West Hyler ’99 is a prolific and award-winning director and writer who, like the rest of the world, has found his busy theater and family life disrupted by the advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
He and his wife, Shelley Butler, also a successful director, have careers that span the country and the globe. In the early part of March 2020, Hyler was in Las Vegas rehearsing “Happy Hour by iLuminate,” a show that would have opened at the Sin City Theater at Planet Hollywood on March 27, 2020. On March 14, 2020, when Las Vegas’ hotels and casinos began closing down, Shelley and their nine-year-old son, Dashiell, were spending Dashiell’s two-week spring break with Hyler. Their plans quickly unraveled.
“They flew out on Friday, March 13, and we spent a lovely Pi Day where things all seemed normal,” Hyler says. “On the Ides of March, half the Vegas strip closed. Planet Hollywood stayed open, but delayed the premiere performance of my show until April 1.”
The cast was able to rehearse, in isolation from the casino floor, only one more day.
“On Tuesday, March 17, we decided it was too dangerous to gather together and postponed rehearsals until the coronavirus crisis was over,” Hyler says. “Flights were changed and travel was arranged for the seven-person cast and nine-person crew. Thankfully, we made this choice before the governor’s March 18 declaration that all hotels had to close immediately and all guests needed to leave.”
This presented some unprecedented free time for this busy couple and their son.
“Here’s how our Google Calendar looked two weeks ago:
• January-February, I directed ‘Shrek The Musical’ at Sofia Opera House in Bulgaria
• March-April, I was to be directing ‘iLuminate Happy Hour’ in Las Vegas
• May-June Shelley, was to be directing ‘Arcadia’ at South Coast Rep near Los Angeles
• June-July, Shelley was to be directing ‘Cinderella’ at Alabama Shakespeare Festival.”
This balancing act assures that one of them is always in their New York City home to handle child care, with frequent visits from grandparents, including Sonya Hiler ’89, who travels to NYC during those times when the primary child-care-giver needs to run out of town for a day or two for meetings, auditions or workshops.
“It’s a crazy schedule, but we make it work, and we take very seriously the times when all three us get to be together.”
So after the Vegas shutdown, the family made the unique decision to combine their new-found free time together with a vacation that kept social distancing in mind.
“Shelley and I realized that we had no work in New York coming up, and that Dashiell was still on spring break, so we had no reason to return to our apartment in the city,” he continues. “We decided to ‘shelter in place’ in an RV and make our way across the country toward our parents. We get our exercise at state parks, which are still open, and still have plenty of room for us to social distance. We cook our meals in fire pits or charcoal grills, and wear gloves when we pump gasoline.
“We’ve been making our way across the country, trying to breathe in each moment as the news from home becomes ever more grim. Many of our friends have been diagnosed with the virus and actors with whom we’ve worked have died from COVID-19 complications. All of our upcoming shows have been either postponed or cancelled, and so we’re taking this time to develop projects with writers, producers and designers over Zoom and Skype so on the day that theaters open back up and people feel comfortable going out again, we will have something in the hopper.”
And over the years, Hyler’s hopper has been very full, indeed. His other directing work includes Cirque du Soleil “Paramour” (Broadway), The Big Apple Circus (Lincoln Center and National Tour), “Avenue Q” (State Puppet Theater of Bulgaria), “Panda!” (Beijing State Theater, Palazzo Hotel and Casino), and “Air Play” (New Victory Theater and International Tour), as well as shows at Ars Nova, 59E59 and York Theater Company, among many others. His writing credits include “Pure Chaos” (Troy University, TheaterWorks), “Georama” (St. Louis Rep, Great River Shakespeare Festival), “A Jake and A Tom” (Hollywood International Film Festival, Charleston International Film Festival) and the novel, “Circus of the Gods” [2 Directions, Sept. 5, 2018].
Hyler details some of his work, past and present, as well as sharing some insight into the world of live theater.
“‘Shrek’ was a fantastic experience and, in some ways, fulfilled a childhood dream,” he says. “When I was a child and dreamt about what a Broadway show would look like, ‘Shrek’ was the epitome of the dream (other than everyone singing in Bulgarian)!
“Even though I’ve been lucky enough to have a couple of shows on Broadway, Broadway today doesn’t look like it did when I was a kid,” he continues. “The orchestras are usually covered up or artfully placed onstage, the music leans more toward pop/rock, and the cast sizes are small, with everyone needing to be a triple threat—mostly gone are the days of dedicated chorus and ballet dancers. I love the new Broadway and treasure my experiences on ‘Jersey Boys’ and Cirque Du Soleil ‘Paramour,’ but my inner child always wanted to direct a show like ‘Shrek.’ There were over 30 people in the cast, including a seven-person ballet troupe, with hundreds of gloriously detailed costumes, all of which are hand-made. A 27-piece orchestra led by a Russian maestro filled a classical opera house with frescoed ceiling from the early 1900s. Every night the audience was sold-out with fans screaming for multiple bows and encores. It was literally a dream come true.”
The postponed show in Las Vegas, when it opens, will bring an excitement all its own through the talent of an act with which many are familiar.
“The show I’ve been working on in Las Vegas is another kind of dream, built on a long collaborative relationship with Miral Kotb, the genius behind ‘iLuminate.’ Miral and I first started working together in 2016, after ‘iLuminate’ had already been named Best New Act in America by the tv show ‘America’s Got Talent.’ Her work combines top-level dancing with state of the art technology and software design, wherein the dancers wear light-up costumes and the performance takes place in blackout, except for the lights on the dancer’s bodies. The results are extraordinary lighting effects choreographed with unbelievable dance moves to take viewers on a theatrical rollercoaster ride.
“In 2016, I worked as a consultant on ‘iLuminate’s’ off-Broadway and touring show, ‘Artist of Light,'” Hyler explains. “When the opportunity to perform in Vegas came around, Miral asked me to create a show from the ground-up with her. The new show is called ‘Happy Hour by iLuminate’ and blends music, dance, comedy and technology to take the audience on a journey through space and time. The audience enjoys a shot—or two, or four—along with the cast, each shot acting as a time travel device; we go to a speakeasy during the prohibition, to the Moulin Rouge in fin-de-siècle France, to a hip-hop house party in the 1980s, and to other surprising locales—I can’t give it all away! The rehearsal room was comprised of the best dancers, celebrity choreographers from ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ top-notch coders and software designers, plus Matt Morgan and Heidi Brucker Morgan, two of the best comedic hosts in the country. It was one of the most fun rehearsal rooms I’ve ever been in, and it’s always a honor to work with Miral, who is the only expert choreographer, coder, and software designer I’ve met.”
During a career that has spanned two decades, Hyler has had a number of mentors and breakout moments.
“I have been blessed to have several mentors along the way. No one in my family is in the business, so I had no path or connections when I graduated from Centre. Luckily, the artistic director of Actors Theater of Louisville at the time, Jon Jory, took me on as a assistant director and allowed me to work at Actors, the Guthrie, and the Alliance theaters all within a couple years of graduation. He also helped me meet Les Waters, who was running the MFA program at the University of California at San Diego at the time and later became the artistic director of Actors. Les accepted me into the UCSD graduate program, where I honed my skills learning from great directors, including Darko Tresnjak, Anne Bogart, Daniel Fish, Ivo Van Hove and Tina Landau, as well as the man who had the greatest effect on my career, Des McAnuff.
“After I graduated with my MFA, Des asked me to be the associate director on ‘Jersey Boys,'” Hyler continues. “If I had a break-out moment, that was it. I went on to stage ‘Jersey Boys’ in nine productions all over the world, including Singapore, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and London, as well as several U.S. companies. I learned the art of directing productions of scale and collaborating with producers, designers, choreographers, musical directors, stage managers and large casts. Those skills became the bedrock of my craft, no matter if I’m directing a traditional musical like ‘Shrek,’ a new kind of theatrical experience like ‘iLuminate,’ a circus spectacle like Cirque Du Soleil ‘Paramour,’ a classic play like ‘Tempest,’ or a new play. In all of them, the same basic collaborative and creative craftsmanship serves as the foundation for everything else.”
In this current environment of social distancing, can the casts of live theater productions find a way to continue to rehearse?
“Unfortunately, no,” Hyler says. “Theater is an art form of live, in-person communication. If a show is created or rehearsed online, it is no longer live theater. It has moved into the realm of television or film or video. As much as I enjoy watching and binging streaming shows, that is not the playground in which my skills lie. I’m a director of live entertainment, and I fervently believe in the power of a thousand people sitting together in a theater, having their heartbeats align as they watch members of their community bring dreams and fantasies to life in real time in front of them.
“I’m using this time to develop new shows and write,” he adds. “I’ve got several projects that I’m writing coming up in the next two seasons—I’ve recently finished a children’s book in collaboration with my son, and I’m spending the ‘worktime’ in the RV at the computer on these projects.”
by Cindy Long
March 30, 2020