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Author Archive for Renee Buchanan

Return to Directing, Plot and Actors

I saw many beautiful shows this past UIL OAP season.   I saw beautiful set designs, intriguing concepts, incredible movement, spectacular special effects, etc.  I definitely saw some stunning plays, visuals that will stay with me for many years, but I did not always understand the story being told.   I fear we, as directors (and I am talking to myself),  are focusing on spectacle and not a protagonist’s journey.  With the removal of many set limitations, the focus has shifted away from the story.  I want to see a show that moves me, inspires me, makes me laugh, not one that makes me wonder how that director did that effect or accomplished that design; those things should compliment the story, not drive it.   I cannot tell you how many times an audience member has said to me,  “Can you tell me what that play was about?”   Isn’t that our job – to tell the story?   

As I watched contest plays, I realized I am not the only director who has lost focus.  So many shows this year were beautiful, cool, and imaginative.  While this creates a visually stunning show,  this focus sometimes takes away from the playwright’s story.  This trend has caused me to revisit Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle gives us six elements of a play:  plot, character, theme, language, rhythm and spectacle.  Many of us are putting too much focus on the spectacle and not enough focus on the other five elements.  The spectacle is driving the show and not the protagonist’s journey.  Our attention has been on the vision we can put on the stage while the actual story has taken a backseat.  Instead of spending energy discovering the best way to cover up the gray or add a special effect to “WOW” an audience, energy and time should be spent on directing the plot and coaching the actor.  

When I first began directing, I knew nothing.  I was an elementary education major asked to direct the OAP.  I am competitive, so I began watching and learning from the best.  What I could not learn from them in a short two-hour clinic, I figured out on my own.  I analyzed characters with my students using real life experiences from myself and others.  I created stage pictures that I thought were pretty and told the story.  I focused on a character’s movement (blocking) because I knew that created interest for an audience.  I made sure I could hear my actors on stage but did not let them sacrifice honesty for volume.  I did everything I could to create the illusion of that playwright’s world with believable character choices.  Back then, the last element I considered was spectacle.

Through the years, I have learned so much more about directing.  I have met and analyzed many directors.   I have read books.  I have attended training.  I have trained others.  I definitely have a whole lot more knowledge than I did twenty years ago.  I am a much better director than I was before, but I have to honestly admit that I have gotten caught up in directing the spectacle and not the protagonist’s journey.  

Why do we spend so much time on the directing component of the contest and not more time on the acting?    First of all, spectacle is being rewarded in competition.  A show that is heavy on spectacle is advancing over a well-acted show – even though the contest is an acting contest.   It is hard not to follow the trend that takes home the trophies.  I believe the other reason we focus on spectacle is because it is the element directors can most control.  With today’s teen spending the majority of their time in front of a screen, teaching them to recreate relationships through dialogue is a challenge.  Students do not know what face-to-face communication feels like in real life, so they have a difficult time communicating and living in the moment on stage.  Even though it is difficult to coach an actor to do something out of his or her comfort zone, that is where our focus should be.  Somehow we need to return to the balance of acting and directing in our shows.    Our first priority should be to direct the plot and coach the actors.  We need to remember that our concept or commanding image should compliment our story, not drive it.

I know this may sound as if I am bitter for not advancing.  I am not bitter, but I am disappointed in myself.  I did not push my students to explore their characters enough.  I spent way too much time directing the art and not the story.  So as I prepare for the next year, I am going to challenge myself to return to directing the story.  I love working on the spectacle, but I will not allow that to consume my preparation.  I am going to return to teaching students to be real, authentic and genuine within the world the playwright has given us.   I do not want the audience to leave talking about the show’s concept not knowing what the story was really about.  I want to direct a stunning show, but I want an audience to leave with more knowledge, being moved or entertained because they followed a character’s journey.

 

   

 

Perseverance

In the past few weeks, I have had the fortunate opportunity to clinic sixteen shows in different parts of Texas.  I always leave feeling challenged, inspired, and blessed.  This past weekend, I returned with a huge appreciation for the life lessons we teach students while working on a production.  We teach students about perseverance, commitment, and the strength we gain when working with others.

As I have worked with each director, I recognize the toll the long hours and stress put on each of us.  Preparing for the competition season, working within a budget, lesson planning, teaching, grading etc. (not to mention having a family) is draining on all of us.  With the earlier contest dates, we are all scrambling to re-adjust our schedules to be prepared for that first contest.  Even with the best-laid plans, unexpected delays seem to pop up.  I know many of you have had additional, unforeseen complications with obtaining production rights, commitments (or should I say non-commitments) from students, and the flu season.

About the time I am at the end of my stress level and ready to throw in the towel, I am reminded of the invaluable lessons we are teaching our students as we press through all of the obstacles to prepare our production.   When students see us continuing to work hard, staying positive, working around all hurdles, they are learning life lessons.  These are the lessons a student cannot learn from a book, they learn from example and their own experience.  This is why we continue to pick up our bootstraps and keep moving forward.

In the past couple of weeks, I know of three productions that have had to start all over.  All three companies had created their super-objective and commanding image, prepared their scripts, begun costuming, designed a set, gathered props, etc.   Their students had already memorized their lines, were blocking and developing a character.  Then, because of some unexpected obstacle, the current production had to be halted.  I am afraid in today’s society, too many people would give up and quit – but not theatre teachers.  We know how to look at the worst of situations and turn them into the best possible scenario.  What a gift we give our students.

We all could tell stories about companies who pulled together to overcome complications – stories about changing productions with few rehearsals left before a contest or opening night, students who failed to commit, administration that stopped a show or concept, unfortunate accidents or sicknesses.  This list could go on and on.   Very few times can we name the times a company quit because of these unfortunate incidents.  Instead, we have watched as directors and students pulled together to produce quality theatre.  More importantly, we have watched as directors taught young adults how to persevere in life.  When the going gets tough, the tough get going.  We cannot quit in the face of adversity,

As I watched a group of young actors enthusiastically welcome a production change due to the lack of commitment from some of their classmates and peers, I stood in awe.  I never heard one complain.  I never heard one say they could not do it or that it could not be done.  I watched these students embrace the challenge with a contagious eagerness.  Those students are the ones who will survive in life.  They are the ones who will succeed in their endeavors because they did not quit when it was difficult.  They backed up, re-evaluated the situation and embraced a solution.

As theatre teachers, we begin modeling how to persist through adversity early in the production process. When we begin designing a set and have to adapt our vision with the reality of the space, contest or our budget, we are modeling perseverance.   When we find the need to recast the lead actor, we are demonstrating how to work through adversity.   Students watch us face an obstacle, re-evaluate and develop a solution through all aspects of the production process.  I realize now, that every time we adjust our plan of action to meet the needs or restrictions at the moment, we are modeling life lessons to our students.  What a gift we give our students every day without even realizing it.

As you continue preparing for your competition season, don’t disregard the little lessons you are teaching everyday.  Every time you stay positive in the face of adversity, your students are watching you.  Every time you refuse to give up or quit and, instead, continue to work hard, re-evaluate and keep going, you are modeling the lessons in life that make people succeed.   Those lessons are more important than any administrative evaluation or trophy you can win.

 

 

 

Preparation: Key Element to Contest Season

Key to SuccessAs I write this, I am listening to my students singing Bohemian Rhapsody in the dressing rooms down the hall.   They just closed the curtain to the matinee performance and will begin preparing for the evening performance after a short break.  Apparently, this is one of their traditions at the close of a show; although a student just informed me this was supposed to happen after closing night and not after the matinee.   I am still learning their pre-performance and post-performance rituals while trying to incorporate the preparation I feel they need to grow as performers and a department.

While we still have two more musical performances, I am mentally preparing for the next productions.  In one class we are halfway through blocking , Reckless, by Craig Lucas.  In my Theatre I classes, we are beginning talk theatre.  After school, we begin auditions for our competition show.  Such is the life of a high school theatre teacher.  Saying good-bye to this show is much easier with so much to organize for the rest of the year.

Unfortunately, along with preparation for UIL One-Act Play contest season comes the dreaded play selection and auditions.   I hate both. What if I choose the wrong show?  What if I do not cast it right?  This is the part of the process that I do not like.  I cannot decide what entrée to order at a restaurant, think how hard it is for me to make a decision about what play I want to be married to for the next few months – much less which students will best fulfill those roles.

Today, I want to share my thoughts about beginning a competition season and share some of my own processes.  Since I have not been a “solo” director in a while, I am trying to remember what all needs to be done, re-create contracts and calendars, as well as, teach my students my way of doing this.   I am very thankful for the new Maestro Production Process Guidebook with sample calendars, contracts and reminders of all the things I need to do.   This will surely simplify my preparation for the competition season.

Yesterday, I began the process.  I posted audition dates.  It is strange to post them in November, but with contest the first week in March, I need to get started.  I posted five audition dates.  I am not one who does one to two days of auditions.  Remember, I have a hard time making up my mind!  I want to be able to really trust my decision.  During this time, I will do some improv activities, creating situations that I might need in the play.  I will do some theatre games to see who are leaders, who are followers, and, mostly, who are team players.  I will assign some semi-cold readings where I give a group a scene and ten minutes to rehearse it.  They will return to perform the scene without scripts.  I will not ask them to memorize, I want them to create characters and conflict.  My newest, and favorite audition tactic, I learned from Maestro workshops.  I will give each a stereotype that fits the characters I am looking for.  The student will create the silhouette of that character and deliver one line.  This lets me know what they can do physically, as well as, vocally.  It also shows me what students are willing to take risks and can create on their own.

Okay, so I have the dates posted.  Tomorrow, I will spend the day creating my audition packet.  It will contain my expectations, calendars, rehearsal uniform, a contract to be signed by parents and students, student information, a grade check, expectations for travel attire, and I may add a teacher recommendation form since I am just learning about my new students.  I gained a wealth of knowledge about the work ethic and responsibility of the students in the musical, but many of my students did not audition for the musical because they cannot sing or dance.  I need some sort of gauge for their responsibility level and work ethic.  I am thinking a teacher recommendation might be helpful.  Plus, it puts responsibility in their hands, and it can be the first thing to see if they follow through with a directive.  Same with the contract, it must be signed and returned by the deadline.

The next step is beginning the audition and determining the play.  Yes, I said that right.  I do not know, for sure, what play I am auditioning.  I know that is not the normal procedure for some people.  You should have seen the look on students’ faces as they asked what play they are auditioning for and I said, “I’m not sure, yet.”  I told them they have to trust me.  I have 3-4 scripts that I am considering.   I will audition all of them to determine what script fits the kids best.  I am leaning heavily on an Arthur Miller script (yes with a porch) but I have very physical students who are naturally comedic, so I am also looking at some scripts that meet those criteria.  I think a huge mistake is choosing a play and trying to make your students fit those roles.

During this audition process, as I narrow down my script choices, I will assign the stereotype silhouette and give a line to memorize.  I may give a monologue for memorization.  It all depends on what I need to see in order to make my decision.  Sometimes, I need to see a monologue or see that they are committed enough to prepare a monologue.  Sometimes, I feel this is a waste of my time.  I am as involved in the audition process as the students, I adapt based on what I feel is needed with that group of students auditioning at that time.

During the audition process, I will interview students.  I want to hear what their expectations are, what they feel are their strengths and weaknesses, and why they are interested in representing our school in this contest.   This is time consuming but worth the investment.  It sometimes clarifies my decision and I think many times, it makes the casting decision easier for a student to accept.  They sometimes see themselves in roles that do not fit them physically nor work within the current ensemble.  Sometimes, I have re-visited my own ideas to look at roles through a new lens suggested by a student.

Remember, I mentioned teaching my new students my process.   I require technicians to attend all auditions, which is a new practice for them.  They are handed a contract and participate in the improv activities and the games.   I am casting a company and I need to see that they are as committed as the actors.  This is new for my new school where technicians do not attend rehearsals until the end of the rehearsal process and sometimes do not even know the names of the actors.  I have had a few technicians in my office panicked over this requirement.  I, again, told them to trust me, it will all work out with a rewarding outcome.

I am tired as we close our musical, but I am excited about the future.  I have watched students grow in the past six weeks through this production and I look forward to watching them grow in the next production.  I know tomorrow, I would love to veg-out on the couch and watch the Cowboys, but I know I need to prepare for auditions.  Maybe, I can get my contracts, calendars and expectations together as I watch some football.

 

Balancing Life and Work

Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”  Confucius was obviously not a theatre teacher, or a coach, or a band director, or any other teacher who has extra-curricular responsibilities.  Most of us would say we love our job, but few of us would say it is not work.  The older I get, the bigger toll the “job” has on my life.  I admire directors, Work Life Balancecoaches, and band directors who have the stamina to do this kind of work for many years.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching theatre, I love directing, and I love my students.  I do agree with Confucius’ notion that the love of a job makes earning a living more enjoyable.  I, like many of you, lose myself in the rehearsal process.  While I am directing, I feel like I could go on for hours.  I am inspired as I watch students transform words from the page to magic on the stage.  I am invigorated as I work with them.  I get excited and I never consider what I am doing “work” – while I am doing it.  It is the time between rehearsals or school that my body seems to ask my brain when I will remember I am not twenty-five any more.

When I returned to directing this year, I promised myself and my family I would not let it consume me.  I agreed to let go of some of my perfectionist personality and balance my personal life with my work life.  Five weeks into school, and I am already failing at maintaining this balance.  I was reminded of this when I told my husband I did not have time to refill a prescription that I needed.  Something is out of balance when I spend so much time working that I fail to take care of my own important needs.   I know I am not alone, most theatre teachers are the same; we sacrifice personal needs (mail, doctor appointments, bills, food, etc.) because we are so consumed with our jobs.

This conversation with my husband, spurred some self-reflection.  I know I am an unorganized procrastinator, which affects my life in many ways, but mostly at work.  Obviously, I need to learn to work smarter, not harder nor longer hours.    In an effort to help me, my husband suggested I try to structure my week much like he has done in his business by setting a schedule for every day.  He suggested I start by organizing and planning my conference periods to maximize my productivity.  I can admit that after one week, this has helped.

Last week, I planned my conference periods like I did my weekly lesson plans.   I set aside a day for purchasing supplies at Lowe’s, one day for rehearsal planning, one day for budget paperwork, one day for lesson planning, and a day for “rat killing” as he called it.  This day is for taking care of loose ends – my personal needs (like calling in a prescription), organizing my desk, anything required by my principal, officers, etc.   I am sharing this idea with you because it worked pretty well, even though I did not stick to it completely.  I learned I need to share my schedule with my students so they know when they may approach me, but for the most part, it worked.  I got more accomplished this week in my off-time than I do in most weeks.

Some of you are laughing and thinking how you have been doing this for years.  I wish someone had suggested this to me when I began teaching; I would have saved myself much anxiety and wasted time.    This organizational strategy did not solve all of my problems, but I do believe if I keep this strategy up, I might begin to get a grip on balancing work with life.

My husband also stressed the importance of a day off from everything where I rest and refocus my attention.  I called Gloria McLuckie, one of the hardest-working directors I know.  I asked her how she does it, how she continues to love what she does, keep up with it all and be successful.  One thing she said was that she tries to keep her Sundays free.   I laughed, I used to rehearse on Sunday when I was younger, no wonder I burned out early!  I am going to try this strategy, too.  I am currently working on a Friday night in hopes that Sunday I can rest.  It does feels better to get things done tonight than to think of them weighing over me all weekend.

Hopefully, these new organizational approaches will help me bring balance to my life.  By openly sharing my own struggles, I hope I have suggested something that you might can use, too.  I want to be the theatre teacher who loves what I do, and not the theatre teacher who is burned out and exhausted.  I want my exhaustion to come from working at what I love, not from playing catch up all the time.  I am thankful that teaching theatre and directing is my job and with a little more planning on my part, I believe I can balance it with my life.

Letting Go

I am a control freak.  “Hi, my name is Renee and I am a control freak.”  (Admitting the problem is the first step, right?)  I am sure my husband is excited to read that I am confessing this flaw.  Actually, until now,  I thought I was only a control freak when directing a show.   I am such a perfectionist and I have a hard time letting go. I want the show to be perfect, so I control so many aspects of it.

This week, I have come to the realization that my husband might be right.  I have seen where I micromanage in other areas.  Mainly, I have learned that I have a hard time letting go when I am not sure of the end result.  I guess that is why most of us control situations, so we can control the outcome.  I think I sometimes “hold tight to the reins”  when I am insecure.  If I control the situation, no one will know that I am unsure of my skill.  Silly, this is when I should let go more and learn from those I am teaching.  This leads me to what I have discovered about myself in the first week of teaching in my new school.

I am going explain my situation modeling the  “Unfortunately/Fortunately” game.  (This activity can be found on page 184 of 100+ Activities & Games for the Body, Voice, and Imagination.)

  • Fortunately, I have been blessed with a department of students who are very self-sufficient.
  • Unfortunately, I have started the school year implementing all of my ideas, warm-ups, and structure without considering the success these students have had with the procedures they already have in place.
  • Unfortunately, they have been accepting of my new ideas and have jumped on board with me.
  • Unfortunately, I am taking away their sense of ownership and their incredible fortitude.
  • Fortunately, I have a friend who reminded me that students need to be empowered to reach their full potential.

I am blessed to be in a department with students who are willing to meet me where I am.  They have been respectful, willing, and adaptable.    I need to enter next week with a fresh attitude – willing to let go of some control.  My job is to empower students to be productive on their own, not micromanage their every move.  Thank goodness I am realizing this after week one and not at week thirty-six.

How will I begin empowering the students I have?    First, I have to stop trying to control every aspect of our department.   From experience, I know that when the right kids are given responsibility and goals, they aspire beyond my expectations.  This gives them a sense of achievement.  What better skill does a student need when walking out into the world after graduation.

While researching this idea, I found a great blog by Celina Brennan (who is actually an elementary school teacher, but I think most of what she says applies to high school kids, too.)   Her blog can be found at http://www.wholechildeducation.org/blog/empower-students-5-powerful-strategies.  In this blog, I found some great ideas to begin letting go and letting students continue to develop and strengthen their own potential.

I am going to engage conversation with my students encouraging them to reflect and assess. I want them to reflect on the last couple of years and what they have done that works and what they have done that does not work.  Not only will this help us develop a strategy to continue or maybe strengthen what they were doing, but also to give them some closure on the past.  I want them to know that closure does not mean all things in the past were bad, it means that one era is over and another is beginning.  This will help them discover their own strengths and analyze their weaknesses.  I hope this will also model how, throughout the year, we need to do some reflection and assessment with each project our department tackles.

I am restructuring my lesson plans with my advanced theatre students – both acting classes and  tech classes.  I am going to allow them time to teach me what they know.  Maybe it is good I started with my own ideas and expectations so they know I can take control, but I think I need to allow them time to express their knowledge.  We all know the best learning comes from teaching.

This process will assist my new students in developing goals for themselves, the class, and/or the department.  Instead of forcing my routines and ideas on them, I am going to take a step back and listen to what they want to accomplish.  I hope this will open up conversation that will inspire them to achieve more than any of us thought possible.   I believe in the philosophy that together we discover so much more than we do individually.   It is time I put this into practice.

In the speech and debate world, I always encouraged students to take ownership in their performances and develop their own process for meeting their goals.  I would say,  “I am not in that room with you, you need to figure it out.”  For some reason, I find this more difficult with theatre.   This is where my micromanaging comes to play.  I feel I must control the outcome because it is MY production; but as my friend reminded me, ultimately, it is their show.  It is time I incorporate my speech and debate philosophy to my  approach with educational theatre.

Do not get me wrong.  I believe students need guidance.  I believe they need boundaries.  They need a coach that allows them to aspire to greatness, one who will encourage, protect, and assist them along the way.  I know that I can provide those things.  I also know I have knowledge that they do not have and experiences they have not had which can help guide them along their journey.  I am fortunate that I have inherited students with some pretty strong skills.  It is evident in the current strength of the officers, thespian troupe, my advanced students and throughout the department.  It is my job to allow them to continue to test their wings and not handicap them with my need to micromanage.

So, today, I am beginning my journey of letting go by coaching, not micromanaging,  some already talented and responsible young adults.  I welcome this new challenge in my life.  Maybe, I will try this at home, too.