Firstly, happy holidays everyone!
Why am I spending a bit of time on Christmas morning sharing about excellence? Mostly it’s because our kiddos are quietly playing with their toys…so I have a few moments to share some thoughts and secondly, it’s where my head space is right now. Often, for me, during the holiday season especially between Christmas and New Year, I reflect on the past year and try and look forward with hope at what “could” be. Part of that is my personality and part of that is the work I do as an educator and artist. Everyday, no matter what challenge will be there is an opportunity to ask myself, “what could be…”
It’s kind of the nature of the beast. Every show we choose to produce is always chosen with thoughtful care and a little bit of faith. “Will this resonate with our community?”, “Does this show tell the story we need to tell or believe our community needs to hear?”, “Does the story…and not just the story but our process of going from page to stage align with our La Sallian values?”, “Do we have the students to tell this story?”, “Do we have the physical space, the resources, the timeline and community support to tell this story?” and “Will this story allow for individual and collective growth for all involved as we pursue excellence?”
Cool. Somewhat vaguely expressed sentiments Shelton. What’s the practicality of this?
Well…I hope to get to that below.
Like with the term ‘acting’ excellence can be difficult to define; and yet, defining it is important for myself and for our community. Individually and collectively how do you define excellence in a high school theater program and what are practical ways we can go about that?
So…hypothetically, what does excellence mean to you? Seriously, I’d LOVE to hear from those of you out there reading this. Let’s say, you’re in charge. What IS EXCELLENCE? Even if you don’t respond in the comment section, take a moment, just in your head to respond. When I say, “what is excellence?” what is the first thing that pops into your head. That’s your answer. Don’t overthink it, don’t pause looking for the “right” words, whatever that means…what is the first thing that pops into your head?
Okay, now…here’s where you can get into the thinking part. Why? When you think of excellence why did those images, or persons or phrases pop in there? What is it about those things that represent excellence for you?
For me, excellence is four-pronged.
Excellence in individual character
Excellence in show quality
Excellence in artistry
Excellence in leadership
These are NOT unique. I did not develop them. These are different elements which have existed in many different forms throughout my own introduction to theater in high school and all the places it has taken me since that time. The reason I would like to talk about how I approach these elements is with the hope something I write will resonate with you and maybe, just maybe you can look at the new year, still mired by COVID and so much uncertainty with hope as you ask, “What could be”? Ultimately, with all of this, if you have an ah-ha moment, a sense of clarity or ideas from this post or any of the posts which spark something inside your own creative self that’s really what this is all about. 🙂
Excellence in individual character. That last sentence is probably a good time to transition to my first view of excellence. Excellence of character.
I believe we all matter.
I believe we all have a powerful voice.
I believe we all can make a meaningful change the world.
And for me, I’m humbled by the chance to daily learn, develop, fail forward, grow, stretch, be uncomfortable and strive towards being the best version of myself AND helping model and hold accountable my student artists to being the best versions of themselves.
Education is hard. Theater Education is hard. Striving for and expecting all students to be their highest selves…is never-ending work. It will take all you have and it will be worth every moment.
I’m stepping into my own vanity now, please pardon me, I find great inspiration in pursuing a life so well lived that when I reach the end of it, I have given all I have to give and I have to be carried across the finish line. I cross the finish line surrounded by those I love, they hold me close and whisper, “Well done.”
I want to be the kind of human being my wife, my children, my family, my students and my community can say, “Well done.”
It gets me out of bed every morning. Another chance, another opportunity, another few hours to make a positive difference in the world. To be a better human being. To love on my students and encourage them to be better human beings.
The work is never completed. I stand in awe of all of those who have gone before and all of those who will come after me. The work is never completed and I thank whatever gods their may be for this life and this opportunity to do my small part.
Ok, sliding out of my vanity, I want my students to be the amazing human beings I know they are. I want my students to be the most welcoming students in the school. To be the most authentic students in the school. To be inclusive. To be filled with joy and passion and agency. To fight for equity. To stand in their own worth and power and advocate for all of us to be better to ourselves, better to each other and better to the world.
This is what I mean by excellence in individual character.
So, how do you do that? For me, 1. repetition helps. For me, 2. clear expectations help and 3. holding the line helps. For example, as I already mentioned, starting rehearsals on time. The expectation is that you are at rehearsals ON TIME. I don’t waiver from that. The Stage Manager or a student Assistant Director takes role at the top of every rehearsal. With my personality I always lean more toward keeping things light and I’ll make a show of it when a student actor or techie shows up late AND YET…we have to hold each accountable.
Do things come up? Yes. Does life happen? Yes…and there’s a lot more opportunity for Mr. S to be flexible when you’ve already built that trust with him and the rest of the company through demonstrated commitment.
In our program, three unexcused absences results in a student potentially being removed from the show.
I’ve done it…unfortunately, multiple times.
Mr. S what if a student’s third unexcused is their make-up call time before the show?
They don’t go on stage.
Does it suck? Abso-freaking-lutely.
When the students recognize how much I care for them as human beings, because we’ve been building relationship since day one and they see I’m a person of my word, unexcused absences dramatically decline.
Another thing I do is model the type of communication I’m expecting, then hold students accountable to communicate with each other and myself in the way I have modeled. Here’s another thing I didn’t create, I just really like how it’s phrased. “Pre-emptive communication”.
If you as a student are running late, tell someone. (Hint, the correct answer is the Stage Manager or Mr. S.) If you scheduled a dentist appointment that you just can’t miss because you know how hard it is to get into the dentist especially during COVID, tell me.
“Mr. S, I know I wrote on my audition form I was available during opening weekend for the show, but I’m actually in Hawai’i right now. My dad told us like six months ago about it and I forgot to tell anyone.”
This is an actual voice message left for the Stage Manager one Opening Night.
I know you know what I’m getting at.
Lastly, I work hard with the students to step back and not take things personally. I work hard on modeling that for the students. Being open with our dialogue about things like tone of voice, listening for understanding, assuming good intentions and not taking it personally. I work hard to never discipline any student artist for how they feel. Your feelings are your feelings and you can feel what you feel. Period.
AND…there are appropriate ways to press into our feelings and respond to them.
Sometimes with how high the stakes are and by consequence how high the emotions are, it’s difficult not to take things personally. I often fail. When I do, I seek to make it right and continue to grow.
I try and never discipline any student for how they feel. I try and reserve the discipline for when those feelings show disregard for other people and things. It’s ok if you are mad at me about the cast list. It’s not okay if you sabotage the show for the other students. It is okay if you are struggling with the variety of personalities in the rehearsal space.
Me too. Seriously, I do too.
It’s not okay to spit on other people. Especially now in a pandemic. When we put in the hard work to build relationship with students and they know they can trust us and we are people of our word, and we got their back, they will brave incredible things. When they know no matter where their feelings are on the spectrum they can share with me authentically, they will embody incredible things. When they see me hold the line, create boundaries and have high expectations all wrapped in genuine care and connection, they will live incredible things. Except when they don’t because sometimes they won’t.
Because we are all imperfect human beings.
And when that happens we talk about those times in the speaking-responsibly and-listening-to-understand way we try and do with everything.
And on the times it must go beyond talking and there is discipline involved, the students know it’s coming from a place of care. They know you expect them to be their best. They know they’ve missed the mark and there will be consequences.
It doesn’t necessarily change how they feel about the consequences but it does change the dynamic when there is genuine relationship prior to the discipline.
Take my word for it or don’t, boundaries are essential. The students may on occasion gripe, but they appreciate knowing exactly where they stand.
I’ll leave off this post with some vulnerability. My responsibility in all of this isn’t just to the students. It extends to the families and the school administration. This is DEFINITELY an area of growth for me. I’m not where I need to be in my communication with families and admin. I need to continue to improve in that area so that the excellence we seek is supported from the WHOLE COMMUNITY because everyone knows the hope, the vision, the process and our students are surrounded by folks modeling for them healthy community, pursuit of excellence and boundaries.
Happy Christmas, happy New Year, thank you for BEING YOU.