Let’s play a game. We’ll call this game: Role Play. You have the role of the new troupe director. Your partner in this role play is playing the President of a parent booster club for the drama club. Your President is also a teacher at your school, and also has a student in the school. The President holds a lot of money and volunteer time in her hands, and her child has a measure of acting and singing talent, and works really well in strong character cameo roles. The President would like to know why her child did not get the main role in your first production as Troupe Director, especially as the person you did cast was not a senior whereas the President’s daughter is. How do you respond?
This “imaginary, hypothetical” situation (if I use no names, then its hypothetical, right?) highlights the peculiar nuances of the tightrope act of first year troupe directing. An immediate skill required of you as Troupe Director is the ability to communicate effectively, efficiently and diplomatically to numerous stake holders. This will include parents of students in your class or cast, booster club presidents, administration (get VERY friendly with your Assistant Principal of Administration: you want to be sure you have your theatre spaces booked WELL in ADVANCE – guess how I know this), the band and chorus teachers, and the students in your charge. This last block is the one you will be spending most of your time modeling how to act as a good citizen, let alone teaching and coaching them how to portray the various characters they will adopt in production. A large majority of my time is spent coaching students how to communicate their conflicts, clashes and commitments to me and to the various adults they are in contact with. Which leads me to the central issue you need to grapple with as troupe director: people management. Absolutely, we do this all day in our classrooms, but in any given production the scope of ‘things’ widens exponentially, and if, like me, you go in with merely vague ideas about how you’re going to deal with various scenarios, then you might pick up some scrapes and bruises on the way. Maybe a broken bone or too, occasionally.
If you’ve never done this before, then it could be helpful to ask yourself the following questions: What will you do with absent cast members? Three strikes and out? Excused for sickness? How many family emergencies can one cast member have? Do seniors get priority for main roles? I made a spectacular miscalculation on this one, and for our first production, cast a Freshman as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. God was really kind to me and she had to pull out before we got started, so I learned my lesson and cast someone else. A Junior. Whoops. How will you ensure that all your cast feel vital and loved? What will you do about unseen backstage shenanigans, such as gossip? How will you deal with students who believe they know everything about acting, and disagree with everything you say/stand for? What about those who know nothing? How will you grow the program and get more males participating? When is your show – what sports seasons does it clash with? Do you have cast who want to do everything, and want to be in two places at once? What is your plan for when your lead actors drop out one week/day/hour before opening night? Is double-casting an option? How’s your relationship with the band teacher? With the chorus teacher? If you do a musical, will you have help and support from these vital individuals? What are your Principal’s standards of what’s acceptable to be associated with your school name? (If administration and the community are not willing to go to the more liberal end of the theatre experience, you might want to shelf that production of that Mark Ravenhill play that involves shopping and another more explicit activity.) How will you deal with parental involvement? Is there parental involvement?
The very real fact is that your first show is going to be judged. Whether you’re in a situation like mine, where I am the third troupe director in three years, or whether you’re following someone who did the job for 5, 10 or 20 years, everyone is going to want to see what you bring to the table. And fairly or unfairly, your whole program will be judged according to this first production. Don’t let that phase you! “No pressure!” Your first public exposure is like a culminating project; the community, the administration, the students are the ones who set the task, and are scoring it according to their own prescribed rubric, with many different hidden strands and criteria they will want to see it meet: do seniors get preferential treatment? Is it a big cast? Are there students who’ve never been in a show before, or is it just the same three actors who always get the main roles? Is it fun? Is there room for me?
So make this easier on yourself. Be ambitious, for sure. If you have plans to build the program, build up gradually. I look back and feel proud of being able to include an additional 35+ elementary aged school children to perform as Munchkins in addition to our cast of 25 high school students, but it was a super headache in terms of scheduling, slotting it together, people management, and such things. Nothing will prepare you for your first show quite the same as doing it, but if I were to do it over, I would have gone in with a definite plan of what we were going to do in each rehearsal. I would have made sure I had plotted and choreographed every single scene before first day of rehearsal. And I would have realized sooner that musicals are a ton more work than a regular play – it all looked so easy on the performance side! Our first production turned out to be fairly successful, for all the stress and headache of it being my first production. Learn what you can from others, especially from others mistakes as well as successes. If you’re reading this on the EdTA website, you already know how helpful this community is in solving problems and fixing things. Read, learn, do. It will be the only way to improve your practice and the experience for your students.
I would love it if others could add to the questions you need to ask yourself about scenarios in the comments section. It would help me a great deal as I continue to find solutions from the work and wisdom of others. Thanks for reading!