Open Forum

Canceling a Show

  • 1.  Canceling a Show

    Posted 12-07-2018 03:34
    Hello collective hive mind!

    I am in a really difficult spot. We have a show next week (MS play) and the kids are just not ready. We have done everything to prepare them, had extra rehearsals, etc. It's not that they aren't excited about the show or lazy, they just can't remember their lines. We have had 5 weeks to prepare (not my choice, the administration set the time frame and our musical ended right before we started rehearsals) and in our latest run, they skipped 8 full pages of dialogue! I don't want to cancel the show, but I also don't want them to embarrass themselves on stage. I've looked into cutting stuff out, but then we miss major plot points and 2 of the cast would then get almost zero stage time. Tickets have already begun selling, posters are up, the school has obviously spent money on the show, because of our school calendar, there is no other time to put the show in this school year.....I'm just at a loss as to what my options are, if there are any to be had other than canceling.


    Joshua Watters
    Drama Teacher
    The American School of Kuwait

  • 2.  RE: Canceling a Show

    Posted 12-07-2018 08:33
    In my 42 years in the classroom, I had this happen a couple of times.  The first time it happened my administration said "Do it anyway.  Let them flounder and fail... just like a basketball or football team that loses a game.  Maybe it will teach them to learn their lines."  I felt that approach was counter-productive and would not only discourage the kids but hurt the program as a whole.  Canceling the show was out of the question for me as I didn't want the cast to feel like they had failed or, worse yet, think that quitting when challenged in life as acceptable.

    I decided to restage the production as a reader's theatre.  The cast members were positioned on stools with music stands and they read the script.  This still gave them the opportunity to develop a character and tell a story.  It also challenged them to use only their voices and facial expressions (and perhaps a few hand gestures) to bring the story to life for the audience.  We worked a little lighting magic and the kids wore the costumes that were indicative of their characters.

    I don't know what play you are doing, and if it requires a lot of action, this might not work.  But, with some creativity, a high action play can still be done in this style.   This was a really successful remedy to the problem and the audience enjoyed it a lot.

    Best wishes.

    Terry McGonigle
    John Legend Theater
    Springfield OH

  • 3.  RE: Canceling a Show

    Posted 12-07-2018 09:42
    The readers theater idea is very smart! You could also have them perform with scripts in hand. Or, if it fits the style of the play, you could make the missed lines part of the show - either you or a student is on stage and on book, and you "yell" at the kids when they miss a line. The person on book could get more and more worked up, and end up storming off or passing out near the end. Of course, that won't work if you're doing something like Our Town.

    Ken Buswell
    Drama Teacher
    Peachtree City, GA

    Theater kills ignorance

  • 4.  RE: Canceling a Show

    Posted 12-07-2018 10:55
    I've been in a similar position a time or two with my JH plays and my advice is not to cancel.   I've never canceled a show altogether,  but I did cancel one of the scheduled performances to allow more time to practice.  I thought I was saving the kids from a potentially humiliating experience on stage, but I think the kids were more hurt by losing out on a performance.  I think it ended up being more humiliating than canceling that performance, as it made them feel like they had failed and that I didn't have confidence in them.  That is not the message you want to send as a director and I vowed never to cancel a performance again.

    I like the idea of a reader's theatre, if that can work with your show.  If that won't, consider hiding scripts on stage or having one of the actor's on stage secretly have a script and act as prompter.  (I had to do this for a play once.  One of the actresses had to carry a book as a prop anyway, so we stuck a script in there and she was able to help keep the play on track.)  Last year, I lost the lead in my JH play a week before performance and the new lead didn't have time to memorize the lines.  He was playing a detective and was supposed to be taking notes over the course of the play, so I glued all of his script pages into the notebook.  Be creative and you can find a clever way to give your actors some extra help.

    All in all, have faith in your students.  Let them know that canceling is not an option and that as a team, you will find a way to make this performance work.  The end result might not be exactly perfect, but your kids will rise to the occasion and put on a show that your audience will enjoy.  It never ceases to amaze me what our students are capable of when the curtain opens and the lights come up.

    Derek Friederich
    Thespian Troupe 417/Speech Coach/Jr. High Drama/Fine Arts Center Technical Director
    Postville IA

  • 5.  RE: Canceling a Show

    Posted 12-07-2018 10:56
    I second the reader's theatre idea.  Given the time constraints for the project, it understandable that they are having difficulty.  With reader's theatre, you can have them have scripts in hand, stools/stands to sit/hold their scripts, and have some minimal blocking as needed.  You can also still have costumes, props....etc. depending on their ability to do blocking with the script. If you explain to your audience (or in a director's note) about the format for reader's theatre, they will be right on board AND you introduce your students to another performance format while also giving them the opportunity to feel proud and successful.  Good luck!

    Sonia Gerber
    Director of Theatre
    Wayzata High School

  • 6.  RE: Canceling a Show

    Posted 12-08-2018 06:29
    I directed middle school for about 9 years and now I'm at high school. I've come close to canceling a couple of times. I agree that if you can disguise a prop as a script for the one actor who can't seem to memorize lines- do it. Or hide the script on stage - usually I had one actor in the middle school who simply could not memorize and I've either hid scripts or had a prompter behind a piece of furniture. I've also had one experience with high school where I came very close to canceling because the script was just too long and I think I overestimated my actors that year and everyone had trouble. I ended up hiding scripts everywhere I could as well as having a prompter behind a couch plus I cut the end off of the script. It worked until someone did something on stage that made the actors want to crack up and  they lost all focus and it about ruined the show, but they got through it. It was learning experience for both them and myself. You might consider (next time) giving some lessons on how to memorize lines at the start of your rehearsals- e.g., have them make audio tapes of the script and have silence when it's their line (they can mouth the words to give the audio enough time for the line) and then play it over and over for themselves and try to say their lines in the silent parts. You can also play a game where you have them in a circle and say a word, the next person says that word plus a word that is associated with that word, and so on until the last person says all the words- tada! Memorization! It's all about association- listening to the person who says lines before them and not thinking of what they need to say but why. Another thought is to choose your script and have auditions a couple of months before you start your rehearsals since you only had 5 weeks- they then have a couple of months to work before your rehearsals begin.

    Rachel Cunningham
    Elwood IN

  • 7.  RE: Canceling a Show

    Posted 12-08-2018 09:09
    I feel your pain and frustration and hope you'll take comfort in knowing how often this happens in the professional world, especially with new plays in development. But don't cancel!
    I know of Broadway and off-Broadway productions that used a prompter sitting on the front row and can cite Roundabout's Broadway revival of Road to Mecca starring Rosemary Harris as an example I personally witnessed. With a prompter on book actors can call for lines and the prompter can also interrupt and get the actors back on track when they jump ahead.
    The role of an onstage prompter has a long history; Patrick Tucker talks about it in his books on the original staging of Shakespeare. Based on antique engravings and portraits, he suggests that actors carried scrolls onstage during performance, a one-handed and subtle way of having their cue-scripts available for a play that may have never been rehearsed. (His Secrets of Acting Shakespeare: The Original Approach is a revelation.)
    The staged reading idea is also a great idea. Working on plays in development I've done a lot of staged readings and they can be really powerful, just the actors and the words. Personally I prefer actors either sit in place on chairs or stools or use two rows of chairs, one in front for the actors in the scene and one in back for the actors offstage, with simple entrances and exits rather than doing a fully backed version with scripts in hand. Chair placement can represent relationships; moving from one chair to another can help understand the scene. Putting scripts on music stands keeps the actors from staring at scripts in their laps.
    I was just having a chat yesterday with a director about actors not learning lines as easily as they once did. Decades ago young people memorized poetry and Bible verses all the time. I'm wondering if has become increasingly harder for students to learn lines.
    I hope you'll find an exciting solution to your problem. Side-coaching is still a convention in improv; why shouldn't we bring back the prompter?

    Arlene Hutton
    Playwright: Letters to Sala, I Dream Before I Take the Stand, Kissed the Girls and Made Them Cry

    faculty, The Barrow Group, NYC

  • 8.  RE: Canceling a Show

    Posted 12-08-2018 11:05
    I've done it--Amadeus. I set a ten week rehearsal process. The kids had been used to doing very challenging theatre extremely well. The set and costumes were flawless, but all but four cast members were not even close to being off book. Lots of playing around in rehearsals and limited focus. Some newer kids in leading roles.  I gave them two deadlines and threatened to cancel the show if they weren't off book. They didn't meet either. I asked them to show me ONE scene off book to prove we were making progress, they could choose the scene. They couldn't do it. Not one single scene a week before opening night. I was frustrated and blamed myself.  I mentioned possibly doing Readers' Theatre. The comment was "Really? So we never need to memorize lines again?". That ruled that option out. I finally said to the actors playing Salieri and Mozart, "Let's work Mozart's death scene and go backward through the show". The kid playing Mozart responded, "I die?".  That stopped me dead in my tracks.  It was time to follow through on the threat. That proved to me that there was no work going on outside of rehearsal and that I can't do everything.

    I went to the admin, explained the situation, and got permission to cancel. I called a full meeting, told them the show was cancelled and gave them letters to take home to parents. Interestingly, not one parent contacted me. Several told me later that they were thrilled I "brought the hammer down" and taught their kids that less than their best was never acceptable. The crew was furious at the cast.  The result? A LOT of crew members auditioned for the musical. Guess what? They could sing, act and dance, but had just been afraid to try. The musical? Sweeney Todd--in five weeks. It was incredible. Why? Everyone was fully off book in a week--one week--way before my deadline.

     Am I happy we didn't do a show? NO. I spent a lot on set, costumes and wigs that still have never been used. However, it sent a big message. As an artist, you must do your best at all times due to your responsibility to the audience.

    Another teacher asked if I couldn't just put a note in the program that "This is the best we could do at the time". I commented that we will not produce anything less than art. It would be the same as the choir singing half a song and then stopping.

    My alumni network now tells my kids they'd better do their best--or else. It's a whispered rumor from upperclassmen any time a kid doesn't know lines. "Don't you mess this up. What can I do to help you learn your lines? I don't want this show cancelled! You'd better be professional". The story gets brought up every time they are organizing and cleaning wigs and find the unused wigs from the show. I've never had an issue with kids being off book again.

    Harsh? Maybe. But it helped in the long run. We had issues with kids thinking things were ok "because I did it". Now they know they have to meet an artistic standard. They know we love and support them and will do anything we can to help them, but we can't do things for them.

    I know everyone's climate and dynamic is different, but knowing what I know now, I'd cancel again in a heartbeat.  It saved the integrity of my program.

    It's a tough choice, and you sound like your kids are farther along than mine were.  One thing I have used that helps is having them retell the entire show in two minutes, Then retelling an act (so they add more details), then a French/English scene, then a page and so on until everyone in the show knows the script well. (The Amadeus group couldn't do that!) Good luck!

    Dr, Doug Erwin
    Director of Theatre-McCluer Troupe 787
    K-12 Fine Arts Coordinator
    Ferguson Florissant School

  • 9.  RE: Canceling a Show

    Posted 12-09-2018 17:43
    Joshua, presuming you aren't out for snow next week, as we are here in Asheville, NC, I've got a few suggestions that have worked for me.

    1.  If you haven't already, get into the same boat as the students.  "Our show" and "we" are important things for them to hear, especially if they are doing their dead-level best.

    2.  Acknowledge that you had a rehearsal time frame that might have been a bit short, but the performance dates are not negotiable.  Simply shutting out the possibility of canceling can help kids (and their director) find a second wind.

    3.  Practice multiple memorization strategies.  Here are some that work for me.
    • Divide the show into beats, and have them improv dialogue for each beat in order.  That should get the order of the show into their heads.
    • Movement prompts memory.  Work with the students to modify and sharpen blocking so that it is very purposeful and not falling into patterns that put actors in the exact same places on stage for passages they have trouble remembering. 
    • Movement prompts memory.  Ask the actors to come up with gestures that illustrate the meaning and objectives of their lines, and have them use those gestures every time.  If they can't come up with gestures on their own, have them mime the scenes, expressing everything without words.
    • For the first 2 rehearsals next week, have your stage manager spit out the next 2 to 3 words any time an actor hesitates.  (If you don't have a stage manager, try to find a reliable student to put into this job.  I'm saying this because you might not have been there long enough to attract students interested in stage management.)
    • Tell the actors to read over their lines immediately before going to sleep, after they have shut down technology for the evening.  Their subconscious brains will sort through all that as they sleep and turn it into long-term memory.  
    4.  Remember that you have nearly 20% of your allotted rehearsal left, and that is an enormous amount of time for high school students.

    5.  Last, do something centering with the group before you begin rehearsal.  Standing in a circle is powerful.  You can have each actor quickly list one personal goal for the rehearsal--all positive.  Or you can simply lead them through inhaling and exhaling together.  Anything will calibrate them for more productive rehearsal.

    They can do this!

    C. J. Breland
    Asheville High School
    Asheville NC

  • 10.  RE: Canceling a Show

    Posted 12-10-2018 17:50

    I once directed a production of You Can't Take It With You. My Penny never did memorize; it just wasn't important to her. She skipped a rehearsal to help her boyfriend pick out a tux for the prom. Her mother intimated that it was my fault and asked if we could delay the show so the daughter could memorize. We did not delay or cancel.

    Unless there are dire circumstances, don't cancel the whole production. There is a contract between a cast and the audience. We announce a show and the audience expects us to honor that commitment as best we can.

    If you are going the readers theatre route or have actors go on with a book in hand, recast the offending actors. If their going to read the lines anyway, get someone who may be more committed. Don't reward the bad behavior. Don't name names, but do a curtain speech that explains that do to some difficulties, some of the actors will be carrying books.

    I saw this at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where both the actor playing Romeo and his understudy were unavailable. They found a suitable actor, taught him the sword fight, and he went on. The other actors wonderfully ushered him around the stage and the audience rooted for him.

    On the Tuesday before a Thursday opening of West Side Story which my wife was directing, the parents of her Tony pulled him from the play. They were trying to force her to close, because they found the musical immoral. She did canceled the Thursday night performance, and opened on Friday instead. She replaced the Tony with an actor from the play. Pulled him out of classes for blocking and to memorize the lines. When other actors could get our of classes they came to help him with lines.

    I had to replace a Claudius in Hamlet, only two weeks before opening. He was mostly memorized. It was a modern production, so the new actor went on stage with his lines on a computer tablet which he used like a prop for his business-like character. There are ways to make it happen without canceling.

    Unfortunately, memorization is becoming a lost art. In a world with an eight-second attention span, the work to memorize is boring and hard. With the advent of computers, we don't have artificial intelligence, we have artificial memory. And an over-reliance on that form of memory.

    Whether you cancel, recast, or do reader's theatre, always ask the question, "What lesson am I teaching?" The commitment to an opening night? There are consequences to actions? The show must go on?

    Break all your legs.

    James Van Leishout
    Olympia WA