Taking a moment to recap the last post. For me, excellence in theater is developed through:
Excellence in individual character
Excellence in show quality
Excellence in artistry
Excellence in leadership
In the last post we chatted about excellence in individual character. Today, I’d like to follow up with excellence in show quality.
Excellence in show quality. I think for any theater educator worth their salt this is the goal. We want the satisfaction of putting on great shows. We want folks to talk about our shows as an event they WANT to be a part of. We want other artists to look at our programs as something to aspire to. We want incoming freshmen and their families to be excited to step into the program because they know they’ll be a part of something next level. Something they can be proud to be a part of.
It’s one thing to say we aspire to show quality and it’s another to achieve show quality. After all, in high school theater we don’t control who takes theater as an elective. (For those who are in an institution which offers the course.) We don’t control who shows up for auditions. We don’t control if a delightfully cast lead actor remains academically eligible after we’ve cast them. There is so little in high school theater, like life, that can be controlled.
The lack of control doesn’t make quality out of reach, it does mean we, as the educators and the community supporting the students, really have to focus on developing in our students the skills needed to perform and design excellently and give them agency to model for and mentor other students within the program.
Attaining consistent, quality performances requires us to “teach” our students how to tell stories. Teach them the conventions of different styles of stories. It requires us to teach our student technicians and designers how to tell stories. How to turn ideas, emotions, metaphors into tangible, visual elements on the stage and, like our student actors, requires us to teach them the conventions of different styles of stories. [I will post separately about “how to tell stories” after the new year.]
I don’t want my students to know how to build a flat (as essential as that skill is.) I want my students to know why a flat is or is not the best design choice in the overall design concept of a particular project and I want them to be able to do it on their own.
Pursuing programmatic excellence is, in part, helping each student reach a level of mastery so they can do the work on their own.
I don’t want my lighting students to simply hit the fade to black button on the light board because that’s the cue written into the script. I want them to understand the emotions, the flow, the pacing of the story and fade to black at precisely the best moment in the energy of a given scene on their own.
I don’t want my student actors to learn how to do the blocking precisely as I tell them to do it. I don’t want them to parrot back the emotions I give them for their characters. I want them to understand why the blocking is how it is and the unique, individualized movements for each character on their own. I want them to know different approaches to the craft of acting so they know “how” to create a believable character and how to generate believable emotions on their own. I want my students to have ideas and to learn how to advocate for those ideas. I want our rehearsals to not just be me saying, “Do this!”, “Feel this!”, “Move here!” I want my students to have agency and the ability to break down the story and the characters at a high level and engage with me in the creation of this work on their own.
It’s not about my personality or my vision. It’s about our collective vision. The shows have to be as much a product of their artistry and creativity as they are a product of mine.
Just because our students aren’t professional doesn’t mean the quality of what they put on the stage isn’t as close to professional standard as possible. In our pursuit of excellence, our goal shouldn’t be perfection. Perfection doesn’t exist.
I’m just throwing this out there to you.
I’ll say it again.
Perfection doesn’t exist. Our goal isn’t to put on a “perfect” show. Our goal is to be excellent in what we do. To put on a show which leaves the audience breathless, inspired, thoughtful, whatever they are supposed to be feeling, we want them to feel it and we want them to want more.
Because if they want more, they will come back.
Because if they come back, they are buying another ticket.
Sorry, I digress.
And maybe I’m going too far by stating this, if so I apologize. What we do as high school theater teachers is educational theater. I’ll say it again. We are pursuing excellence and recognizing this is high school educational theater. Our primary goal is to educate, train, edify our students so they don’t need us anymore.
Intentions matter. The pursuit of excellence must be for the sake of the students. It can’t be a vanity project for Mr. S. Something I demand of the community to look good in front of the parents and my bosses. [Though, it’s okay if that happens, but it should be as a result of the work, not the motivation for the work.]
High quality art is beautiful and powerful and can sometimes move mountains; and Mr S needs to do everything in his power so the students are the ones making art which slays dragons and art which uplifts communities and art which brings us together.
For me, excellence is the pursuit of…here it is…personal irrelevance.
I hope, even for those who don’t know me well, my heart and my intention comes through the above statement.
At the end of the day, isn’t part of my job as an educator to walk alongside my students and make sure they get to a place where they don’t need me anymore and they can confidently step into that next chapter?
Isn’t it a glorious idea to get to a place where year after year, students are finding their voice, growing in competency, honing their artistic sensibilities and developing a sense of agency to a point where they don’t need me to take the words on the page and breathe life into them? Isn’t it inspiring to think of being a part of the process of getting students to a place where they can produce a show without us and the quality, craftsmanship and artistry are so high no one would ever know the project wasn’t driven by a professional?
To me, this is excellence.
When the students have the training, the experience, the commitment to design and develop a project to fruition with excellence.
This is excellence.
This isn’t to say I’m an uninvolved kind of educator, quite the contrary to the chagrin of some of my students. It is to say, I hold in great reverence the part of my vocation which requires me to help student artists be their highest selves. To help them be the artists so many of them long to be and the human beings the world needs them to be.
Enter to learn, leave to serve.