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Author Archive for Mandy Epley

My Facebook Friend, Don Nigro, Or Why You Should Be Speaking to Your Playwright

I remember the day I pressed enter to send a request to be Don Nigro’s friend on Facebook.  I was sitting across from Mandy Connor, who had just produced his play, Paganini, and she and I were discussing our love of his plays.  I shared how much I loved directing his play about Edward Munch called Madonna as we discovered he had an actual account on Facebook, not just a fan page.  We both decided to friend request him and like giggling school girls, we pressed send at the same time.  We were over the moon when it came back accepted!  I was even more shocked to see that Mr. Nigro was open to discussing my show, was complimentary of the production photos and was interested in my program.  When I shared with him my desire to produce another one of his shows and told him my available casting options, he sent me several scripts, some not published yet, and offered his help.  I was in awe of his generosity and appreciation for what I did as an educator.

With my new friend’s encouragement, I began to approach play selection differently.  Not only did I look at the suitability of the work but also the possibility of connecting with the playwright so my students would have an additional layer of instruction.  By working with the playwright, when possible, my students had the opportunity to not only explore the work as a piece of literature with the author but, they were also exposed to another career opportunity in the field of Theatre.  I pushed my fear of rejection aside and began communicating with playwrights through their agents and publishing companies and almost every playwright has been open to e-mailing me or even communicating directly with my students when we produce their work.

It is funny but, as directors and educators, we sometimes forget that the playwrights who generate the material we work on are open to collaboration and are a tremendous resource for us and our students.  For many playwrights, the idea that their work is being produced in educational theatre is not only exciting for them but lucrative.  I have found in working with playwrights like Jeffrey Hatcher on Smash, George Brant on Elephant’s Graveyard , Heidi Stillman on Hard Times For These Times , Sharman Macdonald on After Juliet, and Matthew Burnett on Theophilus North, a real appreciation for what we do in developing young talent.  Playwrights are eager to see their work produced and many are willing to work with you and your company to clarify objectives and broaden the production experience.

Some playwrights have tailored their shows to be student centered and may even have study guides or supplementary materials available as I found when I worked with Matthew Burnett on Theophilus North. When I applied for the rights, Samuel French Inc. asked me if I was interested in Skyping with him.  I was thrilled with the possibilities of such an opportunity and connected with Mr. Burnett before and after the Skype with my students.  I told him my concept and discussed symbolism and meaning in the show.  We discussed his adaptation and I submitted my ideas for adapting his show for UIL.  Mr. Burnett worked with the students during the Skype session, answering their questions regarding the dramatic structure of his plot, his adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s novel and how he became a playwright.  The experience went beyond my expectations with Mr. Burnett sending his support to the students and empowering them to make the show their own and enjoy the journey.  His frequent shout outs to our company on Facebook were a real treat throughout the run.  Mr. Burnett connected with the student’s love of theatre and was a tremendous inspiration. Following our UIL debut of his production, he produced his own one-act version of the show.

I have had many colleagues share their positive experiences about working and corresponding with playwrights and I challenge you to reach out to your playwright.  Like me, you may be surprised at the amazing generosity of your playwright.  At the beginning of the year, I posted a simple status update “Ambiguous Dialogues anyone……”  It was an assignment we were covering that day in Theatre I class.  By the time I got to work, my good Facebook friend, Don Nigro, had e-mailed me two original scripts with ambiguous dialogues.  Wow! Nothing like having a direct line to a playwright!  And for the record, Mandy Connor, who so boldly encouraged me to hit send on the friend request to Mr. Nigro is now a published playwright herself!  I highly encourage you to check out her scripts, published by Playscripts, Ago and Lafayette No. 1.

Without hesitation, I encourage you to make contact with those individuals who wrote, adapted, and cultivated the script your students will be using to create their next masterpiece.  The guidance, encouragement, clarification and direction you will receive are well worth your time and effort to make a connection.  As you plan this year’s shows, look into corresponding with your playwrights.  Your students will benefit from the experience and you could find a resource that continues giving even when the curtain closes.

Counting Down to Year’s End- Strategies For Review, Reflection and Celebration!

 

Almost there, almost there, almost there…  The days are warming up and the students are starting to talk about their Summer plans.  You are in the home stretch, the annual countdown of days has started to be posted on your classroom white board and ending the year on a high note is a priority.  As I sat down to write this blog installment, I scrolled through Facebook one last time for the evening.  I saw teachers asking for advice on how to use independent study time in the final days of the year as multi-level theatre classes are pulled each day for various grade level testing and asking for ways to revive the students through final reviews.  Yes, It is that time of year again and you too may be looking for ways to review, reflect, discuss, and most important, celebrate the learning and growth your students have experienced this year.

Here are a few strategies to engage your students in a variety of reflections that not only close out the year in celebration but help you to take positive steps into even better instruction for next year:

#1. LEARNING TIMELINE:

Start first with a long piece of butcher paper that you will eventually display on the classroom or auditorium wall. Review with the students all the learning that took place during this school year or production cycle. Pick a scribe or scribes to help document, via timeline, the key activities, projects, and content from each unit of study in class or objective mastered in production. Have students create visuals to add to the timeline to help students with recall as they gather from the past school year all the learning they’ve done (for example, display a photo of a project, an image of an author, designs or production photos). Have students write statements on the timeline about how what they learned made them feel or how they see it helping them in the future.  Once completed, this is not only a great way to review for final exams, but also a great introduction to the class for next year’s students when you cover the syllabus at the start of the year.

#2. TWEET ABOUT IT:

After reviewing the year or production experience, ask students to use no more than 140 characters to summarize their experience with units or the class as a whole or productions.  If they have a twitter account you can encourage them to send these reflections as a tweet. They can even create a hashtag that reflects an aspect of each unit you studied in the year or production you created. Do a twitter board in the class where students can physically post their tweets and hashtags and have the whole-class share out so students can comment on the tweets and hashtags of fellow classmates.

#3. SYNERGIZE WITH SOCRATES:

Socratic seminars may be a technique you have used throughout the year or you may be trying it for the first time.  They are one of my favorite ways to engage in meaningful student-led discussion — and reflection. In Socratic seminar, the goal is for students to help one another more deeply understand ideas, values, information, and concepts. Essential questions — or guiding questions — drive the discussion. Consider the following guiding questions:

  • What has been some of your most important learning this year?
  • What has been some of your favorite experiences and learning this year?
  • What learning moment made you feel the most accomplished?
  • What did you think you knew when you entered the class or production but you realized through experience, you had much more to learn?
  • How might you be able to apply what you learned this year in the future?
  • What activities made the most impact on your learning?

#4. LETTERS TO FUTURE STUDENTS OR YOUR FUTURE SELF:

Invite your students to write a letter to a student in next year’s class.

  • What advice might you give him or her?
  • What should the student do in order to be successful in this class or in auditions?
  • How will what they learn help them in other classes?
  • How about in life?

You keep the letters and pass them out to incoming students during the first week of school in the fall. This is a great task for seniors.

Students returning to your program can also write a letter to his or her future self. They record some memories and important learning from their experiences in your class or productions. They can also write their hopes, fears, and expectations for the next year. Keep the letters for them and give them out on the first week of class next year. Before sealing the envelope, invite students to share excerpts of their letters with each other and with the whole class.

Reflection is a great way to help your students process all they have learned in one year.  These activities can bring about awareness of just how much they have accomplished and also help them make a plan for continued study.  As an educator, these activities also engage you in a process that supports your continuous improvement as well as you process what they learned well and areas that need reinforcement.

In all the review, don’t forget to celebrate.  Great learning happened and both you and your students have been inspired.  The slow chug up the incline of the rollercoaster is well worth it when your hands are high above your head, the wind is whipping through your hair and you are screaming with joy at the drop to the end.  Enjoy the final days of this year’s ride!

“Kid Power”: Leadership for the New Year

I love the promise of a new year.  The holiday usually gives me some much-needed rest and I am full of energy and hope for the second semester.  I would have time to get prepared for the first few weeks back and I was always eager to start work on the next production.  Success for the new year means doing your best to anticipate the challenges that come with all that is the Spring Semester.  However, this doesn’t mean you do everything alone.  Certainly, having partner teachers is a plus but even if you are the lone wolf in the drama department you are not on your own.

Since leaving the classroom, I have become more aware of the most powerful partnership I had as a teacher.  That partnership is what I now refer to as “Kid Power”.  I truly miss “Kid Power”.  Frequently, I think to myself how many of my tasks in my current administrative role would be so much better if I had students sharing their skills, planning ideas, and most of all, using their physical power. From offering suggestions on projects, planning and organizing, and setting up sets or building, students are the power behind any successful program.

Students have so much to offer and can certainly use their skills to assist in making your classroom instruction and productions run smoothly.  Now that you have had a semester to build relationships, it is time to challenge your students with opportunities to own their learning and take on more responsibility. January is the time to engage your students and develop their “Kid Power”. A new year is the right time to empower students to become leaders.

“Leadership is the wise use of power. Power is the capacity to translate intention into reality and sustain it.” -Warren Bennis, scholar, author, and pioneer in leadership studies

You really can’t be a leader without having power, which most dictionaries define as “the ability to act.”

You know that with class and productions your plate will be full for the second semester.  Now is the time to grow your own leaders and transform your students into partners in learning by embracing their power. One way for students to embrace their power is by feeling a strong sense of self-efficacy—a strong belief that they can accomplish their goals. William Glasser calls this quality the “power within.” Developing “Kid Power” in the classroom means helping students embrace their ability to own their part in learning.  So many students have learned, through school, that they are passive receivers of knowledge and theatre is a fantastic venue to promote learning as an action.  Letting students know that learning is something done, not something done to you and they need to take action and decide how they want to learn is necessary to take your classes to the next level. Setting up differentiated lessons where students have choices on how they will demonstrate mastery of skills is a great way to offer opportunities for students to harness their power.

Teaching students about learning strategies can also strengthen self-efficacy. This is different from teaching skills. Being able to start a car with a key in the ignition is a skill, but if you lose your car keys, you need strategies. “Kid Power” helps students gain the capacity to tackle unforeseen problems by emphasizing comprehension.  Students are empowered to categorize information, identify patterns and problem solve in theatre without a teacher always telling the “rule” in advance. For the second semester, challenge your students to solve problems without spelling everything out.  It will be messy and if you are a control freak, like me, it can be hard to watch, but when you watch them develop and begin to work together and collaboratively use their creativity, you will find they will surprise you with exciting ideas and innovative techniques.

If you are concerned that your classes may not be ready for the responsibility I suggest, it is important to note that Glasser suggests that 95 percent of classroom management issues occur as a result of students trying to fulfill a need for power. When we share power with our students, it doesn’t mean that we “have less power” —but it can mean we’ve created more possibilities for learning and leadership. You have already laid the groundwork for “Kid Power” by building relationships with students.  As you head into the next semester, continue to explore your students’ self-interests, hopes, and dreams, and be better prepared to more explicitly connect lessons to them.

Another way to shift your classroom to “Kid Power” is to provide opportunities for students to teach others. Teaching others not only requires students to reread and return to learned material but it also enhances self-confidence and provides good modeling for peers. I often used the “jigsaw” concept—in which students become experts and teach each other about a topic in small groups.  I usually required students to provide an original visual or performance to teach their assigned material. Small groups of students can teach short lessons to other small groups, who then reverse roles.  Another strategy asks individual students to prepare short fill-in-the-blank statements and then exchange them, keeping in mind that their statements need to be carefully designed so that their peers can use context clues to complete them.

The classroom is not the only place where students can exercise their power. I know most of us trust a student to be a stage manager or perhaps you trust and give power freely to that light board technician kid who knows the board like the back of his hand but, I want to challenge you to embrace “Kid Power” for the entire company.
Your students can help get the word out about your productions.  I always asked my best students to bring at least two new students to the audition for the next show. I asked them to listen for great readers and speakers in their English classes or great presenters in other classes.  They would often get excited about finding someone to bring to an audition that would ultimately get cast.  They took great pride in their recruiting skills and casting eye and the students they brought were so happy to find theatre and become part of the team.

I would often prepare a 1 page audition announcement flyer for them to hand out with the following information to help new recruits:

  1. Title of the Show
  2. Performance Dates
  3. Important Details (Special performance times or requirements)
  4. Production Team Positions Open
  5. Kind of Audition (Musical or Play)
  6. Audition Dates
  7. What to Prepare
  8. What Type of Performers are Needed (Age, Gender, and Special Skills)
  9. Brief Synopsis

It is important to remember that “Kid Power” doesn’t mean Seniority.  Seniority has its place but “Kid Power” is about building leadership skills for all students and helping students own their department.  When you create opportunities for all students to make an impact in production you build commitment and you see less students abandoning the process mid-stream.  Students see their power as immediate and know that you trust them with responsibilities.  Certainly we are good at assigning leadership roles for certain students but the task of “Kid Power” comes in finding opportunities for all.

All students can cast the play.  This is a wonderful activity at auditions to help students understand the responsibility and difficulty of casting.  I required that all actors and technicians interested in participation in the play submit their cast list in writing as the last activity before I dismissed them from the audition.  This is something they did not discuss with others and many struggled with the task but it helped them understand the responsibility of a director.

All students can lead warm-ups.  Have your stage manager model leading a 10 minute vocal and physical warm-up for the company.  Then have them create a calendar that allows for every student to have at least 1 rehearsal where they lead the company in warm-ups.  This 10 minutes at the start of every rehearsal allows for you to have time to get set up and problem solve before each rehearsal.  Students can repeat traditional warm-ups or introduce new warm-ups to the company that might just become traditions. Have students plan for end of rehearsal reflection activities.  Each student should have a rehearsal they are responsible for running reflections.  If you are like me and use a “source wall” (See Anne Bogart’s Viewpoints) when doing table work for a production, students can rotate responsibility for updating items on the wall and presenting to the group.

All students can offer suggestions for improvement and by creating an open communication system, students can offer suggestions for what scenes they may need to work on more.  Developing an appropriate way to share ideas, students can help problem solve difficult scene changes, costume issues or blocking concerns.

All students can develop and deliver your 3-5-7-9.  On a 3×5 card, have students write your department’s mission and goals in 7 sentences.  They should practice delivering this message in less than 90 seconds as an elevator speech to promote what your department or production is all about.  This 3-5-7-9 technique can be used to recruit students to the program or invite folks to come see your latest play. You can also use this strategy with Twitter by having students use 140 characters to tweet about the show or the program.

It is important to note that “Kid Power” does not mean you don’t make decisions.  It is important to establish that student leadership is respected in your department but you are there to guide them and ensure their safety to prepare them to promote what is best for all students.

Using “Kid Power” doesn’t mean there won’t be teachable moments, times when you will need to intervene and hit the re-set button or that you will not need to re-direct students who make poor choices or choose to use their “power” for ill.  However, the benefits of embracing “Kid Power” or student leadership far outweigh the risks and students are more prepared for post- graduation because of their experiences.  Here are some of the ways embracing student leadership in theatre can better prepare your students:

  • Having their abilities recognized by others is empowering, and the work students do in a leadership role is likely to be recognized and help them gain confidence.
  • Public speaking plays a major role in many careers today. You teach your students to speak with confidence and poise to diverse groups about your department’s mission and goals (running warm-ups, reflections, critiques, planning, 3-5-7-9, etc.). Diplomacy skills and persuasion tactics are applicable to almost any career.
  • Student leaders aren’t only responsible for themselves – they also have extended responsibilities that affect a wide range of people. Leaders of a group must not only make sure that tasks get done, but that all members of the department are performing to the best of their abilities. If someone doesn’t follow through on a task, leaders make sure that, ultimately, the task is completed. This responsibility can be a lesson on how to hold others accountable.
  • A play is the ultimate collaborative project. Student leaders must learn to establish priorities and compromise when necessary. Success occurs when the integrity of the production is maintained and everyone involved feels valued and empowered. This form of negotiation is invaluable for helping any group meet its goals, including professional teams in the workforce.
  • A strong leader is one whose management skills become second nature. Leaders must oversee operational tasks, make budgets, prioritize workloads, build consensus and perform other executive duties as necessary. Students will likely make mistakes, but learning how to handle them now, through play production and with you as a safety net, can better prepare them for college or the workforce.
  • Student leaders have many obligations to meet while maintaining a full course load and attending to other personal responsibilities. It will take some creative problem-solving to get everything done and keep life in balance. Leadership experiences allow students to hone multitasking abilities that future job and life responsibility demands.
  • College recruiters and employers recognize the responsibilities that student leaders take on, and they respect the initiative it shows to be a leader a play production. With leadership experience on their resume, they are more likely to get the attention of a recruiter or hiring manager. A student leadership role is also a great talking point during interviews.

Happy New Year! and best wishes for a “Kid Power”-ed semester.  Your leadership and extra effort with your students means they are not only becoming well rounded theatrical professionals but they are also honing skills and techniques that empower them to be successful in learning and in life.  Enjoy the partnership with your students and celebrate the promise of new beginnings!

 

 

Beyond Shocktober- Confronting Stress for Improvement

“It’s that time of year.”  Every teacher knows that the school year has a predictability, a cycle of excitement, stress, anticipation and reflection.  Sometimes we attribute behaviors and energies in the classroom to the phases of the moon, the weather or the anticipation of holidays but we all know that certain times of the year bring unique challenges. The last few years I have noticed that October brings a specific brand of stress and worry amongst teachers and students.  In the profession, we refer to it as “Shocktober”.  Shocktober is the convergence of all the positive energy and plans you made in the summer for student and personal success and the reality of time constraints, increased expectations, and that annual sinus infection. Shocktober can leave you feeling deflated and rethinking the whole year and even your future in teaching.  I think this quote from Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring captures the feeling in a perfectly creative simile: “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

If you are like me, this level of exhaustion is the perfect breeding ground for doubt.  With all the pressures of the remainder of the year (class productions, musicals, UIL One Act play, etc.) looming, finding a wellspring of energy and inspiration is critical to being your best for students. Most of us grind through to ultimately crash during the holiday break but what if we could address our needs before the break in order to enjoy our holidays and recharge. How do we turn “Shocktober” into “No-Fear November”?  How do we refocus and harness stress to maximize the time left in the year before the holidays? How do we create a stability that not only sustains us but inspires our students to make the most of the sweet spot of instruction that is the end of the first half of the school year.

Confront your stress and conquer the worry so you can improve.

Worrying about what is going to happen if we don’t meet expectations becomes crippling during “Shocktober”.  For me the time leading up to the first production of the season was always a time where I felt the pressure mount. I meticulously crafted a spectacular season and set instructional goals in the summer and as the year began to de-rail those plans and force me to adapt, I found myself losing sleep which only intensified my reactions to my mistakes, changes at school or stress. This cycle of worry reminds me of a story I once heard about Willis H. Carrier the engineer and founder of the Carrier Corporation, the company many of us use for our air conditioning system. Early in his career, Carrier made a mistake and installed a massive air handling system that didn’t work. After nights of not sleeping, Carrier adopted three steps that changed his life.

  1. Analyze the situation fearlessly and honestly and figure out the worst that can happen as a result.
  2. Accept the worst outcome
  3. Calmly devote time and energy to improve upon the worst which has already been accepted mentally.

Carrier’s process of confronting fear and worry is a proven practice for success and certainly helped me get back to sleep.  I think it is also not only an excellent way for you to process your fears mid-year but it is also a process that your students may be able to use to re-focus and continue to improve.  This process can be done in a journal entry or through a visual collage in the classroom or on the back wall of the theater. You can also use a student sharing approach to assess class and production goals. One technique to address goal evaluation is to have students practice active listening in pairs.  Start by talking about opportunities and solutions related to the topic at hand to help move beyond current feelings of stress and/or tension. The activity involves one student talking while his/her partner(s) listens without comment. Set the stage with students by establishing rules for safe sharing. For example: Be respectful of all feelings, ideas, opinions. Before beginning, model the activity using yourself and student volunteers to clearly demonstrate the activity.

Instructions:

Part One

  1. Students should be in pairs; have students find a partner (e.g. you can number off students 1, 2, 1, 2…).
  2. Student #1 talks while student #2 simply listens (e.g. ask Student 1 to share how they are feeling about the topic and why? Or about any concerns or worries they are experiencing).
  3. After 1-3 minutes the students switch roles and student #2 talks while student #1 listens for another 1-3 minutes (Student #2 now talks about the same question)

Part Two

  1. After the pairs are done sharing, group students in triads (groups of three; again you may number off students 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 …).
  2. Student #1 talks while students #2 and #3 listen (e.g. ask Student 1 to talk about opportunities and solutions related to current issue or stressors he/she is experiencing or concerned about).
  3. Every 1-3 minutes switch until each student in the group has a turn to talk.
  4. OPTIONAL: Students may share with whole class their experience of sharing thoughts and feelings while being listened to and what it is like to listen intentionally without comment.
  5. Check in with students to see if they feel any sense of relief, calmness, focus or less stressed as a result of the activity.

Extension:
Teacher may follow-up by having students practice peer sharing at other times. Encourage students to practice this method on their own amongst themselves for mutual support.

In addition to confronting immediate stress, processing fears can help with adjusting goals for the remainder of the year and strengthen the team bond of your class or production company.  Now that you know what students are in your program, what your classes look like, what level your students are at and where you need to get them, you are prime to re-assess your goals and adjust for success.  Hearing their thoughts and solutions can only strengthen your focus for improvement. As you finish your first productions and speak with your students about your next shows and class projects, consider working as a team to address what has worked (behaviors, routines, planning, execution, leadership, etc.) and what still needs work (clear communication, meeting expectations for rehearsal and performance, commitment, quality, teamwork, etc.)  Talking through the disappointment or frustrations of Shocktober and then making an action plan for success moving forward into No-Fear November can mean both you and your students will be prepared for the challenges and rewards of the new year.

Building Your “Standard of Performance”

standard-of-performance

Last week, I had the pleasure of traveling to Post, Texas to work with the fabulously talented team of Leslie and Tim Tatum and their dedicated theatre students.  As I waited in the Dallas airport for my connecting flight to Lubbock, I reviewed my Rasaboxes workshop plan and scrolled through Facebook admiring the posts of theatre directors across Texas.  Each director proudly displayed their season posters and shared their excitement about the year ahead.  Seeing the posters reminded me of a Fine Arts Director I once worked under who commented in a theatre director staff meeting that he “knew our shows were good” because he had “seen our posters”.   I won’t even begin to tell you the frustration that boils up thinking about the fact that he never actually saw the shows, just the posters, but the memory made me think about how this time of year is filled with promise and how quickly we begin to realize the weight of actually producing the shows we have committed to for our season ahead.

As directors, we know that to make our plans for productions a reality we must start well in advance and often what we have exuberantly planned over the summer is derailed by a variety of factors like students moving in or out, facility issues, administrative changes, calendar conflicts or budgetary constraints.  Through all the obstacles that may come their way, good directors remain focused on the purpose of production and adapt to make sure “the show goes on”.bill-walsh

Recently, I was asked by my superintendent to read a book called The Score Takes Care of Itself by the former coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh.

First of all, I assumed this was a sports book and was not at all interested in reading it so I put it off until the weekend before our book study discussion was scheduled. That weekend, I made an appointment to get new tires put on my car and began reading this book while I waited in the lobby of Discount Tire Company.  For any single folks reading this blog, let me tell you that I discovered a rather effective tactic for catching the eyes of men.  Go hang out at a Discount Tire Company and read a book about football.  I had more men look my way and start conversations in that 45 minutes than I ever had when I was actually looking to meet men!  But in all seriousness, this book is not actually about the game of football.  In the book, Bill Walsh uses his experiences in football to outline a leadership strategy and sets out specific standards for team success. The whole time I read the book, I translated the “football team” references to theatre casts and crews, theatre classes and production teams.  For Bill Walsh, an intense focus on details cemented the foundation for excellence in his team’s performance and the more I read the book, the more I realized that the successes my students experienced over the years were aligned with what Walsh describes as “The Standard of Performance”.

Thinking back on the times I would describe as successful in my teaching and directing, I believe that with each season and the challenges that came with each production, I built a belief system about the purpose of productions and an understanding that whatever happened I would strive to reach a certain standard with each show.  That standard incorporated an intentional academic connection to each show in order to support cross-curricular objectives.  Whether the show highlighted a period or event in history, a literary or artistic movement or showcased a societal issue, I tried to ensure that students were able to finish the production with an understanding of the lessons of the show and that they were aware of applications of those lessons to their own life and the lives of others.

Additionally, I developed a standard of ensemble in all productions.  Regardless of the level of production value that ultimately was showcased in a performance, all students were encouraged to participate in all aspects of production during a season.  Ensuring students valued the literature (efforts of a playwright), technical aspects (design work and technical execution of set, costumes, lights, sound, media and stage management), directing and dramaturgy, theatre as a business (house management, box office, advertisement, budget, production organization) and performance (actors, dancers, singers, acrobats) components of the show was a priority.  Empowering students to work as a team of theatre professionals to establish ownership of their successes and failures also became a standard goal in all productions.

Teaching real world application, life skills and personal character connections through the audition, rehearsal, performance and travel process was also a standard of performance that became a focus.  All students involved in theatre were held to a high standard of behavior and attitude.  Commitment, respect, integrity, confidence, responsibility, sportsmanship, honesty, courtesy and perseverance were a part of lessons taught and expectations held in all we did. Each year this standard developed and was expanded to elevate the department and was evidenced in our productions. A tradition of excellence is not something that happens to you, it is something you must make happen.  It is something that you cannot will to happen through your hard work alone.  You must engage your students in the discovery and execution of your “Standard of Performance”.  You must build it together.

Bill Walsh has some helpful guidelines for beginning the process of quantifying and implementing your own version of the “Standard of Performance”:

  1. Start with a comprehensive recognition of, reverence for, and identification of the specific actions and attitudes relevant to your team’s performance and production.” I love the idea of having your students create a list of the specific actions and attitudes that define what it means to be a member of your theatre department or a company member in your productions.  This is something that is not just words but actions and attitudes that can be seen and showcased as evidence of excellence.
  2. “Be clarion clear in communicating your expectation of high effort and execution of your Standard of Performance. “ Like water, even our most dedicated students will seek lower ground if left to their own inclinations.  As a director and teacher you must inspire your students to give extra effort and demand that they go upward and continuously improve, rather than settle for doing what comes easily.  You must challenge yourself to learn more so you are prepared to support them with tools and strategies that take them out of their comfort zone.
  3. “Let all know that you expect them to possess the highest level of expertise in their area of responsibility.” When I first read this I was struck by Bill Walsh’s use of “ALL”. I was guilty as a director of expecting certain students (especially technicians) to be the “expert” in lighting or sound or media.  Walsh’s statement challenges that habit and asks that the standard be high for all the members of the class or company.  Empowering students with the faith that you believe that they are capable of learning and becoming experts for whatever responsibility they are assigned to in production not only sets a standard but also establishes a goal for students that can be a model for life long learning.
  4. “Beyond standards and methodology, teach your belief, values and philosophy.” We all know that the strength of our theatre community comes from the lives that are brought together to create art.  These lives and how they function together is something that must be guided and strengthened through reinforcement of purpose and intent.  When I read this guideline an incident immediately came to mind.  I had been teaching for two years at a high school and thought things were going well.  Our productions were strong and my enrollment was high.  Parents praised the quality of the shows and my principal was happy.  However, one day I received a call from a mother who was in tears.  Her son had been selected as an understudy in the musical and he was diligently attending every rehearsal.  She reported that he was discouraged and was considering dropping the production, not because he did not get an on-stage role but because the person he was understudying for would make derogatory comments to him as he passed him in the wings and even turned to the wings in rehearsal and placed his fingers in the shape of an “L” on his forehead and directed it at his understudy.  I was shocked and called the whole company in that day not to rehearse but to talk about who we were and what we valued.  That day I learned about some issues I wasn’t aware we had.  I had made assumptions that the students understood our values and expectations but had not taken the time to teach them. Through collaborating with the students, we created a “Manifesto of Respect” for our theatre department.  We posted it on the callboard together and agreed to abide by it from that day forward.  Taking the time to teach our beliefs and values set the tone for growth in our department.  It also opened dialogue about our philosophy of production, roles in the theatre, what we believed about competition and our responsibility to each other.  This part of your “Standard of Performance” is absolutely critical to your success in creating meaningful art and supporting healthy student relationships.
  5. “Teach connection and extension” This ties in with number 4. In theatre, we must work as a team.  Our strength comes from the support we give each other.  Your talents elevate me.  Your successes challenge me to be better and your failures are something that we can learn from together.
  6. “Make the expectations that you demand in action and attitudes from your students the new reality of your department.” It all starts with you.  You provide the model for the new standard in your own actions and attitudes.  Be on time, be prepared, be focused and committed, be kind. Like our students, we are constantly learning and it is ok to make a shift in the way you may have done things in the past.  In fact, it may be just what you need to do to improve.  Students watch you and listen more than you think.  If you expect it from them, you must model those behaviors.  Model excellence and don’t fear making mistakes.   Sharing when you have failed or need to make a change is also establishing a “Standard of Performance”.  When they can see how you adapt and improve they will find confidence when they falter.  In teaching, we learn and in sharing that lesson we all benefit from not only the process of creating theatre but in sharing our efforts with others.

Whether you have set your “Standard of Performance”, are building on it or are starting from scratch, when you reinforce the standard you are setting up your students and your program for success.  As Bill Walsh says, when you have the whole team focusing on the standard “winning takes care of itself”.

I hope you will share your “Standard of Performance” with us at the Maestro Theatre Forum.  Our “Standard of Performance” is a commitment to sharing what works with others.  Through that sharing we all become stronger and our students reap the rewards.  Please share with us how you have built or continue to build your “Standard of Performance” as well as the discoveries you make throughout this season.