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Memphis Flyer Journeyman

Hugh Sinclair returns home to direct 'Travels with My Aunt.'

By Carey Checca

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  Scandal, love, sex.

Aunt Augusta in Graham Greene’s novel Travels with My Aunt embraces all of these and has a joy for life that is not limited by anyone else’s sense of morality. Henry, Aunt Augusta’s fiftyish sheltered nephew, is not so open. It takes a journey from London to Istanbul to South America – plus the many revelations of Augusta’s shady connections as well as an accusation of drug smuggling – to pull Henry out of his conventional existence.

“Henry is everyman,” says Hugh Sinclair, the director of Travels with My Aunt, which is now playing at the Circuit Playhouse. “He’s trapped in the conventionality of the period. [Aunt Augusta] sets him free.”

Sinclair in his own way is like Henry. Born and raised in Memphis, Sinclair attended the Memphis University School and then veered from the usual post-prep-school path of becoming a doctor, lawyer, or businessman to go into acting.

“It allowed me to communicate in a way that surpassed regular channels of communication,” he explains. “Saying other people’s words gave me the confidence to say my own.”

Soon after graduating from high school, Sinclair was off to the theatre program at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. As a member of the Nashville-based Tennessee Repertory Theater a few years later, Sinclair played the lead in The Elephant Man. While in Nashville, he also had minor roles in the movies Ernest Goes to Camp and Running Mates.

But it was under the direction of Tom Bullard in Nashville that Sinclair started to bring others out of their shells like Aunt Augusta pulls Henry out of his own. Bullard was teaching at-risk high-school students how to direct plays using professional actors. He taught by example, first showing the students how he directed and then giving the students free rein with the actors and the scene. Sinclair participated as an actor and played theatre and improvisation games with the students.

Again under the direction of Bullard, Sinclair performed in The Foreigner in Allentown, Pennsylvania. When the show closed, Sinclair moved to New York City, where he acted in original off-Off Broadway plays and did improvisational theatre. He also wrote, directed, produced, and performed in his own works, ranging from a monthly public radio program to a weekly cable-access show for kids.

In 1995, Sinclair was burnt out on acting.

“I was such a lousy business person – making the rounds, handing out pictures, marketing,” Sinclair says.

He left acting for social work, where he ended up playing the same theatre and improvisation games with children as Bullard had used in the Nashville arts-in-the-schools program. The children he worked with developed self-confidence and social skills. Sinclair had an opportunity to stay in social work if he got a master’s degree in the field.

“I realized, no, acting is what I really want to do,” Sinclair says. Now, 20 years after leaving Memphis, Sinclair is back. Returned to the city for family reasons in January, Sinclair has hit the Memphis streets running. He’s acted in Theatre Memphis’ production of Noises Off, Da at the Memphis University School, and The Seagull at Rhodes College. He’s teaching theatre for the Memphis Arts Council in middle schools as well as teaching a Saturday-morning improvisation workshop to high-school students.

Sinclair hopes to get more people to go to the theatre by giving his audiences an entertaining evening and then quietly slipping his message in.

Sinclair says of Travels with my Aunt: “This play is very entertaining. The message is individuality versus conformity, moral judgment or lack of moral judgment.”

And it’s done through four men in business suits who play all of the roles. True to the original London direction, the actors wear no makeup or costumes, use only minimal props like handkerchiefs and tea cups, and switch from Henry to Aunt Augusta to other characters in mid-sentence.

“It’s a challenge to stage it and make it clear,” Sinclair says. “By thinking of Henry as everyman, you get this vehicle for the audience to project their own perspective on what Henry is going through.”

Each time Henry travels with Aunt Augusta, she draws him out of his staid shell and he discovers an new, exciting part of life. By the end of his travels, Henry has a love for life only second to his aunt’s.

Like the often-traveling Aunt Augusta, Sinclair’s next journey is to New York City in April 1999, where he’ll be acting in Desperate Territory, an original play by Jeni Staniloff.

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