Our winter production this year was Disney's The Little Mermaid Jr. It's an abbreviated version of the animated movie. Roughly 120 kids plus stage and tech crew, plus a dedicated and talented core of parent supporters. The parents who did the costumes, props, and set were amazing. I can't believe the quality of their work.
King Triton finds out about Ariel's journeys to the surface and her hidden trove of human stuff and destroys the grotto. While not perfect, this slideshow sort of gives the idea.
One of the challenges of the show was the immediate transitions between the underwater scenes and the ocean surface. My brilliant set guys figured out a really cool solution. It's not painted yet, but you get the idea of how it works.
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.
Well, it's starting again. Every year at this time, I am up to my neck in preparations for 8th grade theatre awards. This is a really cool night, one of my favorite of the year. We have a slide show featuring pictures of each child in each of they plays they participated in ( I know, it should be "in which they participated" but that was too many "ins"). Then, I read a letter about each of the students--focusing on their unique contributions, their positive contributions and so on.
And as I do this, it hits me like a ton of cliches that this is almost over. Soon, they will leave me. Every year, it happens and hurts more than I can say.
I'm excited for them, I'm proud of them, and I know it's time for them to move on. And yet. I've been working with some of these kids since they were 1st graders! 7 years and 11 plays--that's a lot of memories. A lot of laughter, a lot of tears. I've seen them grow up from cute little kids to awkward adolescents and now, to poised and talented young men and women. I've seen them navigate the strange new world of middle school, seen them push themselves, seen them fail, and seen them succeed beyond what they thought was possible.
One of the things about working with people in theatre is that it is incredibly intense--you spend long periods of time together in a sort of emotional foxhole. Theatre people tend to grow very close, and that is true with my students. They become part of me, wiggling their boisterous, crazy way into my cantankerous heart.
And then they leave--probably never quite aware of just how much they mean to me.
Yes, some of them may come back and visit, but it's never quite the same. I shall not see them on a day to day basis--and that makes me sad.
Teaching is like parenting. You pour your heart and soul into the kids, giving them everything you can and hoping it's enough. The intensity of the effort leads to a corresponding intensity of attachment and you become genuinely fond of them. You can't teach students for three or more years without growing a bit attached. With your own children, it's hard when they leave, but you know they are still yours, and that you will see them again. Not so with students. The reality is that I will not see most of them after they graduate.
Yes, life will go on. Yes, there are far greater problems in the world today. But, it still aches a bit.
I'm often told by parents or peers who don't teach something like, "You have the best job." It's usually said with envy, as if all I do everyday is float from life-changing experience to life-changing experience.
I do have a wonderful job, but it has highs and lows, like any other job. There are trade-offs. Teachers trade material reward for emotional or psychological pay-offs. But it is the very nature of that compensation--the emotional connection--that also can make some moments quite painful.
But, I'm reminded again, as I am every year at this time, that there cannot be any love with pain, no growth without loss. To be totally comfortable and free of sadness or heartache would mean being shielded against growth and feeling. You can only savor the sweet if you are willing to taste the bitter.
Life will go on. These 8th graders will leave next month and I will feel like someone has grabbed my heart and soul and broken it into dozens of pieces. And then a new crop will be there--excited, eager, ready to conquer the world, full of zest and energy.
Their joy and vivacity will soothe the sadness I feel and I'll get used to them--we'll laugh and learn together and go through those same foxholes.
And then it will all start again. I'll write a very similar post next springs. I assume it will be this way as long as I teach. I hope so at least. If I am ever not sad and sentimental that my students are leaving, it would mean something has gone wrong.
Life is cycles--loss and gain, sweet and bitter. Winter and spring. The trick, I suppose, is to be excited that spring comes every year, not sad that winter does, too.
My boss, who is one of the wisest educators and administrators I know, often say that the two most important components of his job are to hire the right faculty and accept the right students. If he does those things right, everything else seems to run itself.
That's true in theatre. An old directing cliche says that if you pick the right play and cast it correctly, the play will direct itself and there is a lot of truth to that.
Choosing the right play is critical. Not all plays can be performed equally well by every cast. Choosing the right play will be the first step in making sure the kids have a successful--therefore enjoyable--experience because with the right play, they will be able to flourish and shine.
I never, ever pre-cast. It's impossible to do it correctly. Over the years, I've noticed that the people I would have predicted would get specific roles almost never do. Once, my daughter pushed me into writing down my predictions for which students would get which roles. I wrote them down and hid them. After the casting was done, we looked at my list. I believe I was wrong in all but one instance. One of the most common things I hear after a performance is, "So-and-so was so good! I never would have guessed s/he could have done that!" Exactly. That's why we have auditions and call-backs. It helps eliminate the guesswork and gives everyone an equal shot. And so, I never pre-cast. Not even in my head. It's a waste of time.
That being said, I have to consider the students I have. I can't pick a play with a lyric soprano leading lady if my most experienced students are altos. I can't do a play with two singing male leads if I have only one guy with a super strong voice.
I also have to consider the personality and experience level of the students I know will do the play. A large group of students has a personality as distinct and unique as each individual. Some are fun, some are serious, some are quirky, some are emotional, and so on.
We did Fiddler on the Roof one year with a group of students who were fairly deep and were able to understand the emotional currents in the play. This year, we did Aladdin with a more fun-loving crowd. Both plays were successful, but neither would have worked as well with the other group of students.
Another critical factor is experience. We all love the stories of the chorus girl who gets her big break, steps into the leading role and shines. It's a lovely story, but it rarely happens--and there's a reason for that. It takes years and years to develop the confidence to do that. It takes years and years for the voice to mature to the point where it's safe to have a child even try that. While everyone thinks they would like a lead, putting an inexperienced child in a huge lead is actually quite cruel. It puts a tremendous amount of emotional, psychological, and cognitive pressure on them and might even do some physical damage to their voice.
You would never send a high school athlete in to start in the NFL. It would destroy him and everyone would see the coach as a villain for letting it happen. Most people don't realize that it's the same thing in a theatrical context. One has to be more than just dramatic or like to doing plays to bear the enormous responsibility of carrying a show. Talented, trained, confident, and emotionally resilient enough to make some very big risks. I think this is one thing that perhaps most parents don't fully appreciate and understand, and that's fine. If you've never done it, it's difficult to understand. So, I try to explain it as often as I can.
There is also work ethic. Our school pays a lot of money to do these plays and parents work like sweatshop slaves to do costumes and sets. We can't take a risk on messing the whole thing up by casting a flake or fair-weather performer in the lead only to have him/her decide they don't really want to put in the time and effort. Before I cast a child in a lead, I need to know s/he is capable. Talented. Focused. Dedicated. Emotionally steady. And, a hard worker. It takes years to build those skills up. It's why most often, leads in middle school productions are 8th graders with some 7th grade exceptions. It's the same in high school and college.
Finally, I always try to pick a play that will push the students a bit--meet them where they are, but require them to stretch themselves. Having a play with lots of fun parts in a plus, and also some parts for kids who may act quite well but aren't the strongest singers is another thing I look for.
Here are my givens this year: I have a fairly large group. It could be anywhere from 25 to 50 or more. So, I need a play with a large ensemble, one that can be huge or small as needed.
I have an unusually high number of boys, many of whom are both talented and seasoned performers that I know I can count on because of past performances. A number of them are also good comedians. This is usually one of my weakest areas. This year it is my strongest and I want to take advantage of that. It may not happen again for a few years.
The bulk of my girls are talented, but skew a bit younger and don't have quite so much experience in the aggregate. A large number of them can sing and act, but I have fewer that have been tested in performing terms. Among them, I also have some with strong comedic abilities--something that is actually quite rare. For the most part, they are altos or mezzo-sopranos. I need a play that will provide some good growing roles for the younger ones and some good opportunities for those who are more experienced, that will not require a high soprano, and that will make use of their comic ability. A number of girls are also very good dancers.
I have spent the last two months thinking in almost every spare minute about which play to do with my students. I have spent time thinking about literally every individual student who is signed up or likely to do the play. Thinking about their talents and strengths, as well as their weaknesses and where they need to grow. I've thought about their individual strengths and weaknesses as well as their collective strengths and weaknesses. I've thought about the most experienced as well as the newest in terms of trying to build the bench, so to speak. I've thought about our larger school community and what kind of play they might enjoy seeing.
There were several plays I wanted to do. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is one I've wanted to do for a long time. The Pirates of Penzance is another. I also considered Guys and Dolls, which is a lot of fun and has some great parts.
Each of those shows is great, but none of them completely fit what I have. Joseph has one lead and that's about it. There are not really any female leads to speak of. When I have a lot of talented boys, it seemed like kind of a waste. It is likely that I will have years again where I have very few boys. This would be better to save for a year I have fewer kids, or a year I have maybe one super talented boy, and two strong female singers, but not a lot of other male participants. I might do it as an all-school musical in the winter because I need a huge ensemble play to accomodate 130 kids and Joseph can be done small or large scale. And, it doesn't really fit what I need for the girls.Finally, the personality just doesn't seem to match my kids, although it's close.
I have loved Pirates since I was a boy and wanted to do it for years. But you need a coloratura soprano. And there aren't many leading or featured female roles, although there is a great female ensemble and several great roles for non-singers. Vocally, it's kind of a tough one for kids to do, although I was going to have the keys lowered, though. I came very close to doing this one. In fact, I settled on it several times. But at the end of the day, it didn't feel like quite the right fit for this group. I didn't see them getting or enjoying the humor collectively. I think we could have done it well. I don't think it was the right one, though, and I don't think it would have been wonderful.
Guys and Dolls was another one I almost did. Lots of great roles--2 male and 2 female leads plus some featured roles that are a lot of fun. Highlights the male talent but still have some fun things for the girls as well. This was perfect in some ways. It hit the talent and experience level pretty well and they would have got the humor. Downside--a lot of dancing for the boys. Lots and lots of it. This takes a lot of work since they generally have no or little experience. Hello Dolly had a lot of it and it was great--but time consuming and stressful. Not sure about that. Also, Dolly had HUGE, wonderful sets, but they took a lot of time and work. Not sure we're up to another huge set show again so soon, and Guys and Dolls would be one. Still, all that can be overcome.
Biggest problem though: really antiquated notions about gender relationships and marriage. It's a fun show, but has some really dated things. I feel a big responsibility to be careful what I pick. These students are in a formative phase in terms of how they view themselves and relationships. There is a humorous cynicism about relationships in G&D that can work in high school and adult productions. Frankly, I didn't want to go there with my young students. We may do this sometime--there are not an infinite supply of good shows out there--but not this year. And not without lots of careful thinking and contextualizing.
None of these shows felt right to me and I've learned to trust my gut. I spent a lot of time over spring break listening to shows and thinking and thinking. I listened to My Fair Lady one day. And had an intuition. This is it, I thought.
Then I went through and started looking at the talent profiles. Leading lady could be a soprano or mezzo. Good, strong male and female roles for singers and non-singers (Higgins and Doolittle can sing or speak-sing. Mrs. Higgins does not sing. Col. Pickering only sings a little. One really strong male singer for the romantic lead). Big, flexible ensemble with really fun songs--cockneys in "I'm Getting Married in the Morning" and "Wouldn't it Be Loverly?" and upper class English aristocracy in "Ascot Gavotte" and the Embassy Ball, so lots of range. Also, lots of songs for the ensemble. I always feel bad when they are in only one or two songs. This has five or six, plus some good opportunities for good dancers.
Most of our kids at school who do the play also want to do sports. This would allow the vast majority to play a sport and make it easy to rehearse with the few who didn't. A logistical plus.
Most of all, it seems to fit. I don't know why exactly, can't define it. But I know this play (I've known it since I was a little boy. My grandpa loved it). I played Prof. Higgins years ago, so I really know this play. And I know this group of kids. I feel like someone who is dying to introduce two friends who have never met--but am sure will get along well. This is widely acknowledged as one of the best musicals ever written, and I relish introducing my students to good work like that and having them become familiar with a cultural icon.
I also love the thematic elements. There is a lot middle school kids will understand. Teacher student dynamics. Male, female relationships--romantic and platonic. The fear of being made a fool of in front of everyone. Being in the wrong group and trying to get in the right one. Being yourself--but being the best you can. I look forward to some really great talks with my classes about these themes next year.
It's a hard play. I'm taking some real risks, for sure. It will stretch everyone, from the leads to the ensemble. It's not going to be easy to pull of. It's not as big scenically as Dolly, but it's not small. I'd love to do a show with one small set and costumes are jeans and t-shirts. That's not this show. There are lots of costumes. At least they are Edwardian, so they won't be all that hard to find, make and tweak. But, it's not about me and the grown ups. It's about the kids. What show will give them the best chance to learn, grow, and succeed?
There's a line from a song in the play I love. "I could have spread my wings and done a thousand things I've never done before..."
To me, that is one of the purposes of middle school theatre--to give them wings and help them do things they (and everyone else around them) never thought they could do!
Well, today I hit sort of a landmark in my own mind. I hung up the 16th framed play poster in my office (after each play, I get the two lobby posters framed. One goes in the theatre, one goes in my office). Each year, when I hang the last poster up, it sort of signals to me that the theatrical season is over. It's very similar to writing "The End" at the conclusion of manuscript.
I suspect that if I were a farmer it would be a similar feeling to putting the crop up in the barn.
At any rate, I hung the poster up today for Hello Dolly and I realized I have now done 16 plays at my school. Two a year for the last eight years. That's the longest I've ever worked anywhere, so that makes me feel good. I like to have roots, like to be in places for the long-term.
But there's a lot more. I tend to measure my life in plays, not in years. I can't tell you the year I got my doctorate, but I can tell you that it was between The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Beauty and the Beast. I know my last child was born a day after auditions for Seussical, although I rushed home from the Jungle Book cast party for a false alarm. I got my first book contract after The Music Man but before auditions for Cats. And so on.
My students often ask which play was my favorite. I am honest when I tell them I can't choose just one. Like my children, I love them all, but for different reasons. Some of them were artistically fulfilling. Others were lots of fun. Some had amazing performances. Some had incredible costumes. Or sets. Some were difficult, but rewarding. Some were growing experiences--either artistically or personally. Some were both.
I can no more pick a favorite play than I can pick a favorite child. Or student. They are all infinitely dear to me. As I look around my now-covered office walls, I remember the plays, the songs, the costumes--but I remember the students. I remember watching them grow from timid 6th graders to 8th grade performers. I remember them trying their first play and falling in love with it. Or, realizing it wasn't there thing and finding another path as they grew.
The first group of 8th graders I encountered here are now almost done with college. In a few more plays, I imagine one or two will be married. In several more plays, I will probably start hearing about children. By the time the posters have gone around the wall again, I might even be directing the children of some of those students in their first steps on a stage.
I'm at a difficult point in the year now as I realize that the 8th graders are leaving soon. That always makes me sad in a way I can't quite articulate. I'm proud of them. Happy for them. Excited for their new opportunities. But I will miss them. Keenly. I take comfort in the fact that knowing that there will be new students next year. New plays. New adventures and new growth. In the meantime, I have happy memories. And lots of posters.
If you look at this picture, you'll see that there are 13 middle school boys. At specified times, right on cue, they had to lunge out on either side of Dolly in a staggered formation: boy 1 goes right, boy 2 goes left, etc.
This is much more difficult than it looks--especially for adolescents who have not had a lot of dance experience and who's bodies are growing so fast that their coordination hasn't caught up yet.
The truth is that this was incredibly hard and we spent hours and hours and never got it completely right during rehearsals.
Even during dress rehearsals, I was running this before and after the rehearsal. I'd have them come early and we'd try it. I had them stay late and we tried it. Never 100% successfully. There was always at least one poor guy that darted the wrong direction--which sort of knocked everyone behind him off as well.
I even had them do it during intermission on opening night, minutes before they had to perform it. They still didn't do it completely right in the performance.
At that point, I didn't know what else to do. I suppose I could have had them stay after the performance and run it over and over and over. But that seemed like overkill. I suppose I could have figured out who was making the mistake and removed him from the line (assuming it was only one person). I could have yelled and threatened, but that's not my style nor is it helpful. So, there were options--but they didn't seem like tenable ones. This is, after all, middle school theatre. We strive for our best but I think it's important to keep a balanced view of what is possible for the kids.
I finally decided to just let it go, leave it alone and stop worrying about it. No more rehearsals--let the chips fall where they may. This was harder for me than it might sound. It wasn't an ego thing. This song is the highlight of the show and we worked so hard on it! All the other elements were wonderful. And more than anything, they had worked so hard! I wanted them to nail it so they could have that satisfaction. I didn't want anyone to get teased by peers. And so on. But, I took a deep breath and made myself let go.
The next night, they got it (as is documented in this photo) and the same thing happened the next night.
What happened? I have no idea.
Maybe all the practice kicked in. Maybe it was that they no longer felt stressed. Maybe it was just a random, flukey thing. Goodness knows that happens with adolescents.
I'm not sure I could have walked away several years ago. Happily, I've learned since then that sometimes you have to just let go because you don't have any good options left. A perfect line is not worth berating a middle school child or stressing everyone out.
I believe parents and teachers ought to expect the best of children and that we should push them. I'm not fond of theories that elevate the kids to the status of skilled or thoughtful decision makers, or that view them as knowing best because I think often they really aren't and truly don't.
But I also believe there are times where the benefits are not worth the costs--whether those costs are to the relationship, the child's confidence, or whatever. In these times, I think it's wisest to walk away.
I don't recommend doing this a lot. I don't have the magic ratio, but perhaps more often than not, I think it's important to push and help the kids grow. Future employers and colleagues will not be so lenient, after all. But there are times when you just have to let it go. It took me a long time to learn this--and I still apply it imperfectly, but I'm generally gratified with the results. When I don't apply this principle, I believe I have always regretted it.
I don't promise that letting go will always have the desired result. In this case it did. It may be that your teaching will sink in and they will do what you had hoped they would. Or, it may not. It may never be quite what you want it to be--or even close. But at a minimum, you will have preserved the relationship and you will have the future to continue to work with them. Preserving the relationship, and preserving their dignity will be more important than accomplishing the immediate objective.
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.
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