BWW Interview: Doug Engalla Talks About A TWISTED CHRISTMAS CAROL
A Twisted Christmas Carol marks Doug Engalla's eighth production as Director at The Group Rep. Doug has worked with Phil Olson since 1997 on a number of productions, including five World Premieres in the Don't Hug Me series (most recently, as director of Don't Hug Me, We're Family in 2018), as well as the 2016 World Premiere of A Nice Family Christmas (featuring Tony Award-nominated actor, Marcia Rodd) at The Group Rep. A Twisted Christmas Carol is Doug's sixth World Premiere as Director with Phil Olson. Doug's cast of Phil Olson's A Nice Family Gathering - also in 2016 at The Group Rep - earned a Best Ensemble, Small Theatre nomination from the NAACP Theatre Awards. Doug's previous directing project at the Group Rep was for Neil Simon's Rumors in 2018. He is preparing to open A Twisted Christmas Carol this Sunday December 15.
You have such a great rapport with Phil Olson. Tell our readers about that.
DE: Well, for one thing, Phil and I are pretty close in age; only a few months apart. So, when it comes to comedy, I think we're not only similar by generation, but also by the mutual appreciation of the same kind of whacky, almost non-sequitur humor. There are times when we've worked on a project together, including this one; and during rehearsal notes, one of us will come up with something that we will both have had, in our separate notes. I also believe that the author should be present as we rehearse and develop the project. Phil has a specific vision and idea of timing. I learn from Phil with every project.
How many of his plays have you directed? Is there a favorite?
DE: I've directed a total of seven of his feature-length plays, one of his short plays, and co-directed one on which he collaborated with entertainer, Wayland Pickard. Of the seven feature plays, six are World Premieres. Whenever Phil has a new project coming, I never assume that he'll ask me to direct it, even after all of these years. But when he does ask, I am delighted, because I love his writing style. I also say, Yes.
I have several favorites of Phil's that I've directed; but, the one that holds very close to me, was the opportunity to direct A Nice Family Gathering in 2016. I co-produced (with Art Shulman) the World Premiere of that show at the Group Rep in 2001, and it was produced again in 2007 there. I knew that this is, to date, Phil's most personal work, as the characters were based on his own family; mixed with doses of humor, pathos, and whimsy, and I had always wanted to direct it. Not only did I get that opportunity, we switched out the original Norwegian-American family in the play and had an African-American cast, with very little change to the dialogue, and its poignancy unchanged.
In detail talk about the challenges you face in directing A Twisted Christmas Carol. Also, what similarities do you see here with the characters in the Don't Hug Me musicals.
DE: I was involved with the World Premiere of A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol as Co-Producer (with Stefanie Ibanez) and I also performed in the show as an alternate. Since A Twisted Christmas Carol is based on this episode in the Don't Hug Me series, I felt more connected to this material than I would for a new episode of Don't Hug Me. Early in the rehearsal process for Twisted, I would occasionally refer to one of the characters by their Don't Hug Me name! So, I do turn to my past experience to support the new show, and after that, find a way to make it a little different from its predecessor. Sometimes, though, you really do need to mirror what was done when A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol premiered in 2006.
To that end, all of the characters are very nearly direct transfers of the regular characters in the Don't Hug Me series, by their core definition. Phil and I understand their characters very well, even when placed outside of wild and wonderful Bunyan Bay, Minnesota; because we've learned that everyone shares the same feelings and basic human responses to their various situations.
Tell us about the actors playing the Scrooge character and the ghosts.
DE: Buford Johnson, our story's Scrooge, is played by Van Boudreaux, who is a longtime member of the Group Rep company. Van played the role of real-life Lou Costello in The Group Rep's 1995 production of Lou's on First; and I am happy to be working with him at long last. Van is funny, boisterous, and is a fountain of stories and information; the opposite of Buford's emotionally and financially reserved, cranky character. But, that's a testament to how Van takes Buford on his journey of transformation. As for the three ghosts, Phil used the same concept as he did in A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol, by putting all three into the persona of Buford's rival of his own imagining - in this case, his former business partner, Hank Walker; who is played by the very talented Paul Cady, another longtime Group Rep member. This is also the first time I've worked with Paul; who is, in fact, from Texas.
Does Dickens' story hold up in substance or is A Twisted Christmas Carol mostly a lot of belly laughs?
DE: A Twisted Christmas Carol has belly laughs, to be sure, and not a day of rehearsal goes by without us laughing uproariously. But like much of Phil's work, there's some heart. There are no pretensions to this being a direct adaptation, but the themes of transformation and redemption, along with looking at what would happen if we made different choices in our lives, is still of the Dickensian cloth. It's about finding the real joy in our lives, which is often located where we see it the least; which is either right in front of us or in someone near to us.
Do you wish to add anything?
DE: A Twisted Christmas Carol is one of two shows to close out the Group Rep's 45th consecutive season, and it also comes at the conclusion of a decade-long tenure of Co-Artistic Directors Larry Eisenberg and Chris Winfield. I'm beyond words in expressing my gratitude to them, and the opportunities they have given to me, as well as their leadership to the Group Rep. Doug Haverty, who steps in as Artistic Director beginning next season, is a longtime member and colleague, and I'm looking forward to taking the next steps with the Company, under his creative leadership.
A Twisted Christmas plays December 15 - January 12. Saturdays at 4:00 pm. Sundays at 7:00 pm. Talk-backs after Sunday shows 12/21 and 01/04. For tickets and information: www.thegrouprep.com or (818) 763-5990. Upstairs at the Group Rep on the second floor of the Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood 91601. The Upstairs venue is not handicapped accessible.