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One Tongue, Two Ears

How much voice or opinion should your students have in a theatre company?
• Should students have a choice in selecting play titles?
• Should students have a say in casting?
• Should students be selecting technicians?
• Should students have a say in whether they like their costume?
• Should student’s input be considered in how you direct?
(Note that these same questions could apply to parents and booster clubs.)

A good company operates with a knowledge of its members and considers the client it serves in all decisions. Trust and respect are key in successful companies. What’s best or easiest for the director is not the correct choice. Educators are in the business of teaching students. All decisions should be based in what is best for students. Two years ago, our school redesigned the school day hours from 8:10 – 4:10. We studied various school day schedules. Many teachers preferred a school day ending at 2:30 pm. I selfishly loved the idea of rehearsals beginning earlier. I remember colleagues mentioning benefits like beating rush hour traffic and easing babysitter hour costs. However attractive, these benefits were all teacher based and did not include the benefit for the student. We eventually chose an 8:30 – 3:30 school day based on what was best for student success. The larger conversation included studying bus route schedules, all after school events like rehearsals and athletics, a scheduled time for students to meet with teachers for tutoring and make-up tests, and even a time for students to meet for their clubs. What is best for the client should be the first thing considered when managing your company. This focus invites trust from all served.

Is it best for your program to have students vote on play titles? Although their degree of investment or degree of enjoyment is important, the flip side of that is that they are not as well read as you are. Also, they may not have a mature sense of literary merit or challenging work. I am, of course, assuming your company goal is to educate your students about good literature versus weak scripts. I listen to student input and often allow them to vote, but I clearly clarify that their vote may or may not be the deciding factor. Some years my students and I have agreed on titles. Other years, I vetoed their choice and trusted my expertise regarding what is best for them and the program. A strong teacher and director unites the disappointed. Students will take their director’s lead if that trust has been established. (In UIL contest critiques, I have seen many directors model unprofessional reactions and consequently the students do as the director does). A director is a leader; know where you are leading them.

A healthy company feels respected and valued. Do not forget that many theatre directors feel unappreciated, over worked and less valued in the big picture of school business. Do not practice that same neglect with your students. Value your company members. Respect their voice. Compliment their commitment and participation. Notice and recognize their improvements and growth. Creating respect in your company members will make it easier when you, as the leader, challenge and disagree with their opinions or vote. There is no one correct answer as to whether your program should be an equal vote democracy or a dictatorship. All successful relationships rely on trust.

An environment of trust assumes that all parties will be safe, and that you have everyone’s best interests in mind. That is why students can accept criticism from a director they trust. Once trust is lost, it is hard to recapture. So in a theatre environment, a director must trust the student company members and they must trust the director. They must trust that can take risks free of judgment and create art freely. This code will allow for student-based decision making, director dictated decisions, or a combination. The leadership style should be an extension of the director’s personality. So the necessary question becomes, “How do you develop trust between participants in the company”? All people are sensitive about being told what to do, and they often want to prove themselves. So rather than lecture students, consider using reflective questions, such as, “What do you think about …?” “Have you thought of …?” and “Would you consider …?”

Epictetus is credited with the statement: “Man has one tongue but two ears that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” Listening to value your student’s feelings and ideas gives directors the ability to effectively communicate with and influence their company. Listen to learn means not inserting your opinion and not judging. Effective directors know that delegation is essential for building trust. When you hold onto tasks and do not delegate, you deprive your students of an opportunity to advance their skills. Treating people as if they are responsible and empowered increases their chances of becoming so. Most theatre directors are a one-person operation. Our best students become our assistants. Empowering them to practice their leadership skills make them better leaders. Theatre departments rooted in trust allow for multiple ways of making company decisions. Lecture and criticize less. Listen to your students. Empower your students. Lead with confidence.

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