Treat everyone with respect. Professionalism is as important as talent. Talented people are a dime a dozen. Who do you want to spend 15 hours with on set? I’ve worked with brilliant artists that are kind and fun. I have no desire to work with abusive and unkind people, no matter how genius they are.
As a part of our series about creating a successful career in theatre, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Tara Nicole Hughes.
Tara Nicole Hughes is a creative force. She has collaborated as a choreographer on iconic musical films including Danny Collins, Nine, Burlesque, Mary Poppins Returns, Joker 2 and most recently the Disney live action The Little Mermaid. Tara continues to enjoy a two decade long collaboration with luminary director Rob Marshall crafting some of the most beloved movie musical moments of all time and is a recipient of the World Choreography Award. She has had an illustrious career that has taken her from the Broadway stage (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) to film and television screens, with over 40 credits to her name, to concert arenas and world tours with Pharrell and Cher. As a movement coach, Tara has worked with brilliant artists including Joaquin Phoenix, Daniel Day Lewis, Nicole Kidman and Emily Blunt. Among a long list of choreographic credits for TV and film projects, her work has appeared on Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance and The American Music Awards.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Orlando, Florida. I found dance at a young age and that became my passion and singular focus. My path was very clear early on and I had many, including my parents, who guided, supported and nourished my dreams.
After graduating high school, I attended Loyola Marymount Manhattan college in NYC and then moved to Los Angeles to pursue my career as a dancer. With $300 in my bank account and a burning desire to dance professionally, I booked a one way plane ticket.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
Like all of us, I think my path was written in the stars. I was born very “pigeon-toed” and my parents had to put hard casts on my legs to straighten them so I could walk easier. At seven years old, as a way to help turn my legs out, my mom put me in ballet class and that was my first experience with dance. I remember feeling so little in this huge, enormous studio, standing in first position at the ballet barre, but somehow I felt at home. I never left the dance studio after that.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
That person for me was my dance teacher and mentor, Cathy Gillaspie. Cathy was a beacon of light who shared not only her love of dance with me but her positive perspective on life. From affirmations and visualization tools to nutrition and the importance of serving our community, she fed my soul. The dance studio became a safe haven for me and that is where I put in my 10,000 hours; yet it never felt like work, only pure joy. I believe her way of being set me up for the success that was to come in my life.
You probably have a lot of fascinating experiences. Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I think the most thrilling and exciting stories have come from all my travels during my career. I probably never would have taken my 10 day backpack trek though Thailand if it weren’t for my job in Singapore that got me to that part of the world, or the helicopter ride I took while in Hawaii, or seeing the Black Forest in Germany.
I have so many memories and a life of travel because of my career. That is a gift!
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A funny mistake I once made was when I was coming off the stage during a Broadway show I was performing in. Patrick Swayze was at the stage door and I ran to him, wrapping my arms around him in the biggest bear hug, thinking I knew him! Of course, I had not met him, but felt like I had after watching him dance and act all those years. I apologized for my affection and he was sweet as can be about it. That was a funny moment.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I recently Co-Choreographed the new Disney Live Action film The Little Mermaid, that is being released in theaters on May 26th. It’s thrilling to finally share this film with the world, after such a long journey making it. The cast is luminous and I feel so proud.
I also just finished Associate Choreographing the film Joker 2, with Joaquin Phoenix and Lady Gaga, directed by Todd Phillips. That was a dream working with such exquisite artists and going on that creative journey with them.
You have been blessed with success in a career path that can be challenging. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path, but seem daunted by the prospect of rejection, lack of support, or failure?
In the past, I’ve always said to people, “follow your passion”, but after being in the business for so many years, I do think it’s important to ask yourself the type of life you want. The entertainment business has its ups and downs, working for months and then long periods of drought, where you are hustling, auditioning, grinding, possibly struggling. I believe there has to be a fire that drives you. It’s possible this business isn’t for everyone and it’s fair to ask yourself if you can ride out the ebbs as well as enjoy the flows. Also, I think building community and finding joy outside of work, helps to create a balance that brings a deeper and more sustainable happiness.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in the live performance industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I used to be so scared about when my next job was coming that I’d panic, push, worry, fret. But over the years I’ve learned the importance of the exhale. Work hard, but also allow yourself to enjoy the quiet, the down time. Take the steps you need to accomplish your goals, but also trust that those seeds are being sewn, even though you don’t see the results yet. For me, setting intentions of what I’d like to experience, and then allowing the Universe to work its magic has been the biggest gift.
Thank you for all that. This is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career in Broadway, Theater or Live Performances” and why? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
- Stay curious. Sometimes we come with pre-conceived ideas of how things should go, and much of the magic happens in the discovery.
- Treat everyone with respect. Professionalism is as important as talent. Talented people are a dime a dozen. Who do you want to spend 15 hours with on set? I’ve worked with brilliant artists that are kind and fun. I have no desire to work with abusive and unkind people, no matter how genius they are.
- Stay engaged with your craft. It’s your responsibility to stay on top of your game.
- Realize you only need a handful of collaborators to have a career. Some directors I’ve worked with for over 20 years 🙂
- A sense of humor. Sometimes you need a little levity and to not take yourself too seriously. Follow the joy, and that light resonates and ripples out!
For the benefit of our readers, could you describe how the skill-sets you need in a theater performance are different than the skill-sets you need for TV or Film?
On stage, there is a proscenium and a very clear front. The dance is a continual event with a beginning, middle and end. In addition to choreographed steps, staging is a big part of the story telling. That’s a skill to hone for sure.
In contrast, Film and Television is a 360 degree world. When I choreograph for film or tv, I think of the camera as a dance partner. It’s very fun for me to get inside of a moment and to use the camera to add energy, excitement, momentum or the opposite, distance and stillness. And then with editing, sometimes you’re just seeing moments or segments of the dance. You’re either in frame or out, and camera doesn’t read depth so that’s always interesting to play with. Learning how to choreograph for camera is the biggest difference between the two mediums.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what idea can trigger. 🙂
It’s such a hard time politically in America right now. We are so polarized and so many groups are still marginalized and at risk. My artistic community is the most precious and has so much to offer. I’d love to have people switch lives for a year, walk in someone else’s shoes. So much of the bigotry and hatred in the world stems from misunderstanding, yet we all want and deserve the same things in life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do what you can with what you have. Nothing more is needed.”
It’s taken me a long time to realize that all I need, is within me. Yes, I need to be prepared and do the work, but what makes me unique is my own particular perspective, voice and journey. It’s so much more interesting to show up authentically me and tell my truth.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I really love the work that Ava DuVernay is doing on her productions. Many people talk about change, but she is actually making change happen. Recently on one of her series, Queen Sugar, she decided to employ only female directors. Every single episode was directed by a woman, 42 total. She’s using her platform to make this business more inclusive and I love that!
How can our readers continue to follow your work online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!
Thank you for having me!