Every year after each play, I select a picture from the production. That picture is used to make a framed poster than hangs in the theatre (and my office) forever--so it's important to get just the right one. I'm torn between several choices. I'd love to hear your thoughts--which would you choose? Leave your vote in the comments. Note this is purely an advisory vote, it is totally non-binding and I retain full and final say in the ultimate decision :)
One of the drawbacks of my profession is that my professional success essentially rests in the hands of 12-14 year olds. Yeah. Think about that for a minute. If they do their work well, then I'm the most amazing director ever. If not, then I'm losing my touch.
Because of the nature of theatre, there are ups and downs in every production. Moments when you are sure it will be the greatest thing ever, followed periods of certainty in which you are quite sure that you'll be lucky if you can get a job as a bagger in a grocery store.
These ups and downs are even more pronounced in middle school theatre, I think, simply because adolescents are, by nature, up and down. So, a production filled with them will naturally reflect those ups and downs.
So, until the performance, one just never quite knows how it will be. I've heard coaches talk about how they don't know if they'll win a game or not--it depends, they say, on which team shows up. I feel like that sometime. I see how the play can be good--or not. Depending on which cast shows up that night--the focused, energetic one, or the giddy, goofy one. The funny thing is that theses casts are made of the same kids.
All this to say, I'm delighted to report that opening night of My Fair Lady was good. Actually, very, very good. One of our best, I'm told by people who would know and whom I trust. I'll post pictures when I get them. I'm excited to see them, actually, because I always knew it would be a visually beautiful show. But I'm happy to say the students lived up to the quality of the sets, costumes, and props. Magnificently.
This is not an easy show and I was apprehensive about choosing it. But it fit the talent profile of the students I have more perfectly than anything else I could find. So, I took a deep breath, jumped, and we did it. So proud of them.
This shot below is of Prof. Higgins' study. It's part of a turntable that revolves to reveal different sets at different times, and this picture is taken from the wings off stage left. The study is ready to be turned into place.
I know I'm strange, but one of my favorite things in the world is looking at empty sets--ready to be used but not in use at the moment. There is something about the latency and potential of it all that really intrigues me. The other picture is an opening night gift. I post it because I also really like cookies.
Every spring, I see an interesting phenomenon. Spring, of course, is the time when schools have auditions for show choirs and ensembles and fall musicals.
At this time, I almost always get a few requests to work with a student to help them prepare for their auditions. Some of these are students with whom I've worked for years, or who have taken lessons with someone else. In this case, it's a matter of helping them refine the technique they've developed for the purposes of a specific song, or helping them choose material that showcases their strengths. This is relatively simple.
However, usually, these are people who've never had a voice lesson, or who have gone years without one. They are often people with some talent, but very little training. They, or their parents, hope that within 3 or 4 lessons, I can help them become amazing.
In the past, I've taken all comes and done my best to help them because I genuinely want them to succeed, and frankly, I'm not in a financial position to turn away most work. I think I will not be doing this anymore, though, because something interesting happens.
These students generally don't do all that well. In three or four times, of course, it is very difficult to help someone advance to the point when they can compete with someone who has been studying and practicing for years.
No one thinks they can overeat for years and then spend a few days not eating and get to the same weight as someone who's been cautious for years. No one thinks they can take four or five dance lessons and then compete with prima ballerinas, or work out four times and run a marathon.
And yet, many people really believe that a few lessons will make a difference for an audition. Again--they can be useful for tweaking what's there, but they can't build a solid foundation and a beautiful castle on that foundation in a short time.
And when that happens, guess who's fault it is? Instead of them saying, "Hey, thanks for your time. The audition probably was better than it would have been otherwise, and I appreciate doing all you could for me," I usually get anything from icy silence to passive agressive smack-downs. Yeah. That's right. Your kid had three sessions with me and it's my fault you didn't get into show choir/the musical? I don't think so. One of the most dissatisfied former clients was someone who had spent literally ten years or more pursuing a particular athletic activity for about 40 hours a week outside of school. I almost laughed when they were surprised that 5 lessons didn't make them as good a singer as they were at this other activity. I wanted to ask if they could give me 5 lessons and turn me into a champion in this activity. But I didn't.
I think that our society does a lot of things wrong, and one of those things is that we require kids to start activities earlier and earlier. If you want to play basketball in high school, you better start when you are three. I don't like that, and I try to push back against it. I don't think young children should generally take voice lessons. I don't expect an 8th grader to sing like a pro. It's not natural or healthy, in my opinion.
But, at the same time, on the other end of the spectrum, some people think there is a quick fix--that time and effort, preparation and habits aren't important, that everything can be instant in this world. And that's a real problem, too. If something is important, you have to prepare. That doesn't mean going crazy and losing balance. It doesn't mean neglecting other things in your life. And I think it's totally fine to discover a new hobby in middle or high school. That's great! But you can't expect to compete at the same level as those who have been seriously pursuing it for years. A degree of common sense and good judgement is called for here.
The lesson I think we are forgetting--quickly--across our entire society is that choices have consequences. Some are good, some are bad, some (most) are mixed. There is no perfect path. There are, instead, a series of trade-offs and pay-offs. You reap what you sow. You simply can't have it all, and especially not on your own terms, whenever you want it, just because you want it!
So, if your child wants to participate seriously in the performing arts (or other activities), you need to think about this. How much time and money do you want to spend on training and practice? How big a priority do you want to make it? What are the objectives in mind? You can choose. But realize that your choice is going to have some natural consequences with it. My wife and I don't want our kids to do travel sports because it would take up our lives and cut in to precious family time. That's fine. It's our choice. What's not our choice, though, is then to expect that our kids will be able to compete at the same level as those who have done travel sports since they were in Kindergarten. And if I expect to hire a coach to give my kid private lessons over a three week period to help him suddenly get to that level, then I am not thinking through things very clearly. Singing, acting, dancing--these things are all the same.
One of the most important things I've learned about working with middle school kids is what I call layering. I believe that they can do great, great things, but one of the fundamental limits they have is that they can only think of one or two things at once. So, when we have a tech day, it starts at 8:30 with the stage crew. We go over all the set changes and then run it. Then we have the older kids come and run it again. Then we have the younger kids come and run it again.
On Saturday, we use props and lights. On Monday, we do props, lights, and costumes. On Tuesday, we do props, lights, costumes and hair. On Wednesday we do props, costumes and hair and makeup.
When I teach a large musical number, I find if we get the general contours down--or if everyone learns the melody, then it's easier to go back and teach a few kids the harmony or different steps or whatever.
This took me years to learn this approach as in professional theatre it's usually opposite--you basically rehearse everything as it's going to be right from the start. When I started teaching middle school, I had this same orientation, but it never worked that well and over the years, through trial and error (mostly error) I finally figured out the approach I now use which I think of as layering.
I learned this in a theatrical context, but I believe that the principle can be applied to nearly every endeavor where an adult wants a student to accomplish something that is complex and difficult.
As adults, I think we're a bit more accustomed and developmentally able to think in multi-dimensional terms. Middle school kids aren't like that. They need to master one thing. Then you add another. And another. So get the room clean. Then add another small thing. And another. And another--and throw in lots and lots of rewards along the way.
As I've mentioned (1,009 times), last week I had the absolute joy of directing 133 students in our school's production of Hello Dolly.
It's such an old-fashioned musical--a musical from the late 60s based on a play from the 1930s about life in the 1890s. Many of the major plot points rest on cultural practices or beliefs that simply don't exist anymore (clerks living with their employer and being fired for going out on the town, matchmakers, widows shocking the world by working and so on). In fact, when I first started rehearsing, I almost felt like I was directing a Shakespeare piece in terms of having to fill the kids in on various cultural and historical details so they could understand what was going on. So much has changed since this musical was produced. So much has changed since my high school performed it in the 80s.
So, why do it? Why do these creaky old shows? I've been thinking a lot about that. My students all want to do Wicked and Hairspray and High School Musical each year (never HSM!!!!!) A lot of other theatre educators choose to do lots of edgy social commentary stuff. So, I'm definitely marching to my own beat here.
My first priority is always to find the play that provides the most opportunities for the most students and that fits the talent profile of a given class—which this play did--I had some boys with great voices. I had some strong altos and very few sopranos. I needed a play with an expandable cast--and so on. Dolly was uniquely suited to these specific needs in many ways. But, logistical demands aside, I believe that there is tremendous value in being acquainted with some of the great works of the past—and that is true in literature, art, music, as well as theatre.
Hello Dolly is not great art. I know that. Even within the genre of musical theatre, it didn't break ground like South Pacific or My Fair Lady or Oklahoma. But it's a well-crafted musical and, at one time, had great appeal and took it's place as the longest running show on Broadway for a time. Even today, audiences still enjoy it. I was amazed at how many people commented on how good they felt as they left the theatre.
So, although I wouldn't call it great art, I do think it's a classic in those terms. Something becomes a classic because generations of people find it funny or poignant or meaningful. It tells us something about the human condition that we find resonant with our own lives.
It is the great bias of the living that they occupy unique, usually uniquely difficult, times. And while it’s true that many things have changed over the years, human nature remains remarkably consistent. The value of a classic is that it helps overcome our bias for now by lifting the curtain of contextual details to reveal something about the human condition.
Some parts of this play are dated, and are linked very specifically to a certain time and place. But there are other parts that are more universal, that deal with concerns humans have expressed as long as we’ve been recording our thoughts: love and loneliness for example.
I believe that at least one purpose of an education is to gain the ability to understand and appreciate a classic—to gain the interpretive tools and background knowledge to allow us to transcend the bias of our contemporary mindset and appreciate and enjoy the classics in any genre or discipline.
The truth is that Hairspray and Wicked are fun shows that have things to say. But the students today need no help to access those. They can do that on their own. And, as wonderful as those shows are, they are only the latest creations in a rich and robust theatrical tradition that spans thousands of years! The job of a teacher is to help unlock this rich heritage.
That is why we still perform old shows like Hello Dolly; On a more elevated level, it's why we read Dickens and Shakespeare and look at pieces by Degas and VanGogh. It’s why we listen to Bach and Beethoven and Handel.
These pieces have shaped our culture and world. They have informed our culture today and they belong to us! And I believe our lives are richer when we have the ability to enjoy and learn from them. That's why I am proudly old-school.
I love these pictures from the big finish of the title song of the play (Hello Dolly). I think they capture the joy of the song and the energy of these kids. I'm so proud of them.
Going into the big finish...
And here we go to the big finish
Opening night was last night and, my goodness, I was so proud of those kids! It really went incredibly well. To the point I'm a bit nervous about tonight. To see these kids in all their adolescent glory--dealing with all the concerns and vexations and worries they have--out in front of everyone singing and dancing their hearts out is really quite amazing. Knowing them as I do, and knowing just what it took for some of them to do that, and the sacrifices they've made, makes me love them all the more.
I'll post photos in a few weeks when I get them back, but the sets and props and costumes were really something. Our community, led by some amazing parents, has poured heart and soul into making the kids look great. And the kids seem to have absorbed that and used it as a springboard to a greater performance.
I often feel a bit guilty when I see how much time people devote to doing costumes or scenery or props or selling tickets and so on. Theatre is notoriously transient and fleeting. We work for months and then it's gone after three days. Is it worth all the time and trouble? All the disruption in people's lives and routines?
I always ask myself that question and towards the end of rehearsals, I always start to waver. But then, on opening night, I always come to the same conclusion. Yes, it's worth it.
It's worth it for the pride the kids feel. It's worth it because it makes them feel important and special--that they are worth that effort. When you are an adolescent, that's a helpful message. It's worth it because it's beautiful and helps make the audience happy and have an enjoyable experience for a few hours.
But I think there are deeper reasons, lessons I hope my students will absorb. I've decided to try to figure out ways of helping them understand this more consciously. It is profound for students at this age to see people doing work and doing it well. Life is work. If we are normal, we will spend a lot of time working in our lives and doing work well and joyfully, or at least with satisfaction, is one of the keys to happiness.
So, even though I feel a twinge of guilt when I think of all the time the parents are putting in, I love it that the kids are seeing them working hard, working joyfully, working generously, and working well. Doing the job right in spite of how long it will last or the low material reward. Work is inherently worth doing well.
There's another thing I love about this. These parents are all doing this with no compensation. They're doing it because some things aren't about money. The worth and value of some things far exceeds any price that can be affixed. That's another lesson I hope the students learn, one that is in short supply these days.
And finally, doing big stuff, ambitious things, is tiring. It is exhausting and one needs to be careful not to live an unbalanced life or to just do big things for the sake of doing big things. Small can be beautiful too. But big projects remind us that humans are remarkable creatures. We can do terrible and brutish things, and we can often fail at the good things we try. But we can also do wonderful, beautiful things that we don't always think we can. In a time of so much uncertainty and worry and doubt, I think that is a good thing to remember. Even if it's just a big thing in one relatively small community, for three nights for 135 kids, I like it.
So, I had an idea today. Since everyone now live blogs or tweets through major events like the Grammys or presidential debates, I thought I should be live blogging the upcoming middle school play. Because, the truth is, everyone wants to be involved in a middle school play at my school. And if you don't, that's only because you don't what you're missing. Sadly I only had this idea today, which means I've missed tech day and the first two dress rehearsals. So, I'll ctach-up posts on them. I'll start with last Friday:
Friday: February 10th. Rehearsal went very well today. Running time is looking good. It appears that we'll be at two hours, maybe just a bit over by the time we put set changes and intermission in. Things are going very smoothly. Tech day is tomorrow. I'm nervous about that, just because the set is so huge, huge, huge! I've got great stage managers, though, and some good crew members.
Saturday, February 11th. Tech Day. This is biggest and longest and most tiring day of the year. I approach it with fear and trepidation mixed with excitement.
Arrive at 8:00 and get some charts printed, get the piano lamp for the piano player, do a few other things. Stage crew arrives at 8:30 am. We talk about safety, following the stage manager, and I give them donuts and juice. We start cleaning up the theatre, getting everything in place.
Now, we walk through each scene and I show there where all the set pieces go. This takes a while because once we have things set, the stage manager has to record who will be moving it on and who will be moving it off. This has to be exact and everyone has to know what they are doing.
We also have to spike everything. This means, we put some colored glow-in-the-dark tape on the stage floor to mark where each set piece goes. This way, the crew will be able to place things in the correct place, consistently, even in the dark.
I'm already seeing some exceptional work by the stage crew. Lots of thinking and planning ahead. They're getting it.
One of our challenges are these huge pieces of scaffolding. They each have a piece of New York City painted on them. There are five of them and they cross the stage--about 40 feet wide altogether. I think there are 8-12 feet tall. They are very heavy and cumbersome. Fortunately we don't have to move them often, but they are hard for the kids to move. The wheels don't turn easily. I'm getting worried about this part of it. These are middle school kids, so they don't have a lot of mass to be throwing against this!
Wow. Ran through the whole show much faster than usual. I attribute this to my stage manager who has done this for years. She knows what's going on and she has some very good assistants. Experience makes a big difference. Also, the scenery for this play is huge! But, there are not that many individual scenes, so that helps.
We run the set changes again. Scaffolding is going to be a major problem. We are going to need to change that at intermission. I hate that because I don't want to reveal the beautiful restaurant set too soon, but there's no realistic way around that. Gosh, I wish we had a proper grand drape--the curtain that closes in front of a stage. It would be nice. Thought about getting one for this show, but it was too expensive and we just upgraded our sound equipment. Maybe next year.
Ran through set changes again. These kids are amazing. 11:30--Lunch break. After lunch the cast comes. We'll see how this goes...
Okay everyone, I'm going to give you a life lesson for free. Let's say you are an aspiring performer. Your school has an active theatre program and you have spent a few years in it. You hope and dream that one day, you'll get the lead (this could be changed, incidentally to be about something else, like starting on the varsity team in a sport, etc.)
Let me give you some advice on this.
If you are flaky and unreliable when you have a small role in the chorus, your director will pr0bably not trust you with a lead. If you goof off and miss rehearsal frequently (unless you are excused) then the director will probably not seriously consider you for a larger role.
Parents: if you grumble about casting choices (don't kid yourself--this stuff always gets back to the director) and if you are half-hearted in filling your obligation to sell tickets or help with props or paint the set or whatever, then you are shooting your child's future chances in the foot.
If you are glib about your child missing rehearsals because of your lack of organization or planning, if you don't live up to the commitment that came with your child being part of the play, then you are sending the director a powerful message that you cannot be trusted.
Sadly, that means your child can't be trusted since your child is dependent on you for rides and logistical support.
If I can't trust you with little things, I will not trust you with big things. Far too many people work too hard on a play to take a chance on someone I can't fully trust.
You don't get the lead and then develop responsibility. You act responsibly with small things, earn trust, and then (assuming you also have talent) you get the lead. So many people want to do this in reverse. But life doesn't work like that.
I would add that while I'm talking about the context of theatre, this applies to many other things in life--sports teams, jobs, and so on. If you can't be trusted with little things no one will give you greater responsibilities.
This seems so obvious, and yet I am always astonished at the number of people who don't understand--and act--on this principle. I get that adolescents might not realize how this works, but I am surprised more parents don't get it.
Every year I'm shocked by the people who are shocked that they (or their children) didn't get big roles. Sometimes they haven't prepared adequately or worked to refine and stretch and develop their talents to the point that they could be seriously considered. Other times, perhaps most often, someone is talented but has goofed off a lot. Or a parent has been scattered, unsupportive, and not very good at making sure their child was where they needed to be.
Believe me, future stars, this makes a big, big difference. Trust me on this. I begin looking at potential lead material years and years in advance, watching carefully to see who has talent, but who has a good work ethic, who can focus. Who cares enough to try. And which parents will support them. I know other directors are the same in this regard, and I that that coaches are, too.
So, there it is! Free advice that will change your life. You are welcome.
Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you had enjoyable celebrations. We had a lovely time here at Mockingbird Cottage--a quiet evening with the family and good food. Just the way I like it.
A few notes:
1. Just a reminder, I'm now answering comments in the comment section instead of via email. Just want you to know in case you think I'm ignoring your comments.
2. I'm working on an important post for next week MSM--an important trick I've found to getting adolescents to do what you want them to do. I don't have time to write it today, but do come by next week. I think it will be worth your while.
In the meantime, I thought I'd post some pictures from our last play (I do have permission from the parents of all the students, incidentally).
This fall, instead of doing one big play like any sane person would do, I decided to do two shorter plays. My intent was to create more opportunities for more kids. So, we did two one-hour plays as Act 1 and 2. Sondheim's Into the Woods, Jr. and Disney's Aladdin Jr.
I've been wanting to post pictures but haven't had time or energy until now. Here are some pictures from Aladdin. I'll get the Into the Woods batch up in another post. The story follows the Disney movie pretty closely with just a few minor modifications, mostly for the sake of time.
As always, I'm amazed at what committed middle school kids and supportive parents can pull off. It's really amazing! I have the most incredibly supportive and talented community.
Here are the narrators, getting the show started with "Arabian Nights."
Princess Jasmine in the marketplace.
Aladdin and Jasmine meet in the marketplace
Iago and Jafar
Close up of Iago. This girl was amazing! It's not easy to manipulate a puppet, and she did it so well, acting with the puppet and her own face.
Aladdin gets thrown in the treasure cave.
Aladdin finds the lamp at the bottom of a big pile of treasure. I wish we had a better picture....oh well.
Here's the Genie's appearance. We used a large CO2 fire extinguisher behind the treasure pile. It was cheap, easy, and very effective. Last spring, in The Wizard of Oz, the fog machines we used kept triggering the fire alarms, so this was a great alternative. You could use a number of these for bigger plumes of smoke. Great special effect tip! We just had to get it refilled between shows.
The Genie. Normally, he's a big, blue guy. But we had a small, pink, girl, and she was stellar. She lit the stage up every time she came on. For the staging in "Friend Like Me" we hired a magician to choreograph a magic show. That worked out really well.
Some of the magic tricks in "Friend Like Me." Every night, I died when she did this trick. She tied a rope around her neck and pulled it tight--and it apparently slipped through her neck. It was impressive, but I was always terrified that she'd do it wrong one night!
Another magic trick--"Can your friends pull this out of a little hat..."
Aladdin meets the Flying Carpet.
The start of the parade for "Prince Ali." We choreographed so that the kids crossed the stage, then doubled back and did it again. It gave the impression of a huge throng of followers.
The Genie, Carpet, and Aladdin try to figure out to get a date with Jasmine.
Aladdin's transformation into Prince Ali was tricky. It's supposed to be something the Genie does magically. The script recommends turning out the lights and then bringing them back on, with Aladdin making a quick change. That seemed a bit obvious, but we weren't sure what else to do. So, our magician taught the Genie to make some of Aladdin's costume items "appear" magically out of an empty prop. Then she handed them to him and they went off-stage where he changed during the scene change. It worked really well.
Aladdin, the carpet, and Jasmine and some dancers during "A Whole New World." Oh my goodness, could those two kids sing! They sounded so good--this Aladdin had a far more mature and rich voice than we usually see in middle school.
Nice shot of Iago and Jafar.
Aladdin, the Genie, and Jasmine in the finale