BWW Interview: Director Doug Engalla Talks RUMORS at Group Rep

BWW Interview: Director Doug Engalla Talks RUMORS at Group Rep

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.

Interview by Steve Peterson

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 r (818) 763-5990. Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood.

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