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Archive for Strategies

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”

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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.

Using One Word to Kick Off the New School Year and Add a New Dimension to Productions

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This summer, our administrative team was challenged to read One Word that Will Change Your Life by Jon Gordon, Dan Britton, and Jimmy Page.  In 1999, these authors discovered a better way to become their best and live a life of impact. Instead of creating endless goals and resolutions, they found one word that would be their driving force for the year. No goals. No wish lists. Just one word. You can access a video explaining the concept as well as resources and how to purchase the book at getoneword.com.

The book boasts that your life will become more rewarding and exciting than ever once you find your one word. One Word is supposed to create clarity, focus, power, and passion for your year. The concept behind One Word is that it impacts all six dimensions of your life – mental, physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, and financial. The idea is that once you find your word, you live it, and you share it.

One of my colleagues swears by this book and has used One Word for the last 3 years.  She chose the word “Pause” the first year to remember that she needed to take time to reflect and appreciate as she went through her year.  The second year she chose the word “Keep” to focus herself on keeping the things she loved close and to keep going on the path she had planned.  This last year she chose the word “Fierce” and used it to encourage bold, fearless choices to move herself forward.

Although I could tell my colleague was passionate about how using One Word had shaped her life and promoted meaningful change, I have to admit that I was not excited about reading this book. I certainly expected a cheesy, idealistic, feel good book that would quickly find its way sandwiched between many other books I have been required to read and have never referenced or used for action in my life. When I received it, I was happy to see it would be an easy read and I started it immediately to get it out of the way. However, as I read the book, I found that the concept really seemed to be a simple way to approach goal setting and echoed some of the same ideas I have embraced for play production.

The concept is similar to the idea of a commanding image for a production and as I read I realized One Word could translate not only as a tool for teachers to use personally but also for students to use.  Students can define their word as it relates to their personal goals but One Word can also be used to set a goal for a whole class or compassiondepartment. Choosing one word could be a great way to kick off your year with your students.  Writing the word on notecards or posters and making a focus wall where all the words are displayed is a great way to have students establish ownership of the classroom or performance space.

Some campuses have written their words on rocks and placed them in front of the school or have written their one word on an object important to the team or group.

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You can have students design the word with colors and shapes to exemplify the word or even combine all the words chosen by your students to create a wordle at wordle.net. The One Word website even has a reflection activity for the end of the year to consider how the use of One Word impacted your students’choices made throughout the year.

Now, using One Word as a unifying activity for the start of the year is a cool idea but what really excited me about the concept was using it in production.  Certainly using it to unify the production company came to mind but, I am intrigued about using One Word as a character building activity. What if actors chose one word for their character as an extension of their word cloudsuper objective?  How would selecting one word, in character, change their focus, clarity, passion and power in performance? I am curious to see if selecting one word helps students who can get in their heads too much while trying to portray a role. What if the One Word concept could simplify the process for students who struggle to actively play their tactics in pursuit of their character’s objective? Could choosing one word for their character help them make mental, physical, emotional, relational and spiritual choices for their character in the play? I certainly think it could be a valuable tool in the production process and I encourage you to give it a try.

I hope this school year brings you clarity, focus, power and passion.  Your work inspires and engages students in ways that connect all their studies to the bigger picture of creative problem solving and synergized learning.  Embrace your one word and let it guide you through a successful year of discovery and growth.  Share your one word on the Maestro Theatre Publications, LLC Forum.  Good Year to you and Good Show!!!!

 

Check in and Connect

Where did summer go? Each year when I flip the calendar page from July to August, I think about just how quickly those summer days go! I have to admit I have a love/hate relationship with August. I hate that I haven’t done all of those things that were on the summer “to do” list I made in May. I know that my life is about to get very busy again, and it will be harder to make time for things I need to do at home or for myself. However, I also love August because it’s a time of new beginnings. New memories are about to be made, and that’s very exciting!
As we head into a new school year, communication is the topic that is on my mind. Communication is defined as the giving and exchanging of ideas and information. Synonyms include connection, conversation, and revelation. Prior to returning to school for in-service activities, Mandy, Rick, Renee and I were busy writing the next two Maestro resource materials. It was exciting to plan and begin the process of communicating more of the ideas and information we’ve learned in our combined 172 years of teaching experience! Stay tuned for the fall release of The Production Process Guidebook: Tips and Tools for Optimizing Show Selection, Rehearsals and Traveling Performances. Creating the next resource material was just the start of a whirlwind of communication. The beginning of a school year is filled with the revelation of new and important information! If you are a parent, you already know that you receive a lot of information the first week of school. You sign a huge stack of papers as your confirmation that you’ve read every word on them, and you complete the same information in the fill-in-the-blank forms over and over…and over. As teachers, we are given endless amounts of information during in-service and faculty meetings. We also create extensive amounts of information for parents and students. I’ve already completed several of the obligatory start-of-the-school-year handouts. As I’ve created each of these, I’ve kept the following in mind:

• Recognize that strong and clear communication is the language of leadership
• Realize that people may hear or read words, but they will feel the attitude with which they’re spoken or written
• Keep communications honest, open, and two-way
• Listen to understand others as they respond rather than just listening while thinking of how to reply
• Accept that communication is needed, even when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable

It’s that time of year when you set the tone for your classroom and your production process. You are the leader, so clearly communicate your expectations to students and their parents. Create your syllabus, Rules and Consequences, audition forms, production contracts, etc…with very explicit information. Supply details as needed, including dates of rehearsals, performances, and contests. Most scheduling conflicts can be avoided or worked around if all parties have sufficient information from the beginning.

Communicating with parents, students, administrators, and my fellow faculty members is a regular and constant occurrence. What did we ever do before we had email??? Yes, it’s another thing with which I have a love/hate relationship. I hate that you can’t hear someone’s tone or see their facial expressions and body language when you communicate via email. On the other hand, emailing is quick and easy, so it’s transformed the way we communicate. I usually find myself focused on the task at hand—-the information or response I want to include in the email—because I’m usually in a rush. I have to remind myself that the person on the receiving end of my email can’t hear my tone. If my answer is short, my communication with the receiver could be interpreted as having an attitude of being “short” with them. People will feel your attitude, or sometimes even misunderstand it, as they hear and read your words. Take the time to consider this before responding.

It’s also important to keep your communications open, honest, and circular. People tend to respect a leader that gives them honest information, is open to feedback, and welcomes an exchange of ideas. Parents, students, administrators, and faculty members can be a tremendous resource to us if we are willing to allow them to participate in a discussion. Let them see that you are open to it. That doesn’t mean that you must respond to feedback in the way they would like. The important thing is that they know your door is open. I’ve served under nine different principals. I’ve completely trusted three of them. They were open, honest, and cared enough to listen to me and respond. Did I always get everything I wanted from them? No. Did I always feel valued? Yes. I don’t remember every discussion with them, but I remember the way they made me feel. They listened. They considered my request, my cause, and my viewpoint. They didn’t silence me. My voice was heard. Thank you Joy Young, Mike Null, and Carol Chapman.

Most importantly, I continue to remind myself that communication is necessary, even if it’s uncomfortable. Calling a parent about a student’s bad behavior or failing grade isn’t exactly a happy occasion, but it’s necessary. Talking to a colleague about their students’ misuse or abuse of the auditorium is uncomfortable. Discussing a scheduling conflict with a coach or other director when you share students can lead to a feelings of frustration if one or both people involved in the discussion are not cooperative. Remember that you need to be a professional. Take the emotion out of the moment and work to solve the problem if possible. Never place a student in the middle of a conflict. They need to learn through their teachers how to appropriately communicate and problem solve. And if the other person won’t discuss and participate in problem solving with you, sometimes you have to go to the next person in the chain of command to ask for assistance. That’s not a sign of weakness. It’s the sign of a leader trying to solve a problem and work in the best interest of students.

So, be proactive. Provide information before they ask for it. Give updates as needed. Listen. And have a wonderful school year!