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Archive for Theatre

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.

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.

Return to Directing, Plot and Actors

I saw many beautiful shows this past UIL OAP season.   I saw beautiful set designs, intriguing concepts, incredible movement, spectacular special effects, etc.  I definitely saw some stunning plays, visuals that will stay with me for many years, but I did not always understand the story being told.   I fear we, as directors (and I am talking to myself),  are focusing on spectacle and not a protagonist’s journey.  With the removal of many set limitations, the focus has shifted away from the story.  I want to see a show that moves me, inspires me, makes me laugh, not one that makes me wonder how that director did that effect or accomplished that design; those things should compliment the story, not drive it.   I cannot tell you how many times an audience member has said to me,  “Can you tell me what that play was about?”   Isn’t that our job – to tell the story?   

As I watched contest plays, I realized I am not the only director who has lost focus.  So many shows this year were beautiful, cool, and imaginative.  While this creates a visually stunning show,  this focus sometimes takes away from the playwright’s story.  This trend has caused me to revisit Aristotle’s Poetics.  Aristotle gives us six elements of a play:  plot, character, theme, language, rhythm and spectacle.  Many of us are putting too much focus on the spectacle and not enough focus on the other five elements.  The spectacle is driving the show and not the protagonist’s journey.  Our attention has been on the vision we can put on the stage while the actual story has taken a backseat.  Instead of spending energy discovering the best way to cover up the gray or add a special effect to “WOW” an audience, energy and time should be spent on directing the plot and coaching the actor.  

When I first began directing, I knew nothing.  I was an elementary education major asked to direct the OAP.  I am competitive, so I began watching and learning from the best.  What I could not learn from them in a short two-hour clinic, I figured out on my own.  I analyzed characters with my students using real life experiences from myself and others.  I created stage pictures that I thought were pretty and told the story.  I focused on a character’s movement (blocking) because I knew that created interest for an audience.  I made sure I could hear my actors on stage but did not let them sacrifice honesty for volume.  I did everything I could to create the illusion of that playwright’s world with believable character choices.  Back then, the last element I considered was spectacle.

Through the years, I have learned so much more about directing.  I have met and analyzed many directors.   I have read books.  I have attended training.  I have trained others.  I definitely have a whole lot more knowledge than I did twenty years ago.  I am a much better director than I was before, but I have to honestly admit that I have gotten caught up in directing the spectacle and not the protagonist’s journey.  

Why do we spend so much time on the directing component of the contest and not more time on the acting?    First of all, spectacle is being rewarded in competition.  A show that is heavy on spectacle is advancing over a well-acted show – even though the contest is an acting contest.   It is hard not to follow the trend that takes home the trophies.  I believe the other reason we focus on spectacle is because it is the element directors can most control.  With today’s teen spending the majority of their time in front of a screen, teaching them to recreate relationships through dialogue is a challenge.  Students do not know what face-to-face communication feels like in real life, so they have a difficult time communicating and living in the moment on stage.  Even though it is difficult to coach an actor to do something out of his or her comfort zone, that is where our focus should be.  Somehow we need to return to the balance of acting and directing in our shows.    Our first priority should be to direct the plot and coach the actors.  We need to remember that our concept or commanding image should compliment our story, not drive it.

I know this may sound as if I am bitter for not advancing.  I am not bitter, but I am disappointed in myself.  I did not push my students to explore their characters enough.  I spent way too much time directing the art and not the story.  So as I prepare for the next year, I am going to challenge myself to return to directing the story.  I love working on the spectacle, but I will not allow that to consume my preparation.  I am going to return to teaching students to be real, authentic and genuine within the world the playwright has given us.   I do not want the audience to leave talking about the show’s concept not knowing what the story was really about.  I want to direct a stunning show, but I want an audience to leave with more knowledge, being moved or entertained because they followed a character’s journey.

 

   

 

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)

WHO’S GOING TO STOP ME

In the late 1980’s I submitted scenes from A Lie of the Mind, by Sam Shepard, as our entry into the Texas UIL One Act Play Contest.  Lynn Murray, the State Director, called me to tell me the reading committee was split on the title and that he had to make the decision to approve or deny our selection.  He was an ex-college professor of mine and was known for his “sailor” vocabulary. His final ruling was, “If you want mount that piece of sh*t, go right ahead and mount it.”  A Lie of The Mind was named the AAAAA State Champion that year.  At last year’s Texas Educational Theatre Association Convention, Lynn Murray kindly told me it was the best UIL show he saw in his tenure as State Director.

I judged last year’s State AAAAAA contest and was one of the three panelists who awarded Houston Carnegie Vanguard High School’s scenes from Holy Day, by Andrew Bovell, the State Championship.  Now State Director, Luis Munoz, told me that Holy Day was his A Lie of the Mind.  There was much rumbling about Holy Day: parent protests, attorneys, threats of law suits, police escorted students at performances. A Lie of the Mind stirred some discussion and letters to newspapers, but we now live in the age of texting and immediate news and social media protesting.  My principal back in the 1980’s received numerous phone calls, letters, and newspaper interviews.  I remember him telling me, “We trust you and how you teach our kids. We are proud of our theatre program.  So what do I care what they are saying in Conservative, Texas.”

Should the Texas UIL One Act Play Contest censor play selection and play content?  Should high school students be protected from “mature” literature and not be allowed to speak the “mature” words written by a playwright?  My answer is no. Every administrator has to sign an agreement form to enter a contest: “The production does not offend the moral standards of our community and is is appropriate for presentation by the students of our school. “I have seen “mature” plays produced in small rural towns as well as large urban schools.  I have seen The Small World of Millie McIvor produced in a large AAAAAA school.  I have seen The Rimers of Eldritch, with its murder, rape, and bigotry cloaked in Christianity produced in small one A schools.  A good theatre director lays a foundation with its school and community to create art and not all art is pretty, thank God.  A good theatre director creates trust through clear communication and objectives.  A school must know and understand why a company is producing its selected title.  I recall casting a Jewish student in the role of Shylock. That sensitive decision did not happen without conversation with the parents of that child.  They disagreed with my choice of play selection, but allowed their child to play the role as a learning experience.  We all learned. A good director communicates with parents and administrators. I do not ask our librarian what books to put in our library. I do not ask the English Department what literature they are teaching.

Theatre is didactic and outside institutions have no right determining what is appropriate for a particular community.  We hear the same argument in politics where many believe the federal government should stay out of state decisions.  I believe the state should stay out of local decisions.  I served as a clinician for several UIL productions this year.  Directors have been told to eliminate all curse words and many directors were told to clean up plot driven relationships. I’m sorry, but Eddie has to be hot for Catherine in A View From the Bridge.  I’m sorry, but Brian and Mark are in a Gay relationship in The Shadow Box.  Can high school kids handle discussing incest?  Can high school kids handle discussing Gay issues?  I am sad to say that in my career I have had to deal with more than one student who was sexual abused by a family member.  As an openly Gay man, I wish a teacher had allowed me to talk about sexuality when I was 16 years old.  A Lie of the Mind deals with spousal abuse, alcoholism, and controversial use of the American flag.  I cannot think of a better way to stimulate discussion and allow actors and audience to define their values.

We teach the Google Generation.  You are naive if you think our high school students have not searched the nastiest thing you can imagine.  Every “mature” subject is at their fingertips.  Let teachers and directors safely provide platforms for discussion and adult supervision of their questions.  I wished Texas UIL had stood more firmly against threats of lawsuits.  There are attorneys who could argue in favor of freedom of speech.  There are attorneys who understand freedom of choice.

No matter how hard we try to protect our kids, they will get hurt. Theatre can provide a practice role to prepare them for those inevitable hurts.  I am thankful for my American freedoms.  The freedom to compete in UIL provided me with success and the foundation to believe in myself.  Competition is one of America’s greatest freedoms. UIL made me who I am today. We live daily watching a presiding president try and control the media.  We should not censor.  UIL taught me to believe in myself and take risks.  As a mature teacher and director I have learned to stop wondering if principals and society is going to let me…   UIL gave me the confidence to rather say, “Who is going to stop me from doing what I know is best for my students.”