One more post about Trevor Day School, that I posted with RSVP:
I have been directing a show. I had previously resolved not to talk about it here. I mean, it’s not “relevant theater”, it’s not pushing the limits of what I want to do artistically. But it was nonetheless
a tremendous challenge and workout for me as an artist. And now that opening night has come, I realize that I do actually have a lot to say about it. I directed Willy Wonka Jr. at the Middle School Trevor Day School.
First of all – some major victories. Not a single curse word or put down. Not once did I say shut up… though sometimes I really wanted to. Really. I think I was able to conduct myself as a professional and a teacher. A good omen for myself as a teaching artist. (This is my first
long-term foray in educational theater at the non-collegiate level). I had to interact quite a bit with other teachers who had a less extensive knowledge of theater. Though I think that could have used some improvement, I think it was successful and I learned a lot as I went. I dealt the most with the gentleman who was hired to cover the T.D./teacher/general everything theater person while
she was on her maternity. Both of these people are saints. He really does everything! We have both pulled a number of late nights over the past few weeks, he certainly more than I. I owe him a lot with the success of this project. But nevertheless -hours, manpower and in some cases knowlege are limited, so a lot became a game of negotiation. And as the time was so limited - an hour and a half a day for three and a half weeks (about 33 hours –less than many equity shows!) for an hour long musical with middle schoolers who have had absolutely no theater experience. I found that I wasn’t able to teach as much as I wanted. So it became “don’t face upstage – because I said so”
rather than giving them the chance to get it viscerally. I think as an outsider I have some good insight for some improvements to the program, I look forward to a post-mortem.
But what I really want to talk about was really what I gained the most from this experience. One of my favorite writing teams is Ahrens & Flaherty. I don’t know everything they’ve done, but I like everything of theirs that I ever heard. Funny enough, Seussical, one from their canon was the runner up show for this project. My favorite show of theirs is not Ragtime, as many others would say, but Once on this Island. A beautiful story about love and death and gods with fantastic music. It has one of my favorite lines in all of theater, and one of the reasons I believe art is
such a noble profession:
“For all the ones we leave
And we believe
Our lives become
The stories that we weave”
Another from Into the Woods “Children will listen”. There are a dozen other clichés that I can
think of off the top of my head, you get the idea. There’s something very important about passing on the story to our children. And to me, they are definitely children now. I at several points said in all seriousness “when I was your age…” (When did I become so old?) But it now becomes clear to me how important teaching theater is. We are moving the magic along. “We are the wishers of
wishers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” and how will our children be those things, if we don’t show them? This includes some of the theater basics “Don’t talk upstage. Don’t point with your downstage arm. Sing out Louise!” But more than that. Storytelling in one way or another is a defining indicator of a culture. Looking back in history, you look back on the art a people leaves
behind. Seeing those lightbulb moments from these kids, “oh! He HAS to drink the fizzy lifting drink so he can admit his guilt so he is worthy of the factory!” they got it! They understand! The story has been told! Very little is more gratifying than that. There is such power in a good story and now they have experienced making it happen.
It was so heartwarming to see the excitement on their faces as opening night came. I was blocking the curtain call and one of the Oompa Loompas said to me, “we get a bow too? The FIRST bow? But we are the least important part of the show!” They were just so overjoyed to be up there, that the thought of receiving applause and recognition hadn’t even occurred to them. I of course neglected to mention why they were in reality getting the first bow… that will be our secret.
One more thing I learned about why it is so important to teach theater, now more than ever… At the beginning of every rehearsal, almost every single student had their laptops out. I set a “no laptop rule”. It was like I had taken away their dog. They had no idea how to occupy their time (is reading out of the question?) We are losing the ability to live independently of our electronics. We don’t feel as comfortable interacting with each other one-on-one. Just being with each other. We cannot allow that to happen. Why else are we here? Not to check facebook, not to play Angry Birds, or whatever game is popular at the moment. That is what theater can do. Bring us back to each other, even if in
this case its only for 58 minutes.
Teaching is hard work! Not that I’m not having a great time. Honestly the biggest obstacle at this point is time. We only work for less than two hours a day – and that’s after the kids have had classes, so they’re already kind of worn out. But nevertheless we are making progress. The first “act” is done. We made it into the factory on Friday. So now we’re starting to work with the Oompa Loompas! We had to do it this way (chronologically) as to give the design team time to figure out what we are actually DOING in each room. I think everyone is pretty excited about some of the solutions we’ve come up with.
I continue to be surprised that this process is what the school subscribes to. In fact they have done so for several years. It seems especially stressful for the teachers, several of whom aren't used to the fast-paced world of theater. I am looking forward to debriefing with everyone after this show is over. I think I have some great ideas to help them improve this important program and maybe alleviate some of the potential problems that I have observed. I do want to commend all of my colleagues though. They are doing amazing work and seem to be ok with the demands of this project. I am having a great time collaborating with them as well as the students.
I’m finding that some of my biggest personal challenges involve the fact that these kids have absolutely no foundation in theater. I am having to teach as I direct. Under most circumstances I’m fine with doing that . In fact I’d prefer it. I get to mold their technique the way I want. MWAHAHA!!! But with time so limited I find that at some times I just have to tell them to do something without explaining why. Why you should gesture more often with your upstage hand for example. Even so, its not in their body after me simply mentioning it a few times, so I have to remind them often.
One other thing that has surprised me, and this doesn’t have as much to do with theater as with generation differences. I was finding that one of the reasons that there may be some focus problems during rehearsals was the fact that nearly every single kid was working/playing on their laptops when they weren’t being used. So I instituted a no laptop rule... It was like I killed their dog. How on Earth could I do that? What would they possibly do? Their lives were on their technology. I got at least three excuses looking for a loophole so they could open them and gaze upon those lovely screens. Which makes me wonder: how did I get through school without one? I am writing this blog on the second laptop I have ever owned, the first not entering my life until my adult years. But to them: going off-line inconceivable. A laptop is essential. I even caught a few of them sneaking a peek in the back. A very different world. One that maybe needs theater even more. For two hours, you have no choice but to be connected with the other people in the room with limited to no electronic assistance. So in a circuitous way, kids and their laptops are inspiring to me. Of course breaking through the technological barrier presents a challenge. But it is one that I think it is one that we must commit ourselves to surmounting.