Kristi Hughes ’98 is not the only Centre College graduate who is spending her post-collegiate years abroad. But unlike most Centre alumni, she is doing so as a professional actress—and, often, a professional clown.
A French and dramatic arts double-major at Centre, Hughes attributes several of her courses at the College with her success in the acting world. “I took a “Physical Acting/Commedia dell’arte/Clown” class with Patrick Kagan-Moore [professor of dramatic arts] that, in the end, forever changed the course of my life,” Hughes says. “Patrick saw that my main strengths as an actor seemed to be in physical comedy, clown, movement and mask work. During my senior year, he told me that I should look into to the Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Of course, after Patrick suggested this school to me, I was determined to go there. Thank you, Patrick!”
She did not head straight for Paris upon graduation, however. First, she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and lived with fellow Centre graduate and friend Lisa Pearson Hamre. While in San Francisco, Hughes worked for the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi; she also completed an internship with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, studying Commedia dell’arte, an Italian form of masked theatre dating back to1551; playwriting; political theatre; and clowning.
“During those two years, my desire to work professionally as an actress intensified, so I applied to the Ecole Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq,” she says. “Upon being accepted, I quit my corporate job and moved to Paris.”
Since completing this two-year professional acting program, Hughes has been touring internationally, living and performing all over Europe for the past 10 years.
She credits not only Kagan-Moore and Centre dramatic arts professor Tony Haigh with her success in Ecole Jacques Lecoq but several other Centre professors—and the courses they taught—as well.
“Going to a theatre performance school in Paris was the perfect way to use both of my majors on a daily basis,” she says. “All of our classes were in French, so it was an immense benefit to already be able to speak the language. Thank you, Madame Karin Ciholas!”
Ciholas, professor emerita of language, and her French courses enabled Hughes to survive in the intensive program, where “the first three months are a trial to see who fits into the pedagogy of the school. Some people are cut from the program after the first three months and two-thirds of the students are cut after the first year,” Hughes says. “So I was grateful that I could communicate with my professors and concentrate on the work at hand without getting bogged down with learning a new language.”
Hughes also says she was inspired to live abroad by Centre professor of English Dr. Daniel Manheim, who led the Centre-in-Strasboug program when Hughes studied abroad.
“My abroad experience in Strasbourg played a major role in my life,” she says. “Like many Centre alumni, I’ll never forget those five months studying abroad. It was during this time I realized that I wanted to live in Europe at some point in my life. My eyes opened. My world expanded. There was so much to see, to learn and to experience.”
The classes she took in Strasbourg, she says, “are, to this day, some of the most vivid to me. We took a class on travel literature, and we each wrote and handed in travel journals. Writing my own piece of travel literature helped me realize how my adventures in Europe had broadened my world-view and had transformed me as a person. Thank you, Professor Manheim!”
Of the many extraordinary experiences she had while acting in Europe, Hughes says that founding an international theatre company with six colleagues in Paris was one of the highlights. Working with Cirque du Soleil (and performing with them in Montreal, the U.S., the Caribbean, Europe and Egypt) and creating and performing documentary theatre in public spaces with her current theatre company, TheatreFragile, were a few of her favorite achievements.
It was while working with Cirque du Soleil that Hughes met several professional clowns who had volunteered for the Canadian non-profit organization Clowns Sans Frontières. After discovering the United States’ version, Clowns Without Borders, Hughes investigated the company and discovered that the group was planning three trips to Haiti this past fall.
“They were looking for clown volunteers who speak French,” Hughes says, “and I’ve always wanted to volunteer in some way in an area of crisis. I had time in October, so I immediately contacted the program’s director.”
And off to Haiti she went.
She and her fellow clowns worked in Haiti for two and a half weeks, during which time they performed their 45-minute clown show three times a day for a total of about 8,200 kids and adults. They traveled to towns and villages in the southeast region of Haiti, playing in temporary school structures and I.D.P. (Internally Displaced People) Camps.
“For some of the kids we met, we were the first white people they had ever seen,” she says. “Once, when we were meeting people in the street before a performance at a ‘Child Friendly Space’ in Côtes de Fer, one little boy looked up at me with amazement in his eyes. Without saying a word, he just took hold of my finger while I was talking to a large group of kids. He never said a word to me. He just looked at me with huge, curious eyes and held onto my finger wherever I went. When his older sister came to join us, he gasped and looked at her and pointed at me, as if to say, ‘Look, what I found hanging out in the middle of the street!’”
Now back in the States and living temporarily in Los Angeles, Hughes is planning her next steps in the theatre arena.
“In the future, I want to teach theatre, and I’m currently in the process of figuring out how I can best pursue both teaching and performing,” she says.
For the next year, she will continue working with her international theatre company, TheatreFragile. The Berlin-based company specializes in “mask theatre in public spaces.”
While she says that choosing to commit her life to creating and performing theatre has been “anything but easy,” Hughes says she is grateful for the “diverse experiences I’ve had and all of the fascinating people I’ve been fortunate enough to meet. As they say in German, ‘Weiter so!’ Keep it up! And that’s exactly what I plan to do.”