It is official: Summer is over, and school has started (or will be starting very soon in a county near you)! I will trust that you have taken some well-needed time to rest, recharge, and be inspired by the time away from our full-time jobs. I have been slack in keeping up with my blog entries, noting that I haven’t posted since May. A sharp slap on the wrist, and now I’m back. It’s not for want of things to do; since last posting, I have finished National Board certification (and now wait until December to hear about the results), sat in on an exciting project related to End of Course prototype Theatre exams coming out of Florida (and at the same time got to enjoy some great time with my wife and kids in the afternoons and evenings at the fine hotels we stayed in for the duration), ran a two week drama camp for Middle and High school students, and took an entertainment job at a very well-known Floridian theme park. It is an amazingly different job to teaching; the amount of positive affirmation I get from 99% of everyone I met in my entertainment job is incredible, and not a little addictive. You can fill in your own amusing comparison to teaching here (“Wow, everyone’s happy to see me!” “Wow, people are telling me what an awesome job I’m doing!” “Wow! My pay is not determined by how my guests ‘score’ on their happiness quotient for the day – they’re just having a good time!”).
I have a feeling I’ll be writing a thesis on the ways the theme park entertainment industry model could work for education, but I digress.
I’ve been keeping up with the daily posts on the EdTA community boards, and have again been very grateful to see some useful and practical posts. This year will be my second year of teaching Theatre, but in addition I will also be teaching two classes of Technical Theatre Design and Production, so I’m still fairly qualified to write a blog from the perspective of a ‘new’ teacher still scrambling to learn how to do this job right, since Tech Theatre is brand new to me. (Drew Campbell’s Technical Theatre for Non-technical People is the best. Book. Ever. For former professional actors turned educators who were more than a bit slack in paying attention to all the extra bits to do with theatre. I’m paying for it now!)
One of the small headaches or guilty pleasures of this job is show selection. Obviously, it being the first week of school, you have your shows all picked out already, right?
You haven’t? That’s okay. Here are some randomly assembled thoughts, arbitrarily assigned numbers to look more organized. Note two things: a) that this is not a chronological sequence and b), these are some observations and experiences based on one year in the theatre classroom.
1). Subtlety is not always the most assured route to success. For me, subtlety was in short supply when spending the summer walking around a theme park in character and having a whale of a time, so today we will just use what I’ve come to call the subtlety brick. One side is coated in a thick memory foam surface, so it shouldn’t hurt too much. The first consideration is what kind of program do you have? This is a fairly important consideration; if you are inheriting a strong or a weak theatre program, what skill level do your performers have? How many performers do you have? This is going to determine what size cast you’re going to need. You can do a huge scale musical or large ensemble piece, but doubling up 5 roles because you don’t have the bodies can be a challenge. We started off with The Wizard of Oz, and I only had about 20 high schoolers for that (LOTS of doubling, but we winged it). I had 36 elementary school kids as well playing Munchkins, but that was just one scene. Skills and numbers of active performers are your first consideration.
2). Do you need to build the program? Trick question; of course you want to build your program. How do you do that? There are a couple of ways this can be done if we’re talking strictly about show selection; one is generating revenue. If we did not have the elementary kids in our Oz production, we would not have been blessed to make as much as we did, and that extra money really helped our program out a lot. Which means one way of generating revenue is to work in a high number of elementary kids into at least one production for the year. This will absolutely boost your ticket sales, regardless of the play. The other way to boost revenue is to do ‘brand-name’ shows; productions of well-known musicals that have a familiarity yet a freshness to them year after year (and usually decade after decade). The caveat to this is that the brand name shows are a bear in terms of the license fee; but in order to make money, you going to have to expect to shell out money.
3). How elaborate is the set going to be? I try to cheap out as much as possible, as any professional theatre production will try to do (notable exceptions on Broadway left unnamed here for fear of litigation). (Though I am really enjoying the book Song of Spiderman, not that there’s any link there.) Natural rule of economics: spend what you can afford. Don’t settle for low standards, but try and work out: how can I do this inexpensively? For our most recent production, Sophocles’ Antigone translated by Robert Fagles, we re-purposed a single raised platform that held a bed on it from the previous production and split it into two, and then the performance space was a traverse stage in our school gymnasium (it was a blast), so no other set properties were needed. Minimalist theatre is the new black, and you can definitely get away with it for many shows. Just don’t make every show totally Spartan or people will start to think you’re cheap. Which you might be, but that isn’t the best impression to give others of your program.
4). What productions have others done? Watching the posts that spring up in the Open Forum, a frequent question that appears to arise is “Does anyone know a play for a large female cast, with two strong male leads?” Or something very similar. And that is a diamond-studded reason to use the Open Forum, for you have an amazing resource in the community of informed, experienced, talented and knowledgeable folk who probably have a dozen suggestions ready to roll off on the turn of a dime. I don’t claim to have those characteristics myself, but even I’ve contributed answers to a couple of those questions. I truly hope they helped. Or at least gave an idea of what to potentially avoid, at the very least.
5). Have you thought about a connecting theme? This one is totally optional and may well appeal to more OCD types like myself, but as I plan out my next few years, I’m trying to select productions that have a linking theme or idea running through them all. For the 2014-2015 season, our theme is the broadly-defined idea of journeys/integration, with smatterings of immigration. (I told you it was broad.) We will be doing Heart’s Desire, which has the motif of a daughter returning home to her parents after a long stay in Australia, West Side Story which deals with the Puerto Rican/American divide, as well as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo & Juliet. (Romeo goes on a journey to Mantua. See? Journey.) Next year we have a cartoon/character theme as we plan to mount Shrek, and a couple of plays related to other cartoon characters. Following that, we’re looking at a Jewish culture theme as we mount The Merchant of Venice and Fiddler on the Roof. Having a theme can be a great tie-in to your classroom teaching experience. I teach in an area where the Jewish culture is almost totally absent, so I’m very much looking forward to that year and enriching my students’ lives.
6). It might be an idea to look if your season is ‘balanced’ (a comedy, a drama, a musical, a classic, a male-heavy play, a female-heavy play, small cast, large cast, new work, and so on). There are some people who, as much as we want them to, just won’t like ______________ (musical/tragedy/comedy/interpretative dance). One of the parents of a cast member for Antigone proclaimed loudly that “Schools shouldn’t be allowed to put on this depressing stuff.” So it might be wise to mount a variety of things; I do this by a broad rule of including one musical, one comedy, one tragedy, and at least one ‘classic.’ These are fairly elastic, and sometimes one production fulfils two of those criteria, and means I can sleep a little easier at night knowing that there’s ‘something for everyone.’
7). A bonus point here is if you are brand new in the position, be sure to ask the kids who still want to be involved (and you’ll be surprised how much of a difference it makes to whether kids stay involved simply due to the fact that you’re not the previous sponsor), what their last sponsor had been talking about. My kids have a fairly strong idea of what’s coming up in the next couple of years, so if I do get magicked away for some unknown circumstance, the lass or chap that follows me may have an easier job of selecting as the kids have been mentally and physically/vocally preparing for, say, Les Miserables for the last couple of years.
8). Be ambitious, shoot for the stars, but be brutally honest about your current capabilities and comfort level. I have no idea what crazy disease I had when I took over the position last year, but I decided to start with a musical for our first production. I had never directed a musical before. I was extremely lucky to have amazing support in that the former sponsor was still on site (and if you are in this same circumstance, absolutely utilize it!) in addition to three amazing women who functioned as my support (my wife being one of them, natch). Be prepared to experience anything and everything going on, especially if it is your first show. You might want to start with a regular play; musicals have so many moving parts!
8b). Tied into my last point, is be aware of the district calendar of events. I didn’t work out that the One Act competition for our district fell in December; The Wizard of Oz, through mishap and stumbling on my part, ended up being performed on the same dates. I do not want to repeat that experience again of turning up with a hastily re-patched ‘cutting’ of a full-length, overly-familiar musical that might get slammed by the judges because it’s not the ‘full story.’ This year my musical will be at the end of the year, for very non-subtle reasons. I got hit by the subtlety brick way too many times last year.
Finally, be aware of your school community’s standards. Some Principals will be delighted that you’re mounting a production of Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping & F___ing; mine, well – The Wizard of Oz is the acceptable community standard, and that’s okay. Bloom where you’re planted, and work within your circumstances without making enemies of your administration (you really want them to support you)! Above all, do what’s best for you and for your students, and for your community.
If you have any comments or ideas to add on to what I’ve said, PLEASE post them below so I can learn from you. This is only my second year, and these ravings represent a limited range of experience in the educational theatre world. Thanks for reading! I’ll be back sooner than last time.