Tuesday, June 12, 2018

2018 Interview with Director Doug Engalla

A native of San Francisco, Doug Engalla first joined The Group Rep in 1997 as an Actor; while directing projects outside of the Company. In 2007, Doug’s first full-length play as Director at the Group Rep was Arsenic and Old Lace, with Rumors being his seventh production as Director there. Other directorial projects included Harvey, A Nice Family Gathering, A Nice Family Christmas, Bless Me, Father (by late Playwright and Group Rep member, Craig Alpaugh); and four World Premieres in the Don’t Hug Me musical comedy series by Phil Olson and Paul Olson.

When did you first get interested in doing theatre or working on the stage?

I was a high school sophomore when I expressed an interest in working behind the scenes for the school’s drama department. I wasn’t even interested in being on the stage, at all. I was also a fan of George Carlin, and of his comedy album, “AM/FM.” I was such a fan, that when I was helping out on auditions for the fall show, I read a role in Carlin’s voice, and the director, Miss Jean Robinson, decided I shouldn’t be working backstage. After a couple of roles, I pretty much never worked backstage. I became a student director during my senior year in high school, of which I enjoyed the experience, but I preferred acting; knowing that there was more to learn as a fledgling director.

What was your first directing job (and where)?  What did you learn from that experience that you carry with you today and put to use?

My first directing job – my first paying job as a Director, in 1979 – was for Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn, for a now-defunct theatre company up in Fremont, located in Northern California. The irony, was that many of the things I learned as a director for that show back then, became things I try not to do, today. I was much younger, and still had quite a bit to learn as a director; so, I made mistakes. The biggest lesson I learned, was not to have as tight a rein on directing actors. These days, I consider actors as assistant storytellers, and the trick is to not only have their voices heard, but to also arrange and blend their voices and ideas in accordance to how I interpret the work that I direct, something I developed when directing the plays of Phil Olson.

You’ve directed several plays written by Phil Olson, best known for the successful ‘fish out of water’ DON’T HUG ME musical comedies, written by Phil Olson with his brother Paul Olson, about some quirky characters set in a little north woods Minnesota bar.  There are other plays by Phil Olson which you’ve directed as well.  How did that partnership come about?  How does the partnership continue to work even as time has gone by?

For me, I feel as though our partnership began in earnest in 2000, when Phil asked me to help produce the World Premiere of his second full-length play, A Nice Family Gathering. Before then, I was an actor in Phil’s very first full-length play in 1997, Crappie Talk, where I figured my role was quirky yet so minor that Phil, whose comedy I truly enjoyed, wouldn’t really notice me. But, as I worked on other acting projects at The Group Rep, Phil would call on me to help on a reading, or to eventually workshop a new episode in the Don’t Hug Me series. I also developed a permanent knack for the rural Northern Minnesota accent. And, I was directing plays outside of the Group Rep, primarily in Burbank, so he may have attended a few of those.

I think what keeps our partnership ongoing, is a combination of my growing understanding of Phil’s style of comedy and storytelling structure, my willingness to work with Phil in such a way that he becomes an actual directing partner, and that we have complementing personalities; in some ways we’re like brothers, and we respect each other’s instincts. I feel as though he can trust me with his material as well, which I think is critical to our working relationship, and adds to my continuing growth as a Director. By the way, during our talkback for our recent production, Don’t Hug Me, We’re Family, Phil named Neil Simon as the one playwright that inspires him. So, there ya go!

You’ve also worked at the Walt Disney Company for many years.  What is your job there?  Is there anything you learned on or at your job that you’ve been able to use when directing?

I’ve worked at the Walt Disney Studios for just over 28 years, and specifically, with Walt Disney Animation Studios. I have the distinct honor of helping to archive and to preserve the production art that goes into the making of the Studio’s theatrical animated features and short films; for the purposes of reference at the Walt Disney Company as well as for publications, home video galleries, and museum exhibitions. It’s a truly unique position to have; yet, working around the filmmakers at the Animation Studio has taught me a great deal about collaboration, and in telling a story clearly and without clutter.

RUMORS may not be as well-known as some of Neil Simon’s other comedies. However, the play is an audience favorite and produced quite often.  Tell us a bit about the play, and what is it about RUMORS that appeals to an audience?

Rumors is a modern farce, about civilized people compelled to create a fabrication of events in order to maintain a façade over a truth; of which is not completely known at all to any of the characters. And, when the stakes are raised in maintaining that façade, the veneer of civilized behavior starts to drop.

It's not your typical Neil Simon comedy; it’s silly, and at times outrageous, but grounded in the author’s comedic writing style. We get to see polite people behaving relatively badly, and I think the audiences have gotten a kick out of not only that, but the frantic, almost slapstick opening and closing of doors as the characters try to make nonsense of what’s going on in the story. It’s not what most Neil Simon fans expect from him, which is part of the fun.

What would you like the audience to feel or take away with them having seen the play?

The testing of the bonds of friendship is that human condition that gets illuminated in this comedy, and more so than ever is that testing evident in the world of social media and societal division. Even so, I would love the audience to feel entertained by Rumors and its terrific cast, and to just let loose and to have a good laugh for the two hours that our guests spend in the Lonny Chapman Theatre. Neil Simon wanted to write a flat-out, door-slamming farce, as a catharsis for the sad things that was happening in his life at that time. I have often said, that one of my favorite sounds ever, is the often-healing sound of laughter.

What’s up next for you?

Some of my Group Rep colleagues and I are hoping to mount a production of The Dixie Swim Club in the not-too-distant future, which I would be directing, and I have a couple of directing projects for Phil Olson; both of them non-musical: one, is developing a revival of his play, Mom’s Gift, and the other, a new adaptation of one of his earlier works.

The Group Rep presents Neil Simon’s classic farce RUMORS, directed by Doug Engalla, produced by Alyson York. June 15 – July 29.  Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm. Sundays at 2:00 pm.  Talkbacks after Sunday matinees June 24 and July 8. General Admission: $25. Seniors/Students with ID: $20. Groups 10+: $15.  Buy Tickets: www.thegrouprep.com or (818) 763-5990.  Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood.

Monday, June 11, 2018

2018 Interview with Actress Laura Bell Bundy

Actress Laura Bell Bundy is about to reopen Reprise. She will be playing the role of Charity in Sweet Charity, set to open at the Freud Playhouse, UCLA on June 20. In our chat, Bundy talks about the joy that Charity exudes, the reason she cannot wait to play her.

Laura, how exciting to be playing Charity and …being a part of the first show to open the new Reprise! What do you love most about the character of Charity?

I love her childlike quality.  Children are open, excitable, playful, optimistic, hopeful, delicate, resilient … they haven’t become jaded by life’s trials yet… and despite the trials Charity goes through, she still keeps going back for more with her head up, and her heart open.  

 I can follow that. Are you like her in any way?

 I am very much a child.  Just ask my husband.  …  But yes, in life, I choose to focus on the flowers that come out of the dirt… 

What are your greatest challenges as an actress to play her?

I am a perfectionist and I like my work to be nuanced.  So I think my biggest challenge will be learning the entire show and everything about her in under 2 weeks!  AH! That’s a very quick process, and when I do a role, I find I learn something new every day, every performance… Like, I’ll be sitting in the bathtub six months into a run and get a new idea of how to make a scene better, or a joke funnier…  My moments of inspiration are gonna need a prescription for adoral.

Tell us about your director and fellow cast.

Well, rehearsal hasn’t officially started yet so I cannot tell you much from experience…  But I am so looking forward to working with the brilliant Kathleen Marshall.  

Barrett (Foa) and I have been friends for years, but never gotten to work together… He’s such a thoughtful and inventive actor.  He’s going to be an incredible Oscar.  And I know that, because we cheated and already started rehearsing together on our own… : )

Why do you think audiences love Sweet Charity? What is its best facet as a musical show?

Charity falls in love like it’s the first time every time. I think most people can relate to the idea of wanting to be loved. It’s also a show about resilience… How many times do we get knocked down in our lives, and we have to pull ourselves back up again and stay looking forward?  I’d say a few times a day… we either have the choice to wallow, complain or move forward.  It’s a story about the human spirit.

Also, there are so many iconic songs in this show— “Hey Big Spender”,  “Rich Man’s Frug”, “If They Could See Me Now”….  They are imbedded in our cultural consciousness … then you come to see this show and you are reminded of what an impact it had!

What is your favorite role, one that you have played? Why this choice?

In musical theater?  “Elle” (Legally Blonde) has had my heart up to this point… but Charity take's Elle’s “under dog” to a whole new level… a grittier one.  She’s a human in a cycle that’s not working for her.  One she’s desperate to get out of and yet keeps walking into.  Isn’t that all of us?  Just naively repeating cycles until we become self aware enough to make a change?  On a very base human level, I feel quite connected to Charity… and emotionally ready to take her on.

What is your favorite musical of all time? Why this choice?

When I was 11, the all drag off-broadway show “Pageant” was my favorite, and then at 12, it was the Jack O’Brien "Damn Yankees" Revival.
But, I think “Gypsy" is the Mother of all musicals.   And, that musical is all about my mother...

What's up next for you?

 I am currently writing a show for Netflix.

Anything we left out that you wish to add? Mention something about the reopening of Reprise.

We are so lucky to have Reprise in LA— a series of classic musicals re-conceived by award winning directors and starring seasoned theater, tv and film stars.  I am so glad they have reprised Reprise and I’m honored to be asked to kick it off!

(left to right: Barrett Foa, Laura Bell Bundy and Jon Jon Briones rehearsing for Sweet Charity)(photo credit: Tom Drucker)

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 UCLA’s Freud Playhouse 
Macgowan Hall245 Charles E Young Dr E , Los Angeles
Sweet Charity plays Wednesday, June 20 to Sunday, July 1.
Plays Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday evenings at 8 pm,
Saturdays at 2pm and 8 pm; Sundays at 2pm and 7 pm
To purchase tix, go to: www.Reprise2.org
or phone: 800-982-2787
Group Sales 310-281-1800

Friday, June 8, 2018

2018 Interview with Actor Jeff Skowron

3-D Theatricals is currently reviving their Ovation winning production Parade at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. The production will end there on Sunday June 10 and next week move on to Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center in Redondo Beach opening June 15 and playing through June 24. Ovation winner Jeff Skowron talks about reviving his lead role in Parade.

Jeff, what is it like doing this role again? I know as an actor you approach it fresh. What do you feel are the greatest challenges at this point in time?

I'm enjoying it very much. I've never revisited a role before in this way, with the same company and artistic staff. I was a little apprehensive as the start date approached, as I didn't want to just slip into recreating a portrayal that I'd left behind 5 years ago. That felt like a burden. But TJ (Dawson) is a wonderful director, and we eased into this in a way that made it all feel fresh and alive again. The script is very good, which also helps in stimulating new ideas and takes on moments. 

Talk a little about the theme and message of Parade.

Well, at the center of the story is the murder trial of Leo Frank. For me there are two predominant themes. First is this man's stagnant, if not unhappy relationship with his wife. Through fear and adversity he is forced to depend upon his wife, essentially for the first time and we get to see his appreciation and love for her blossom. Second is the focus on tribalism and its dangerous appetite for scapegoating of the ethnic or religious "other." Nothing has changed.

Tell us about additions to the cast and how this affects the overall presentation.

Well we have some really terrific additions to the cast, first and foremost is Chelle Denton as my wife Lucille. This young woman is a grounded, powerful, mature actress and she has a beautiful, soaring voice. Watching her is worth the ticket price alone. Being onstage with her is such a pleasure. TJ has also assembled a much larger ensemble this time, so there is a much bigger sound and sense of mob mentality. 

What else will you add about TJ’s direction?

TJ is a very prepared, knowledgable director. When he directs, he knows the piece inside and out, which I appreciate. At the same time he is open to discussion, new ideas and collaboration. There is no ego. I always gush about him so I may be repeating myself from another interview, but he is one of my favorite directors.

What else have you been up to and anything special coming up?

Well I just played the Emcee in Cabaret at La Mirada and I'm currently developing my second tv series with my writing partner, Matt Yeager. This one is called Max Riddle, about an awkward but well meaning man who loses his job to a robot in a dying rustbelt town. I hope to have great news about that, soon.


(photo credit: Caught in the Moment Photography)