It was mid-October and “As You Like It” rehearsals were in full swing. It was quiet in the room, aside from the actors speaking and working on their show. The only other person moving in the room was the director, Harry McEnerny.
He wasn’t moving around for the sake of moving though, he had a purpose in mind: to put on every single coat in the room at the same time. Ten coats, two hats and a pair of gloves later and McEnerny was barely able to move his upper body.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking he wasn’t paying attention to the practicing actors either. His eyes never stopped watching. Without skipping a beat, he was giving tips and pointers, all while looking like Joey Tribbiani from “Friends” when he wore all of Chandler’s clothes.
For an outsider it may look strange, but for anyone who has ever met the man, it’s just Harry being Harry.
“He’s unusual. His teaching methods are unlike any I’ve ever seen before,” said Brandon Bailey, a regular in McEnerny’s shows on campus.
Meant to be
“I always wanted to teach theater,” McEnerny said. “I really liked the educational part, the educational theater part, so there was really no decision for me, it was ‘this is what I like, so this is what I’m going to do.’”
“Harry the teacher,” said Thomas Tifft, “honestly, it’s hard to describe. You’ll understand if you take one of his classes, but he’s very outgoing, he’s very spontaneous.”
The reviews on McEnerny as a teacher are overwhelmingly positive from his students. Although like any other teacher, he isn’t perfect.
“I don’t totally know how he grades things, because he doesn’t really use Moodle, he doesn’t email,” laughed Gabby Lazzaro, a student and family friend of McEnerny’s.
“But that doesn’t mean that the class isn’t worthwhile,” said Bailey coming to his defense, “Because honestly, I learn a lot in his classes and it’s not worrying about the grade, it’s actually about doing theater.”
McEnerny prefers making sure his students understand the concepts and intricacies of what he’s trying to teach them, instead of trying to pressure them with grades. He grades his students, but he tries to keep them focused on the work itself, and not the grade they might get.
“His wife (CU education professor Monica McEnerny) is like an education expert,” laughed Lazzaro, pointing out the contrast in styles.
A glimpse of Harry
His office is always lit up by Christmas lights that line the ceiling. The shelves are lined with a multitude of plays and books on theater. On the top of the shelf just behind his chair sits eight half-full soda bottles, mostly Diet Pepsi. He never has the time to finish one, he claims.
His desk and coffee table are covered in even more books, papers and little trinkets. One of the most notorious of the trinkets is the dried-out frog playing a guitar, which for a long time made an appearance in every show he directed.
But the most popular part of his office is the man himself. The students of the theater department can often be found hovering around his office. Whether it’s for advising help, or just to talk and joke around, his office door is always open.
“He is so intelligent,” said Webber, “and I love having intellectual conversations with him, because I learn so much.”
Monica McEnerny excitedly talks about how she and Harry have been happily together for almost 36 years and living together for almost 32.
“It’s charming, I love living with him,” she said. “He’s the kindest person you could want around and he cooks dinner every night, excellent cook.”
They also have two children, who are all out of the house by now, but the duo said they made a strong parenting combo. Of course, McEnerny’s inner child was certainly a helpful trait in his parenting.
“He’s a great parent, so playful and so much fun, and present. See, this is the thing I’ve seen and why I’ve learned so much from him, he’s always just been present,” Monica said. “He was always just present for everybody, he was never carrying anything, I actually think that’s just a great characteristic.”
It wasn’t always easy for Harry though.
“When Monica and I graduated college, we had already had a child, and when baby needed a new pair of shoes, you had to do what you had to do, so I worked,” he said. “I would work during the day and then I’d say yes to the theater stuff, so in about four years I did about 50 plays with Barksdale Theater.”
Eventually though, his desire to teach started to nag at him, and he began his journey to get his MFA in order to do so.
“My job during the day was technical direction at this theater, and then I would leave that and go down to grad school at Virginia Commonwealth University, and then would leave that and go to Barksdale Theater to wait tables and do shows or whatever, and we had two kids at this time,” he said.
“And when you’re that busy, something has to go, and for me it was personal hygiene. No sleeping, not bathing, no eating, lots of driving, but it was all about educational theater,” he said.
And it didn’t get much easier when he finally got the MFA.
“It was like ‘ok, I got my MFA, come and get me,’ and then nobody came and got me,” he said. “So, I started applying for jobs outside of where I lived, I had never been north of New York City.”
Somehow though, he found Castleton, and he was wanted.
“When he accepted the job here, he called me from here, he was staying in the Holiday Inn in Rutland, and I cried,” Monica said. “I could tell, you know how sometimes in your life there are these pivotal moments, like I knew this was going to be a huge change for our lives for the better.”
The plan for the McEnerny family was simple. Harry would work at Castleton for two years and then he would move on to a “real place.”
At least that’s how he put it.
Evidently that didn’t quite end up being the plan, having taught now at Castleton for more than 20 years.
So what kept him here?
“The people,” he said. “As it turns out, the people who go to Castleton are, they’re genuinely nice people, and that’s not something I had found everywhere else (I’d worked). Everyone was genuinely nice.”
There is one other role that McEnerny fills at Castleton, beyond just teaching. He is also the director of all the main stage theater productions. And his actors love working with him.
“He was definitely a different director than I’m used to. He lets the actors do their thing and then he just guides you along with it,” said freshman Ryan Boeke.
He keeps everyone on their toes at rehearsals too, always quick with a joke to lighten the mood, or a tip to help put his actors on the right track.
“Every joke that this man makes is like so clever, but he makes them so quickly you can almost barely react to it, because you’re like, did you really just say that?” Webber said.
McEnerny does admit his directing style is molded specifically for college students, or at least students in general.
“With college students, I’m trying to help them become better actors, while at the same time trying to direct the play … In the professional world, I would be murdered if I tried to direct them like that,” he said.
But luckily for Harry, he’s not directing professionals, he’s directing many college students who are all grateful to be able to learn as much as possible.
“As a director, he obviously knows what he’s doing,” said Tifft, who worked with Harry both as an actor and as a member of the tech staff. “I learned so much from him both ways, but I would say I learned more from him as an actor because he spends more time with actors … But I learned nonetheless.”
And at the end of the day, making sure his students grow and learn is the ultimate goal.
“I know this sounds pathetic, but this is no lie, seeing people, 18- to 22-year-old messes, become human beings, like real legit human beings, not an 18- to 22-year-old mess, but a real person, is my favorite part,” he said with a smile.