Douglas Lyons' Search For A New Haven Stage

Lucy Gellman | December 12th, 2019

Douglas Lyons' Search For A New Haven Stage

Arts & Culture  |  Theater


Douglas Lyons: “I’m really having a reckoning with myself,” he said. “Like, what do you want to do? Not what you think you’re great at, but what you might be meant to do. Like, your light in the world.” Photo Courtesy Of Douglas Lyons.  

Douglas Lyons has had a marathon autumn. In October, he wrapped a six-year run with Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. The following weekend, he dropped the world premiere recording for his and Ethan Pakchar’s new musical Beau. For months, he’s been receiving praise for his play Chicken and Biscuits after it appeared in the New American Voices Reading Series.

But he’s still looking for a theater in New Haven that will welcome him home. Or maybe more importantly, an open stage.

Lyons, a Hartt School graduate who is now an award-winning actor, writer, and teacher in New York, was born and raised in New Haven. As he grows his dramatic footprint across the country, he’s trying to get back to his birthplace to show young New Haveners that they can do the same thing.

“I am fighting so hard, and pushing so hard, to bring my work to New Haven,” he said in a recent interview with the Arts Paper. “It’s awesome to be picked up around the country and lots of different places, but to really show and inspire children in New Haven that they can come out, do big things, and then pour that back into their community is something I’m really passionate about.”

In many ways, it would mark a return to his first theatrical home. In New Haven, Lyons’ first entry into music was the gospel that filled Thomas Chapel Church, where his mother is now a pastor. Outside of church, Lyons was raised on a steady diet of dance at Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School, so committed to the form that he started teaching it by high school, hired at a nearby dance academy.


As a teenager, he fell into acting when Hill Career Regional High School put on West Side Story, and turned the Jets and the Sharks into Black and Latinx rival gangs. Lyons, who played the lead Tony, loved the way the musical mirrored real life. The makeup of the school was highly segregated, and this gave students a platform to talk about it.

“I think I fell in love with theater because I love stories,” he said. “We cared about our stories. There was a point of view from the stage. I feel like part of my responsibility is to share something that can be carried on.”

When he graduated from high school in 2004, he headed to the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, taking a year off from academics to to tour with a national production of RENT before finishing college. The role—a swing for the benevolent villain Benny—opened doors: he was soon acting in Pirates of Penzance at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, and then Dreamgirls at the Apollo.

And then seven years ago, his parents gifted him a guitar and he started writing. What started as a way “to get through heartbreak” bloomed into a deep draw on his own experience as he drafted, rewrote, and produced his own work for the first time. Lyons saw that he had an opening: people who looked like him weren’t writing musicals.

“My irritation is that there’s a misconception that diversity is what we see in front of us on the stage,” he said. “No one is as concerned with the diversity of the pen. From the writing of musical theater, there are like less than five writers who are African-American who are part of the canon. Until that changes, the American theater will not. And I am so passionate and so vocal about being a black man in this business, because there’s never really been a movement for us.”

Inspired by an interview with the actress Phylicia Rashad, he worked on Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical, teaching students to navigate and fête their visible differences instead of using them to self-segregate. After the show premiered at Essex’ Ivoryton Playhouse in 2015 (it has since been at several theaters in the U.S., including an extended run in Guam), he went on to write Chicken and Biscuits, a family comedy inspired by the loss of his uncle and the family drama that followed during his funeral.

In his most recent work Beau, a collaboration with writer, actor and musician Ethan Pakchar, he has continued that personal, consciousness-raising through line, taking on bullying, self-harm, coming out, and absent parenthood as a musician named Ace recalls his long relationship with his grandfather.

The music and lyrics are folksy and full-lunged, with numbers that weave between gospel, blues, funk, indie rock and heavy-handed pop. Just weeks after the work ran at the Adirondack Theatre Festival, Lyons recalled reading about a high schooler who was outed by text message and took his own life. The news hit close to home.

“There’s a realism of what’s happening in the play that’s still happening in the world,” he said. “Yes, theater can entertain, and make money, and be commercial, but I also feel like it has the ability to reach into hearts and minds and make people go ‘wait a minute, let’s take a moment to look at our neighbor and say: are you okay?’”

As he pitches Beau to theaters in New York and around the country, he also wants to bring his work back to the city that raised him. After premiering Polkadots in Essex, he is hoping Chicken and Biscuits might have the same fate at Long Wharf Theatre in the coming years.

He praised city resources including the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) and pointed to the sheer talent New Haveners have spread across the country, adding that he wants to show the city’s students that “if you’re a playwright or an artist, you can create whatever world you want.”

“I operate on passion and drive,” he said. “I wear a lot of hats, sometimes too many, but that’s because I believe in getting the work out there and being a light.”