Archive for UIL

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.




Preparation: Key Element to Contest Season

Key to SuccessAs I write this, I am listening to my students singing Bohemian Rhapsody in the dressing rooms down the hall.   They just closed the curtain to the matinee performance and will begin preparing for the evening performance after a short break.  Apparently, this is one of their traditions at the close of a show; although a student just informed me this was supposed to happen after closing night and not after the matinee.   I am still learning their pre-performance and post-performance rituals while trying to incorporate the preparation I feel they need to grow as performers and a department.

While we still have two more musical performances, I am mentally preparing for the next productions.  In one class we are halfway through blocking , Reckless, by Craig Lucas.  In my Theatre I classes, we are beginning talk theatre.  After school, we begin auditions for our competition show.  Such is the life of a high school theatre teacher.  Saying good-bye to this show is much easier with so much to organize for the rest of the year.

Unfortunately, along with preparation for UIL One-Act Play contest season comes the dreaded play selection and auditions.   I hate both. What if I choose the wrong show?  What if I do not cast it right?  This is the part of the process that I do not like.  I cannot decide what entrée to order at a restaurant, think how hard it is for me to make a decision about what play I want to be married to for the next few months – much less which students will best fulfill those roles.

Today, I want to share my thoughts about beginning a competition season and share some of my own processes.  Since I have not been a “solo” director in a while, I am trying to remember what all needs to be done, re-create contracts and calendars, as well as, teach my students my way of doing this.   I am very thankful for the new Maestro Production Process Guidebook with sample calendars, contracts and reminders of all the things I need to do.   This will surely simplify my preparation for the competition season.

Yesterday, I began the process.  I posted audition dates.  It is strange to post them in November, but with contest the first week in March, I need to get started.  I posted five audition dates.  I am not one who does one to two days of auditions.  Remember, I have a hard time making up my mind!  I want to be able to really trust my decision.  During this time, I will do some improv activities, creating situations that I might need in the play.  I will do some theatre games to see who are leaders, who are followers, and, mostly, who are team players.  I will assign some semi-cold readings where I give a group a scene and ten minutes to rehearse it.  They will return to perform the scene without scripts.  I will not ask them to memorize, I want them to create characters and conflict.  My newest, and favorite audition tactic, I learned from Maestro workshops.  I will give each a stereotype that fits the characters I am looking for.  The student will create the silhouette of that character and deliver one line.  This lets me know what they can do physically, as well as, vocally.  It also shows me what students are willing to take risks and can create on their own.

Okay, so I have the dates posted.  Tomorrow, I will spend the day creating my audition packet.  It will contain my expectations, calendars, rehearsal uniform, a contract to be signed by parents and students, student information, a grade check, expectations for travel attire, and I may add a teacher recommendation form since I am just learning about my new students.  I gained a wealth of knowledge about the work ethic and responsibility of the students in the musical, but many of my students did not audition for the musical because they cannot sing or dance.  I need some sort of gauge for their responsibility level and work ethic.  I am thinking a teacher recommendation might be helpful.  Plus, it puts responsibility in their hands, and it can be the first thing to see if they follow through with a directive.  Same with the contract, it must be signed and returned by the deadline.

The next step is beginning the audition and determining the play.  Yes, I said that right.  I do not know, for sure, what play I am auditioning.  I know that is not the normal procedure for some people.  You should have seen the look on students’ faces as they asked what play they are auditioning for and I said, “I’m not sure, yet.”  I told them they have to trust me.  I have 3-4 scripts that I am considering.   I will audition all of them to determine what script fits the kids best.  I am leaning heavily on an Arthur Miller script (yes with a porch) but I have very physical students who are naturally comedic, so I am also looking at some scripts that meet those criteria.  I think a huge mistake is choosing a play and trying to make your students fit those roles.

During this audition process, as I narrow down my script choices, I will assign the stereotype silhouette and give a line to memorize.  I may give a monologue for memorization.  It all depends on what I need to see in order to make my decision.  Sometimes, I need to see a monologue or see that they are committed enough to prepare a monologue.  Sometimes, I feel this is a waste of my time.  I am as involved in the audition process as the students, I adapt based on what I feel is needed with that group of students auditioning at that time.

During the audition process, I will interview students.  I want to hear what their expectations are, what they feel are their strengths and weaknesses, and why they are interested in representing our school in this contest.   This is time consuming but worth the investment.  It sometimes clarifies my decision and I think many times, it makes the casting decision easier for a student to accept.  They sometimes see themselves in roles that do not fit them physically nor work within the current ensemble.  Sometimes, I have re-visited my own ideas to look at roles through a new lens suggested by a student.

Remember, I mentioned teaching my new students my process.   I require technicians to attend all auditions, which is a new practice for them.  They are handed a contract and participate in the improv activities and the games.   I am casting a company and I need to see that they are as committed as the actors.  This is new for my new school where technicians do not attend rehearsals until the end of the rehearsal process and sometimes do not even know the names of the actors.  I have had a few technicians in my office panicked over this requirement.  I, again, told them to trust me, it will all work out with a rewarding outcome.

I am tired as we close our musical, but I am excited about the future.  I have watched students grow in the past six weeks through this production and I look forward to watching them grow in the next production.  I know tomorrow, I would love to veg-out on the couch and watch the Cowboys, but I know I need to prepare for auditions.  Maybe, I can get my contracts, calendars and expectations together as I watch some football.


New Tools for a New Year

toolbox photoWhat an inspiring weekend this has been! Rick, Patty, Mandy and I have worked for the past four days collaborating on two more writing projects. I am always invigorated when I spend time with my partners compiling our combined 172 years of teaching into organized curriculum and teaching guides. Yeah, we are old, but like C.C. Showers said in The Diviners to Buddy, we are“chock full of knowledge, my friend!”

We have spent this time writing two more resources which, hopefully, will be available this fall. The first is an acting resource book for students and the other a traveling guidebook for teachers and directors. These two books, as well as my plan for using our latest publication, Sight Lines, have me feeling better prepared, and even excited, for the upcoming year. As I return to the theatre classroom, I feel confident about teaching Theatre I as we have worked on the THE BODY, THE VOICE, THE IMAGINATION for a few years now. I am excited to put our collaborative ideas to use in the classroom using the 204 Daily Lesson Plans along with the other supplemental activities we have published. Getting to implement these resources in my own program excite me. I know how much experience and knowledge has been poured into those resources and believe my students will benefit from these materials.

I will admit, I have been a little unsure about where to start with my new students in my advanced classes. Now, I am anxious to use one of our future publications Action, Communication, Thought: Building Character , the current working title. This student resource is intended as a guide for an actor, taking him or her from the audition process, through rehearsals to the production. Great ideas have been streamlined and organized so the actor takes on the ownership of his/her character and is taught professionalism throughout the process. Once I have trained my actors using this guide, I know I will be able to spend more quality time directing the actual productions and less time teaching students the process because that will have been done in class.

Our second writing project has helped alleviate the apprehension I feel as I return to the competition arena of theatre. It has been a while since I was solely responsible for directing the UIL One Act Play production, the paperwork, and the traveling of a show. This weekend has prepared me to return to wearing this hat again. We began work on a traveling guidebook which guides the director/teacher through the competition season. It begins with picking a show and concludes with that final production of the competition season. After years of being in and out of the theatre world, I have lost most of my files, CD’s (remember saving documents to those?) and flash drives with my resources and templates. As soon as this is finished, and we hope to have this done soon for this competition season, I will have new and improved templates, guidelines, and ideas tested by seasoned directors.

Finally, I am pumped to know how I can use the blogs in my classroom! This summer I have heard how teachers have incorporated the blogs in their classrooms! Some use it as a springboard for discussion in their advanced and/or production classes. They read the blog at the beginning of class and allow discussion from the class. I have heard how some teachers use them for journal writing. I am going to use the blogs from our book, Sight Lines , for my emergency substitute file. I am going to take the blogs in the book, copy class sets and create journal prompts for each blog to supply this emergency folder. I plan to use some of them to show students examples of blog writing and have them write their own blog on similar topics or topics that pertain to what is going on in our department, school, and/or world. I love this idea of using our personal stories to spark student writing samples which will also meet my crosscurricular requirements for my new school. I am usually struggling for ideas for my emergency substitute folder but not this year. Some of you may be thinking, “Man, Renee must plan to be out of school a lot to prepare all of those plans!” Oh, I do not use this folder of plans only for days when I am unexpectedly out, I use this folder for emergency situations when I am at school, too. You know the days that suddenly the sophomore class is having a meeting and you are left with a partial class of freshmen or the days when suddenly you have to prepare the stage for an impromptu use by the principal or a guest speaker and you do not want your students sitting idly while you set up mics, podiums, and get lighting ready. I will have class sets prepared so I can pull them when needed. This should reduce the discipline problems that occur when students have nothing to do because I had planned an acting exercise for class that day before knowing I would be preparing a facility for use. I am also going to use them for that student who is out sick and needs a grade for my class because he or she is unable to do the scene the other students have prepared. And, finally, I now have a prepared TELPAS writing assignment for my whole class to use. Yes, I am feeling more prepared than ever for the situations that I usually do not anticipate and then have to struggle to prepare in a pinch. You, too, can utilize some of these plans by purchasing this book at . I highly recommend this resource, it can prove to be an invaluable tool for you as you plan your year.

As I leave this weekend, I feel better prepared for the upcoming year thanks to Maestro Theatre Publications, LLC and my partners. I am sad to see summer end, and, as usual, I have not accomplished all of my personal summer projects; but, I am more excited than ever to return to the theatre classroom as I begin my twenty-eighth year of teaching.

Maybe Better

Friday evening, I completed my fifth year as a UIL one act play adjudicator. It’s hard to believe that five years have gone by so quickly. That is, until I remember just how fast the seventeen years went by that I spent as a UIL one act play director. As I reflect on those years, I recall so many memories, lessons learned, triumphs (small and large), and a few disappointments along the way. But most of all, it is the love I’ve felt, known, and to this day cherish that has endured. I still love teaching theatre and working with other artists. I still love working with students I have the privilege of adjudicating at contests and working with at clinics. I still love hearing from and keeping up with my former students and colleagues. And I still love theatre. That doesn’t mean that every day is perfect. There are times when it is exhausting, stressful and difficult. There are usually a few bumps in the road. Some years, the entire road seems to be filled with potholes that make the journey difficult!  Yet, we carry on. I believe it is because we love what we do. Real love bears, believes, hopes and endures all of the obstacles we encounter along the way, so we must have real love to spend so much time and effort on our jobs as directors of theatre.

If you are a Biblical scholar, you might recognize a little of 1 Corinthians 13 in the statement above. Whatever your faith, you can probably agree with me that we don’t teach theatre because of the salary. Yes, having a little time in the summer and holidays off are nice, but we pack one year’s worth of work (plus) in each school year. We do it because it is an adventure. It provides us with learning experiences, gives us an outlet for our creative side, and teaches us lessons about ourselves. I am grateful for all of those lessons, one of which I will share. This is just one reason why I love what I do.

When my students went to state the first time, I learned one of the most valuable lessons in my life. I was a worrier. It’s a horrible thing to be a worrier because you never have a sense of peace. One act play taught me that I could not be a worrier and still enjoy the blessings of the day. It was 1999, my seventh year to direct UIL OAP. We advanced from region, and we were thrilled!  We were going to perform at Bass Concert Hall! Being the planner and worrier that I was, I began to plot out every detail of our trip. What I didn’t take into account was that the UIL set at UT was built differently than every UIL set we had ever seen or used. During our official rehearsal, the site crew told us we could not stack the unit set the way we had been stacking it. It wasn’t stable when using their platforms. Now, I had watched the state meet contest for several years, and did not make note of that difference. How could I have missed that?  I remember thinking that this is probably the only time I would ever have students advance to the state meet, and I had not prepared them for something as simple as this set issue. I internalized this “mistake”, telling myself I should have known better. We made adjustments, but the time it took to make them cost us a lot of tech rehearsal time. My wonderful light technician did not have time to set all of the light cues after the adjustments to our set were made. I felt I had failed her. We got through the rehearsal, got into the dressing room, and after speaking briefly with the students, I excused myself. I went to a stairwell and lost it, tears (and mascara) flowing down my cheeks. I felt so horrible that my students’ state experience might be ruined because I didn’t prepare them for the issue that cost us so much time in our forty-five minute tech rehearsal. I worried so much for them. Were they going to be standing in the dark during some of their scenes since we didn’t get to set all of our light cues?  How would they handle these issues? Why didn’t I prepare for this? If only I had been more attentive as I watched the state meet in previous years my students wouldn’t have to go through this!  The more I worried, the worse I felt. My friend and co-director, Kim Hines, found me in the stairwell and talked me into giving up my pity party. Our students went on to have their best performance ever….and placed THIRD at state! All of my worry did not change anything. It just made me miserable. The saving grace was the love we had for our students, and the love my students had for their production and for each other. They persevered. It was their love that was able to bear, believe, hope, and endure. It taught me that I needed to focus on love and not on worrying. When I worried, I was operating from a viewpoint of trying to control everything, and when I couldn’t, I felt I had failed. I learned to operate from a viewpoint of bearing the circumstances given to me, believing that I can get through it, hoping for everything to come together, and enduring it all. I wasted part of my first state experience worrying about something that didn’t happen. I didn’t let that happen the second, third, fourth, or fifth times my students performed at the state UIL meet.

This year at each directors’ meeting I made a point of telling directors to please do their best to relax and enjoy the day with their students. I said, “As I look back on my contest experiences with my former students, I don’t wish I had worried more. Instead, I wish I had enjoyed it more.”  The reactions were the same at each directors’ meeting this year….nervous laughter. I don’t think I’m the only one that’s ever worried my way through a UIL OAP contest day. Fortunately, the lesson was learned. Now, I worry a lot less. I savor a lot more. I love that OAP taught me that life lesson, a lesson that has found its way into other areas of my life. Our experiences in OAP teach us great lessons if we are just willing to learn.

Here are a few other observations of love and life lessons taught through OAP that are just too wonderful not to share……

  1. I just adjudicated a region contest where the stage manager of the site crew and another site crew worker had actually met on the stage of the contest site five years earlier. They began dating because of meeting through OAP all those years ago. Last week, he proposed to her on that very same stage. She said yes!
  2. At the same contest, I met one of the competing schools’ superintendent after I completed my critiques. He was beaming with pride. His former student was the director of one of the shows advancing to state.
  3. My friend and Maestro partner, Renee Buchannan, was at the same contest as a spectator. After the awards ceremony, we spoke briefly. It was then I found out the director of the alternate play to state was her former student. It was her OAP directing debut. Renee was so proud of her!
  4. At that same contest, one of the advancing play directors was congratulated by her best friend ….who also advanced to state in a different conference just days prior.
  5. And, at this same contest, I watched students from six competing schools dance, hug, and celebrate the region contest prior to the awards ceremony as someone from the site crew served as their DJ.

And so, on that day and into the evening, memories were made. Lessons were learned. I witnessed triumphs, great and small, and disappointments, too. But most of all, I witnessed love. The UIL OAP experience is as good of a story as the tales we tell on the stage. Sometimes, maybe better.


Now What?

You have spent months preparing your production and now you sit numb in an auditorium, as your school’s name is not announced as advancing to the next level of competition. Now What?

It is important to note that with so much invested in the journey your company has made creating the production, it is not surprising that students and even you will go through some level of grief. To move through the difficult task of saying goodbye to a show it is important to recognize a few realities.

First you must acknowledge and address the pain. The most immediate challenge we face is watching our students face the emotional pain of disappointment and feelings of inadequacy. Our challenge as directors and role models is to find ways to focus students to get through those first terrible minutes and help students move through to healing without blame or shaming of others. Students will mirror your behavior and sometimes the best acting of the day will happen when you smile and reassure them. I find that rehearsing what will happen if we advance and what will happen if we don’t advance helps students prepare and makes them feel more secure. Remember to win with grace and lose with dignity. There are many times in our students’ lives where they will come out on top and achieve what they desire but, there will also be times when someone else will get the praise, get the job or get what they wanted desperately and we must model for them coping skills for perseverance. Polite clapping for everyone without shouting or tears is appropriate for the contest.

I also find that giving students a task helps with the moments after not advancing. First, every student should have a notebook and pen whether they advance or not. This tool should be used throughout the rehearsal process to journal, take notes and help plan out time-management strategies between home responsibilities, rehearsal demands, school schedules and even work or other activities. Students should take notes during the critique. This helps them to look back at the critique to process their thoughts and feelings about the assessment when they are not so emotionally charged from the shock of the news that the contest journey has ended. It also gives students a focus so they can write the words of the judge rather than focusing on their pain. It is hard for them to process the praise and celebration of their work if they are crying through a critique or have shut themselves off from a critique opportunity. I often would tell my students that no crossing was allowed in critiques…No crossed legs, no crossed arms and no cross looks. To grow you must be open to hearing all perspectives and I think taking notes helps students by providing a strategy to accept critique with class.

Reminding students that the joy of the journey cannot be changed by the number of times you advanced is important. Only you can know how the experience has changed the individuals in your company and the group as a whole. I like to meet for practice after our last contest to go over the last critique. Let students read what they wrote and discuss their interpretation of the notes. Share positive reflections of the rehearsal and performance process and how and what you have learned. Make plans for at least one more performance for the community. Celebrate the hard work you have done with a reception afterward. The experience of production should always end with a positive celebration. Once the initial shock of the contest season coming to an end begins to fade and the new realities set in, we face our second challenge. We must adjust to changes in our daily lives.

The end of rehearsals can change almost every aspect of a student’s daily routine. They may no longer have an after school activity to participate in, a specific group of friends to connect with or a reason to complete assignments. Most students are able to bounce back from the end of a production and move on to the next activity or event but, it is important to monitor your students to make sure that all of them are moving forward and coming to terms with the changes in their daily routine. Some of us are able to start a new show with the time that is left in the school year but if you are not able to start another show, you may want to consider creating a script-reading club to help keep kids connected as you finish out the year. I often brought donuts in the morning one day a week and students would share scripts they liked or wanted us to produce in the next season. We would focus on three-four scripts to read and discuss in the morning before school. I loved these mornings because it gave students the opportunity to take ownership of the play selection process and they introduced me to new scripts and styles they wanted to learn more about for the next year.

Having opportunities outside of the contest for students to create relationships and talk through the process of production helps them cope with the loss and helps them bond for the next production journey.

As drama directors and teachers we set goals for our students and ourselves and help them through the challenges they face. Trying to make sense of our experiences in life is a compelling human drive. We read about it in plays and share that experience with audiences. Although some of us articulate it more clearly than others do, we each have our way of understanding how the world works; a unique set of beliefs and assumptions that form the lens through which we view the world and our place in it. Loss and grief can challenge these basic assumptions and make us question everything we thought we knew. We’re flooded with doubts and questions, the simplest and most compelling of which is often simply—why? Our challenge is to find ways of making sense of what happened and adjusting our belief systems accordingly. To thrive, we must find within ourselves a way to ascribe meaning to events and discover. While contest outcomes are not life or death situations, they are situations of high stakes and can make us question our ability to direct, perform, pick good literature, establish a quality learning environment and much more. Often the contest experience can make us question our work-life balance and our abilities both professionally and personally. It is important to reflect on the journey and give yourself and your students time to heal. Go to the state meet if you can and watch the plays. Talk about the beautiful journey all companies experience by expressing themselves on stage. If you can’t see the state meet, go to support local theatre to expose students to a variety of theatrical experiences. Celebrate your artistry and team spirit. Reassess what is important and when you are ready, set goals for the next adventure into production. Relax, read scripts, see plays, participate in a summer professional learning experience and prepare for the shows ahead. So what now?…..well, we are blessed to be able to share our stories together and the possibilities are endless.