After graduating from the University of Virginia, Simon Donoghue thought he and God had an agreement.
He would become a monk at Belmont Abbey College and teach history until his memory or desire to instruct gave out. But man proposes and God disposes, as anyone on that faculty might tell you.
A heart attack (not his) and a change of heart (his) thrust him into his real destiny: To run the Abbey Players for 40 years, the longest tenure of any current arts administrator in this region.
The Players’ latest production, “Henry IV, Part I,” testifies to his lifelong love of Shakespeare. But every show testifies to the notion that he’s where he belongs.
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“This is a very Benedictine idea: Know where you are supposed to be,” says Donoghue, who decided not to spend life as a monk after all. (Not every Abbey teacher has to be one.) “You take a vow of stability, and that’s been a central point of reference for me all these years.”
Interviewing him in his office in The Haid, which houses the theater, can feel like a therapy session. You sit upright in a chair, asking questions and jotting in a notebook. He stretches out on a divan, relaxing his back. You look around the space that defines him and see scholarly tomes of theater history, a poster of the Kenneth Branagh movie “Dead Again” and a complete set of action figures from DC Comics’ Justice League of America.
He speaks frankly, dryly, in a voice oft likened to the title character’s in TV’s “Frasier.” (He asked his wife if that could be true. She confirmed it.) He likes to kick ideas around and have them kicked back at him.
“The theater is one of the few places on campus where faculty members, monks, students and people in the community meet as equals,” he says. “We’d do ‘Pentecost’ or ‘Trial of the Catonsville Nine,’ and they’d stay around after rehearsal, talking for an hour.
“(Benedictines) build on faith and reason. Biologists, theologians, historians all bring something to discussions. One reason I never left is that I couldn’t get up from the table when so many great conversations were going on.”
A brief Charlotte flirtation
He did take another job once, becoming artistic director of Theatre Charlotte for the 1994-95 season – but in a brain-frying decision, he kept the plum position he already had.
“I almost died,” he recalls. “I enjoyed it, but I knew I wouldn’t be long-term there. I wanted very much to direct ‘Assassins’ but then had to do ‘The Cemetery Club.’ I added Tom Stoppard’s ‘The Real Thing,’ but I didn’t want to direct ‘Forum.’
“I’m not good at Rodgers and Hammerstein-type shows. I don’t have an eye for dancing, for one thing. You’ve got to know what you can do.”
What he does well are playwrights other companies too seldom attempt, especially the Three Ss: Will Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim, Tom Stoppard. And if he does a musical such as “Little Women” at Haid Theatre, he’s likely to tone down the sweetness and, as he says, “amp up the death of Beth.”
Mike Collins, who acted for him in that “Assassins” and with him in a memorable production of Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen,” attributes Donoghue’s skill to wide-ranging interests.
“He’s among the most intelligent people I have ever met,” says the “Charlotte Talks” host. “He reads voraciously – he was an insomniac who would start ‘War and Peace’ at midnight – and on the other hand, he’s really into comic books. He goes to ‘Heroes’ conventions all the time. He knows something about everything, so he’s not shooting from the hip.
“That’s also how he directs. Where someone else would say, ‘Move left and act like you’re going to cry,’ Simon will bring in something that’s not in the play to show you undercurrents in the text. And he’s subversively funny. I was backstage on opening night of ‘Assassins,’ about to walk on, and he put his hands on my shoulders. I was waiting for some last bit of advice and he said, ‘Don’t suck.’ ”
His unusual approach
Donoghue’s famous for not watching shows once they open: He’ll go offstage and listen, but he won’t sit out front. He turns the show over to the stage manager and student tech crew and considers his work done.
“Since Jill has been here, though, I get to watch her plays,” he says. “I am the best audience there is. Watching shows again in the theater has been a pleasure.”
“Jill” is Jill Bloede, who teaches alongside Donoghue at the Abbey. The college has a theater minor, though not a major, and Gary Sivak teaches technical theater courses.
Bloede calls Donoghue “a collaborator with the playwright. He does a lot of table work, a lot of discussion about what a playwright wants. So the actor knows where he is before he’s ever on his feet. If Simon doesn’t tell you something, he expects you to motivate your own movement onstage. And he never prepares a prompt script (with notations for blocking). He just keeps it all in his head!”
Donoghue, she says, created the opening-night “pooabah.” Actors gather in a circle, and he asks, “What night is tonight?” They shout “Opening night!” (In theater, every night is opening night.) They pray. He reminds them of crucial elements: tempo, lines, enunciation. There’s a moment of silence. Then they chant “Pooabah!” three times, each time louder, to get breath going.
Such rituals were far from his mind when he arrived at the campus to run the library’s reference department. In his second year, the priest in charge of the Players had a heart attack. Donoghue remembers campus leaders “looking around and asking, ‘Does anyone have any experience in theater?’ I said, ‘I kind of do’ and found myself in charge of Abbey Players.”
That first year, he says, he worked 40 hours a week in the library and 40 hours a week in the theater. (“I don’t remember when I slept.”) The company, which was founded in 1883, then performed on the ground floor of a bookstore, in a room with four pillars among the seats: “We knew a play was working if the audience bothered to look around the pillars.” College president John Dempsey pushed for the new theater, which opened in 1987.
Donoghue had two mentors, now dead: the Rev. John Oetgen and the Rev. Paschal Baumstein. He inherited the Shakespearean tradition from his predecessor, Father John (who had the non-fatal heart attack). Donoghue reverently directed an uncut “Richard III” – the Bard’s second-longest play, after “Hamlet” – in 1984, after which Father John advised, “You know, son, they do cut these things occasionally.”
Changed by time
Father Paschal urged him to do the entire 38-play canon. Some years ago, Donahue said, “I've second-guessed this project over the years. But I think if I stopped now, Father Paschal would haunt me.” Today, he demurs: “I’m not sure anyone needs to see 22-year-olds doing ‘Titus Andronicus.’ Or anyone doing ‘The Two Noble Kinsmen.’ ”
Over the years, Donaghue has become a lower-case father: Son Christopher, now in his 30s, pursues a West Coast career as an actor. At 63, the elder Donaghue has found courses he enjoys teaching: theater history, introduction to theater, American musical theater. He acts once in a while when a role speaks to him, as it did in John Patrick Shanley’s “Outside Mullingar” this fall.
He proudly notes that “Even without a major, we place at least one student each year in a first-rate MFA program in acting or directing.” He schedules plays designed to provoke thought but not outrage, from Stoppard’s “Arcadia” to Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.”
And he has raised a dedicated crop of “theater ninjas,” students who scramble backstage to make shows run smoothly. “They can do anything,” he says. “I had a quick costume change in ‘Mullingar,’ and they were swarming around, taking clothes off and putting them on. I heard one on a microphone, talking to the stage manager: ‘The pants are down. The pants are down.’ ”
Donoghue is, in short, in a groove – but not in a rut.
“The nice thing about theater is that it begins again with every rehearsal, every new cast,” he says. “I don’t have goals I have to fulfill. Belmont Abbey has been challenging and comfortable, and that’s a good combination.”