"I hate everything I do at first. That's what motivates me," John Haldoupis says. He's talking — passionately — about his first tries at creating and painting a stage set, something he has done for more than three decades for Blackfriars Theater.
"I'll start doing the underpainting with a big brush and I'll hate how it looks. Then I'll try a smaller brush, then a smaller one. I'll keep working, and the thing eventually gets richer-looking, more layered. But it's all about the underpainting, the bones of what you're creating. Nothing is instantaneous."
Haldoupis has done the underpainting — both literal and figurative — for 35 years of memorable productions and performances at Blackfriars Theatre. But he announced last spring that he would step down as Blackfriars' artistic director; the 2014-15 season, which starts this weekend with "Shirley Valentine," will be his last.
A native of Webster, Haldoupis showed artistic talent while very young. His grammar school art teacher visited the Haldoupis family twice a week for dinner and to give John painting lessons. "He didn't really know what to do with me," Haldoupis says. "So he gave me the notes from his own college art classes. I was in grade school, learning about color theory and perspective."
His education after that included a summer at the Chautauqua Institution, a one-person show, a membership in the National Watercolor Society, and a Scholastic Art Award that entitled him to four years of study at any school in the country. He chose RIT ... and was immediately, he says "incredibly bored."
"At 17 or 18, I really was reluctant to go to college, and I didn't like it. I was taking all these beginning-level classes when I had been working on a professional level. I showed my portfolio to my professors and they agreed, I could skip to the graduate level painting program. But I didn't want to be a teacher, so I dropped out of school."
Design eased Haldoupis into theater, he says. His set and costume designs for community theater led to an invitation to work for Blackfriars, starting with "Man of La Mancha." He added directing to his resume with "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine." Within a couple of years, he was invited to be Artistic Director, and has since designed and directed hundreds of Blackfriars productions.
"My approach to directing still comes from the visual aspect of a production," he admits, but he shares this approach with one of his favorite Broadway directors, Hal Prince (of "Phantom of the Opera," "Company," "Sweeney Todd," "Cabaret"), who searches for the "motor" of each show he directs. "That usually boils down to 'What does the show look like?'" Haldoupis says. "'What makes it move?' This is why Prince's shows are so visually arresting and polished" — a phrase that could well describe many of his Blackfriars productions, which have often made striking use of limited space (and limited budgets).
Then there are the actors. When you're a director, he says, "You're part therapist, and part interpreter of the playwright — they are the true artists. It took me a while to learn how to work with actors, how to push the buttons they need. I try to show them respect, and give them a comfort zone to work in."
When he won CITY Newspaper's Achievement Award in Theater in 2010, he recalls thinking to himself, "How odd that an individual person should get this. One person didn't do all this. Theater is a shared dream, on both sides of the footlights. I work with a lot of incredibly talented people who execute my dreams."
"The key to a Blackfriars season is variety," Haldoupis says. "My choices tend to be very eclectic and we sometimes push our subscribers. If everybody loves everything, you're doing something wrong."
Haldoupis claims, "I despise elitist feelings about theater. You have to accept something for what it is, not what it isn't. Lots of people say paintings on black velvet are horrible. No, you can have good painting on black velvet and bad painting on black velvet." So along with Stephen Sondheim musicals and classic American plays, Blackfriars produces shows like "Boeing Boeing" and "Nunsense" — but with as much detail and artistry as any other show.
Haldoupis's choices for his last Blackfriars season are revealing. For his opening he wanted to be "nostalgic," he says, so he chose the one-woman show "Shirley Valentine." The show was a great success 15 years ago with Susan Hopkins. It is followed by Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport," which Haldoupis calls "a well-crafted American play that's not overexposed." (He puts last season production of Lanford Wilson's "HOT L BALTIMORE" in this category — a title with just enough name recognition to get audiences interested in seeing it.)
Holiday time brings a Las Vegas-style nightclub revue, "because I've always wanted to do showgirl costumes," he says. This is followed by Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," directed by Fred Nuremberg. It's obviously a familiar play, but Haldoupis thinks with Nuremberg's direction and his design it will have "a Blackfriars twist."
"Fred and I agree that Shakespeare in modern dress doesn't work, so we're making it quasi-period, like a dreamscape." Actors in white will perform in front of a backdrop of crumpled white paper and red roses (Haldoupis emphasizes that this "Romeo and Juliet" is still in the planning stages).
The season concludes with the Jeanine Tesori musical "Violet." "When I tell people it's about a young woman who's been disfigured with an axe and who travels cross-country to find a TV evangelist who will cure her, the response is, 'Oh yes — quintessentially John Haldoupis.'"
"I like to do whatever floats my boat, even if it's darker material," he says, and Blackfriars' musicals include such somber fare as Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd" and "Passion," Kander and Ebb's "Zorba," and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard". "Somebody wanted to make a tee-shirt saying 'It's not a Blackfriars musical unless somebody dies!"
When asked about his decision to retire from Blackfriars, he says, "It's been 35 years of Fridays at 8 p.m.," he says. "It's relentless. You know when Friday night comes around that there's no turning back. Putting on theater is a job with an intensity like no other.
"And It's an intensity I think I can live without," he says with a laugh. "I'll be 55 in October and I'd like to go back to making art just for me. I want to go back to being my own playwright."
What does he consider his legacy? "A certain consistency", he says. "By having my hands in a lot of things, I think there is something called 'a Blackfriars show.' It's nice to think people get what I've been all about."