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Archive for Strategies

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!

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.

 

 

 

Building Your “Standard of Performance”

standard-of-performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.