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Archive for Directors

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.

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!