I've been directing plays for elementary and middle school kids for almost thirty years now (twenty-eight, to be precise). Because of that, I frequently get questions or hear complaints from friends as well as people who find this blog and contact me. Often, the comments boil down to two complaints: One is that the directors choose age-inappropriate material (that is a whole different blog post). The second is that their casting is unfair. I have received this second complaint over the years myself; I'm not sure any director hasn't.
I just finished casting a big show and thought I would take some time to talk about this process as it is fresh on my mind. Since this blog gets a large amount of traffic from parents of students who do theatre all across the country, I hope it might be helpful. Though my world is middle school, I think this is applicable to almost any non-professional theatre program.
Casting a play is one of the most important and challenging things any director does. First year directing students are often told, "Pick the right play, pick the right cast, and the play will direct itself."
Casting is uniquely challenging because it is cognitive, artistic, and emotional. Because it is a long process, it is usually physically tiring and taxing as well.
In addition, most directors have had some performing experience. Consequently, they know how disappointing it can be not to get a desired role. And in many educational programs, the directors know and have some degree of affection for and investment in their students--making it all the more difficult to disappoint them.
Of all the decisions a director makes, casting choices are probably the most frequently questioned or misunderstood, at least early on. That seems to be universal, and exists everywhere I've worked. It's something you hear about a lot when theatre teachers get together. In light of this, I think it is useful to explain a few things that happen behind the curtain, so to speak.
In fairness to people with questions, casting is the least public aspect of a performance. The decisions are made either by the director or a small group of people, based on information that is not generally available to the public. Consequently, it is easy for people to question or second-guess those decisions, then doubt the process, the director, or both. And when you realize that the process tends to be emotionally charged for parents and students, it is even more understandable. Unfortunately, when people don't understand, they generally assume that their must be a malign motive: most often favoritism, a grudge, etc.
However, I don't think favoritism happens as much as people assume. Any director is highly-aware that people will accuse him or her of playing favorites, and they won't put themselves in that position lightly. Every director I know makes absolutely sure that any casting decision is the right thing for the production--especially when someone has had a lead before, or if they are casting a family member, friend of the family, etc., in a lead.
A director cannot indulge in casting based on personal feelings; however, at the same time, a director cannot refrain from casting choices based on other people's personal feelings.
No one cares more about the production's ultimate success than the director. It is totally against the director's interest to cast anyone who is not suited to the part. Miscasting does serious, sometimes fatal, damage to a production. This is a lesson every director learns very quickly--usually by making a painful mistake early on. Consequently, directors are generally very clear-eyed and level-headed. Personal feelings enter the picture far less than one might think.
I think it is important for parents to remember that they are subject to everything directors are sometimes accused of: favoritism, subjectivity, etc. However, the parents generally don't have the same information or professional experience that the director has to offset these human traits.
Of course, one can make a mistake--this happens occasionally even in Hollywood or on Broadway--but generally speaking, directors give extreme due diligence and cast the people they genuinely feel are best-suited for the role. Note: I did not say "most talented." I said, "best-suited." I'll talk about what that means later.
The director's greatest responsibility is to the entire production. He or she is engaged by an organization and has a fiduciary responsibility to deliver the best production possible. If he or she does anything else, then no one ends up having much fun and no one is happy. The best way for the cast to have fun is to have a good show.
The director also has a responsibility to make sure the cast looks good in front of the audience, and to position the cast to do their best work. Finally, there is an obligation to the audience that the play will be as good as possible, a fair exchange for the ticket money and time invested.
A parent's most fundamental job is to watch over their child. So, most parents, understandably, view the production through their child's experience, and tend to see things by how a particular decisions impacts their child. That is understandable; it is their job. But the director does not have that luxury. What feels like a very personal decision to a child or family is generally a very professional, clinical one for the director.
I had a friend once who assured me the director at her child's school showed gross favoritism because he never cast her daughter. But I heard the daughter sing; she had some serious pitch problems, and strained badly on her high notes. The mother didn't hear this; she just loved to hear her daughter sing. And the girl was a wonderful daughter and an incredible young lady in every way. But she couldn't sing well. And a director has to pay attention to things like that.
Some people do get lots of lead roles and this is true from Broadway down to your local elementary school (just as some people always start on sports teams, or win chess tournaments or art contests). Sometimes it is as simple as the fact that someone is talented, works hard, has a great attitude and is easy to teach and direct. Being a lead is not as simple as it may look, requiring a skill-set that goes well beyond the obvious dramatic talent. It requires a myriad of unseen and intangible skills: commitment, hard work, ability to hold up under extreme pressure, reliability, ability to take direction--on and on.
There is one other thing to consider. Human beings often develop very warm and close relationships with people they work with extensively and in a challenging setting. This is human nature. It's equally true in theatre. Sometimes people see the warm relationship between a director and a lead and assume that the director put his or her favorite person in that role because of the relationship. In reality, it is often reverse: the warm relationship came because the actor and director worked together closely.
The reality is that there are any number of dedicated, talented, hard-working, conscientious kids who don't get big parts. I was one of them. One of my children was one of them. There are any number of reasons for this, but ultimately, this apparent inequity is the nature of life; it is certainly the nature of theatre: outcomes are not, and cannot be made to be, equal.
However, the good news is that the size of a role does not diminish the opportunity for someone else to have a good experience. I know that from first-hand experience, and I've seen it confirmed over and over.
Still, the fact that people get repeated leads while others get none is difficult, especially for a school group, where the mission is clearly educational. Coaches face a similar dilemma. Do you play to win, or do you play to build experience and give everyone a chance? Ideally, you can do both. But in the real world, in the moment, sometimes you have to make judgment calls and try to balance competing imperatives. Human nature being what it is, it is always easier to second-guess these decisions in retrospect than it is to make them in the moment.
It's great to say that one should rotate lots of people through the leading roles. That's an idea few would disagree with. The problem, though, is that if you do this, and the quality of the plays goes down, then fewer people will want to be part of it. Ultimately, the experience is not as good for the entire cast--not to mention the student who has been set up for a public lack of success.
You also run into potential problems. What if one person gets two rotations, and another person only gets one? Or two and three?
Directors often hear things like, "But she's just so disappointed," or, "But he wanted it so badly," or, "I'm afraid she's going to give up hope." It is natural for a parent to be focused on that. But a director cannot take that into account. First of all, if someone is going to give up theatre because of disappointment, it is probably best that it happen quickly. Theatre is disappointing. No one ever gets all the parts they want. If that is too much for someone to handle, then theatre is a terrible hobby.
Secondly, if someone wants the director to consider this for their child, then it must be a consideration for everyone. Follow the logic of that thinking. What if there are five children who want the part equally badly? What if they will all be bitterly disappointed. How can a director possibly discern who will be most disappointed in a fair or accurate way? If you think the existing audition process is subjective, imagine trying to gauge the emotional state of a particular child and how badly they want something, or how disappointed they will be. It is unrealistic and unfair for a parent or a child to try to make the director responsible for their disappointment.
Another thing that I have heard over the years is something like, "If she just had a chance, I know she would shine." Or, "he's so funny at home--you should hear him imitate movies, or sing along in the car." These children are blessed to have parents who love their child's talents.
But directors can't cast on the potential a parent sees and they can't cast on what a child does at home. A play, after all, does not happen in a living room or car: it takes place in front of a large audience, with many other actors, and there is a great deal of pressure on leads.
A lot of people see a lead or big part as a fun thing, some kind of validation, or a reward. And they can be rewarding. But, leading roles are hard. Hard, hard, hard work. They carry a tremendous deal of pressure, and also a great responsibility. The pressure can crush someone who is not ready.
I'm including a picture of a list created by the actress who played Mary in Mary Poppins. In addition to the on-stage demands of carrying a large show (singing, dancing, acting, etc.) she had so many props to keep track of that she had to draw up a list to help her remember scene-by-scene. This is in addition to remembering when her quick changes were, when to go get her flying harness on and off, when to go get hooked up to the flying lines, on and on. She even had to schedule time to drink water and use the restroom. For 2.5 hours every night, she had all kinds of pressure on her--after months and months of taxing, demanding work. Leading parts are like that: huge, huge amounts of work and pressure. Not everyone is ready for that--and that's okay.
A lead is also automatically a leader. His or her actions and attitude, good or bad, will shape the attitudes and work ethic of those around them.
There are a number of other factors to consider in casting. Generally, a director has information and knowledge about the cast that most people don't have. For example, it may be that a child is very talented, but does not work very hard. It may be that the child is very talented, but that there are family circumstances that would prohibit the child from being able to fulfill the commitment.
Years ago, I had a costumer beg me not to cast a particular child in a lead because the parent was so incredibly difficult to work with (I still did, incidentally, because the kid was by far the best person for the role. But I would never give this child another role. The parent just made life too difficult for too many people). More than one parent has totally sabotaged their child's chances by causing difficulty and stirring up drama. A play is stressful under the best of circumstances. No director will willingly inflict additional problems and drama on the production. This is true at every level of theatre, and anyone who wants to participate in plays ought to learn this early on.
Here are a few other situations:
Some time ago, I had a very talented student who got deeply offended when given even very mild correction, such as, "I need you to be louder." This attitude made it so she could not get another lead. It was simply impossible because she was unteachable.
Another time I had a very talented student who simply did not focus at rehearsal; a nice kid, but a total goof-off and very absent-minded, and not inclined to try very hard to counteract that tendency. There was no way this student could be counted on. One does not get a big role and then demonstrate reliability; one demonstrates reliability first. Another student was wonderful on-stage but could not remember when to come on-stage and missed entrances routinely.
Another talented student had serious anxiety. I did not know about the anxiety, and cast the student in a substantial role. Driven in part by the anxiety, the student struggled in rehearsals. Even the most routine direction was interpreted as personal criticism and served to get the student even more nervous. The child then made frequent mistakes. But trying to help the student correct the errors created even more stress. It was a vicious cycle, and one that I could simply not fix. After considerable thought, I decided I could not give the student another large role. Beyond the problems for the play, it seemed a cruel thing to do to that child. People thought I was being unkind or playing favorites. Of course, I could not say anything in any of these cases.
Another factor that people don't understand is difficult to explain, but has to do with "fit." Talent is neither interchangeable nor uniform. Someone can be very talented and still not fit a particular part.
The example I use with my students is Will Smith and Will Ferrell: two professionals who are very talented and successful. But you wouldn't consider them interchangeable and consider Will F. to play a part for Will S.
Once a mother was frustrated because her daughter was called-back for Cinderella, but did not get the part and was assigned to the ensemble. The mother thought that the daughter should have been given the role of step-mother or step-sister as a sort of consolation prize. I had to explain that the daughter was called back for Cinderella because of the way she projected a gentle, vulnerable heart. Those exact qualities made her totally unsuited for the over-the-top malice of the stepsisters.
People often think that any talented kid should be able to have a lead. I understand this, but it's much more complex than that. Vocal range, vocal quality, and personality are just three factors that differ vastly different from student to student and are not easily predictable.
Physical resemblance to the character, or the ability to meet certain physical demands are other important, often overlooked factors. The Scarecrow cannot move stiffly; Dorothy cannot be taller than the Wicked Witch. She just can't be. And there is only so much one can do with heels and creative staging. Imagine a production where Maria looks up at the Von Trapp children (or down at the Captain). It just doesn't work.
Two students might be very talented, but one is great at comic timing; the other is better at dramatic roles. If the show has a smaller part that calls for wonderful comic timing, then the first student is going to get that part. Indeed, it would be a disservice to do otherwise. Sadly, the student may feel that he or she was overlooked. But more often than not, casting is positive, not negative--students don't "not" get a part. Rather, they are cast for the part best suited to their talents. I once had a student who was a very good dramatic actress. A key moment in the play called for her talents. The whole play had built to this point, and only she could pull it off. It was a smaller role, but critical to the play.
Chemistry between other actors in other roles is also critical. Sometimes, a very talented person does a great job in an individual audition, then they read a scene with someone and fall a bit flat. Then a different person does the same scene and the air crackles. We've all seen movies where the acting was fine, but there was no chemistry between the actors. And those are professionals. It's hard to define or articulate, and you can't create it artificially, but it's very real.
The point of auditions and call-backs is to help align a student's unique talents with the particular demands of a play. Sometimes talents and plays will align multiple times. Or not at all. That is the reality of theatre and any attempt to change that will distort the experience into something other than theatre.
As this is quite long already, I'll divide this post in half and stop for now. In the next post, I'll consider other questions that sometimes come up: casting by committee as well as the trade-offs inherent in changing a program to achieve different outcomes, and a few other things.
Part 2 is here.
I recently had an experience that helped focus some thoughts I've had for a while now. Let me start by describing the experience.
Our big school musical was the week of Valentine's Day. During that time, I saw some wonderful things, both on and off-stage. But there is one particular that moment that sticks in my mind.
During our final dress rehearsal, one of the performers gave what I can only describe as a flawless performance. It was simply perfect, from the inflection in her lines to her choreography, to the energy and feeling with which she infused everything she did.
Watching her brought me such joy--partly because I was proud of her, but partly because she was in her element. She reminded me of an otter swimming or a bird flying. She was doing what she was born to do, and doing it with joy and verve. It was a wonderful thing to watch and it had a profound impact on me. The audience loved her, and she enjoyed great success--in addition to the internal satisfaction of a job well done.
As I watched her, I thought back about the journey that had brought here to that point.
She had come to a summer theatre camp as a rising 6th grader. She had a nice, sweet voice, and at the end of the week, I suggested to her mother that she start taking voice lessons, and she did.
For the next three years, this student and I worked almost every week. During our lessons, I corrected her breathing, the placement of her vowels, and posture. We worked and worked worked. She practiced, came and got critiqued, practiced some more, got critiqued again...and on and on.
This student worked on her vocal technique and she continued to come to theatre camps. In fact, she attended just about every camp she could. She worked and worked and worked. For years. And years.
This student put in hours that cannot be counted, and gave a consistent effort that cannot be calculated. Hard work and effort turned talent into skill, and skill into instinct.
Beyond her hard work, she showed a consistently good attitude. She was cheerful and focused, never causing any problems, or drama in any way (nor did her parents, and that's quite important as well). She was part of the team, never showing any kind of attitude or entitlement. She supported her peers and always gave 100% to whatever she part she was given. Large or small, she performed it as if it were the most important role in the play.
In fact, when we had try-outs for this part, she wanted a different role, and wanted it badly. I know she was disappointed when the casting was announced. But she had formed habits over those years--habits that now directed her actions.
And that is what I want to focus on. Her tremendous success was the result of years and years of hard work, and of hundreds of good choices made consistently. These choices and work created habits that made her success a natural outcome.
And so, part of my joy was seeing her succeed so beautifully. Part of my joy was that of a teacher seeing a student succeed. But part of my joy was seeing how years and years of effort and good choices had paid off.
To be clear, hard work and good choices are not always rewarded with such great public success. However, great public success does not ever seem to come without them.
I thought I'd post a follow-up to my post last week about the long-term value of disappointment. There are a few important essentials to remember when dealing with disappointment. While I'm coming from my experience as a middle school theatre director, I think most of these principles are applicable in many different areas and endeavors.
First of all, remember that you are seeing this in very subjective terms. You are focusing on your child and how they feel. That's fine, and it's your job as a parent.
But the teacher/coach/director/whomever does not have that luxury. That person has too look at the general welfare of everyone involved. S/he cannot consider personal feelings, dreams, or ambitions.
And the truth is, you wouldn't want him or her to do this. Seriously, you wouldn't.
I will assume the reason your child wants to be in the play, on the team, squad or club is because they enjoy the activity. Keep that in mind. But I will also assume that they want to be in this play/team because the program is pretty good and the child feels that the program can offer them something.
But the program is only good because the person in charge focuses on the good of the program. The moment he or she starts letting personal considerations be the basis of decisions, the quality of the program begins to decline. And then, the very experience you had wanted for your child begins to suffer. Or, should the director/coach make decisions for your child based on personal reasons--but assess everyone else on merit?
So, don't be angry that the person who built a program good enough to interest your child continues to run the program with the same standards and approach that helped build that program. Also realize that if you are upset, you are the one who is breaking the tacit agreement. They've done their job--and unless they insulted your child somehow or were rude, then they've done exactly what they were supposed to do. Note: not casting/playing your child does not count as insult.
If your child gets a smaller role or doesn't start, or whatever, put your natural resentment away. Be grateful your child gets to have an experience they ostensibly love and be a part of a program they want to join. If they don't even get on the team or in the cast, then I have a few suggestions. Talk to the person in charge and find out if there was a reason. Maybe there is something your child can learn and improve in--a particular weakness or deficit that can be made up with time and attention.
Or perhaps not. And that's okay too. Maybe this isn't the hobby or pursuit that is best suited to your child.
But let me give a caveat with that. Every year, I have people come talk to me after auditions and ask for feedback. Some of them are sincere and want to hear what they can improve. Others just want me to give some compliments or to promise them that they'll do better next time. I don't have much patience for the first, and cannot promise the second. Only ask if you truly want feedback. And, also realize that there may not be much you can do.
I can't speak much about athletics, but in theatre, sometimes it's not that a person has a deficit. Sometimes it's just a matter of "fit." One person clicks in the role better than the other. It's just the way it is and it has nothing to do with talent or anything. Think Will Smith and Will Ferrell. Both are talented, highly-paid professionals. But they are not interchangeable. Different roles would fit them in different ways.
Here are a few more thoughts.
It's almost never personal. You and your child might experience it personal terms, but for the director or coach, it seriously isn't. All my life I've heard people say that some coach, some director, some choreographer, some authority figure played favorites. They cast so-and-so because they liked her better, or gave such-and-such more playing time because his dad is their friend, a donor--whatever.
I'm not saying this never happens. But in my experience, it happens far, far less than I hear people say it does. The truth is that most coaches want to win games. Most theatre directors want the strongest cast. It's really pretty simple. I suppose all of us are subject to human error, but I am convinced that these sort of things happen far, far less than I hear people mutter. They might make mistakes, their plans and strategies might go amiss. But I really think most people in these positions are trying to do the best you can.
More likely is that the teacher/coach/director is simply balancing a myriad of factors that most people have absolutely no idea about. And, it may be that your child's best interests are one of those factors. I have had students in the past who had nice voices or good acting skills--but crumpled under even mild pressure or difficulty. Giving such a child a lead would be incredibly cruel
I've learned from long experience that the best way to get through this kind of thing is to trust the good intentions of the person who made the decision--and then move on. My son wanted badly to be the Drum Major in his high school marching band. He did not get that position. I still think he would have been good. But he had a wonderful experience his senior year anyway. What he really loved was marching band. And that is what he got to do.
It's kind of a fun time in the theatre program. This week, over the course of several days, we had auditions. The next step in the process is call-backs. The audition is what gets them into the play. Call-backs is where I ask the kids to come back and read and/or sing material for a specific character, so this is how they are assigned a specific part.
Because I work in a middle school, I feel like a big part of my job is to teach the kids about the process of theatre. So, I tend to call many students back--more than I would if I taught in college or high school. Basically, I try to find a reason to call everyone back for at least one role. I figure that even if it doesn't work this time, then if they are familiar with the process and have learned some of the skills, then when they do have a more credible chance, they will do better since they have already done it a few times.
Plus, while disappointment is inevitable, I personally would rather know that I had a shot and that I was given every opportunity to earn something. Then, if it doesn't work out, I at least feel like I had a chance. I think the kids are the same.
At any rate, excitement is pretty high right now. I see it in their eyes, in their smiles, and in the overheard conversations. It's the excitement of possibility, the anticipation of potential opportunity--as of yet unfettered by the harsh realities of the future.
In that sense, this moment in the process is much like adolescence. They are just becoming aware of their potential and all that they can be. Their view of the future is informed largely by their hopes and dreams, a vision fueled by optimism and possibility. Currently, they are full of energy and dreams and aspirations--as of yet unfettered by the harsh realities of the future.
This is a sweet time. Of course, this can't last forever. The cast list will be posted tomorrow and the that unbridled optimism and sense of infinite possibilities will be moderated by reality. For most of the kids, simply because of numbers, that will involve some disappointment.
However, after that disappointment fades, they'll learn an even better lesson, one that can free and empower them for the rest of their lives in nearly any circumstance. But I'll talk about that later. For now, I want to relish the excitement and joy in their faces.
First of all, if you haven't yet, go down and see the pictures from The Little Mermaid. To me, it is pure middle school magic! Also, click here to find out how you can win an advance copy of Penumbras, the sequel to the Kindling.
Now, with that out of the way, I want to address an important and serious subject. Over the years, I have had students I feel very confident will succeed and students about whom I worry a great deal.
There are two or three things that really make me worry. One of the top worries I have is about over-protective parents--a setting which seems more and more to be the default. These parents seem to see themselves as portable shields, designed and required to run interference for, shelter, and protect their children from any disappointment, danger, harm, or even unpleasantness and mild inconvenience. I really believe this sets up the child for a lifetime of serious problems, and that's why I'm writing about it in very candid terms.
Many of these parents have considerable resources and are able to do a very good job of being shields. And that is the tragedy. They shield their children from these things, but in the end, they shield their children from growth, challenge, achievement, and the ability to solve problems.
Life is hard. It is a constant challenge. Most of us have to spend our lives figuring out how to make it work, how to get by, how to solve our problems. The older we get, the more challenging life becomes, and the larger and more complex those problems are.
I've seen this in my theatre program over the years, although I have heard similar stories from coaches and teachers of all disciplines.
I once had a parent call me to tell me their child, who was quite talented, could not come to rehearsal. It was an important rehearsal and I asked why the child would miss. Well, Child didn't feel well. Was there a fever? No, but the child was kind of snotty and the throat was a bit irritated, just didn't feel great. Turned out the child had allergies. I had to explain that the child would need to come to rehearsal. The parent seemed truly stunned.
Another time, a student hurt his/her finger before rehearsal. It was not broken, no medical attention was required. Nothing could be done but wait for it to get better. Unpleasant, even painful, but not materially or functionally not useable. We had a major rehearsal that day, but the parent insisted on taking the child home.
Guess who I can never trust with a major role? I say that not out of malice or pique, but rather because that child is now very weak, not having had chances to push through problems and grow stronger.
Sometimes I see very talented kids who are emotionally weak because their parents have coddled and cosseted them so much, always running interference. These kids, talented though they may be, will never get more than a very minor role because they can't handle the stress. Sometimes the most mild criticism, or even a small snafu like a costume problem will send them off into tears. There is no way that they could handle the stress of a leading role. It would be cruel to them--they would buckle and break under all that pressure.
Ideally, if you are lucky, you have parents who prepare you for this by letting you grow and develop your problem-solving skills. Ideally, parents let you fail and fall. They keep you from serious danger, but they allow you to trip and skin your knee. They don't intervene when a friend is unkind, or when you don't make the team. If you get in trouble at school, they ensure you are fairly treated but don't push teachers or administrators to make changes for you.
If you are lucky, your parents seem themselves as coaches who help you navigate problems, not as shields who will protect you from the problems. The exception, of course, is if a child has some kind of special need, for which persistent advocating may be needed. Even then, I do think that the more autonomous they can be, the happier they will become. I'm not talking about those situations, however.
The flaw with the shield approach is that no parent will be able to protect their child forever from everything. Eventually, problems will break through. And that child, no matter how old, will be ill-suited to deal with them.
Here's the problem, though. When I explain this to people, they nod and agree. What I'm saying seems obvious and makes sense to most parents--and it's easy to spot in other people. However, many of those people who do the nodding then turn around and coddle and shield their child in the most obvious ways.
Of course, as a parent, our instincts are to jump in and protect our child. And there are times we have to. That's our job. So, how do we know if we are being appropriately protective, or too much of a coddler?
I don't have all the answers, but I've been observing parents now for a long time, both as a teacher and as parent, myself. Here are a few thoughts I have, these are symptoms that you might be too much of a shield and not doing enough supporting and coaching. I use these questions to perform my own regular self-analysis. As I wrote these out, I saw a few areas where I need to pull back a bit.
1. Who has the most contact with your child's teachers/coaches/other adults? You, or them?
2. If your child has a problem getting homework done or preparing for a test, is your response to ask for an exception or to help your child see the bad grade as a lesson learned?
3. If you do ask for an exception, who asks--the child or you?
4. How often do you find yourself asking for exceptions to policies (school, team, classroom, etc.)?
5. When an exception is warranted, who does the asking, you or the child?
6. If your child does not get enough playing time in their sport, or a good part in the play, or a desired grade, etc., is your reaction to focus on the teacher/coach/director and their choices, or to analyze what your child may or may not be doing?
7. If a discussion is warranted, will you have the discussion, or will you prep your child to have it?
8. Do you feel that your child deserves the best, regardless of his or her efforts?
9. When your child is upset, do you spend more time giving comfort or more time helping examine the extent to which their actions may have contributed to the problem and looking for ways to prevent similar problems in the future?
10. Do you spend a lot of time managing, directing, or intervening in your child's social life?
11. Do you take personally the amount of friends that your child has?
12. When your child has a social problem, do you assume it is the other child's fault, or do you have a sense of your child's weaknesses and how they might contribute?
13. Do you see your child as a wonderful, nearly perfect gift, or as a lovable but flawed human in need of frequent guidance and correction?
14. Do you feel that your child's success in elementary and middle school is very important and a high priority?
15. Is your job to protect your child from problems or to coach them through challenges?
16. Do you frequently let your child miss or go late to school or other commitments so they can sleep in because they seem a little tired (not talking about being sick)?
17. Do you frequently find yourself feeling that your child is just not valued by multiple people in their lives? Coaches, teachers, etc.?
18. Are people out to get your child?
19. Do teachers, coaches, and others frequently fail to see just how gifted your child is?
This isn't a scientific test, but these are some warning signs. Answering some of them may just mean you are a cautious parent. We all do some of these things at times. I think the persistence of behavior is important. If these things happen a lot, then it's possibly a problem and calls for careful self-reflection.
A key indicator to me is the amount of intervention you are doing and about what. If you have a folder full of emails to teachers asking for exceptions, explaining special circumstances, detailing why something's not fair--the chances are pretty high you are coddling (assuming your child does not have some kind of special need--that is a different story altogether). This is especially true if you are intervening repeatedly in things that don't really matter--or won't in a few weeks or months (eg, playing time in a game, grades on a test, role in a play, mild disciplinary issues, etc).
If you answered in a way that suggests you are spending a lot of time intervening in your child's life, or if you see them as usually being the innocent in every problem, you are probably shielding them too much. You might serve your child well by reflecting on this. Maybe even talk to someone you trust and asking their opinion (be ready for honesty, though).
I know it's hard to allow your child to struggle and hurt. I hate doing it! But they need the experience now if they are going to be happy and successful. Hard times during adolescence nourish the soul, allowing it to grow big and strong.
A butterfly cannot fly without the strength that comes from its long struggle to fight to emerge from the chrysalis. Without that opposition, it ends up weak and stunted, unable to do more than flutter on the ground a bit. Don't rob your child of the chance to fly!
Learn to say, "I'm so sorry. What do you think you could have done to make that situation better?" or "Why don't we talk about some ways you can fix this problem?" or "You need to talk to Coach So-and-so or Mrs. Such-and-Such. Why don't we think of some things you can say." "I know it's hard, and I'm sorry you are hurting. I love you very much. I know you can work this out. Do you have any ideas..." "This was a choice you made, and it brought a consequence. Do you see what the choice was? If you would like a different consequence, what different choice could you make?"
And so on.
Maybe next week we'll talk about when, why, and how to intervene.
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.
If you are the parent of a girl, there is much for you to celebrate. Because of the nature of the subjects I teach (music and theatre) the reality is that most of my students are girls (with some notable, wonderful exceptions) and working with them is a wonderful joy. They are organized and mature, and full of something I can only describe as life and light. When I think of my female students as parents and teachers (which I think of as the highest callings as they are what I do) and leaders of companies or governments, I rejoice. Their intelligence, competence, energy, and deep goodness will be assets to the future and I believe they will change the world in many good ways.
Talking about girls and boys in education is fraught with danger. You are almost sure to offend someone. Sadly, many of these discussions are politically charged and highly polarized. While I welcome civil debate and dialogue, I'm not in the mood for an argument. So, if you want to disagree, you are most welcome. But if you leave a charged, accusatory comment, just know I'll probably delete it. It's sad that we have to throw out so many qualifiers and caveats, but here we go. I want my students of both genders to live happy, fulfilling lives. I think that right now in our culture, boys and girls both face a lot of challenges that could keep them from this goal. Some challenges are general to their age group, while some seem specific to their gender. I think being a parent and a teacher means that you need to be aware of these challenges and act accordingly. I hate the idea that if you try to help your girls, you are anti-boy, or that if you are worried about boys, you are anti-girl. Hogwash. Good teachers and parents care about all of their students equally and are concerned about anything that might rob them of happy lives.
But being equally concerned does not mean that you are concerned about the same things. In large measure, my girl students face one set of challenges, my boy students another. If we are to help them, we have to be honest about this and understand that different cultural phenomena have disparate impacts. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule and anything I write about girls could we usefully applied to some boys. And vice versa. But at some point, you can get so tied up in knots that you end up not saying anything. And I think this is important.
There is an old cliche about the military--that they always want to fight the last war. I think that to some extent, teachers and parents do the same thing. During the 90s there was a lot of concern about various issues with girls. These issues were discussed and an on-going effort was made to address them. I'm not saying we're done. But at the same time, I think that we're still focused on fighting some of the battles from 20 years ago and are oblivious to some newer threats.
There is one threat that concerns me a great deal because I worry it will rob the girls I teach of the ability to live a happy, successful life. In fact, there are a few things that sometimes keep me up late at night worrying about my students. And this is probably the biggest fear I have for my female students. But I don't hear it spoken about much. I should also note that some boys struggle with this as well, but I don't see it with them nearly as often. I did 20 years ago, but now not so much. Instead, I see this with nearly all my girls.
Let me start by saying that I define success as living a happy life, engaging in productive activity of some kind, helping others, and fulfilling the goals you set for yourself. To me, success is dying someday thinking, "I had a good life."
Imagine a hypothetical middle-class girl coming of age in today's world. Statistics suggest that if she simply follows the cultural mainstream and there are no interventions of any kind, she is likely to do well in school, go on to college, probably advanced degrees, get a job, and will most likely achieve some degree professional success depending on her level of ambition.
The reality today is that a girl who simply floats in the cultural mainstream will most likely be taught in many ways that she should be ambitious, that her ambitions are good, and that she should focus on fulfilling her dreams and goals.
However, this is where things begin to get tricky. There seems to be a lot of attention paid to achieving goals and following dreams, but less so to prioritizing and deciding which of those goals and dreams are worth the effort. Assessing whether it's healthy to do everything. In other words, we are saying very loudly, "You go, girl!" But we are not providing very good roadmaps or direction on exactly where to go or what to do along the way.
I recently read an article about a new phenomenon being observed more frequently: young women in the corporate world, mostly-unmarried and childless, are burning out by the age of 35 or 40. These were women with bright career futures, women who were not generally dividing their efforts between home and work. Experts were at a loss to explain it (although many tried).
I don't pretend to know all the factors, and I'm sure there are many I don't understand. But I have an educated guess at one of the factors.
Many of my female students have difficulty participating in an activity and simply enjoying the intrinsic benefits. Instead, there is an almost frantic focus on achievement and success, as signified through external metrics. For example, every year, I encounter a growing number of students for whom being in the play is not simply an artistic and/or social experience. Rather, it is an important stepping stone. It is a box to check on the resume, and it is important to quantify it. Therefore, having a lead is important, or having an official title.
People have always wanted leads. That is not new. People wanted them for various reasons in the past: personal glory, the excitement of a challenge, personal growth, etc. But now, I feel that students want them because it is important to excel, to achieve and this is one way to denote that. I feel that this is especially true with young women.
In recent years, titles, awards, and other markers of success have been increasingly important. I perceive that students are participating in many activities, not because they are inherently rewarding, but because there is a drive for girls to achieve and excel and to have that measured and quantified in some way.
This is driven, I think by many things. I have noticed that there is a very steady and consistent pressure on young women as early as elementary school. Some of that is parental pressure and I think that comes from three sources. First, I see parents who are justly proud of their daughter's maturity and competence. In celebrating these traits, however, they unwittingly create a situation where their child to prove this over and over. A steady pressure builds, with each success not being celebrated as much as creating a ratcheting effect where the pressure mounts for the next big thing to be equally or more successful. Secondly, some parents are very focused on having their daughters have a resume filled out for college. Thirdly, some parents seem to feel driven that their daughter will compete with any possible boy in any possible endeavor--which means she must excel in every possible activity and endeavor.
Pressure is also exerted by a culture which increasingly tells women they can and should have it all. Many girls seem to have absorbed this cultural message, without ever receiving any guidance that might balance, channel, focus, or help them contextualize it.
So, I see bright, wonderful girls achieving, achieving, achieving at younger ages. At first glance, it's exciting to watch. It's gratifying for parents and teachers and I'm not arguing that we should impose artificial restraints or discourage achievement.
But I do think we need to teach wisdom and balance, provide guidance and context.
Eventually, life teaches us that you can't always be the best. You can't do more and more and still give everything 110%. You can't be valedictorian and the lead in the play and feed the homeless every night and be a champion kick-boxer. At some point, you will wear out and burn out. Energy is a renewable resource only when used carefully. Time, while renewable, is finite and limited.
It used to be that we recognized that some children were good at math. Some were good at art. Some were great at reading. And so on. Now, we seem to want every child (especially girls) to be academic superstars, stand-outs in every subject. While playing travel soccer, doing Tae Kwon Do and saving sea turtles. That sounds exhausting to me.
Not every goal is going to be of value to every life path. I am constantly amazed and delighted by how much young women can do. They have tremendous capacity. But that needs to be carefully watched. Stewardship and judgment are called for. They have long lives ahead. Their childhoods and adolescence should be times of preparation and growth, developing the intellectual, emotional, and physical resources for a long and happy life. Middle and high school should not be the culmination.
Achievement in the early years, should be, I think, a by-product of pursuing joyful activities, and not so much an end in and of itself.
It sounds exhausting to me to begin at a young age and start worrying about achieving and defining success almost solely by external measures. Instead of having a childhood, many female students seem to be having an intense, extended internship. So, yes, if you start being a super-achiever at 10, or younger, then I can see why you would start to burn out at 40. That seems very predictable to me.
I'm all for kids achieving amazing things. I directed my first full-length musical (91 kids) at the age of 15. It set me on my current path and continues to be a point of satisfaction. But I didn't do much else, including homework. And I did it because I wanted to. It grew organically out of my interests. It wasn't about creating a resume (although that was a happy side benefit).
I think that we should help them any child learn to ask some basic questions. 1) Do I really want this? 2) Is this worth the inevitable sacrifices and trade-offs? 3) What are those trade-offs and sacrifices (in my experience, neither girls nor boys at this age have much concept of what these are likely to be). 3) Is this something that is going to bring me joy or am I simply doing it because I to achieve something? 4) Does this move me towards the goal of living a balanced, happy, life? 5) Do I want to do this, or am I trying to please someone else, or prove something? 6) Are my reasons for doing this fundamentally intrinsic or extrinsic? Again, all of this is true for boys as well--I just don't see such a push for them to always be stand-outs in everything.
I think one of the best things that a parent can do to help a daughter prepare for long-term success (and by that, I mean the ability to live happily in the life she chooses) is to help her relax a bit. Parents might want to relax a bit, too. Life is more than a college application. Remind yourself that your daughter is a child. She doesn't have to be CEO yet. Yes, she may have tremendous capacity. But as an adolescent, she is, by definition, young and immature. She needs to develop perspective, balance, and emotional maturity. I wish more people understood that being mature in one domain (being organized, for example, or responsible) does not mean that the child is equally mature in all other domains and facets. Some very organized students might not have a lot of emotional resilience, for example.
That fact that she gets good grades and is mature in many ways for her age does not mean that she's done growing and ready for the adult world yet. The fact that a red wagon can carry some loads successfully does not mean it is ready to be used as a moving van. If you keep heaping more weight on it, it will collapse one day. I think children (both boys and girls) need longer, more protected childhoods, and that childhood is the best preparation for happy, productive, adulthood.
Help her realize that not every test and assignment is make-or-break. Help her realize that there are, and always will be, trade-offs. Help her learn to pursue activities for their inherent value, not because one must always be "successful" as defined by very external, narrow markers. One does not need a formal title to enjoy an activity or to feed one's soul. Being goal-oriented can be a good thing, but not everything can or should be measured in goals. At a minimum, goals should be carefully chosen to focus on personal growth as opposed to fairly limited notions of achievement.
It seems to me that this approach is far healthier, and far more likely to lead to a satisfying and joyful life lived on one's own terms, instead of a a joyless life of box-checking, resume building, and eventual burn-out.
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!
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...
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