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Archive for Directors

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.

 

   

 

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!

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.

 

 

 

“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!

 

 

One Tongue, Two Ears

How much voice or opinion should your students have in a theatre company?
• Should students have a choice in selecting play titles?
• Should students have a say in casting?
• Should students be selecting technicians?
• Should students have a say in whether they like their costume?
• Should student’s input be considered in how you direct?
(Note that these same questions could apply to parents and booster clubs.)

A good company operates with a knowledge of its members and considers the client it serves in all decisions. Trust and respect are key in successful companies. What’s best or easiest for the director is not the correct choice. Educators are in the business of teaching students. All decisions should be based in what is best for students. Two years ago, our school redesigned the school day hours from 8:10 – 4:10. We studied various school day schedules. Many teachers preferred a school day ending at 2:30 pm. I selfishly loved the idea of rehearsals beginning earlier. I remember colleagues mentioning benefits like beating rush hour traffic and easing babysitter hour costs. However attractive, these benefits were all teacher based and did not include the benefit for the student. We eventually chose an 8:30 – 3:30 school day based on what was best for student success. The larger conversation included studying bus route schedules, all after school events like rehearsals and athletics, a scheduled time for students to meet with teachers for tutoring and make-up tests, and even a time for students to meet for their clubs. What is best for the client should be the first thing considered when managing your company. This focus invites trust from all served.

Is it best for your program to have students vote on play titles? Although their degree of investment or degree of enjoyment is important, the flip side of that is that they are not as well read as you are. Also, they may not have a mature sense of literary merit or challenging work. I am, of course, assuming your company goal is to educate your students about good literature versus weak scripts. I listen to student input and often allow them to vote, but I clearly clarify that their vote may or may not be the deciding factor. Some years my students and I have agreed on titles. Other years, I vetoed their choice and trusted my expertise regarding what is best for them and the program. A strong teacher and director unites the disappointed. Students will take their director’s lead if that trust has been established. (In UIL contest critiques, I have seen many directors model unprofessional reactions and consequently the students do as the director does). A director is a leader; know where you are leading them.

A healthy company feels respected and valued. Do not forget that many theatre directors feel unappreciated, over worked and less valued in the big picture of school business. Do not practice that same neglect with your students. Value your company members. Respect their voice. Compliment their commitment and participation. Notice and recognize their improvements and growth. Creating respect in your company members will make it easier when you, as the leader, challenge and disagree with their opinions or vote. There is no one correct answer as to whether your program should be an equal vote democracy or a dictatorship. All successful relationships rely on trust.

An environment of trust assumes that all parties will be safe, and that you have everyone’s best interests in mind. That is why students can accept criticism from a director they trust. Once trust is lost, it is hard to recapture. So in a theatre environment, a director must trust the student company members and they must trust the director. They must trust that can take risks free of judgment and create art freely. This code will allow for student-based decision making, director dictated decisions, or a combination. The leadership style should be an extension of the director’s personality. So the necessary question becomes, “How do you develop trust between participants in the company”? All people are sensitive about being told what to do, and they often want to prove themselves. So rather than lecture students, consider using reflective questions, such as, “What do you think about …?” “Have you thought of …?” and “Would you consider …?”

Epictetus is credited with the statement: “Man has one tongue but two ears that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” Listening to value your student’s feelings and ideas gives directors the ability to effectively communicate with and influence their company. Listen to learn means not inserting your opinion and not judging. Effective directors know that delegation is essential for building trust. When you hold onto tasks and do not delegate, you deprive your students of an opportunity to advance their skills. Treating people as if they are responsible and empowered increases their chances of becoming so. Most theatre directors are a one-person operation. Our best students become our assistants. Empowering them to practice their leadership skills make them better leaders. Theatre departments rooted in trust allow for multiple ways of making company decisions. Lecture and criticize less. Listen to your students. Empower your students. Lead with confidence.