Lithe and graceful, Ron Hutchins stands out in any theater lobby on opening night, often noticeable for a quiet laugh that sounds like it’s coming up out of a coal chute in the basement. But he’s obviously most comfortable sculpting a dance routine out of human raw materials whether they are highly accomplished professionals or, as often happens, raw young students.
Over the past few years, he has become one of the most high-profile director/choreographers in the region. Just in the past few seasons, he has been involved with The Wick Theatre’s percussive tappers in 42nd Street, Actors Playhouse’s cavorting Lady of the Laker Girls in Spamalot and the Boca Raton Theatre Guild’s Pippin and Chicago.
But his work has been featured nationally over the years at the Hard Rock Cafe, Goodman Theatre , Marriott Theatre, Georgia Shakespeare Festival, Tennessee Repertory Theatre, Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Cleveland Playhouse, Ford’s Theatre and Trump Taj Mahal.
Hutchins has always kept an eye on the upcoming generation as well. He has been an adjunct professor at the University of Miami, Vanderbilt University, Columbia College, Roosevelt University and Morehead State University, and been the resident choreographer for student productions at Ft. Lauderdale Children’s Theatre, South Plantation High School, Parkway Middle School of the Arts and the Florida Cappie Awards.
His mantle holds numerous awards including a 2007 Carbonell Award for Five Guys Named Moe.
This season should be just as busy including Ragtime at Actors Playhouse and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying – in Beijing.
In this edition of Green Room, he discusses his ability with a unicycle and why he hides during intermission.
Hometown: Cleveland, Ohio
How long have you lived/worked in South Florida? I have worked in South Florida for 13 years. I have lived here for 11 years.
Education? I went to Wright State University and I was a theater major.
Have you ever actually had a performer break a leg?
No, but there have been performers that dance like that have a broken leg… LOL. Those are the performers that “move the set piece, Walk on count 1,2,3,4… Pick up the bench 5,6,7,8. and exit.”
How long does it take to choreograph a full musical?
It really depends on the musical. For example, the style of dance, level of difficulty, time period all are determining factors in the research and the “outside” time of research needed to bring the musical to stage.
How early before rehearsals do you plan it out, or do you wait until you have the cast in front of you, or both?
I begin the research the minute the contract is offered to me. The serious work begins once the show is cast and often changes when rehearsals begin as I discover the strengths and weaknesses of those who have been cast. The audition process allows a limited time to decide if a performer can handle what my initial ideas are. However, once rehearsals begin, I watch the way people act, laugh, move and interact with one another. I am always inspired by this method as it gives me ideas of how to make them move.
How do you cope when you have a troupe of performers with shall we say varied skill levels?
Very patiently. Working with every cast comes with many challenges. When casting, performers come from all over the country, some who are quite experienced and accomplished and others are not. Every theatrical experience is extremely diverse and it is my job to incorporate all of these performers into main stage productions. Many choreographers are extremely accomplished in their own academic and professional area of expertise. However, there is a disconnect of sorts when it comes to taking that fount of knowledge and passing that on to others in such a way that they can address the needs of every cast member regardless of experience level and background knowledge. The art of choreography lies in being able to advance both the novice and the expert. It is here where I proudly excel. I strive to see what someone saw in me, potential.
Do you have certain moves or steps that you rely on regularly or do you do each piece from scratch?
Are you kidding? I steal from myself all of the time.
What show are you dying to do but no one would think of you for? The Light in the Piazza.
What show do you wish somebody down here would produce? The show I wrote, Once in a Lifetime… From Harlem to Hollywood, Sammy Davis Jr.
What show will you be happy never to see again unless it gets you a job? Les Misérables. It is a beautiful show, but three hours of miserable people is way too long….
What do you say when someone you like is in a terrible show or does a poor job?
I say a few things after the show when I see them…. “There you are”, “Wow”, “You did it again” Now thanks to you, Bill, I will never be able to use these again…. LOL
How do you cope when there are more people on stage than in the audience?
I would educate the producer for the future and let them know how frustrating this is for the performer and ask if in the future to combine the shows …..
What is there about you that most people don’t know (and that you’ll admit publically)?
I love watching the Housewives of Atlanta, I’m also a big fan of the soap opera Days of our Lives. I watch re-runs of Golden Girls, Roseanne and Will and Grace…. It is totally my addiction…..
What’s the hardest/easiest part of what you do?
The easiest part of my job is transferring the show to the stage with the set from the rehearsal hall. This is where the show comes alive to me with levels and spacing. The hardest part of my job is running into performers that I did not cast. Not casting friends often has its challenges, too, as it is hard to explain if I am asked. Most recently I discovered that even harder than not casting a friend was having to terminate one who was incredibly talented and just not capable of retaining the material.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Yes, prayer. I also will hide during intermission during opening performance as I do not want anyone to feel obligated to say anything.
What was the first show you were involved in and what did you do?
The first show I was ever involved in was called Wizmas in 1972. I was in the 8th grade and my English teacher Jody Pucillo put me on stage because she liked a speech I wrote entitled “Professor Hutchins” because at the time I wanted to be an English professor . She used the recording of the Broadway musical The Wiz at the time to support the script she had written. When our solos came up, she would walk to the stage put the needle on the record and we sang along with the recording at Empire Junior High School in Cleveland, Ohio. I lost contact with her until recently. I searched for her for years only to discover that she had moved here to South Florida and was teaching at JP Taravella High School. Well, by the time I discovered this she had retired and moved to Memphis. So imagine, I had been collaborating with Lori Sessions and discovering this. Well, luckily, we just had dinner in April 2014, as she and her husband came to South Florida for a visit. I thought I would cry when I first saw her again and I did not until the end of dinner when I reached across the table and said “Thank you” for changing the trajectory of my life. She got me involved with The Cleveland Playhouse Youth Theatre program where I was a scholarship recipient from 7th thru 12th grade. The article in The Cleveland Press and Plain Dealer newspapers said “Negro student Ron Hutchins awarded scholarship to The Cleveland Playhouse.” I will never forget it.
When did you know this was what you wanted to do and why?
I knew in 1972 because nothing mattered in my life and theatre. It made me work harder to be a better student because my mom would not let me let my grades suffer because of it.
What do think has been your best work in the theater to date, and why?
I think all of the work I have done in theatre is my best work, as I believe that all things are always working in my favor both positive and negative.
What do you think was your worst, and why didn’t it work?
My worst experience came to surface when a producer did not understand that I was an “independent contractor.” When an actor was offered a contract from another theatre that I was under contract with, this particular producer held me accountable when I had nothing to do with the offer or the decision of the actor. It ruined our relationship as I was told that I could not accept the contract, take people from the cast, etc…. No matter what I did to make the situation right, it never was resolved. But, hey, you win some, you lose some. What I have discovered is that everyone has values in their own right. Sometimes our values are not the same and I have learned to be okay with that and move on. Character and integrity and respect go a long way with me.
What was your best experience working in theater?
Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Arkansas Rep made me aware that I had the goods of a wonderful choreographer
What was your worst? Kuni Leml
What one role/show would like to do over or just do again? My One and Only as I have wonderful ideas..
What was the worst on-stage mishap you dealt with?
During a production at Stage Door Theatre of Ain’t Misbehavin when it started raining on stage. Dee (Bunn) and Dave (Torres) and I were a wreck trying to figure out how to get the show to keep going with a full house and puddles of water on stage…. good times….
What is your strangest audition story on either side of the table?
I was in NYC running auditions for Hello Dolly. I ran into an African American actress on the train and told her why I was there. Well, she showed up to the audition and the director said “Okay, who invited this mess to audition?” She sang two songs that I do not remember and wanted to know when she would be getting a call …. Hilarious.
What is the best/worst costume you wore or forced someone to wear? The best costume is Electra in Gypsy at Arkansas Rep. That costume was the dream costume for anyone to wear.
Do you have a different pay-the-bills job? If so, what is it? Do they know about this other life? No this is my full time job. Thank God!!!
What’s the weirdest/worst non-theater job you ever had? Phone solicitor for Time Life Libraries. It was awful.
Do you have unexpected special talents and skills? I ride unicycle and I’m a great cook…..
What is something you’re really bad at?
driving directions. All of my friends and my partner find that strange as I direct people on stage. You cannot tell me east, west, etc… I need to know to turn right look for the “ brown” building (then) turn left, etc….
What would you do if you couldn’t be in theater? I would teach or be a chef….
What’s your most unforgettable theater experience?
Working at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. with a pre-Broadway contract. I was the swing for 8 performers. I was young, terrified and learned more there that really prepared me for my journey in theater.
What show or performance did you not see now or in the past that you wish you had?
[Title of Show] at Area Stage. My schedule was so packed I had no time to see the show. I can honestly say the show was cast with some of the best singers I have ever worked with.
What TV programs do you DVR when you’re working a show? My housewives shows and Tyler Perry’s The Have and the Have Nots as I have a dear friend starring in it on the OWN network.
Whose music can you not live without? Jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr, Sarah Vaughn.
What performer would you do almost anything to see? Michael Jackson
What do you think South Florida theater will look like in five years?
I think in 5 years that South Florida theatrre will be committed to building working relationships with professionals in the industry, while fostering community ties with local theatre companies and universities.
What could it be? South Florida theatre can be the best of the best.
Finally, add a question (and answer) you wish I had asked. What do you do on your down time? I write love to read and I am a big supporter of Oprah Winfrey and often write down quotes from her Lifelessons show to keep me grounded. I love spending time with my partner Cameron.