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Archive for Teaching

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

Millennials in Theatre

I do not have a television in my house.  Some guests comment in disbelief, “How can you live without a television?” Television is not bad; too much television was bad for me. It was hypnotic and encouraged me to waste a lot of time, so I got rid of the machine.  I also got tired of the news and commercials telling me what to believe and what to purchase.  Similarly, I hate visiting friends and their entire living room is arranged around a television, which remains on. Hello; let’s look at each other and talk. Can you imagine growing up today? The relationship our students have with technology is beyond description.  My three-year-old niece operates her mom’s cell phone!  How has technology effected our students and what is our role in teaching theatre which is about people, not gadgets?

I grew up in rural Texas; our closet neighbors were the Sellars family, 3 miles away.  I grew up playing outdoors. Jan Sellars and I often rode our bikes for miles, but my favorite childhood game incorporated my chores and my imagination.  It was my job to feed our livestock. I had to cut down some of the maize or milo from the nearby field and wheel barrow it to feed the calves and pigs.  Instead of efficiently cutting down the green stalks from the nearest corner of the field, I sliced winding paths into the living greenness creating a meandering maze of trails and secret rooms and hidden passages.  I knew the paths.  I can still hear the wind gently vibrating the leaves sounding like a giant hand gliding across a rusted harp.  And each day I fed the animals, the maze got deeper and more complicated and the High Plains’ wind was my soundtrack.  When my city cousins came to visit, we would spend hours devising games and scenarios in the mysterious paths.

But today, many of our students only play indoors and they are attached to their devices, computers, and video games. Some of the games have great effects and soundtracks, but it’s all been designed and created for them.  I grew up with friends, real friends; I still visit with Jan Sellars Bates.  Our students have virtual friends. Today’s Millennial boosts his or her self-esteem by counting hundreds of Facebook friends.  But the truth is that they have never seen most of them and they only know them superficially and add friends from the invitation of an intrusive app suggesting, “You might also know…”. A teen today sends an average of 3,000 texts a month. I use to get one snail mail letter every two months from my pen pal in Minnesota.

There is much negative criticism of Millennials.  Many say they are tough to manage, narcissistic, unfocused, lazy, entitled.  I’m not quite that harsh but, I admit, I sometimes describe my students as so, until I need help with my computer or, sound system, or downloading something, or hooking up to Wi-Fi. Then I’m reminded that they are actually efficient, genius and skilled! Millennials grew up in a Facebook and Instagram world. They grew up with filters that only show the good and happy world.  Consequently, many are suffering from depression and low self-esteems. The trauma for young people to be unfriended is real.   It’s no fault of this generation; this is the time they were dealt.  They grew up with instant gratification and yet older people describe them as impatient and wanting everything now, now, now, with no understanding of having to work for it!  If they want information, it’s at their fingertips.  I had to plan for a week and drive 30 miles to see a movie. They don’t even have to worry about movie times; they just click and download.  Food? Click, order, pay, delivered, and not just pizza.  Same with shopping; Amazon order and it’s in your possession tomorrow.  And dating?  They did not have to go through the awkward humiliation of breaking the ice and stumbling out words that sounded more like soggy Jell-O than courting. They just swipe and bam, a hook-up.  They swipe and crash, a break-up.  They are failing at building meaningful relationships. They rarely practiced the skills.

But theatre teaches communication and relationships.  We teach the essential social coping skills. We teach that the process matters more than the immediate outcome.  Today’s kids do not have a realistic understanding of the journey.  They care more about the short term gains than the life-long lessons.  Through the rehearsal period, we model patience and teach that projects come to fruition with time, flexibility and persistence.  Theatre rewards with the fulfillment of working hard and seeing a project brought to fruition. Theatre teaches that we care about people rather than corporate gains, or profits, or brands, or how many likes your posting gets.

It’s always been tough teaching actors character development and relationships; it’s even harder now because of how alienated they have been raised.  It is even more difficult now to teach looking at one another in the eyes.  It’s more difficult to teach touching.  Remind yourself of when your students grew-up.  Discuss the humanity necessary for theatre and all art.

There should be no cell phones while your company is creating art and while you are teaching communication and relationships.  The presence of the phone invites distraction, and allows kids to surrender to the addiction of the cell phone, just like me and television. I believe it’s rude to have a cell phone out on a table when you are supposed to visit with family or friends. I believe it’s rude to have a cell phone out during a business meeting where you are supposed to be engaged and communicating.

Theatre directors teach art, but we also teach life-long skills.  Thank God I did not have an I Phone in my childhood maize field; I would have laid down on the cool dirt and played a video maze game, like Portal 2, rather than cultivating my own imagination. Instead I built my own life size magical world of green corridors and giant hands playing the High Plains harp.

To Every Thing There Is a Season

If there is one thing that is constant in life, it is change. We all know it’s going to happen, and yet we carry on as if things will always remain the same. Sometimes, we embrace change. It can come as a relief and be a very positive thing. But sometimes, we struggle with change. It upsets the world in which we live and brings about that terrible fear of the unknown. About the only thing we can control is how we respond to change. As Bob Dylan says, “…you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changing”.

Lately, I’ve been experiencing the pain of going through a lot of changes at work. We recently lost our headmaster, and only last week I found out my principal was also leaving. To top it off, my closest friend at school (who is also our Fine Arts Director) is moving to California. “Change” doesn’t feel good right now. These are not changes that I’m excited about. I love these people and don’t want to see them go. I realize, however, that the only thing I can control now is how I respond to these impending changes. I am excited for each of these wonderful people as they travel to their new schools and begin new chapters of their lives. It’s also time for me to open a new chapter of my life as well. It’s time to swim.

For the past six years, I’ve had the privilege of being a one act play clinician and adjudicator. I’m always impressed with the tenacity of one act play directors and students. They attend each clinic and contest seeking to improve, and they return to their schools, eager to make the changes needed to strengthen their shows and become better storytellers. The point of the clinics and contests is to grow, to continue to work hard and to effect positive change in a production. Directors and their students have to swim or sink, and I’ve witnessed many times the commitment to just keep swimming no matter how many obstacles are encountered. I’ve seen Facebook posts about directors experiencing frustrating and sometimes even devastating setbacks. I’ve witnessed directors encouraging and supporting one another and also act in ways to comfort and display incredible love to their students. I’ve observed companies demonstrate class, dignity, and good sportsmanship after the disappointment of not advancing or the heartbreak of disqualification. You don’t hear this enough, but thank you, directors, for choosing to swim when you’re faced with the sink or swim choice. What you do for your students each year is so very valuable. You are teaching them not only a love for theatre, but also lessons in life. As your students watch you, they learn how to adapt when faced with difficult situations, be resourceful, deal with stress, accept wins and mourn losses, collaborate, find joy, and heal heartache. Yes, the play you choose may resonate with your students, but directors are the navigators of not only the story you tell on stage, but also the story you create with your students. The story of your one act play 2017 company journey will be one that students will remember long after plaques and medals are gathering dust on a shelf. Never underestimate the impact that can have on a young life or that they can have on you. Before long, they will graduate and be off to their next life adventure. Life will change.

I’m not usually an overly-sentimental or wistful person. I know my current feelings have a lot to do with the upcoming changes at my school, but there is a far greater reason for my melancholy. I received word this past weekend that one of my former students passed away on Saturday. She graduated in 2005, making her around the age of 29 or 30. Kaye was our backstage wonder. I would hear her name called frequently when actors needed help. “Kaye, my button came off of my shirt”, “Kaye, I think I split my pants”, “Kaye, do you know where my prop is”, “Kaye….”. The guys in the cast would randomly call her name at times, playfully teasing her just to see if she would come to the rescue, and she would faithfully come to their aid, just in case they really needed help. I have such fond memories of a smiling girl with a small sewing kit, a stopwatch, a mini flashlight, and a small first aid kit stashed away in a fanny pack and ready to go in case she had to jump into action. The passing of a young person is hard to swallow. We just assume we’re going to outlive our theatre kids. Kaye is the age of two of my own children and was a classmate of theirs. Although I haven’t seen her in years, we remained a part of each other’s lives through Facebook. And it was on Facebook, within hours of learning of Kaye’s passing that one of my other friends posted a link to Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth singing the song For Good from the fabulous musical Wicked. I thought to myself, “Don’t click on that link. Do not listen to that song right now”, and then found myself clicking, and sobbing, as Stephen Schwartz ‘s amazingly appropriate lyrics were masterfully sung. I’m going to post them below. It may remind you of someone who has changed you for good. Let it remind us as teachers to leave our handprints on the hearts of those we’re blessed to touch each day. Change is out of our control. How we choose to respond to it isn’t. Lisa, Joy, and Kaye, this is for you…

“I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you…
Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I have been changed for good.

It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend…” (Stephen Schwartz)