George Contini is one of Georgia’s most accomplished and talented directors. But his skills don’t end there. He is a multi-talented performer whose abilities span the full range of entertainment—acting, directing, writing, stage-managing—he’s done it all! He’s also a professor at UGA, so as you can guess, he can get a little busy. Despite that, we had a chance to speak with him about his upcoming Aurora Theatre directorial debut in the hit comedy Don’t Dress for Dinner.
AT: You are a well‑known creative presence in film and theatre production here in Georgia and you’ve established an extensive and diverse career in the theatre world. Take us back to the beginning of it all—How did you get started in the performing arts?
GC: There was never really a question of whether or not I would go into the performing arts. It’s really as though I’ve always done it. So, let’s see… do you want to hear about the time I played in Little Red Riding Hood in Kindergarten? Honestly, I’ve always been the crazy kid in the neighborhood—doing one‑man plays and charging kids a dime to attend. Not surprisingly, it was second nature for me to study theatre as an undergraduate. And while in college, I was advised to learn how to do everything—acting, directing, stage manager, writer, and more—that way you’d always be working. After obtaining an education, I put it and my experiences to the test in the real world and traveled across the country—Ohio, the Midwest, Boston, Los Angeles, Florida, and Georgia.
AT: Being an accomplished actor yourself must influence your role as the director of a play. What advantages and/or challenges does this experience give you as a director?
GC: What I will typically do when directing is subconsciously get into the head of the character, as an actor would, and then flip back and forth as director. While doing this, it’s important to understand and remember the joy an actor gets when the director leaves you room to “come up with stuff.” With respect to Don’t Dress for Dinner, it’s a little different. The play is actually a farcical comedy, which means it is very structured in terms of it being about the mechanics more so than other types of comedies. The comedic timing of the actor’s lines is more challenging because of this. Actors can have free reign with the interpretation and timing of their lines up to a point, however it’s necessary to clarify that certain things have to happen first, on this beat, and then they can do whatever until the next beat. As the director, I retain the responsibility to step in and hone their timing or performance. It’s an advantage when a director knows the importance of both sides—play structure and actor freedom.
AT: As a UGA professor of Theatre and Film Studies, how do your teaching experiences influence you as a director and how do your professional theatre experiences manifest in the classroom?
GC: In the classroom, I try to base it on what the real life situation is—it’s very much experiential‑based. The goal is to make a connection to the real world and not make it all about the abstract. I also take from my professional experiences and apply or present them in the classroom. In the theatre, I go in having thoroughly researched the subject matter—which brings a certain amount of depth of background and history to the production. There’s more to what you see on the stage; having background knowledge of the history of the play, the time period in which it’s set, the personality of the characters makes for a better well rounded play. I do have to guard against being the dry, academician who takes the fun out of it. There should be a balance of history and creativity.
AT: This is your first time directing a show for Aurora Theatre, tell us a little about how you came to Aurora and why this show?
GC: I’ve wanted to work at Aurora Theatre for quite a while! I moved to Lawrenceville six years ago and not long after, I was offered an opportunity. Unfortunately, because of scheduling, it didn’t work out at that time. Years later, I’m saying to myself in amazement, still no Aurora! Now that I have this chance to direct Don’t Dress for Dinner, I’m finding out what I’ve always suspected. It’s been so special for me to do something in Lawrenceville. Aurora is a phenomenon; I’m so thoroughly impressed by its community impact. The number of people showing up in Lawrenceville Square to see the summer concerts blows me away. Aurora Theatre is an integral part of the community and you don’t see that support in most places. Tony and Ann Carol are doing remarkable work and it makes me want to be a part of this mainstay. So when I was asked to direct this play I said, “yes!” And the 10‑minute commute for me has been wonderful!
AT: Don’t Dress for Dinner is a farce by Marc Camoletti, the author of Aurora’s 2010 smash-hit Boeing-Boeing. What are some of the similarities and differences between the two shows?
GC: They were both written in the 1960s—having that classic 60s retro, farce style of production. Both plays also deal with marriage and affairs and include the two main characters—Bernard and Robert. But I recognized, what was for me, a noticeable difference in the two plays as I read the script for Don’t Dress for Dinner. They didn’t seem to quite fit into the same world. It had a different language style than Boeing-Boeing. The language in Don’t Dress for Dinner has more of a 30s feel. After I read the script, my first question was, “Does there have to be an absolute connection between the two plays?” The answer was no, and so I was able to have more freedom in making Don’t Dress for Dinner a play in its own right; presenting it less like a true sequel, which made sense. The characters are wealthy, the story is set in a country manor estate, and again the language is more formal—the script reads like a classic Noel Coward play of the 1930s. With the option of removing the strict setup of it being a sequel and there being no requirement for a mandatory connection between the two, as far as the decade in which it occurs, we have the freedom of making Don’t Dress for Dinner a virtual stand-alone play. The cast is having a great time with approaching it from this angle. We are having lots of laughs. And we are very much enjoying this outrageous story.
Mr. Contini was interviewed by Donisha Chamberlain for Aurora Theatre.