With Dennis Kohles calling the shots for the Bishop O’Dowd High School drama department, amateur high school actors learn what it takes to become pros.
By Edward Guthmann
Scene: The theater at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland where Dennis Kohles, head of the drama department since 1985, readies an 8-foot-high pile of patchwork mattresses for the school’s fall production, Once Upon a Mattress. The mattresses aren’t stuffed with ticking or down but with rolled-up blankets that date back to the 1950s, when nuns inhabited a convent on the Bishop O’Dowd High School campus. “I’m very conservative, and I’m a recycler,” Kohles explains.
Unlike most high schools, which stage their plays, if at all, in a low-tech auditorium with folding chairs and dismal acoustics, O’Dowd boasts a handsome, 300-seat theater that any college or community theater would envy. The Performing Arts Center is equipped with 250 lights, an excellent sound system, a 40-by-25-foot screen for projections, a greenroom, and a large shop for building scenery.
In the past, Kohles has staged everything from standard high-school fare like The Little Shop of Horrors and Arsenic and Old Lace to such thorny, difficult theater pieces as Sweeney Todd and The Laramie Project. O’Dowd has won dozens of trophies at the Ohlone College High School Theatre Festival, an annual statewide competition, under Kohles.
The success of O’Dowd’s drama department, Kohles says, starts with the support he gets from the school administrators. “Without funding, you can’t really do this. Public schools don’t have the money, so it’s a luxury to have this program. We’re very fortunate.”
Kohles sits in the Performing Arts Center’s greenroom on an overcast July morning for an interview about his long career. A slender, soft-spoken man, he has not only run the drama department for 33 years, but is also a 1969 alumnus. “I grew up four blocks down the street from here,” he says. “Born and raised in Oakland. I’m proud of that.”
Previously, Kohles taught acting classes, but today his time is totally devoted to mounting shows. He directs and produces two major pieces per year; builds the sets; designs the lighting; orders the costumes; organizes the box office and seating charts; and rehearses his actors three hours a day, five days a week for three months before a show opens.
Trina Oliver, who teaches acting at Bishop O’Dowd and also coaches students for stage productions, says Kohles’ dedication is extraordinary. “I always cringe when Dennis climbs up on the scaffold to focus lights. He spends hours to get things right. Needless to say, he is a perfectionist, and it shows in his work. He creates the best theater ticket in town.”
When the semester opens in mid-August and auditions are held for the fall production, Kohles says, the more eager actors show up performance-ready. “I’ve already sent them the script and the score. They know you don’t walk in here unprepared, because somebody else is going to snatch that role if you don’t have your act together.
“Sometimes kids will come in and give you the performance they’re going to give you opening night. I’m serious. And you’re like, ‘That was good. I guess she’s going to play that part.’”
When auditions are complete and Kohles mounts the cast list, he says, “I’m out of here because I don’t want to see all that.” He’s talking about the inevitable tears and disappointments when students aren’t cast in a coveted part. “It’s my least favorite time.”
During the summer, Kohles announces the two major productions for the upcoming school year. Some shows work well with high school actors, and accordingly he’s staged Hair, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Our Town, Godspell, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest multiple times. Next spring he’ll present The King and I, a show he’s never directed at O’Dowd. “The characters are rather difficult and demanding. It’s a stretch, and we’re taking that stretch ’cause we think we can do it.”
In 2002 he directed The Laramie Project, a powerful docudrama about the murder of gay youth Matthew Shepard. When the show opened, Bishop O’Dowd High School was picketed by the aggressively homophobic Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. “We were on the news,” Kohles remembers. “It was this huge thing — news cameras, lights, security — and what it did was create a scarcity of tickets. The opposite of what the Westboro Baptist Church wanted. We had to add performances.”
Generally, he says, “I choose productions based on who’s here: how we can feature these particular students and what show fits them best.” When he selected Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd eight years ago, people doubted high schoolers could do justice to a sophisticated, musically complex piece of theater. “But we had seven strong boy singers at the time, and I knew they could do it. The kids did a magnificent job.”
Among O’Dowd’s drama students, Kohles has a reputation as a hard taskmaster — for holding his actors to a high standard and sometimes losing his temper when they don’t reach that standard. He winces when the subject is broached; a “guilty-as-charged” look crosses his face, and he admits he can be tough.
“I don’t play around. I have an enormous amount of respect for the theater and what it can do. So the kids sometimes are not really liking some of the things that I say or do, but in the end, I think they appreciate having a good product. Sometimes I go too far — demanding a lot — and I have to pull back. I’ve become gentler, out of necessity, because in the end, they’re doing this because they want to have fun.”
Michael A. Goorjian, an Emmy-winning actor, graduated from Bishop O’Dowd in 1989 and says Kohles “taught me how to struggle and not settle for being so-so. Yes, Dennis was tough as hell, but seriously, I would not have been able to become a working actor, write and direct my own films, write a friggin’ novel, if it wasn’t for the work ethic he drilled into me.”
“When I return to O’Dowd to see shows I am blown away,” says Indigo Jackson, a 2012 graduate who has a small role in the hit movie Sorry to Bother You. “I cannot help but cry at every bow, because these kids are killing it. That same school of drama made me take this craft seriously and view it as an important and viable career.”
Kohles says he loves working with high school actors because of their enthusiasm and energy and because, unlike adult actors, they are not “too ingrained in what they’re doing.” He also loves the mentoring aspect. “Ultimately, what we’re trying to do here is give these kids self-esteem from having accomplished something really great.”
In 33 years, Kohles says, “There hasn’t been one day that I’ve worked here that I didn’t want to be here. That’s really rare. Most people don’t really like their jobs that much. So I’m gonna keep coming to work as long as I am physically able to climb up the scaffolding and fix the lights.”