Claudia Hughes is a multi-faceted creative person whose gifts include dance, music, theater, and oil painting. She’s also lovely and gracious, and although I caught no hint of it, she admitted to being a little bit of a drama queen sometimes.
She graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in music. Her instrument of choice was the flute and she thought she wanted a career teaching elementary school band.
She married and had a son, Mark. When he was still a toddler, they moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where Claudia got a job as a music teacher in a small-town public school, seeing about 1500 students a week. By the third year, she knew with certainty that it was not what she wanted to do. By then Mark was five. Soon after, her daughter Jenn was born.
In Birmingham, Claudia was given an opportunity that was too good to pass up. While she was in college, she fell in love with modern dance and now she was invited to join a new dance company.
The woman was starting a modern dance company and it was integrated, which was really big. This was in the sixties, and it was wonderful.
A few years later, Claudia and her husband had the chance to move to Maine. A far cry from Alabama, but they’d always wanted to live in New England by the ocean. They ended up in Cape Elizabeth. She missed being part of the dance company but started giving lessons to local housewives. Not too long after, she was invited to join another dance company.
I was in the original Ram Island Dance Company in ’73. I didn’t think I would ever get to dance again because I was already in my thirties. I think I was 33 when I joined. But after about three years of that, I got divorced and had to leave Ram Island and get a job.
She found an office job, bought a sweet little house, and was still able to dance in small companies. She enrolled at the University of Southern Maine to get an elementary school teaching degree. She had a degree to teach music, but not regular elementary school. She also took a few acting classes the school offered.
I studied with Michael Howard and Michael Rafkin and all those people. It was great. I’d been on stage a lot but I never said a word. I could dance or be in the chorus, but never thought I could do a speaking part. I ended up falling in love with it.
I love everything about acting. I love making a little family with the cast and crew. You get so close to people, and becoming someone else on stage is wonderful. I’ve played some great characters. To be Linda Loman in Death of a Salesman was just wonderful and I played the hairdresser in Steel Magnolias at the Chocolate Church in Bath and then the mother at Portland Players. I had always wanted to play the mother. It was the oddest thing — she does this last scene where she cries and is angry and it’s such a joy to do something like that on stage. But it was right after that we had to come out for the curtain call, and you’ve got mascara coming down and everything and I would look out into the audiece and be shocked to see people crying, and it was mostly men. Because they have daughters and the idea of their daughter dying that way was, I guess, too much. Every night the men were crying or trying not to.
Another wonderful role I got to play was Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
There is a story that goes with Virginia Woolf. Claudia got to do it with her late second husband, David LaGraffe. They were both teaching at the time (She was the drama teacher at Waynflete School in Portland for several years), but it was February vacation and they had a little extra time to learn their lines before school and rehearsals began. Nine days.
I would go in one room and he would go in the other and I would learn 10 pages a day. I had a hundred pages worth of lines. So I learned that in nine days. I could not do that now. I know I couldn’t. I was 48 or something, so I wasn’t real young, but still. We were exhausted. But it was so perfect to be with him on stage in that way where we could just yell at each other and break bottles and stuff.
It was also cool because Martha drank gin, so I got to drink water on the stage, which was great. David had to drink tea because George drank scotch. I just love that I could drink water on stage.
David was the love of Claudia’s life. The theater is what brought them together. They even got married on stage at The Portland Players in South Portland. It was a forties motif.
They were happily married for 36 years until David died suddenly in 2017 of a hemorrhagic stroke at the age of 72.
He was so young. He was happy with his work and he loved his improvisation classes and his improv company. And he loved me and he loved his life and, yes, it’s just not fair.
Life without David has been very, very hard for Claudia. In a way, he was bigger than life and his presence filled the spaces he occupied. Their home is especially quiet. But her husband’s death is not the only major loss Claudia has had to face. In 2013, her daughter Jenn died of breast cancer. She was 44.
Her grief is ever present, but she refuses to be overcome by it or to let it stifle her creativity.
David and I read “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas and “A Christmas Memory” by Truman Capote for quite a few years in different venues ending with performances at Falmouth Footlights. When he died in 2017 I thought I would not feel like doing it again, but after a year I longed to once again read those beautiful pieces so I asked Geep Amara to join me. He was in David’s Playback Company and was a very close friend to both of us. Geep and I have now performed the reading for four years and plan to do it again this year.
She’s also part of a backyard gathering called Shake Shack that was started by friends of hers during COVID and still happens.
People bring some wine or something to eat, and then you just raise your hand and say, I want to do something. You do it on book or off book or read a poem or don’t do anything. Everybody’s so happy there because they get to perform Shakespeare and celebrate him, but you can do anyone. And then you leave a little token in a tree. I have some English coins, and I put one in there. It’s just very sweet. I’ve loved the people that I’ve met there. During COVID we stayed outside and wore masks until we got up on the stage. Now we don’t have to and it’s nice.
In addition, she’s on the board of Portland Players and doing whatever she can to help. She stopped performing on stage but has been dipping her toes into it again.
Claudia has one more creative outlet, which was inspired by her mother who started painting in her late 50s. Claudia started painting after she retired from Waynflete.
My whole life has been about the performing arts: music, dance, theatre … my mother started painting late in life and I think it gave me the courage to start painting in the later part of my life, too. Once I started painting with oils it became more than a hobby. I took some classes at MECA and built a studio in my garage. My first art show was at Barbara’s Kitchen in South Portland.
Painting is as thrilling as acting and dancing, says Claudia. And it’s the perfect thing to be doing at this time of her life.
Painting is like a dream, (sometimes a nightmare:-). It takes me to a place like no other I’ve had in my life. The smells of the paint, the textures, the exhilaration when you feel you’ve succeeded and even when you have to scrape it out. Losing my husband was especially tough on my painting life … he was my best fan. I took a break recently as I was missing David so much when I painted, but I am back and trying to pick up where I left off.