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. That's sort of the way it goes as any casting choice is going to yield one happy person and several unhappy ones.
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 and theatre teachers 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, directors 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. 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 and miscast someone. Sometimes the director was wrong, and sometimes the performer maybe didn't quite invest all he or she might have--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, nor can 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 fairly 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. Not everyone who can sing well can sing the same things well. Not everyone with talent is good at everything.
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. Think about Idina Menzel and Kristen Chenoweth in Wicked--both brilliantly talented women, but you'd not switch their roles. Talent is not interchangeable.
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. Now, that being said, a director's job is to put on the best show he or she can. So, if an amazing actress tries out for the witch and an amazing actress tries out for Dorothy and they are close in height, there might be something to be done with the set, the way things are staged, and the costume. But still, you get the idea. There are limitations that the director can't change).
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 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.
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.
Every year after each play, I select a picture from the production. That picture is used to make a framed poster than hangs in the theatre (and my office) forever--so it's important to get just the right one. I'm torn between several choices. I'd love to hear your thoughts--which would you choose? Leave your vote in the comments. Note this is purely an advisory vote, it is totally non-binding and I retain full and final say in the ultimate decision :)
One of the drawbacks of my profession is that my professional success essentially rests in the hands of 12-14 year olds. Yeah. Think about that for a minute. If they do their work well, then I'm the most amazing director ever. If not, then I'm losing my touch.
Because of the nature of theatre, there are ups and downs in every production. Moments when you are sure it will be the greatest thing ever, followed periods of certainty in which you are quite sure that you'll be lucky if you can get a job as a bagger in a grocery store.
These ups and downs are even more pronounced in middle school theatre, I think, simply because adolescents are, by nature, up and down. So, a production filled with them will naturally reflect those ups and downs.
So, until the performance, one just never quite knows how it will be. I've heard coaches talk about how they don't know if they'll win a game or not--it depends, they say, on which team shows up. I feel like that sometime. I see how the play can be good--or not. Depending on which cast shows up that night--the focused, energetic one, or the giddy, goofy one. The funny thing is that theses casts are made of the same kids.
All this to say, I'm delighted to report that opening night of My Fair Lady was good. Actually, very, very good. One of our best, I'm told by people who would know and whom I trust. I'll post pictures when I get them. I'm excited to see them, actually, because I always knew it would be a visually beautiful show. But I'm happy to say the students lived up to the quality of the sets, costumes, and props. Magnificently.
This is not an easy show and I was apprehensive about choosing it. But it fit the talent profile of the students I have more perfectly than anything else I could find. So, I took a deep breath, jumped, and we did it. So proud of them.
This shot below is of Prof. Higgins' study. It's part of a turntable that revolves to reveal different sets at different times, and this picture is taken from the wings off stage left. The study is ready to be turned into place.
I know I'm strange, but one of my favorite things in the world is looking at empty sets--ready to be used but not in use at the moment. There is something about the latency and potential of it all that really intrigues me. The other picture is an opening night gift. I post it because I also really like cookies.
Every spring, I see an interesting phenomenon. Spring, of course, is the time when schools have auditions for show choirs and ensembles and fall musicals.
At this time, I almost always get a few requests to work with a student to help them prepare for their auditions. Some of these are students with whom I've worked for years, or who have taken lessons with someone else. In this case, it's a matter of helping them refine the technique they've developed for the purposes of a specific song, or helping them choose material that showcases their strengths. This is relatively simple.
However, usually, these are people who've never had a voice lesson, or who have gone years without one. They are often people with some talent, but very little training. They, or their parents, hope that within 3 or 4 lessons, I can help them become amazing.
In the past, I've taken all comes and done my best to help them because I genuinely want them to succeed, and frankly, I'm not in a financial position to turn away most work. I think I will not be doing this anymore, though, because something interesting happens.
These students generally don't do all that well. In three or four times, of course, it is very difficult to help someone advance to the point when they can compete with someone who has been studying and practicing for years.
No one thinks they can overeat for years and then spend a few days not eating and get to the same weight as someone who's been cautious for years. No one thinks they can take four or five dance lessons and then compete with prima ballerinas, or work out four times and run a marathon.
And yet, many people really believe that a few lessons will make a difference for an audition. Again--they can be useful for tweaking what's there, but they can't build a solid foundation and a beautiful castle on that foundation in a short time.
And when that happens, guess who's fault it is? Instead of them saying, "Hey, thanks for your time. The audition probably was better than it would have been otherwise, and I appreciate doing all you could for me," I usually get anything from icy silence to passive agressive smack-downs. Yeah. That's right. Your kid had three sessions with me and it's my fault you didn't get into show choir/the musical? I don't think so. One of the most dissatisfied former clients was someone who had spent literally ten years or more pursuing a particular athletic activity for about 40 hours a week outside of school. I almost laughed when they were surprised that 5 lessons didn't make them as good a singer as they were at this other activity. I wanted to ask if they could give me 5 lessons and turn me into a champion in this activity. But I didn't.
I think that our society does a lot of things wrong, and one of those things is that we require kids to start activities earlier and earlier. If you want to play basketball in high school, you better start when you are three. I don't like that, and I try to push back against it. I don't think young children should generally take voice lessons. I don't expect an 8th grader to sing like a pro. It's not natural or healthy, in my opinion.
But, at the same time, on the other end of the spectrum, some people think there is a quick fix--that time and effort, preparation and habits aren't important, that everything can be instant in this world. And that's a real problem, too. If something is important, you have to prepare. That doesn't mean going crazy and losing balance. It doesn't mean neglecting other things in your life. And I think it's totally fine to discover a new hobby in middle or high school. That's great! But you can't expect to compete at the same level as those who have been seriously pursuing it for years. A degree of common sense and good judgement is called for here.
The lesson I think we are forgetting--quickly--across our entire society is that choices have consequences. Some are good, some are bad, some (most) are mixed. There is no perfect path. There are, instead, a series of trade-offs and pay-offs. You reap what you sow. You simply can't have it all, and especially not on your own terms, whenever you want it, just because you want it!
So, if your child wants to participate seriously in the performing arts (or other activities), you need to think about this. How much time and money do you want to spend on training and practice? How big a priority do you want to make it? What are the objectives in mind? You can choose. But realize that your choice is going to have some natural consequences with it. My wife and I don't want our kids to do travel sports because it would take up our lives and cut in to precious family time. That's fine. It's our choice. What's not our choice, though, is then to expect that our kids will be able to compete at the same level as those who have done travel sports since they were in Kindergarten. And if I expect to hire a coach to give my kid private lessons over a three week period to help him suddenly get to that level, then I am not thinking through things very clearly. Singing, acting, dancing--these things are all the same.
One of the most important things I've learned about working with middle school kids is what I call layering. I believe that they can do great, great things, but one of the fundamental limits they have is that they can only think of one or two things at once. So, when we have a tech day, it starts at 8:30 with the stage crew. We go over all the set changes and then run it. Then we have the older kids come and run it again. Then we have the younger kids come and run it again.
On Saturday, we use props and lights. On Monday, we do props, lights, and costumes. On Tuesday, we do props, lights, costumes and hair. On Wednesday we do props, costumes and hair and makeup.
When I teach a large musical number, I find if we get the general contours down--or if everyone learns the melody, then it's easier to go back and teach a few kids the harmony or different steps or whatever.
This took me years to learn this approach as in professional theatre it's usually opposite--you basically rehearse everything as it's going to be right from the start. When I started teaching middle school, I had this same orientation, but it never worked that well and over the years, through trial and error (mostly error) I finally figured out the approach I now use which I think of as layering.
I learned this in a theatrical context, but I believe that the principle can be applied to nearly every endeavor where an adult wants a student to accomplish something that is complex and difficult.
As adults, I think we're a bit more accustomed and developmentally able to think in multi-dimensional terms. Middle school kids aren't like that. They need to master one thing. Then you add another. And another. So get the room clean. Then add another small thing. And another. And another--and throw in lots and lots of rewards along the way.
As I've mentioned (1,009 times), last week I had the absolute joy of directing 133 students in our school's production of Hello Dolly.
It's such an old-fashioned musical--a musical from the late 60s based on a play from the 1930s about life in the 1890s. Many of the major plot points rest on cultural practices or beliefs that simply don't exist anymore (clerks living with their employer and being fired for going out on the town, matchmakers, widows shocking the world by working and so on). In fact, when I first started rehearsing, I almost felt like I was directing a Shakespeare piece in terms of having to fill the kids in on various cultural and historical details so they could understand what was going on. So much has changed since this musical was produced. So much has changed since my high school performed it in the 80s.
So, why do it? Why do these creaky old shows? I've been thinking a lot about that. My students all want to do Wicked and Hairspray and High School Musical each year (never HSM!!!!!) A lot of other theatre educators choose to do lots of edgy social commentary stuff. So, I'm definitely marching to my own beat here.
My first priority is always to find the play that provides the most opportunities for the most students and that fits the talent profile of a given class—which this play did--I had some boys with great voices. I had some strong altos and very few sopranos. I needed a play with an expandable cast--and so on. Dolly was uniquely suited to these specific needs in many ways. But, logistical demands aside, I believe that there is tremendous value in being acquainted with some of the great works of the past—and that is true in literature, art, music, as well as theatre.
Hello Dolly is not great art. I know that. Even within the genre of musical theatre, it didn't break ground like South Pacific or My Fair Lady or Oklahoma. But it's a well-crafted musical and, at one time, had great appeal and took it's place as the longest running show on Broadway for a time. Even today, audiences still enjoy it. I was amazed at how many people commented on how good they felt as they left the theatre.
So, although I wouldn't call it great art, I do think it's a classic in those terms. Something becomes a classic because generations of people find it funny or poignant or meaningful. It tells us something about the human condition that we find resonant with our own lives.
It is the great bias of the living that they occupy unique, usually uniquely difficult, times. And while it’s true that many things have changed over the years, human nature remains remarkably consistent. The value of a classic is that it helps overcome our bias for now by lifting the curtain of contextual details to reveal something about the human condition.
Some parts of this play are dated, and are linked very specifically to a certain time and place. But there are other parts that are more universal, that deal with concerns humans have expressed as long as we’ve been recording our thoughts: love and loneliness for example.
I believe that at least one purpose of an education is to gain the ability to understand and appreciate a classic—to gain the interpretive tools and background knowledge to allow us to transcend the bias of our contemporary mindset and appreciate and enjoy the classics in any genre or discipline.
The truth is that Hairspray and Wicked are fun shows that have things to say. But the students today need no help to access those. They can do that on their own. And, as wonderful as those shows are, they are only the latest creations in a rich and robust theatrical tradition that spans thousands of years! The job of a teacher is to help unlock this rich heritage.
That is why we still perform old shows like Hello Dolly; On a more elevated level, it's why we read Dickens and Shakespeare and look at pieces by Degas and VanGogh. It’s why we listen to Bach and Beethoven and Handel.
These pieces have shaped our culture and world. They have informed our culture today and they belong to us! And I believe our lives are richer when we have the ability to enjoy and learn from them. That's why I am proudly old-school.
I love these pictures from the big finish of the title song of the play (Hello Dolly). I think they capture the joy of the song and the energy of these kids. I'm so proud of them.
Going into the big finish...
And here we go to the big finish
Opening night was last night and, my goodness, I was so proud of those kids! It really went incredibly well. To the point I'm a bit nervous about tonight. To see these kids in all their adolescent glory--dealing with all the concerns and vexations and worries they have--out in front of everyone singing and dancing their hearts out is really quite amazing. Knowing them as I do, and knowing just what it took for some of them to do that, and the sacrifices they've made, makes me love them all the more.
I'll post photos in a few weeks when I get them back, but the sets and props and costumes were really something. Our community, led by some amazing parents, has poured heart and soul into making the kids look great. And the kids seem to have absorbed that and used it as a springboard to a greater performance.
I often feel a bit guilty when I see how much time people devote to doing costumes or scenery or props or selling tickets and so on. Theatre is notoriously transient and fleeting. We work for months and then it's gone after three days. Is it worth all the time and trouble? All the disruption in people's lives and routines?
I always ask myself that question and towards the end of rehearsals, I always start to waver. But then, on opening night, I always come to the same conclusion. Yes, it's worth it.
It's worth it for the pride the kids feel. It's worth it because it makes them feel important and special--that they are worth that effort. When you are an adolescent, that's a helpful message. It's worth it because it's beautiful and helps make the audience happy and have an enjoyable experience for a few hours.
But I think there are deeper reasons, lessons I hope my students will absorb. I've decided to try to figure out ways of helping them understand this more consciously. It is profound for students at this age to see people doing work and doing it well. Life is work. If we are normal, we will spend a lot of time working in our lives and doing work well and joyfully, or at least with satisfaction, is one of the keys to happiness.
So, even though I feel a twinge of guilt when I think of all the time the parents are putting in, I love it that the kids are seeing them working hard, working joyfully, working generously, and working well. Doing the job right in spite of how long it will last or the low material reward. Work is inherently worth doing well.
There's another thing I love about this. These parents are all doing this with no compensation. They're doing it because some things aren't about money. The worth and value of some things far exceeds any price that can be affixed. That's another lesson I hope the students learn, one that is in short supply these days.
And finally, doing big stuff, ambitious things, is tiring. It is exhausting and one needs to be careful not to live an unbalanced life or to just do big things for the sake of doing big things. Small can be beautiful too. But big projects remind us that humans are remarkable creatures. We can do terrible and brutish things, and we can often fail at the good things we try. But we can also do wonderful, beautiful things that we don't always think we can. In a time of so much uncertainty and worry and doubt, I think that is a good thing to remember. Even if it's just a big thing in one relatively small community, for three nights for 135 kids, I like it.
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Thoughts about raising and teaching adolescents. You can read the complete series here. (What in the world are Middle School Mondays?) Click here.
Genre: YA Paranormal
Genre: YA Speculative
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