Category Archives: Live Theatre Production

Tired of the Old Song And Dance Routine? Surviving Yet Another Ensemble Casting

Dear Drama Student:

There are a few things you need to know about your most recent audition, and frankly, all auditions.

Yes, auditions are grueling. No, there’s really no other way to cast shows.

I met with you today, on the Monday after the cast list went up Friday. I saw the tears, the frustration, even the anger, and I saw you search for encouragement and some sort of guarantee of future success in our conversation, that if you took the feedback I gave you, it would somehow magically make the next time easier.  I know too that because you’re a teenager, this doesn’t just feel disappointing, it feels unfair.

Because you were cast in the ensemble again when you “should” have gotten a lead. 

First of all, what you need to know is that everyone behind that table has been where you are. Every member of the artistic staff has auditioned for shows and not even gotten cast, not gotten a callback. We’ve been cut off less than a minute into our monologues, we’ve been sent home early from dance calls. We get it. You don’t believe that, but we do.

The second thing it might be important for you to realize is that we worked for those auditions too, the ones we got cut from. We worked on our monologue or song, we took the dance classes, we lost the weight, learned the skill, we shmoozed with the directors, and sometimes that didn’t work. Sometimes somebody’s friend got the part, sometimes we had the same hair color as the lead, sometimes somebody had heard something about us, sometimes we just weren’t what they were looking for.

Sometimes we didn’t get cast at all. 

But that was different. Those were community or professional auditions. The people who didn’t cast us had no obligation to us. We, your teachers, do, you think. We have an obligation to see you, to see how hard you’re working, to give you opportunities.

That is totally true, kids.

But we have another obligation, and that is to help you create your best work and grow as a performer, while honoring the mandate of theatre, that we must serve the story. We are not doing you a favor by casting you in a role you cannot sing. We are not doing you a favor by casting you in a part we can’t believe you in. We are not doing you a favor by setting you up to be mediocre or overwhelmed.

And you made a good point.  We don’t always know your potential. We don’t always know what you could do if we just gave you a shot. But we do. It’s called the audition.

Kids, most of you don’t get what you want out of auditions for a few of the same reasons.

You don’t do your research and you don’t prepare. You have the opportunity to research the show, find an appropriate song or pick the character you might get and really go for it. Do those things. Get comfortable with the script if you can get it. Impress us with your readiness.

You’re in your own way.  It has taken me a long time to realize that 80 percent of high school auditioners are unbelievably nervous, and the callback process exacerbates this. You can’t get away from the callback process, so you gotta learn to game it, kids. You need to know what you want going in and give it your best shot.  And you gotta keep a clear head. I don’t want to go all Abby Lee Miller on you, but those tears may need to be saved for the pillow.

You throw auditions for small or “unglamorous” roles you don’t want.  I have never seen this happen anywhere except high school, where the entire subtext of someone’s audition is “how dare you call me back for this role that I didn’t want?’ I have seen it done deliberately,  I have seen it done subconsciously.  It is incredibly frustrating to witness, it doesn’t work in the real world, and it makes it difficult to have empathy with you and want to cast you when we have the opportunity. You aren’t fooling us.

You don’t size up the competition and make different choices. Callbacks are conveniently held in groups so directors can see combinations. This is also a convenient time to watch your competition and do something else, or steal what they are doing and do it bigger.

You reject gifts. Left out of a callback for a role and get called in at the last minute? Asked to read with another actor?  Do it up. We’re not playing headgames, we’re trying to give you another shot. Take advantage of it.

So what if you do everything right and you still don’t get what you want?  You’re back in ensemble.

Well, you have options.

You can choose to not do the show. This is a dumb move if you are in this for the long haul, because you’re depriving yourself of a free opportunity to build skills and be in community, which is supposedly why you are doing this. If you’re a senior, you’re still depriving yourself of a fun thing, and you’ll probably look back and be annoyed with yourself, unless you realize this is not what you want, which is perfectly ok too.

You can choose to step into a different path. Tired of the old song and dance routine? Try crew, design, publicity, stage management. These are where the jobs are anyway.

You can choose to take what you got and slay it. I can’t count the number of high school shows I’ve directed where I needed an ensemble member moment and that incredibly reliable, unresentful chorus member stepped up and did an amazing job, which led to great things down the road. It happens constantly.

Whatever you choose to do, know this. No director worthy of your respect is in this to mess with you. We are here and you are there because we want it that way and we believe in your contribution to the story we are telling.  If you want to work with us, we want to make you part of the best experience we can. If what you care about is playing a lead, though, you may want to think about why you’re doing this in the first place.

To sum it up, there are a lot of factors that don’t seem important to getting a lead but are actually incredibly important. Are you reliable? Are you an independent learner? Were you undeniably the most capable performer in the callback? Can you handle the vocal demands? Have you demonstrated that you can handle the pressure of a role? Does your physicality match the other performers?

Ask yourself these questions and see where they take you. You may be surprised at what you discover, which may prove very useful in your next audition.

As Ever,

Your Drama Teacher

 

 

 

 

danglarsbenedetto

HAMILTON/HAMLET/POKEMON/GODOT: 36 EASY STEPS TO YOUR FIRST PRODUCTION

“I’m past patiently waitin’.I’m passionately smashin’ every expectation. Every action’s an act of creation! I’m laughin in the face of casualties and sorrow. For the first time, I’m thinkin’ past tomorrow.” -“My Shot”, HAMILTON

“In my heart there was a kind of fighting/that would not let me sleep.”-HAMLET, Act 5 Scene 2

Summer’s almost over, and with many of us entering production mode as school starts, here is a list of at least 36 things  YOU need to do before you first show opens.

  1. Look at your projected casting pool. There is once again no Hamlet, but  lot of girls who could play Hamlet. Keep in back pocket.
  2.  Google HAMLET. Click on HAMILTON instead.
  3. Look at your projected casting pool. Realize you’re not doing HAMLET or HAMILTON. Google “plays with a strong female ensemble that are not HAMLET or HAMILTON. Be surprisingly uninspired by results.
  4. Pick a show, any show.
  5. Get the rights.
  6. Pay for the rights.
  7. Make sure the rights get paid for.
  8. Announce the show.  Curtail the fantasy casting that invariably arises among students by announcing your projected cast and telling other students not to bother auditioning.
  9. Get tech and design students to read it and create preliminary designs.  Curtail the fantasy designing that invariably arises by designing everything yourself.
  10. Mention the show to non-theatre colleagues, who’ve never heard of it. They’ll  nod and smile politely.  Rap something from HAMILTON to make them feel better.  Leave the xerox room with stack of facilities request forms as applause wanes.
  11.  Fill out facilities request forms to use theatre, dressing rooms, storage facilities, parking lot, keys, gradebook, mailbox, staff bathroom,  and school.  Get the dates wrong.
  12. Decide that the show you chose is boring.  Create an original, socially progressive Beckett tribute/Happy Days mashup, working title, VLADIMIR LOVES ESTRAGON in 6 hours while attending a mandatory staff meeting. Tell colleagues it’s an action adventure piece with a Garry Marshall tribute. The 50’s are hot. Email Lin Manuel Miranda’s people to request permission  to add a rap from HAMILTON.
  13. When the students seem dubious about the new show, explain once again why we can’t do HAMILTON, WICKED, OR THE LION KING. Check your inbox to see if LMM’s people got back to you.
  14. Meet with all tech/production students.  Make wild design plans that include a ramp and a balloon drop near the garbage cans, hill of dirt, and diner interior.  Assign jobs to anyone who shows up for the pizza.
  15. Have an audition workshop at lunch hour during a day you have no preps while speed eating string cheese.  Explain everything that goes into a good audition.
  16. Hold auditions.  Notice that nobody followed directions about everything that goes into a good audition.  Call them back anyway, because you know they can do it.
  17. Post a cast list. Pretend to stay offline all weekend so students can grieve.  Watch hilarious Youtube bootlegs of HAMILTON, WICKED, and THE LION KING.
  18. Answer emails from two confused cast members at brunch who didn’t realize they were auditIoning for a show that rehearses after school,  console three weeping cast members at lunch via Twitter, and  hand out popsicles to the rest of the cast and say ” You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. “
  19. Have your first conversation about how the actors are disrespecting tech. Have your first conversation about how tech is disrespecting actors. Prepare additional teambuilding. because the half-hour we spent tossing a beachball around and sculpting our names in the air apparently wasn’t enough.
  20. Block the show. Try to run what you blocked. Notice that everyone forgot it all, including you. Hope that a stage manager wrote down the blocking, because you were filling out a facilities request form to use your own classroom. Discover that someone wrote down the blocking, but he quit because he forgot he was on the water polo team. Hunt him down and accidentally convince him that water polo is not a good way to spend his time. Receive unexpected email from water polo coach’s people.
  21. Try to run the show with everyone there on the day they are called despite medical appointments, past life readings, study groups, and Pokemon Go meetups. Consider making the theatre a gym, adding a lure,  and changing the name of the department to “Pokemon Go” to drum up more business. Consider changing the name of the show to HAMILTON: A 50’S RETROSPECTIVE.  Consider writing a scene where Vladimir and Estragon wait for Pokemon to show up, but he never does.  Make that the second act.
  22. Watch a Youtube interview with Lin Manuel Miranda where he tells you how to live. Agree. Ask yourself why you can’t just do HAMILTON, but not tell anyone or pay for it.
  23. Give students a deadline for memorizing lines. One kid has everyone’s lines memorized, which is great when you can’t find both stage managers because they’re busy putting heavy loud wheels on a couch, making a paper mache ray gun, and creating what can only be described as “tree art”, none of which are on the build list for this show or any show in the future.
  24.  Have four heart to heart conversations with your leads about humility, watch endless devised scenes in Beginning Drama that feature a reference to either Pokemon Go or Donald Trump and  have twelve conversations with your colleagues about HAMILTON.
  25. Remind kids to make posters.
  26. Be reminded by that one parent to sell tickets, make posters, make programs, and publicize the show even though nobody’s ever heard of it.  Ask them to volunteer. They will tell you they are too busy.  Answer several emails a day from parents who want ticket information, or think they already bought tickets and want to exchange them. Explain that tickets haven’t gone on sale yet.
  27.  Momentarily worry when three cast members ask when the show is again. Secretly hope they quit the show. Check dates to remind self when show is. Secretly fantasize about quitting the show.
  28. Get observed. Be sure to write your learning objectives on the board.
  29. Check costumes. Make a mental note to request that everyone buys dress shoes next year. And an entire white outfit. And entire black outfit. Contemplate changing the next show to CHESS. Realize nobody’s heard of it.
  30. Prepare for inevitable superplague by distributing hand sanitizer, kleenex, bananas, rice, applesauce, toast, and facilities request forms.
  31. Build a set. Don’t expect it to look like the ones in the pictures.
  32. Have a prolonged conversation with that one parent about a) their student’s desire to make it on Broadway b) their student’s inability to do any non-theater related homework and c) the inadequacies of your promotion and ticket selling system at 9 pm on a Tuesday night after rehearsal in the parking lot.
  33. Print a lot of expensive posters featuring Vladimir and Estragon searching for Pokemon under a tree.  Hand them out to students for distribution.   Never see them again.
  34.  Go get coffee two feet from school. Notice that your expensive poster isn’t there, but the one from ABC high school 5 miles away who appears to have gotten the rights to HAMILTON  is.
  35. Create lesson plans for tech week  for the students in your actual classes that do not require learning objectives. Be sure to write the learning objectives on the board.
  36. Open the show, to rave reviews. Forget what just happened and get excited about your Spring Show:  Hamlet-ton: A Rap Journey Through Danish History.

WE GOT THIS, DRAMA TEACHERS.

“You said you have a dream…That dream…Make it come true! Make your wonderful dream a reality, and it will become your truth! If anyone can, it’s you!” – N, POKEMON

ESTRAGON:Well, shall we go? VLADIMIR:Yeslet’s goThey do not move. -WAITING FOR GODOT

 

Tech, Please: Creating a Thriving Technical Theatre Community At Your School

A few days ago, my ASM (assistant stage manager) started posting rehearsal reports to the department’s tech group on social media. Rehearsal reports. Like the kind you see in a real theatre.  I am thrilled beyond measure. I had vaguely asked for this for years, and it is awesome, because it means that we are all on the same page.  It made me realize how far tech has come at my school. It then occured to me that at Monday’s first listenthrough of our Spring Musical, my stage managers, rather than I, had opened the meeting and run it.

I don’t teach in my performance space. Like many theatre teachers, I work out of a classroom, and load shows in and out between two weeks and four days before something goes up. This means that my technicians could be at a severe disadvantage when learning and having the time to practice the necessary skills of tech theatre. However, I am blessed with a huge and active tech theatre community, who run everything for the department, from auditions to strike.  Sometimes they begin as technicians as a pathway to performance, other times they leave the stage to become technicians.  I credit department practices evolved through trial and error, rather than circumstances, for this happiest of situations.

Things my student technicians do:

  • Create an entire rehearsal schedule from scratch
  • Worry about student rehearsal conflicts (I am informed of absences by stage managers when class begins)
  • Design the set
  • Singlehandedly pull and coordinate costumes for an entire ensemble
  • Hire someone to make posters or a program
  • Count and track rented scripts for musicals
  • Run sound for rehearsal
  • Schedule  auditions
  • Recruit technicians
  • Hand build props
  • Design makeup
  • Manage ticket sales
  • Maintain all backstage discipline
  • Maintain call times, time rehearsals or breaks
  • Run fight calls or dance calls
  • Handle interpersonal disputes between crew members
  • Run strike
  • Organize the official cast party
  • Maintain a cleaning and racking schedule for the costume and prop shop

Not having to do these things leaves me a bit freer to do what directors are supposed to do, create and maintain the artistic vision of a show.

WHAT TO DO TO MAKE IT EVENTUALLY POSSIBLE

1. Teach the value of technical theatre.  Reflect on anything that’s glorifying “Broadway” and “Hollywood” and sending the message to students that if they’re not onstage, they are less-than, and maybe stop doing that. Teach the principles of design in your intro classes.  You can build white models with index cards and tape, you can create costume design projects for any play you want to teach, you can teach students to create a poster by showing them pictures of professional posters, you can build puppets from newspaper and paper bags. Google now has a set design program. Allow students in classes to direct or design as part of a project, and give them credit. Insisting that everyone act in everything all the time is not a realistic mirror of the business you are trying to teach. 

2. If you see something, say something.  Your leaders in Beginning Drama are often your future leaders for mainstage shows. Allow them to know they’re doing good work. Observe and tease out the guardians, too, the students who are constantly searching for order or asking how they can help. Giving these students tools to be effective, and not taking them for granted early on, is key to building your group.  If someone shows promise in design or organization, TELL THEM. Invite them to observe after school rehearsals. High school theatre is an interesting beast. Many students think they’re interested in it, but lose that interest when they see the reality. Open your doors, allow visitors and tourists, and you will often find that you will turn around to see that you have an entire crew in place, composed of those who stayed.

3.  Maintain hierarchy, with you at the top of the Great Chain of Being.  Explicitly show the hierarchy of the production process to your beginning classes and  cast and crew using a flow chart.  For every project, put a team of stage managers in place and teach them how to score a script, write down blocking, make prop lists, create costume and shift plots, draft rehearsal reports, and run auditions. You can practice these skills by doing a festival of one acts, rehearsed in class. There are always one or two students in every class who live for this. Give them credit for it, and allow them to do it in lieu of performing, and most importantly, empower them.  Empower them to ask for order, empower them to correct misbehavior, empower them to strive for excellence, and most importantly, TO TEACH NEW PEOPLE WHAT THEY HAVE LEARNED.  Then get mostly out of the way.

3. Insist on regular meetings.  My group meets once a week at lunch, whether there’s anything impending or not. Because I’m there, it’s a great time to be able to give students information and dispel any myths that may be building about how something is going to look or go.  But because I don’t run it, it makes my job easier. Stage managers run the meetings, listen to every department, and give me my two cents.

4. Pay them.  Credits? Activity Points? Thespian points? Pizza and t-shirts? Do not EVER, EVER take these kids for granted.  It took me years to get this, and every show I had to learn it on suffered. They need recognition. Some teachers have a tech curtain call.  I think that’s weird, but do what you have to do to make them understand how valuable they are.

5. Focus on the future.  My students created and maintain an online SOP (Standard Operating Procedures Manual) to describe and document best tech practices in the department and help new hires learn to do their work.  Having students document and set the standards for what they do in writing is a powerful tool. While we’re on the subject, students need to know that there is a huge industry for this thing called technical theatre, and that it can lead to bigger and better things. As often as possible, Call in those favors, your former students who are working in the industry, your friends and colleagues from the theatre world who are managers and designers. Have them come talk to students, and accord them the same flair and excitement you do when you bring back that one kid who’s an actor now.

It will take time, but paying attention to your technicians early and often will yield powerful results beyond your wildest expectations.

God, I Hope I Get It: Strategies in Casting Youth Theatre

I just finished the annual task of placing students in their roles for our Fall Play. It was an extremely quick task this time, which may be because all of the students in my company are playing teenagers in this one (a rare occurence), but I thought I’d share some of the tips and tricks that make it work for me on a yearly basis.

WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER

First of all, it’s important to note based on some of these strategies that I run the mainstage arm of my department as an audition/interview only ensemble. This means that most of the students who will be participating in both mainstage shows have been prescreened by audition and have made a year commitment to the program, which they are receiving honors credit for. Advanced Honor students participate in two shows, competitions, and department one acts, as well as educational outreach for English classes. Advanced students participate in one or two shows and can audition for the musical, and Beginning students participate in department one acts. A student’s participation level increases with their learning.  There are myriad advantages to setting up your department that way:

1. If you can get your advanced or advanced class scheduled for the end of the school day, you can start rehearsing at 2 pm and be home by 4 or 5 instead of 6 in the early stages of production, like other teachers. I’m not saying it won’t get strange later, but being able to strategically front load quality of life gives you a significant advantage as tech week approaches.

2. Keeping roughly the same group (with a few guests added as musical season comes around) enables you to create a serious culture which is enforced by students. They get a built in “family” and you get boots on the ground and role models for new performers in such areas as early memorization, silence backstage, the how can I help approach, and student ownership of design and stage management. You no longer have to be the enforcer, your seasoned vets take care of some problems before they arise.

3. Asking students to stay in a company environment where they regularly audition for opportunities makes the audition process a lot less painful for you and for them. They get practice and eventually get good at winning roles, and the same peer ethic gets passed down to the younger generation.

4. It makes certain standard drama teacher problems (hunting for male performers, sports conflicts) simply disappear. If you’re doing a sport while a show is rehearsing, you work crew. Otherwise, choose. I don’t work around anyone’s schedule, and therefore I don’t have problems securing anchor performers. The students are there because they are serious. Less serious students can pursue less serious opportunities.

5. Choosing shows becomes infinitely easier when you have some sense of who will be involved in a cast. A disadvantage, of course, is that if you’re going to give this opportunity to students, you must reward them by doing shows that cast as many of them as possible, so remember that when auditioning a group for the upcoming year. Most of my shows have to be in that magic 23 to 40 character range. This cuts out a lot of major playwrights, who get relegated to competition cuts.

DECISIONS/DECISIONS

I came in this year without a game plan. What I had was about five potential scripts that kind of spoke to me. Nothing was awake and alive in my brain. I was, frankly, terrified. So with the help of my assistant director, we did this:

1. Volunteer student readers went through the scripts and selected 5 minute sections of them for staged readings.

2.  On the first day of school, the students were artfully divided into mixed casts designed to break up cliques as well as place more experienced ensemble members with our new performers.

3. Groups had two in class rehearsal days to stage their section.

4. The entire company, my assistant, and I watched all performances.

5. We held a talkback where the company gave feedback on what they think the best choices were for our group, based on marketability, technical demands, and quality of writing. We made our decision based on both the performances we had seen and this student feedback.

The result is that the cast already felt good about the project before auditioning for it.

GOD, I HOPE I GET IT

We run auditions for the fall show like this:

1. I xerox short sections of text, 2 to 4 character scenes, and the occasional standout monologue where I’m looking for something specific. I use color coding, xeroxing on different colored paper so that I can tell kids: “Thanks, go pick up a blue side, or look at the green monologue.” This is easier than asking them to actually read things before they grab them.

2. Stage managers work the door in teams of two or 3, collecting audition sheets and sending in groups. This means that STUDENTS are responsible for discipline and order, and you are free to cast.

Audition sheets require that:

  • students list the roles they are interested in, as well as previous roles they’ve played
  • students list special skills
  • students list the classes they are taking (All AP’s? Think before giving them the lead.)
  • students list known, longstanding conflicts
  • students see mandatory tech week and performance dates
  • students understand absence policies

If you have problems with student flakiness or egomania, have parents sign it too.

 

3. Students come in in pairs and are then triaged to new reads. We do this until we’ve heard everybody or until the posted end time for the audition is over. When at all possible, respect students time, and they will respect yours.

4. We then immediately publish the callback list for the next day, on social media in our case and on the door for the musical, because that is more involved and complicated.

5. If a student requests to be called back for a particular role, LET THEM. Callbacks are public, they will then be able to see how they measure up to the other students called back. This is an area in which I diverge from “the professional standard.” These are actors, but they are YOUNG ACTORS. Their sense of themselves is not fully formed. Kill that without good reason, and hell hath no fury. They will take you down. Get them to appreciate what they’re up against, and that will either get them to work harder or fall back, both of which are worthwhile paths.

CALLBACKS

1. A simple way to see all your “Romeos” and “Juliets” is to bring them all into a room together and have them read line by line, alternating lines.

Then pair them up and have them read the same section.

Then repeat any pairs you want to see again or make new mixes. Voila.

Casting considerations to ponder when casting leads:

  • Do you want a short Romeo and a tall Juliet? Is type important to you as a director? I’ve been burned a lot by falling for type.
  • Do you believe them when they talk to each other?
  • Will both of them work hard?
  • Do they have the facility with the text or the genre you are trying to do?
  • Are they vocally and physically ready?
  • Are they easy to work with?  If you have a track record with them, you know. Don’t lie to yourself.
  • Do they take direction?
  • How prepared are they for the audition?
  • Can they psychologically handle being leads? The notes, the isolation? Not every young person can.
  • What’s your backup plan?

THERE ARE NO SMALL PARTS, ONLY SMALL ACTORS

1. Read smaller roles FIRST, and let them go when they’re done. Make leads stay to the bitter end of the callback.

2. Having trouble casting ensemble members, as we were with this play, where it’s full of named, distinct people in large groups? Grab short sections with a lot of characters and cast right off your ensemble list, mixing up those called back for leads into their lead roles in each section. You’ll see and hear a lot that way.

3. Consider concluding a large group audition by having each student get up and do ONE LINE from the script in front of the whole group. Note which line each student picks, they’re not being philosophical, it’s usually the part they want! If given a choice between students who desperately want a particular smaller  role and those who are indifferent or open, if all things are equal, the magical part of being a drama teacher is you can please some of the people some of the time!

POSTING

I post Fridays after school. This gives students two days to hate me if they must, before back to business as usual. I go mute on social media for those two days, and I expect professional behavior when we all get back.

If a student comes to you to question their role, congratulate them on having guts. These are kids, again, not grownups. Give them technical feedback about what they can do to improve, which means specific behaviors that they can control. You clearly don’t have to explain to them that a decision was based on their physicality or seniority. They can’t control those things.  They CAN work on:

  • Planting their feet
  • Taking risks
  • Listening to other performers and sharing the stage picture
  • Diction or Articulation
  • Taking dance or working with a vocal coach
  • Focusing their energy on stage
  • Developing their skills as a manager or technician

Ultimately, students do theatre because they want to belong, and be seen and heard. There is a place for most everyone in theatre, it’s just not always on stage. One of the beautiful and heartbreaking things about working in youth theatre is how much we all (teachers and students) learn while doing it, sometimes the hard way.

But hey, there’s a barn. Let’s put on a show.

 

 

 

Object Permanence: Small Items That Make a Huge Difference in The Drama Classroom

Welcome to a new  school year.  We never know where summer went, but once more into the breach we go.

While you’re doing your back to school shopping to trick out your classroom or mobile room to room cart, may I suggest laying in a stock of some of my favorite tried and true drama teacher essentials. Having these on hand will keep your creative juices flowing and your students on their toes.

  • Golf pencils. Great for when you expect your students to rehearse with a pencil in their hand.  These little workhorses are cheap enough to keep a supply of, small enough to not take up a lot of room, and strangely proportioned enough that your students may actually remember to return them. Supplying your own materials cuts down on boring conversations about students remembering materials, and allows everyone to get to the task at hand.
  • Sharpies and Highlighters. You need the clear “write on anything” power of the sharpie and your students need a few loaner highlighters around so they can count lines and drive their peers mad.
  • Rubber Balls. The kitschier the better. You’d be surprised at how much your students will enjoy tossing around a Frozen or Ant Man ball during warmup. Get at least three, I recommend five. On days when you can’t think of a warmup, nothing says instant fun like dumping a bunch of rubber balls in the center of the circle and letting students toss or gently kick them to each other. The possibilities are endless.
  • Squeaky toys, Koosh balls, Beanbags.  Important for gentle tossing games and much of Spolin’s whole group work.  Great to hand to a squirrelly kid as a fidget in a pinch.
  • Playing Cards. I use these to sort students for quick, random heterogenous grouping, one deck per class. I use them for quick oral quizzes- if four out of five students randomly called upon get the answers right, the whole class avoids a written quiz.  I use them to call on volunteers to get up in front of class, or make a comment on others’ work. I also use them for status exercises and occasionally as props. Teach middle school? Nothing is more of a crowd pleaser than handing out decks and getting students to play “I doubt it” in order to work on their poker faces. “I doubt it” is a game known in adult circles as “BS”, it is easy to teach and a great deal of fun to play.
  • Scarves. Instant props and costume accessories.  Groups of three students can use one to augment Boal’s “Columbian Hypnosis”, where one student moves the scarf and the others mimic the movements with their bodies. Scarves can be used as teacher attention getters while students are doing group work. They can be used as blindfolds for Dog and Bone or Hunter Hunted, and trust walks.
  • Dowels. Available at your local hardware store, these wooden babies are worth stocking up on. They can be used for group movement, used in sets of two to create dance movement before students are comfortable dancing, as swords for armed combat, to build squares on the floor. In a pinch, they are  canes for old characters or soft shoe. Students can work on balancing them on a finger.  Buy the half inch and have them cut to about three feet. Save the one foot pieces for rehearsal daggers and wands.
  • Index cards.  Write scene suggestions on them. Give them to groups to fill out as grade cards when starting a project. Use them to build white models (they are very easy to teach scale with and hold up well on a cardboard stage floor with nothing more than clear tape. Students can put their info on them for auditions.
  • Cups. Not environmental, so you may want to go dollar store permanent here, but the red cups that people give out at barbecues are great props, place holders, and amplify the sound of a cell phone’s speaker when placed inside it.
  • Corks.  A dying breed, but when cut into small discs, wine corks (or the type you can buy clean and unadulterated from a craft store) work wonders as diction exercisers for your mushmouthed students. Small enough to be carried in the pocket, a cork held between the teeth is a long time favorite trick of voice teachers to assist a student in popping those plosives.
  • Blue Painter’s Tape.  Make a grid on the floor. Create seating spots in a room with no furniture.  Put up cast lists, project groups,  poster or fliers. Allow students to create a temporary gallery for their designs. Create independence for your technicians, and save the wall from further paint peels.

As always, feel free to contact me with questions about how to use any of these items. Happy shopping, and have a tremendous beginning to your school year!

 

 

Write Now: Creating a festival of student-written One Acts

Having students create their own work is a wonderful way to immerse them in the production process.  Creating a system with enough structure to give students writing, directing, performance and management opportunities is the key to a successful show. I’m going to talk about ideas for evolving that structure.

We recently created and produced an evening of One Acts at my school called THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE with over 130 students participating from three levels of theatre over the course of three nights. It was a great experience, and I believe this was due to the following factors:

Create a dominant theme.Some of our past have included Once Upon A Time, where each piece had to have an element of a fairytale, The Fortune Cookie, where students wrote plays based on fortunes they received on a massive cookie distribution day which involved the entire department, and this year’s Restaurant. The possibilities are limitless. Paint swatches? Tabloid headlines? Street names from their town?

The Restaurant had a menu of items. The students plays had to be titled one of those items, things like “The Cheese Stands Alone” and “Have Your Cake and Eat It Too”.

Place time limits on the plays.We also place character limits on them. Beginning students have a 5 minute limit, Advanced a 7 minute limit, and Advanced Honors a 10 minute limit. This allows reasonably timed evenings with many featured performances. Placing character limits on them, 3-5 for Beginning, 5-7 for advanced and 7-10 for Honors also makes it so plays can be about conflict and not feature a bunch of deus ex machina where one person rushes in with one line and solves a problem.

Consider having your most advanced students host each night in teams of two to four. This cuts down on having to do programs, because the advanced kids can simply announce the acts and it’s great practice for them in working in the variety show genre. You might have two or  four students who are up to the task. We had twelve, four for every night of One Acts.  Another wonderful side effect of this is that you can create stock characters that are available to be used in plays, played by the SAME ACTOR any given night. 

With Restaurant, we gave students four options for SERVERS. If they wrote a server, it was understood the server would be played by an advanced student who was hosting that night.  Since we had teams of four, there were four waiters, who had gender neutral names.

  • Logan, the world’s worst server
  • Pat, the longtime manager of the restaurant
  • Riley, the world’s best server
  • Casey, first day on the job

The hosts got the scripts ahead of time, were memorized, and it gave a cohesive and wonderful thread to the evening as beginning projects were elevated by the more advanced students’ performances. Since every project had been assigned an assistant, the assistants played the waiters throughout the process, giving these less experienced and less confident performers plenty of time to play and experiment without the pressure to have to go onstage.

 Create a set, or limit what sets they can use.  This cuts down on chaos, as inexperienced performers try to navigate the stage for the first time. This year we had a simple restaurant set with three tables, two screens, a “bar” and an offstage kitchen. If any patron  from any play walked into the kitchen, “Italian waiters” would make a great deal of noise (in fauxItalian)  and the patron would rush back onstage embarrassed. This running gag was maintained all three nights and delighted audiences. HAVE THE SET DESIGN AVAILABLE TO STUDENTS FROM THE BEGINNING, AND MAKE STUDENTS REHEARSE WITH IT, particularly if you don’t rehearse in the theatre.

Give a reasonable, but short block of time to produce this project across your classes. We usually do it in three weeks and it’s not enough. I would go for five, especially if you’ve never done it before.

Timeline is as follows: Introduce the project all at once to all classes. Consider teaching standard professional playwriting format,  easily Googleable, which will make it easier to organize scripts, as it is the industry standard and more importantly requires a title and character page, which will help figure out what night things are going if there’s more than one night, and who the waiters are.

  1. Give students at least a week to turn in scripts. Give ALL students credit for turning in a script. But then cull the pile. Get the most interesting ones, and make multiple copies of those, a couple of class sets. If you’re working with multiple levels of students, decide whether or not you’re going to mix levels. I recommend it.
  2. Have students read scripts, identify the ones they are interested in, and then what they are interested in doing.  Listen to their preferences, but ASSIGN.  Each student must be assigned to act, direct, write (which means rewriting their particular script at the behest of its team) or assist. Try to have an assistant for every director. They can run production meetings and handle paperwork. If you have multiple class periods, have someone in charge of that class. A TA or your most organized student who enjoys that type of thing. Your next stage manager.
  3. When directors have been assigned, have a director’s meeting where you go over basic responsibilities as well as ethics. In my department, the buck stops with me. If a director has a conflict with a cast member, they can bring it to me, and vice versa. Actors can be “fired” by me, as can directors.
  4. Casting. Require actors to read for everyone, and directors to read everyone. Your class assistants can keep a record of that. After this is complete, have another directors meeting where directors choose cast members. They need to go in order, negotiating, until all eligible people are cast. This prevents cliques, cronyism, and divas from taking over the whole thing.
  5. Announce and or post cast lists. Make adjustments as necessary.
  6. Have readthroughs. In front of you. To make sure the plays are appropriate and you didn’t miss any really wierd lines. My students have a habit of trying to hide crotch jokes and swear words in shows. The more advanced they get, the worse it is. Kids will be kids, but remember people are harder on original work. On the flip side, If a student is doing a challenging script that has integrity, you can now defend it, because you know it well.
  7. Have roughblocks.  In front of you. Don’t assume that because you’ve been teaching theatre skills all year long that the students will apply them. Live performance is when my students start forgetting the basics. Fear is a paralyzer.
  8. Hold them accountable for a production meeting and a memorization test. Make these small grades where you know that they know what they need to be doing to be ready.
  9. Have dress rehearsals in class if time permits. In my system, the class itself doesn’t all perform the same night, because we have three nights. But it’s still possible to have isolated dress rehearsals day of.
  10. Empower your technicians and managers.  The week of One Acts, my stage managers call 15 minute meetings with each cast in the theatre where they test volume, get specifics, and design sound to make it flow. Encourage your techs to use googledocs, spreadsheets, and calendars to organize a real production here.

One Week Before and the Nights of the Show…

Unless you have a publicity team in place, have a simple black and white poster that can go up around. Put the show in the announcements like any other show. Use social media. Charge a little.  Have a simple plan for concessions.  We sold popcorn this year and it was cost effective and well received by our audience.

Double check that each play knows what night they’re coming, and reinforce calltime. Make the call on the night of early enough that they can rehearse with stock character hosts if they need to, and that any last minute prop or costume things can be solved.  Since you have a theme, if you have stock, pull pieces or props that could easily work in the associated one acts. We had a table of just restaurant props.  We also managed to costume an apocalyptic Western out of items we had lying around.

Be hard on technique, easy on feelings.  For many of your students, this might be their first real time onstage. Be aware of that, but reinforce being seen and heard.  I have found, for instance, that students who don’t know they’re not projecting can be enlightened by going into the audience and having you or an advanced student say their line exactly as they are saying it.

Plan time each night before the show to gather as an entire group and do a warmup.  If you have multiple levels of drama performing, it’s neat to see them all together. This is also where you can identify the students who are running the show that evening, hosts and backstage tech, who should be easily identifiable via dresscode.  At our school, this is the first time beginners participate in some of the sacred “break a leg” rituals we do before shows for luck. Really affirming.

Have a system where performers can watch from the house before and after they go on. One Acts is a great opportunity for people to learn from each other! We ask performers to leave the audience two acts before theirs. Show order is posted on spreadsheets backstage.  A student manager meets them in the green room, holds them there for one, transfers them backstage to another manager, and then on, and quickly gets them out of the backstage when done. It’s like a dip in the pool.

After the show….

Debrief and celebrate. In our department we have the ice cream sandwich tradition, where each student must award an ice cream sandwich and say why they deserve it to another student. A great way to wrap up a season.

Ice Cream Sandwich