We’ve talked about excellence in individual character, excellence in show quality, next up…excellence in artistry.
I’d like to go back in time a bit, if you’ll allow me.
I’ve worked at school’s without a designated theater class during the day. The only time I had with the students were rehearsals after school. It wasn’t ideal.
There were roughly two hours a day during after school rehearsals to make a show happen and while the administration was verbally supportive of the arts especially in public, there was no budget for theater. I asked how I was supposed to put on a show without any money and the reply was, no joke, with a straight face no less, “…that’s why we hired you, to figure it out. You’re the drama teacher.”
Needless to say, I said some things which didn’t help build any bridges and made the next few years of teaching more difficult then they needed to be. On a side note, that was the day I resolved to no longer accept being called a drama teacher. I am henceforth and forever more a theater educator. I’ll likely be talking about some of the things I’ve learned from experiences like that in later posts. I don’t know. I’m kind of just making this up as I go so we’ll see what does and doesn’t happen. 🙂
Vulnerable moment here.
Teaching theater can be an isolating vocation. I type this as a truth, NOT a complaint. Theater education can be an isolating vocation. Fulfilling, yes. Beautiful, of course. Worth it, absolutely. Isolating…without a doubt. The structure in most schools in the United States and specifically here in Oregon is that there is one theater educator on campus. Its a solo department. There may not be other colleagues on campus to collaborate with. Finding the joy, finding the hope, building relationships with folks outside of theater to help support yourself and the work is KEY.
It took me longer than I’m comfortable admitting to truly believe that. (FYI – It was about eight years.) 🙂
Back on topic now…I’d like to talk a bit about some of the strategies that we use to try and build artistry with our students and within our community.
- Begin our time ON TIME with routines including community building time and warm-ups.
- When appropriate transition into an acting lesson like, if I were teaching a class or a workshop.
- Follow up with some improv, practical exercises, etc. to get the students up and moving around and to practice what I’ve introduced or covered during the rehearsal.
- Give a short refreshment/bathroom/phone break (if needed)…
- Get into the work for the day.
One of the challenges for Mr. S with this approach is that it does cut into character building and stage business work…at least at the beginning of the process, and…
Well, you know what…I’m going to switch-a-roo and frame what I’m about to say like this.
Many of you have experience with our fall show Alice in Wonderland. Many of you are familiar with the following unique situations.
- A total of 10 weeks of rehearsal compared to our usual 12 weeks.
- Building in time for students to learn original songs and music. [Never before in the fall.]
- A majority of the cast and crew being freshmen and sophomores and | or never being in a show before.
- Constant absences in part because of the COVID world we live in.
- FOUR adults on the production staff [mostly COVID and schedules] compared to the usual SEVEN, just to name a few.
Even if students totally wow me in an audition I have to approach the rehearsal and work day structure with a plan for the teaching and practice of new techniques for both the actors and the crew.
When so many challenges are present before even beginning where do we begin?
ORGANIZATION, COMMUNICATION, and PERSEVERANCE.
That is the key. No matter what triumph or what failure is faced during the journey, it WILL ALL BE WORTH IT. So persevere.
[I totally just made up an inspiration cat poster without meaning too.] 🙂
And for my snarky response…there will NEVER be enough time to do everything we need to do. It’s the reality. It isn’t an issue of my vision. My vision will NEVER be fully realized. Full stop.
In the book Notes on Directing, authors Frank Hauser and Russell Reich write about how the most highly successful directors only see about 60% of what’s in their head on the stage. This is anecdotal but I would suspect for us high school theater teachers the percentage is far less.
My vision, our vision will never be fully realized AND it doesn’t have to be.
In practice there is never enough time. We will always working up to the last moment.
Personally, there is a great freedom that has filled me since accepting this truth. There is never enough time.
So I need to maximize what time I do have. I need to prioritize what needs can be met. I need to organize what things we CAN accomplish.
I have worked in theater and film at the educational level, community theater level and professional level. It doesn’t matter how high up the power structure you are, there is never enough time. Believing so is a phantom you are chasing.
And you will never catch.
I’ve found when it comes to show quality, it’s not about how to carve out more time; it’s about growing in my resourcefulness in how to better use the time I do have.
Returning from the bunny trail…
When did I wander off?
Adult ADHD on display, folks… 🙂
I have found when I teach students how to act and build growth opportunities for that into the rehearsal process they will rise to occasion. As they build their competence it leads to “more” time in rehearsals. As I get better as an educator and director and as they get better in their own abilities on stage and off, there’s more time in rehearsals because it doesn’t take as long to do the things you need to do to tell a great story.
It does create more work for me overall AND the long term effects make it sooooooooooooo worthwhile.
In our community, we don’t use rehearsal time to work on memorizing lines. That’s something you do on your own time. We rehearse the scene once and by the second time we rehearse the scene you are expected to be memorized. Special note: We were much more lax on this with Alice as we are still in a pandemic and it had been 18 months since even those students with show experience had really worked through a whole production.
I’m in my sixth year at La Salle and I’ve been doing this memorization thing since day one; and the first two years especially were…horrid. It wasn’t easy. The students were frustrated, I was frustrated. There are days I’m proud of and days I’m not. I believed in the importance of memorization though and I’ve held the line and now when I make comments at the first read through like, “We’re expecting you to be off book in two weeks.” Students might roll their eyes and curse me under their breath and…and…and…and then they rise to the occasion and do it because they can. They have the training, the experience and the competency.
And… It’s expected. They audition knowing it is expected. They accept their role(s) knowing it is expected.
And…despite some push-back and bellyaching, they love how it feels to be memorized as soon as possible and be able to just create, tell, build, imagine and not feel tethered to the script in their hands.
The seniors have worked with me for four years, they’ve been in rehearsals, they have the training and they are equipped and capable of rising to the occasion which, in our program, includes modeling for the other students our way of doing things.
But…and there’s always a but…students don’t always do the work outside of rehearsals. Instead of bashing them over the head for it, the impetus is on me to continue to help guide them into appropriate and functional time management skills; to model inspiration and flexibility in helping them understand the essential need to work outside of rehearsals and “raise their game.”
WARNING! Sports example here…
Imagine a basketball player who never touches a basketball outside of practice. How well would improvement go for them? While it is a different craft and skill set its the same modus operandi with theater. You have to do the reps. You have to do the proper work to master the skills.
I have a responsibility to find the levers and through the building of healthy relationships and community understand how to use those levers. I have an obligation to figure out why things are the way they are and what needs to happen to change them, shift them, re-focus them, whatever.
I am sometimes critiqued for what can be viewed as unfounded optimism. It is a legitimate critique and I have scars to prove it.
And still, we grow and learn and try and do better. So, here’s a question. What do I need to do during the time I have with students to get scripts out of their hands as quickly as possible?
One strategy. Meet with the students and take time to get to know them and how they work and what their lives look like outside of school.
What if I don’t have time to practice outside of rehearsal Mr. S?
I often have students who ride the bus. They can’t stay “late” at a rehearsal even if that was an option because they have a bus schedule to make. I have students who have to go to jobs after rehearsals to contribute to supporting their families. They don’t have time to carry around their scripts and memorize lines.
They’re living a life in which our rehearsals are small part of a much larger puzzle.
We’ve always tried to come up with options for all students when it comes to getting off-book. One way we’ve done this in our program is to audio record a rehearsal in which the actors are all together reading their parts. [There is a process and permission and signatures which are gathered for this.]
We take those recordings and make sure each of the students can access them. Students can pop in ear buds and listen to the scene, the beat, the act, whatever as many times as they need or like to get their lines down. More work for me. More work for us. All for the payout later.
Does an audio recording work for everyone? No, and it shouldn’t be expected that it will. The important thing is for me to figure out from my students what they need to be successful and then…let’s do that!
When I have relationship with students, when they see I genuinely care about them and their success, they will rise to the occasion.
Here’s another way I see it.
I am giving the student(s) the respect given to a professional because that’s what we’re all working toward here. I respect you, I believe in you and I KNOW you can memorize these lines at home. Rehearsals are to rehearse. They are to experiment. They are to build relationships with each other and with the world, words and work so we can tell the best story possible. Rehearsals are not for us to do your work for you. If I teach my students techniques to memorization. If I teach my students how to read for understanding and how to create a character. If I teach my students the rules and conventions of this type of story, including themes and symbolism and subtext. If I seek out from them what they need to meet the expectations and follow through with those needs (as long as they are appropriate…more on that later.) If I teach my students these things and give them the opportunities to practice and build their confidence and competence there is a lot of work they can do away from rehearsal so when they show up for rehearsal they are off-book, they have multiple options for character exploration and understand the story so they can anticipate the blocking and movement. All of these things go a long way in “creating” more rehearsal space within a limited rehearsal calendar.
Here is a true to life hypothetical situation. Rehearsal is scheduled to run scene 3. The actors in that scene show up and proudly announce they are memorized. (Which they were.) I had them run through their lines during our warm-ups. After warm-ups they approached me and said, “Mr. S, we’ve really been trying to see the story and we’ve been taking notes of the other scenes which have been blocked and we got together the other day and using what you’ve been doing in other rehearsals blocked the scene. Can we show it to you?”
The answer will always be, “Of course!” because how brilliant is that?
The students show me the scene and it is good. It is really good. There are things we’ll have to discuss and stage picture type of blocking adjustments which need to take place, some definite character work we’ll need to do but at least three quarters of what they just showed me we can work with. We’re now 30 minutes into a 2 hour rehearsal.
These incredible students who have investment and agency have just gifted us an hour and a half to dive deeper. To dive to a level we never would be able to do had they not memorized their lines, done their character work and taken the initiative to understand the story and come to the rehearsal prepared to work.
We work to build healthy relationships. We work to build healthy community. We work to teach techniques, strategies and nuances of the craft. We work to creatively address individual responsibilities and time management needs. We work to support excellence, to support connection and to support responsibility. We work to be storytellers and artists.