Oliver Butler

Director Oliver Butler Retraces His Roots

By Theresa M. MacNaughton, Community Engagement Associate

Oliver ButlerAlthough his mother was an accomplished stage and screen actress, Oliver Butler didn’t always envision a career in theatre for himself. Growing up backstage, he saw firsthand how hard an actor’s life could be – going on auditions and waiting for the next job, all the while not knowing what the near future would bring or whether there would be another paycheck.

The world premiere of An Opening in Time marks the return of the director to Hartford Stage, which brings back many fond memories from his youth. His mother, Pamela Payton-Wright, appeared in a number of productions at Hartford Stage including The Misanthrope; Passion Play; On the Verge, or the Geography of Yearning; Seascape; and The Orphans’ Home Cycle. Butler recalls watching his mother perform from the booth or in the wings. He also made friends with both cast and crew, sometimes sitting on the light board operator’s lap and hitting the “go” button or making offstage noises on cue with a group of actors.

He even had time to learn a few games.

“I think a lighting technician showed me this card trick where at the final moment you ask the other person, ‘If I can guess your card, will you give me $5?’ or something like that,” Butler recalled. “It worked like a charm because what kind of person isn’t going to find a 7-year-old card shark sort of cute? So, I cleaned up. But then my mom found out and was furious, and she made me give the money back.”

Although Butler loved the behind-the-scenes action and the people he met, the uncertainty of life in the theatre weighed heavily on his mind. He remembers often asking his mother, “Did you get the job? How was the audition?” Butler himself dabbled in acting while attending high school – appearing in productions of Little Shop of Horrors and Jesus Christ Superstar. But pursuing an acting career at that point was the farthest thing from his mind. He does admit that getting to experience all of the backstage action did spark his interest in making plays and, subconsciously, also interested him in directing. However, Butler didn’t make the decision to pursue directing until mid-way through college, at the age of 20, when he acted in a Williamstown production of The Blue Demon, written and directed by Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage’s Artistic Director.

While An Opening in Time takes place in Central Connecticut and is inspired by playwright Christopher Shinn’s hometown, Butler noted that the play “should feel like your own hometown, wherever that may be.” Born in Washington, D.C., Butler grew up in East Lyme, Connecticut and graduated from the University of Connecticut. Although his family no longer resides in the state, and he currently lives in New York City, Butler recently reminisced about his own hometown experiences: fishing with his father, helping out on the family farm, and working summer weekends at Flanders Fish Market – a place he continues to visit when passing through Connecticut as he travels to Cape Cod.

Butler and Shinn may not have grown up together, but they have become good friends since being introduced by a mutual acquaintance six years ago. Butler was a fan of Shinn’s work and had been hoping for a chance to work with him. Butler jumped at the opportunity to direct An Opening in Time, as he loves the play and feels that its themes will resonate with many.

“This is a play about acceptance, specifically the ability to accept oneself and give permission for second chances, first chances, and sometimes last chances. These are people who each in their own way don’t know how to love themselves or don’t think they are worthy of love or have enough time left in their lives for love,” Butler explained. “They feel the immense pressure of society, which is full of rules that make being happy very hard and love an act of courage. This makes it easier to not fight the status quo and stay in a loveless marriage or not stand up for individuality or against bullying. But, in the long term, that kind of inaction will build a life that is slowly dying.” 

Butler acknowledged that An Opening in Time has come at just the right time in his life.

“In the last five years my parents have gotten much older, much faster. I’ve hit a time in my life where I hear of as many funerals as weddings and births. I’m at a time where I can still remember my youth and the hope I had for my life, but I’m reminded of the end, as well, every time I talk to my parents or hear of a friend who has lost a loved one,” Butler said.

“Birth, youth and death all feel very familiar to me. The characters in this play vary in age from teen to retired – people who are still forming who they are and deciding who they will be, and people who think that who they are is all they will ever be. And as I feel that I am transitioning out of one phase of my life into another, between worlds, these themes, characters and their struggles are very real to me,” he continued.

With a few exceptions, the busy director has mainly specialized in working on new plays. He co-founded The Debate Society with Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen 11 years ago with the goal of creating new work. The New York City-based company has made nine full-length plays with more in the works. New York Stage and Film just produced the company’s latest play, The Light Years, and Ars Nova produced Jacuzzi last fall. The Debate Society has also created and sold a television show, is developing a screenplay, and has a commission with Playwrights Horizons called The Care and Feeding of Adults.

Butler particularly enjoys working on new plays because it allows him the chance to figure out everything for the first time and walk a path where no one has walked. He said, “I hope audiences also feel the excitement and pride in experiencing a story that has never before been heard.”

“When I see a play, I want to see a mixture of things I think I know and things I’ve never seen before. I want to see myself on stage – both as I wish to be and also as I know I am,” Butler said.  “Audiences should see An Opening in Time because it is an honest, delicate portrait of who many of us are – right now. And it is exciting.”