Today we mourn the passing of Heather Hughes, a young and vibrant woman, whose life came to an end early Wednesday morning, due to late-stage lung cancer one day before she would have turned 45. She is survived by her son, her fiancee, and her family.
As David Schmader shared in his eulogy earlier today, Seattle loved the hell out of Heather, and with ample reason. Hers was a genuine spirit, an adventuresome life; a life led by an undying resourcefulness, earthy good humor and a desire to see it all, come what may. Over the years, she has been an actress, an improvisor, a merchant at Pike Place Market, a chanteuse, a burlesque performer, a semi-pro wrestler, a bartender, a sketch comedian — she was everywhere. Most recently, she could have been seen as Betty Sommers in Match Game, the monthly game show celebration of drunken debauchery that used to take place at the Rendezvous, and currently takes place at Rebar.
This list of her various vocations should give you a further idea of the kind of person she was; she had no time for pretenses, or for games of status. She went wherever she felt she could make a favorable contribution, as long as there was a promise of good and productive times. As a result, she was either the best thing in a dreadful production, or she added immeasurable excellence to an already strong one; she never, ever, gave less than her all, and therefore, always shined. We are talking about someone who could keep up with the likes of Jennifer Jasper, Kevin Kent, K Brian Neel, Joe Zavadil and Kim Evey at King’s Elephant Theater (a seminal improv group in Seattle during the early 90s); search for these names on Google, if the meaning isn’t clear. There are too many performances to highlight in one place, but two of the standouts include lead performances in Mae West’s Sex at Annex, and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopratra at ConWorks.
I don’t want to give the impression that I knew her well, I didn’t. For a couple of years, we worked closely together in a theatrical capacity when I first moved to Seattle. Since then, we would see each other in passing, on the street, at a bar, after a show she had performed in. I knew I could count on a fond hello, a warm embrace, and a quick catch up, if time allowed.
For me, memories of Heather all flow from the same source: Meeting her as part of King’s Elephant back in September of 1992. I had just volunteered to run the light board for their show named Semantics. I showed up on Monday and the show was slated to open the following Friday, so they were glad to have someone take up the position; I recall that Heather came up and planted a warm kiss on my cheek, and said “thank you.” Thus welcomed, they began rehearsing the piece.
Semantics was essentially a series of vignettes derived from the definition of a set group of words (Love, Grief, Betrayal, etc.) that utilized improv, mask work and scripted scenes (including a couple of scenes written by Bret Fetzer and Scot Augustson). Intense, experimental, hilarious, the piece evoked vaudeville, screwball comedies, Mummenschantz and European agitprop theater. One scene, entitled ‘Nudity’ and written by Evey, involved two statues on pedestals, one male and one female; the performers are masked, but otherwise naked.
The scene begins with the two of them in classic Greek pose. After standing still for a long moment, the male statue (Neel) awakens and sees the female. He is entranced, and must approach the beauty on the other side of the stage. Once there, he stretches out his hand, as if in wanting to wake her; she wakes up at this moment, and there is a sense that she wants him to touch her. Instead of connecting with her, he bounces one of her breasts, which is accompanied by a bongo. He starts playing with her breasts, not maliciously, or lasciviously, but as a child would play with them, making them bounce, go from side to side, up and down. Her desire to connect quickly dissipates into bemusement and annoyance when the boob-play begins. The male stops, and slowly heads back to his pedestal, where he resumes his previous pose.
Flabbergasted, the woman comes down from her pedestal and walks over to the male. She looks him over, and settles on the obvious feature. She first flicks the male’s penis, which is accompanied by the sound of a mouth organ. Intrigued, she does it again, and soon she is playing with his penis in the same way he played with her boobs. She stretches it out like a slinky, winds it up like a jack-in-the-box, makes it go hither and tither for a short while. Satisfied, she heads back to her pedestal, watched by the male statue the entire way. When she climbs up, the two statues alter their poses, in order to cover up their exposed body parts; while he merely puts his hands over his privates, she poses like Venus de Milo. The scene is over. It never failed to gain a positive response from the audience, no matter how silent they were before or after the performance of that scene.
That was Heather Hughes.
This is how she has been defined in my mind for very close to twenty years now. This is as close as I can get, in words, to achieve the effect Erin McGaughan, another mourner, achieved by describing Heather in one simple sentence, found in a Facebook group that was created in the days leading to Heather’s passing: “Pretty, sexy, funny, smart, gritty, ballsy, brave.” It is unfair that she is no longer here to create further memories with and for us.
I’ll finish by sharing one of the last videos made of Heather performing; it is shared by fellow Match Game “celebrity” Nelson Heston Riley, and features Heather’s alter ego singing a song that’s a little, well, fitting in both its melancholy and how it puts her spirit in a proper context.
Rest in peace, Heather Hughes.