have run for a year on Broadway and it still may have had the importance that it does today, it’s impossible to say.
What do you appreciate about having Lookingglass as an artistic home?
Really, having an artistic home at all is something that I don’t take for granted. I don’t think it’s a really common experience to have a place like that, where I work with my colleagues and I am afforded an opportunity to participate and given resources to expand myself as an artist. There’s a tremendous satisfaction in being part of this and having seen the company grow from the humble beginnings of where we were in the ’90s/late ’80s and take stock in where we are now. I look back and I see my friends and how we’ve all grown and changed, and we have families yet we’re still dedicated to a common purpose. It’s a rare thing, and I treasure it. That’s why no matter where we go, we all orbit back to the city. This is where our artistic heart belongs.
Metamorphoses runs through November 18 at Lookingglass Theatre (821 N Michigan Ave, 312-337-0665). Read our review of Metamorphoses.