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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

UMass Boston professor directs dysfunctional comedic play ‘You Can’t Take it With You’

Michael+Fennimore
Michael Fennimore

On a languid afternoon, Michael Fennimore, the director of the upcoming play “You Can’t Take it With You,” set to open at the University of Massachusetts Boston on Nov. 13, sits in his cubicle office on the top floor of the Healey Library. The expansive room, lined with cubicles, is silent. This is normal for lunch hour, but Fennimore is in his office, perhaps, working on his highly-anticipated play. For those hoping to watch a similar adaptation to the one currently playing on Broadway, well, there’s always Broadway.
Q: What made you decide to direct this play here at UMass Boston?
A: “Well, we have a number of professors here who direct shows and we kind of take turns. I guess my number came up. They wanted a comedy. I usually get stuck doing the comedies. Which is fun! I love it! That is my genre. So I came up with about five choices of comedies and they chose this one. Which is perfectly fine with me. It’s a funny play.”
Q: What were the other choices?
A: “You’re going to put me on the spot here! [laughs] Well they wanted contemporary and there’s not a lot of contemporary plays with large casts. So I had to go back, like, a few years. There was one that I would love to do. It was called “A Flea in Her Ear” by [Georges] Feydeau, kind of a French farce. Some of the other ones I chose were on the farce end of it, but [“You Can Take it With You”] fit the bill for something that was more modern-day even though it takes place in the 1930’s. I love that particular period, it was great. The costumes, just glamourous, and some of the age of innocence. Funny little situations come out of it.”
Q: When I think of actors auditioning for plays, I think of TV shows and how they perform tap dance routines and sing Celine Dion numbers and after that you hear “next!” Is that how it was?
A: [laughs] “No. No tap dances, but there was somebody that did have to know a little ballet. My process is for them to come up with about a minute of comic monologue. They prepare a monologue ahead of time. Some of them got some coaching from other professors that were here. So they come in and they introduce themselves. I ask them to tell me a little bit about themselves, just to see if they’re comfortable on stage. Some people just step up on stage and, you know, they’re just petrified. I went through it too. And then, they do the monologue and then I have them read from the script. I first had, what they called, a reader. Someone who sat there and read with everybody that came to audition. If I like them, they get a callback. I narrow it down to about a couple of people for each role. Then I have them read off each other. What I’m looking for is not so much a performance. So much as, are they connecting with the other person that they are reading with? Are they playing off each other? See if there is a little chemistry going on there. And then you have to see who matches up best with whom. Also, their personal personality. Are they going to be somebody fun to work with? Are they going to be dedicated? I have to make sure there’s a likable thing about them.”
Q: Is there room to improvise or ad-lib or do you strictly stick to the script?
A: “You stick to script but with every script they can’t write in all the action that’s involved. I don’t want someone, if they don’t have a line, to just stand there. If they’re off to the side and they’re not involved in the present dialogue, they have to come up with some kind of an action. Like I have one guy over there who is going to start doing little ballet moves. Nothing too big that is going to steal focus but everyone should always have business all the time. So they do have to improv something of their own there.”
Q: When choosing the actors, do you look to the celebrity cast that are or have played them on Broadway?
A: “I didn’t know this was on Broadway until after the thing was already cast. If we went strictly by the 1938 casting, James Earl Jones, he wouldn’t be cast because it was a white family. In 1938, some of the material wasn’t considered racist but by today’s standards you kind of look at it and go, “can’t do that!” “can’t say that!” So there is some change in dialogue that I feel I have to put in. I did want to put some diversity in this. Mrs. Kirby is a black actress. The maid, Rheba, who is supposed to be a black actress, is Chinese. So I just have to mix it up. Some lines in the play are made funnier because of that. You know how everyone talks about America being a melting pot? I don’t think it is. I think America is a salad bowl [laughs] You want to see tomatoes, you want to see beets, you want to see cabbage and everything.”
Q: Did the diversity of UMass Boston limit you?
A: “When I first came here, they really wasn’t a lot of diversity in the plays. Orville Wright, who has passed, was a chair of the Performing Arts department and he came to me and he wanted to get more diversity in the department. There was kind of a clique or seeing the same people doing the same shows all the time. And that wasn’t what we were about. Now there’s more and more diversity and we encourage that. When we sent out audition notices we said for the general student population, everyone was welcome. We had people from all ethnicities come in which was great. People I never saw audition before. We had over 60 people audition, which, sometimes, you’re lucky if you get 20. So, this department is growing.”
Q: “In one sentence, why should somebody, especially those who do not like plays, see this play?”
A: “Because it is a lot of fun. People are going to get so involved. When they walk into the theatre, by the way, 1930s music is going to be playing, you are going to be transported back into the 1930s. The whole time, when there is a scene change, there is going to be music in there. This is a family that basically says people make a living but people don’t live. And this is a family that just enjoys life.”
“You Can’t Take it With You” opens on Nov. 13 at 7:30 p.m. For more information about future showtimes, visit www.umb.edu/takeit.