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Archive for Directing

If Eastwood Hill Could Talk

“Relationships before issues,” is the phrase I use to begin every Maestro Theatre training workshop. I stole that phrase from a Catholic priest who began my summer high school church camps this way.  Most people are naturally uncomfortable with ice braking, get to know one another, team building activities.  It is scary to to expose yourself and possible set yourself up for rejection or to set yourself up for a negative evaluation regarding your social interaction skills. Unfortunately, this natural fear of social interaction is now more severe with current generations being raised with cell phones as their best friend.  And it’s not limited to the young.  Through Maestro Theatre workshops I have observed teachers who are just as lonely as young people.  I meet teachers hungry for friends, conversation, and acceptance.

Many returning teachers arrive and hug me in thanksgiving, “I started crying the minute I drove onto the Eastwood Hill property,” I recall a teacher saying, “It’s like I’m home.”  Home is where a family gathers.  I, as the Maestro director, and we, as teachers, must work harder than ever to create community.  New teachers are understandably uncomfortable when they arrive at to Eastwood Hill and see returning teachers, scream, hug, jump into familiar and energetic conversations.  “Well it’s because of the friendships that were developed here,” a teacher explains to a new comer.  Once the workshop begins and I force conversation, force face to face interaction with a stranger, force activities that encourage seeing a stranger as a person with the same issues or experiences we all possess, the magic of community begins.

All of a sudden the living room space at Eastwood Hill, get louder, all of a sudden I have to interrupt talk as new relationship are being formed.  All of a sudden the new teacher is off Facebook or not texting because they are visiting with a hopeful new friend.  Although some of these forced friends are directed, “I’ll be your friend right now because Rick makes us do this, we soon discover that our commonality creates a bond.  You are attending a Maestro workshop for the same reason everyone else is, you have the same interest in theatre, art, students, improving.  You discover that you are talking to person who understands the challenges of teaching, the inequity of finances, the exhaustion of long days plus rehearsal, the struggle to balance work and home life.  People who share your same interest and experiences become your life long bonds.

I love when 20 new teachers at a Maestro workshop stay up until 3:00 in the morning because they are with people who speak their own language and can’t stop talking. I love when the kitchen island is littered with snacks and beverages as new friends congregate and laugh, share successes AND FLAWS.  In three days, exhausted educators, who were feeling defeated are now energized and optimistic.  The face to face relationships with other caring friends are powerful drivers of engaged learning.  Without these relationships it is easy to give up and quit.

What are you providing for your students to create community? What are you designing for yourself?  Do you ever put down your cell phone to be more present in a room?  Do you have rules for yourself, and students about how you use technology in a social situation? So create an orientation for your classes and your acting companies?  Is your department a home?

Wonderful relationships have developed under the Eastwood Hill roof.  Many tears been shared and accepted within these walls. Eastwood Hill has heard many stories of success, many confessions of failure and self-doubt, many stories which made us laugh.  As theatre directors we coach relationships onstage; let’s take that connection off stage and help create a healthier community. Have a holy holiday season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MUSICAL MUSINGS

Three weeks ago, we closed our musical, Godspell. I know some of you reading this are jealous because you are either in the middle of musical rehearsals or beginning them and I am done! We put up our musical in six weeks from auditions to opening night. No, we did not cast in May and allow the students to work on the music in the summer; we literally began the first week of school. When my choir teacher, Chris Yurasek, and I decided to tackle this “beast” in the first six weeks of school, we knew it could be done; but we did worry about the quality of the work in such a short time period. It was an intense six weeks, but one I would do over again. We discovered several benefits of directing a musical in such a short amount of time.

First, the benefit of having a commanding image, or directing concept, from the onset of rehearsals was valuable to the success our production. I knew before we started that we would direct Godspell “a la Breakfast Club.” That drove every decision we made from set, choreography, musical choices, and costumes. I am usually hesitant to make decisions, but my commanding image drove all of my choices and helped me articulate the design process to my choir teacher and students. I do not have an assistant director, technical director, etc. I have a choir director, my students, and a choreographer that I hired for a day. Being able to share my commanding image from day one was crucial to getting everything done in a short amount of time.

Another “first” for me was having choreographers come in and teach all of the choreography in one day at the beginning of the production process. I was blessed that Larry and Sue Wisdom agreed to come out and teach all of the dance numbers that day. Honestly, I was a little skeptical at first. When I posted the first Saturday rehearsal to begin at 8:00 a.m, and end at 10:00 p.m., I thought most of my company would find something else to do that day. I was wrong, not only did the actors and chorus show up, so did the crew. All of them arrived that morning bringing food and great attitudes. It was a great bonding experience to start out the production process. In fourteenhours, they learned all of the choreography for the entire show. One of my students set up cameras to record it all. I hope to continue to find choreographers who are willing to commit to one intense day of teaching all of the dance numbers. This allowed us to focus on the rest of the show. We had a few rehearsals specifically to clean up the dances, but many chorus members would meet on their own and rehearse the numbers together in small groups. One of my students was the dance captain and she watched the videos and coached the others throughout the rehearsal process. It was nice to not have to stop and learn the next dance number or have the kids forget the earlier one. Learning them all from the beginning allowed us to focus on the numbers that were more difficult and just brush up on the easier numbers. Usually, I am frustrated by the time we learn the fifth number for the show because they forgot the first number. This did not happen when we learned them all the first day.

Another tip I have that made things easier was the website signupgenius.com for meals the week of dress rehearsals and performances. My drama club officers set it up, which was one less thing I had to do. Parents and students signed up to bring various sandwich items. We had more than enough food and clean up was a breeze. This is the first time meals were hassle free.

The biggest take away I have is that a shorter time-span kept more students involved and excited. I normally spend 8-10 weeks minimum on the musical. When I do, I lose kids along the way because they get bored, find other things to interest them, fail, etc. During the six weeks, only two students dropped out. A shorter period kept them more focused, energetic and motivated. Would I have liked to have more time to polish, yes; but the trade off was we closed with kids still excited and involved. They are already asking what we are doing next year. And, next year, we plan to do the same process – putting the musical up in six weeks. Although, we have decided to cast in May so students can learn the music over the summer.

Not everything was a success. I learned some lessons the hard way, through failure. My biggest headache for the musical is always the program. It was again this year. I still have not mastered the most efficient way to put a program together. We sell ads to help with the cost of the program. I bought Playbillder this year thinking it would provide more guidance for my student. I thought it was done and ready to print and it was not. We finished it in time, but we had to be a little more creative than we had planned. We copied it at school instead of having it copied. It did not look as polished, but it saved us a ton of money. We cut the bios from the program and created a bio wall. I will do this in the future. The student’s picture and bio mounted on cardstock was a nice momento to give each student on closing night.

So, with the musical in the rearview mirror, I am moving on to the next two fall productions. It has taken a few weeks, but I think I have recovered from the first six weeks of school and am ready to tackle the rest of the school year.

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.

It’s Audition Time Again

I have a love/hate relationship with auditions.  As a director, I’m excited to see the growth of my students’ auditioning skills from their previous auditions.  I’m optimistic that new jewels are about to be discovered, and that those diamonds-in-the-rough from the previous year are now sparkling and ready to “wow” me. Watching students enter the audition process with excitement, hope, and determination is something that I absolutely love.  I hate, however, the eventual task of making those difficult (and many times hair-splitting) decisions, breaking hearts, and disappointing kids. Unfortunately, it’s part of the process if your students are truly invested in your program.

With the beginning of another school year, many directors are currently going through the audition process.  Below are a few tips that have worked for me.

  1. The CALENDAR. Have a calendar with dates of rehearsals, performances, contests, and any other dates that your company members will be required to attend.  It’s important to be very specific concerning the expectations you have of your students’ time. This will, hopefully, eliminate conflicts in the future. It will also give you leverage later should a student ask to miss a required event due to a conflict that was not previously approved.

 

  1. The CONTRACT. A contract listing your rehearsal, performance, and contest expectations, along with information concerning the dates you require students to attend these events (attach calendar mentioned in #1) should be distributed at auditions.  Have students read the contract and allow them to communicate any questions they may have. Contracts should be signed by both the student and a parent. There should be a statement indicating that the parent and the student both understand and agree to your expectations and the student will be available on all dates indicated as a required event.

 

  1. The AUDITION FORM. I include a section for students to list their other activities (job, school activities, church activities, private lessons, etc…) on the audition form. Have students list all possible activities they will be involved with during the rehearsal process and through the run of the show (including advancement dates for contest and any rehearsals to accompany advancement). They should include dates/times for these activities.  It’s important that you get an idea how busy the student is and with which activities they are involved.  It’s best to know that a student has conflicts prior to casting them.  Sometimes, you can work through the issues and the student can still participate, but if the student is going to have to make choices, it’s best for them and for you to know that now.

 

  1. The PROCESS. It’s important to consider many things when perusing scripts: your talent pool, your audience, your community, your budget, and the literary merit of the material you’re considering just to name a few. Finding “the one” is often a time-consuming process.  If more than one script could be “the one”, consider auditioning multiple scripts to get an idea of which is the best.  During the audition process, include a brief interview with each of the students who receive a call-back (and, if time allows, during regular auditions). If you haven’t already discussed possible conflicts from the audition form with each student, the interview process is a great time to have that discussion. Interviews can be done during lunch and before or after school on non-audition days if desired. Also, consider using various audition techniques in your assessment of auditions.  A cold reading of the chosen script can be useful, but not all students cold-read well.  Warm-ups and improv activities can be valuable in discovering who is quick-witted, creative, or willing to get out of their comfort zone.  Having students memorize a brief monologue or scene for call-backs is yet another way to access a student’s abilities. Pantomime activities are a great way to observe a student’s use of physicality when acting.  When multiple assessments are used, a director can consider how each student uses the body, voice, imagination, and script.  This will give you a much better picture of the actor you are casting.  Crew members should also have an audition and interview process.

 

  1. The “TALK”. I give “the talk” prior to the start of auditions and at the conclusion of each audition session.  The “talk” at the beginning of the audition session will include information concerning what I’m looking for in auditions.  I also give each student a list of characters with character descriptions, a synopsis of the play, and the calendar/contract/audition form. I want the students to have all the information they need to be successful and to understand the expectations of them. At the end of each audition session, and especially on the final day of regular auditions and call-back auditions, I conclude with another “talk”.  I explain to the students that I have to make very difficult decisions, and not everyone will get what they want.  I ask that they look at me and really hear the following words, “I’m talking to you”.   So many of them truly believe they’ve aced their audition, and there’s no way you can’t choose them. They need to understand that rejection is a part of the process.  If you get the part you want, that probably means someone else (or several people) have not gotten what they wanted.  It happens.  It’s disappointing, and it is alright to be disappointed.  It’s NOT alright to be angry, bitter, or disruptive to the production process if you’re disappointed.  During the production process, we teach theatre, but we also teach “life”.  Teaching them how to handle disappointment and triumph is part of what we do.  I tell my students, “You’re always auditioning” in hopes that this will encourage them to reflect before reacting negatively. Help them learn that you love them enough to hold them accountable for their behavior.

Don’t forget that you, too, will be auditioning during the student audition process.  Students come into auditions evaluating you, your program, & your choice of script. They’re considering, “Do I want to spend my time being a part of this process?”, “Does this director seem like someone I want to work with?”, and “Do I really want to be in this particular play?”.  Be organized. Be engaging.  Be excited.  Students want to make sure that the commitment of their time, talent, and efforts is well placed. The audition process will help them make that decision.  Best wishes with your auditions this year, and remember—-you, and they, are always auditioning!

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.