Paul Lewis Hughes, who influenced at least two generations of actors in Lakeland as the multi-decade artistic director of Pied Piper Players/Lakeland Community Theatre and through 32 years as a teacher, died Saturday night at age 63.
Hughes had faced multiple health challenges that kept him in and out of hospitals since mid-May, said close friend Tammy Serebrin who had worked alongside Hughes for 13 years when she was executive director of Lakeland Community Theatre.
Serebrin was among about 10 friends, some of them former students, who gathered around Hughes Saturday for his final moments.
Hughes’ lasting impact was on the thousands of young people he inspired and exposed to theater, Serebrin said: “He was a consummate teacher whether it was at community theater or the schools where he taught.”
Hughes founded the theater programs at Harrison School of the Arts and All Saints Academy, and taught at each for 16 years.
“He was passionate about the arts and he imbued it in his students,” Serebrin continued. “He was talented (as an actor and singer) in his own right. He pushed his students and actors beyond the limits that they thought they could reach and they usually reached it.”
Indeed, dozens of tributes posted on Hughes’s Facebook page as word of his death spread refer to him as a mentor.
In a moving Facebook post, former teaching colleague David DeBorde referred to Hughes as “a complicated man – generous and also challenging. Boisterous and also mysterious.”
Hughes “was a professional actor in and around New York and circumstances led him back to Lakeland,” DeBorde wrote, adding later, “You didn’t move back to Broadway to become a big splash there, but your legacy in Lakeland is enormous, longstanding and meaningful.”
An admiring February column in The Ledger by Norman Small, who was producing director of Theatre Winter Haven for 45 years, notes that Hughes took Pied Piper Players “from a once-a year children’s theater to the heights of a fully rounded community theater with productions for adults as well. Including his own role of Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’ Twice.”
Hughes group up in Lakeland, attending Lime Street Elementary School, Crystal Lake Middle School and Lakeland High School. He went to Polk Junior College on a vocal scholarship and then a theater scholarship, took classes at the University of South Florida and received a theater/directing degree for Saint Leo University. (See a career summary in The Ledger.)
Early in his career, he was musical director and a cast member in a Shakespeare repertory troupe, the local Taproot Theatre and a teacher at the Polk Museum of Art and Santa Fe Catholic High School.
He had done some acting in New York and Connecticut and was about to return to New York when he was asked to take over Pied Piper Players from founder Rick Olivo, Serebrin said.
Recent honors include being named a distinguished alumnus of Polk State College and induction in the Polk Schools Hall of Fame.
Hughes is survived by two brothers, George Hughes of Lakeland and David Hughes of the Palatka area.
A celebration of life ceremony is being planned, but a date has not yet been set because of the need to coordinate schedules of several people, some of them busy actors, who will travel from distant locations, Serebrin said.