In 1936, a three act comedy entitled You Can’t Take It With You premiered on Broadway, to much success. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the following year, and later was adapted into an Oscar winning film of the same name. Over 80 years later, the play is still beloved, funny and thought provoking, bringing up themes of the importance of family and being loved for who you really are.
Champaign Urbana Theater Company’s upcoming production seems to really take those themes to heart, featuring real-life families and even family heirlooms onstage. I spoke with director Jessica Elliott about the play’s themes, her experience with CUTC, and the importance of family.
Smile Politely: What is this show about? What are the main themes?
Jessica Elliott: This 1936 Kaufman & Hart play follows two families: The Sycamores, an eccentric and quirky bunch who take in strays and eat corn flakes and tomatoes for dinner, and the Kirbys, a serious and predictable family who take bland vacations and revolve around Wall Street dealings. When the children of these families—Alice Sycamore and Tony Kirby, Jr.—fall in love with each other, a hilarious dinner party leads to the clashing of two distinct worldviews and threatens to break up the young couple. This three-act play is known as a comedy, but sentimental reminders about the truly important things in life are peppered throughout the show. It's a play that celebrates what makes us different from each other, encourages us to focus on living a good life rather than accumulating wealth or possessions, and assures us, along with Alice, that we deserve to be loved for exactly who we are.
SP: What made you want to work on this particular play?
Elliott: It's so funny how the universe will hand you things exactly when you need them, sometimes. I hadn't directed in about a year and I was getting the itch again. Not a day later, one of the board members at CUTC reached out and asked if I would be interested in directing their spring play, You Can't Take It With You. The turnaround was incredibly quick (we basically had the month of February), so I was hesitant to accept, but doing so has been so rewarding. There's not a single theatrical experience that doesn't humble me with new lessons, ground me in my certainty that this what I want to do with my life, and recharge my faith in humanity (which can tend to run dangerously low as of late).
SP: Now, I believe you’ve worked with CUTC before, is that correct? What do you like about working with their production company?
Elliott: I directed Oliver! The Musical for CUTC almost two years ago, a student production that was integral in my decision to get my Master's degree in Education. Working with CUTC has always provided me with the flexibility to gather my own team of collaborators, which I think has been crucial to the outcomes of these projects. Each production has an autonomy to it that proves to be more liberating than anything else. For instance, with Oliver, I had a goal to connect the subject matter with our community in a meaningful way for the students, and a really successful fundraising campaign was facilitated with Courage Connection, a local organization that supports survivors of domestic abuse and homelessness. I told my team, "Look, I really want to make this happen," and I had support and open-mindedness from the start.
SP: What have been some the challenges of working on this show?
Elliott: The time crunch on this show was no joke. We were in our first rehearsals during the early days of February, and we're tech-ing by the last day of the month. Depending on when you ask me, that's been the most challenging aspect of this process, especially with such a wordy script, or it's been a blessing in disguise as it's forced us to get right down to the meat and potatoes and find a trust for each other from day one. Aside from that, it's been so invigorating to witness the growth of some theatremakers I've known for years and the talent of some who I've only known in 2018. It's a big ask to give a community theatre cast one month to learn and understand a play, but their dedication and enthusiasm delivered.
SP: What can the audience members look forward to with this production?
Elliott: This play, particularly our production, has become so much about family. Audiences can look forward not only to taking in the families we've created, the Sycamores and Kirbys, but also some real-life families on stage together. We have siblings, parents, spouses... That's made the show very special. But my favorite element of family on our stage is all of our vintage props and set pieces. We have countless tchotchkes and baubles dressing the set to create the very eclectic and scatterbrained Sycamore home. To ensure that these items are of the right period, we ended up all bringing in little heirlooms and family objects from the 20s and 30s. The result is a set decorated in our own histories, and I really hope that audiences feel instantly comfortable in the Sycamore home, maybe seeing a figurine similar to one that used to sit on a shelf in their childhood home, or a doily like their grandmother used to make.
SP: So it seems like family is really central to this production. Has your own family been involved at all? If so, how?
Elliott: I am fortunate to have always had support from my family in my theatrical endeavors, right down to switching my major to Theatre Studies a year into my undergrad. But this show has special meaning for my family, as it marks the first time my mother, Vanessa Faurie, and I get to work together. I was looking and looking for a producer, and my mom and I had previously talked about how fun it would be to team up. She's never produced a show before, but I knew her skills from a career in communications and her incredible dedication to anything she works on (the woman is an Energizer Bunny) meant she would be a natural. She's always been a huge supporter of the arts, especially loving the shows that my younger sister and I have worked on through the years. Producing has been a perfect integration of her talents and her love of theatre. It makes complete sense to me that this partnership has been so successful, because she's my partner in so many other aspects. She's my best friend. Through this process, I've often made the joke to her that she's so good at this because she's been producing my life for almost a quarter of a century. As with everything else she does, she has gone above and beyond for this production, and is too humble to ever point that out. My mom is one of the best people I will ever know, and I've been honored to work with her on a production that reminds us of how lucky we are to have people who love us, as Kaufman & Hart wrote, "no matter what they do to the world."
Champaign Urbana Theater Company’s production of You Can’t Take It With You, directed by Jessica Elliott, will be showing at Parkland College Theatre’s Second Stage from March 1st, 2nd, and 3rd at 7 p.m. and March 3rd at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12.50 each and can be purchased here.