In 1993, Heather Nicolson Hughes transferred to what was then known as Western State College from the Southern California area in Santa Ana. She quickly took to the small, remote campus and close-knit community, and she even got the chance to see snow fall for the first time in her life.
Heather described Western as being one of the best decisions she’s ever made. It takes a special kind of person to be able to appreciate the Gunnison Valley, some say, and Heather is one of those people. While at Western, she studied Communications Theatre with an emphasis in Acting and a minor in Sociology.
“I wanted to be an actor, which is what I’ve been doing,” Heather said. “My husband and I both work at the Denver Center for Performing Arts. After a long time in New York City, the whole experience of being there as an actor was something I will never forget. I’m still an actor and still teach at the Center for Performing Arts. I teach acting and improv for both adults and kids.”
She met her husband, Steven Cole Hughes, when they both lived in Denver. He is originally from upstate New York and went to college in Indiana but attended a graduate program in Denver.
Heather was hired part-time to direct the upcoming fall show at Western. She has directed several plays in the past including: “How I Learned to Drive,” “Talking With …” and “Bad Jews.” Steven, who has been hired as the Director of Theatre and Lecturer in Communication Arts, will be teaching various classes at Western this fall centered on acting, theatre, scriptwriting and directing.
Since graduating from Western, Heather has been back to the Gunnison Valley several times.
“The Theatre Department had Paul Edwards, who I loved, and we had this amazing director Ellen Sealing, who was a part of faculty as well,” Heather said. “There were 11 of us, and the kind of theatre that we go to make and experiment with for the four years I was here was really exciting.”
The two have a 2 ½-year-old daughter named Birdie. Heather and Steven have a unique love story that spans over 13 years in three different cities. While living in New York City, they did not really know each other until moving to Denver around the same time. They ended up going from place to place while having the same mutual friends, but did not ever talk to each other until Heather reached out with a question through email.
“We were trying to figure out how many times we crossed paths without really knowing it,” Heather said.
It took them a while to realize they wanted to be in each other’s lives and in the same city.
“We got together later in life,” Heather said. “First we got together in August of 2013, moved in together in October, got engaged in April, and then married the following October. Then we had Birdie in October of that same year.”
When asked what their favorite part about teaching is, Steven said: “I like the mix of teaching skills and history. But then there is giving students the chance of fun theatre stories. It’s such an interesting business; there is no right or wrong way to do it. One of my most favorite things about teaching is directing young individuals in plays.”
Heather added: “It’s such a subjective subject, you can’t do it wrong, which means you can’t do it right. You can do it more clearly, and all acting is storytelling, and all actors are storytellers. So, if you’re willing to be brave, you can do it and it’s fun to watch people start to feel brave and to give themselves permission to jump into something that has the impression that only so few people can do. I love working with people.”
Coming back to the Gunnison Valley was a good decision for both.
“I’m a big mountain biker, so being here is so great,” Heather said. “I love it. Both of us have lived in apartments our entire adult lives, so it’s wonderful to come to Gunnison and live in a house. We have a garden now and I’ve always dreamed about growing things, and now we can just sit outside and enjoy everything.”
When asked if they would stay in Gunnison for a while, together they agreed that it was the best decision for their family right now. The Gunnison community is where they want to be.
Since Heather came to Western in 1993, a lot about the school and surrounding community has changed significantly.
“I looked out my window one night and it was snowing,” Heather said. “There was a sound that happens when it snows, but it’s not a sound, it’s like the absence of sound. But I had never heard that, the hush that comes over everything when it starts to snow. It was so beautiful, and so intensely calm. I grew up at the beach and it was the first time I understood what it was like to be somewhere with a blank canvas. It was the complete opposite of California, and I fell completely in love with it. I felt not only more myself but more excited about the things I could make. I love it here.”
Story and photo by Aspen Binder.