BY CARY GINELL
There’s been a changing of the guard at Oak Park High School, as Don Enoch begins his first season as the school’s drama director. Enoch doesn’t come to the role unarmed, though. Prior to his coming to OPHS, where he has taught English and creative writing for more than a decade, Enoch had a rich background as a director in the theater and television industries. For his first project, Enoch is directing the beloved 1936 comedy You Can’t Take It With You, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1937. We caught up with Enoch as students were hammering and painting the set for the show’s October 1 debut.
VCOS: How long have you been at Oak Park?
DON: About fifteen years.
VCOS: We’ve been used to seeing Allan Hunt direct the shows here at the school.
DON: Allan’s been drama director here for a number of years, but for the past couple of years, I’ve been directing the Shakespeare productions. This last year, Kevin Buchanan, our principal, asked me to take over directing all of the shows here. So here I am.
VCOS: Tell me about your background.
DON: I worked professionally as a director in New York for many years. Then I got out of that business and went into teaching a little over sixteen, seventeen years ago and kind of gave up the entertainment career. But I snuck back in.
VCOS: You Can’t Take It With You is certainly a classic in which to get your feet wet.
DON: Yes, this is a venerable comedy that has been around for a long, long time. It enjoyed quite a revival on Broadway last year. Kevin and I and Ellen Schneider were talking about it and how we were going to shape the season and we realized that there hasn’t been a comedy play here for a long time. So this is a good, family-oriented comedy. And the nice thing about this comedy is that we wanted to do one that would be a good vehicle for teaching ensemble comedic acting, because it’s not just important for us to do something that is entertaining to our audience, but one that teaches. After all, that’s our major objective here.
VCOS: Tell me the attraction of the story.
DON: It has two radically different families; one has eccentric characters with everybody doing their own thing, and the other is a very uptight, Wall Street family. There are two lovers involved, one from each family, so you can imagine the hijinks that happen.
VCOS: This is a vehicle that has been used a lot in shows like La Cage Aux Folles, The Addams Family, and others.
DON: And the Fokker stories. So in that sense, we already know the story. But in addition to the romance, this is also a vehicle about character and it’s very good for young actors in terms of defining characters, comic timing, and so forth, and makes for a great vehicle for teaching.
VCOS: What does it teach students about the time period in which it originated?
DON: The 1930s were very interesting in terms of style, costumes, how people carry themselves, how they address each other, and so forth. That’s particularly interesting, especially in terms of these two radically different families. You have three generations here, living in this one household, something you don’t see very much anymore. But what you see is the affection and adoration they have for one another, even at times of friction, which happens in this family. When the central character, Alice, says “I am so frustrated with you all!” there’s a sense of nobility about it; she talks about how noble they are, but they are so wonderfully dysfunctional. We all feel that to some extent in our families.
VCOS: Do the students discuss the differences in the lifestyle of what it was like to live in the 1930s? Each character has his or her own interest, but there are no cell phones, no television, or any of the electronic gadgets we are so used to having as distractions today.
DON: Yes, but despite that, there is also a wonderful tolerance and acceptance of each other. I think that’s part of the beauty of this play. There’s Grandpa, who is the anchor of the play, and he’s surrounded by all these eccentric members of his family, and he’s so remarkably relaxed. I have this wonderful actor who is exactly that, his name is John Duffy. In the script, he talks about how, thirty-five years ago, he got up one day, went to his office and decided to quit. And he’s never had a phone call since, never paid his income taxes, and of course, all that is part of the plot, too.
VCOS: It’s an anarchic situation.
DON: Yes, it is. The idea is that we chase after the dollar every day of our lives, but in the end, “you can’t take it with you.” It’s all very predictable, but all in an amusing and fun way, without a preachy sense to it.
VCOS: So is everyone engaging in the other aspects of putting on a show as well? Staging, construction work, etc.?
DON: Well, we have our own production crew here, which is separate from the actors, but the nice thing is that we mix the two together. That’s an objective here – to make sure that the production crew knows that it is just as integral to the production as the actors are. It’s terribly easy to think that the people in the spotlight are the only ones working creatively. One thing we’re going to do this year is put up a display of our costumers, who have done some wonderful work in terms of doing research of the style. So that display will be going up in our lobby.
VCOS: Are all the costumes and props original to this production? Or do you borrow from other companies?
DON: Yes, we beg, borrow, or steal, to use a phrase (although we don’t steal anything), from a number of sources because we’re trying to be as true to the period as we can.
VCOS: Have the students seen productions of it on YouTube or on videos?
DON: Yes and no. I know that for myself, as a director, I take some pains not to because it might influence me one way or the other. I’ve never directed this production before so I like the fresh approach, where you sort of challenge yourself.
VCOS: Is there an aspect of this show that is particularly attractive to you as a teacher?
DON: What I listen for is the rhythm of the language. I think there’s a pace to this kind of comedy that you have to achieve. You have to get up to that level. It’s not frenetic and it’s not artificial, but there’s a rhythm to it that is somewhat above our normal experience. Part of it also depends upon audience interaction. Young actors need to be able to listen to an audience and respond to hearing those laughs and interact with them. They’re different every night. Great actors respond to different audiences every night. I once worked on a show with King Donovan, an old vaudeville actor. He worked with Imogene Coca and a whole lot of others. King would sit there back stage every night, behind the curtain, listening to an audience. And I’d say, “King, what are you doing?” And he’d say, “I’m just listening, trying to figure out who they are.” He was like seventy-four years old, but he would sit there every night, listening to the audience, trying to see how to shade a joke or a piece of business, knowing that every audience is different. To me, that’s the ultimate pro. Every night, he’s going to work that house. I was just a young kid of about 30 or something like that, but guys like that teach you so much…
VCOS: As the kids progress from show to show, do you work with them on this aspect?
DON: Oh, sure. For instance, a Friday night audience is usually a tired audience. They’ve worked hard all week, the wife rushes the husband out to see the show, but a Saturday night audience can be looser and you can maybe extend that piece of business, do some double entendre, work a double-take here and there. You just try things out.
VCOS: What are the challenges that have presented themselves in this show?
DON: With my professional background and having spent years in New York, there’s an impulse to always get the most bang for the buck. To produce a show that is the best performance I can get. But that isn’t always the direction I should take as a teacher. Because I think the obligation here is that I really want to bring the student along to appreciate the dramatic art as a discipline. And it’s not an easy discipline. It takes amazing self-control and commitment, and it’s sometimes not always appreciated. It’s not something that just lands on your shoulders. It’s not some special gene that’s inside. You work as hard as a plumber does to get there, and I just think that sometimes Americans think that the fine arts are something that you’re born to do, like it’s some kind of magical gift. That’s part of it, but it’s also hard work. It’s really hard work. And I try to remind my students, “We can get there. You’ve got to put your nose down and keep working towards it.” I know that doesn’t sound very glamorous. But the reward for me is far less about performance; it’s more about rehearsal. I love rehearsal. Everybody wants applause. But in rehearsals, you see an actor grow, and those are wonderful moments.
You Can’t Take It With You plays at Oak Park High School for four performances, Thursday, October 1 through Saturday, October 3. For showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.