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The Show Did Go On!

By Hugh Fletcher posted 08-06-2018 23:01

One might have noticed that I’ve been relatively absent from the Community for most of the past school year. While I tried to remain in touch with what questions, concerns, and solutions my fellow educators have posted, for me, this past year was physically, emotionally, and creatively draining. It was one of the most creatively challenging years of my career—a year full of doubt and discouragement, that lead  to frustration and reevaluation. 

I began this school year with a situation that’s common to many Educational Theatre programs, but had thus far been foreign to me. I only had one boy in my program. Being that I started this program with a group made up predominantly of talented, but unruly 6th and 7th Grade boys, I had never experienced this kind of deficit. In some ways, I was a victim of my own success. The previous two years, I had a large number, and diverse group, of performers. Unfortunately, this gave me the allusion that my program was growing. When the 2017 class graduated, I was left with only five returning performers, only two of them 8th Graders.

I was at a loss as to what I could do. I didn’t want my one boy to lose interest or feel unfomfortable. He was committed, but I knew realistically it would only be a matter of time before he would start to waiver. Additionally, I couldn’t think of a single show to accommodate one boy and seven or eight girls. I began to wonder if this was the end of the Theatre Department. He was eventually able to recruit another boy, and I decided it was time for me to select a show and hope for the best. I selected Aladdin: A Tale From the Arabian Nights, by William Glennon. This show allowed me some gender flexibility, and if need be I could recruit some former students, as I’ve done for previous shows. It was also a good way to showcase the talent I had. I then discovered something that hadn’t crossed my mind. The 6th Grade boys didn’t really know there was an afterschool Drama Club. They knew from Elementary school that we produced plays and musicals, but many never knew how it got done, didn’t think they could participate, or were simply afraid to try. They needed this creative outlet and were not being served.

I invited these students to attend that afternoon, and they did. And they stayed. I had so large a group I actually double cast some roles, and had understudies. Problem solved? Not really. What I made for in numbers I still lacked in experience. I’m not just talking about Theatre experience. These students lacked life experience. It’s not uncommon for 6th Graders to lack life experience in other communities, but I was surprised how unaware and sheltered these students were. Many of them lacked literary experience. I’m not referring to their reading comprehension. They didn’t understand basic story structure. They didn’t understand how the dialogue propelled the story, or how the setting influences the conflict, or how you have to know the whole story in order to understand how the individual components intertwine. They had no movement experience. With the increase of time students now spend engaged in sedentary activies (i.e. game consoles and smart phones), they no longer have the physical or spacial awareness, dexterity, or abandon of students past.

This is Educational Theatre, though, so these are not barriers, they’re challenges which will lead to opportunities. The issue was that I now had less time than usual as they had already missed a lot of the foundational work I do in the beginning of the school year. The good thing is that most of the students had seen the Disney animated version, and at least had a sense of the story, though this version differs somewhat. 

My biggest challenge was commitment. Because the students had never been in a program of this nature, they were not aware of the amount of time and effort it required. They and their parents saw it as just another afterschool activity. It was just something to keep them occupied and supervised while parents were at work. If they didn’t attend, it was just like not going to childcare. They had no concept that a full production had to result and how their absences affected the quality of our finished product. They also didn’t understand how their absences affected their peers. Students who were consistent found themselves waiting around because either they couldn’t work on scenes or had to reteach scenes. It was a frustrating process, but I chalked it up to this show being their first.

In the end, everything came together, and Aladdin was a win, maybe even a triumph. The experienced students raised their game, and some of the newcomers came through. The props and costumes, all of which I had to find, including an antique lamp I imported from India, all came together beatifully. I had high expectations for our Spring musical. Great expectations lead to great disappointments. For me, it nearly lead to a great depression. 

Going into the Spring show, Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, by Timothy Allen McDonald, Benj Pasek & Justin PaulI assumed that the work that I put into the Winter show would carry over into the Spring. They would understand characterization, objectives, given circumstances, conflict, and story arch. They would understand how much work and discipline went into a successful production. They would be comfortable on stage, and more open to taking risks. As rehearsals got underway, I found myself back at square one with students seeming clueless about the process. Though they had gone through the process; they seemed to have just gone through the motions. Even more frustrating, we had a hard winter that resulted in early dismissals and school cancellations, a rigorous testing schedule, and a long, untimely Spring Break. Nothing seemed to be coming together. Songs sounded bad, dances looked sloppy, and lines were not learned, or eaven studied. The set wasn’t coming together. Props and costumes had not been procured. Scenes had not been blocked.

When I voiced my frustrations to coworkers, the conversation generally went this way:
“You always get this way around this time, and the shows always turn out amazing.”
“This time is different. These kids aren’t as experienced or disciplined.”
“They’ll come through in the end; they always do.”
These conversations tended to be more irritating than reassuring.

I texted my choreographer/colleague three and a half weeks before opening night.
“2 weeks till show. I don’t think this is happening. I’m feeling very discouraged and overwhelmed.”
We spoke at length that night, and once my head was clear, I realized I had three weeks, not two. I also realized that I had experienced difficulty before, but instead of giving in to the fear of failure, I pushed through and made it work. I had to take responsibility for what I had done wrong. I was nonchalant about absences for fear of pushing children out. I hadn’t made the best use of rehearsal time, focusing on musical numbers and not on scene work. I had permitted students to be unfocused and overly social during rehearsal. I had been a different director, so I was getting different results. I had to get this show together, but I had to get myself together first.

I had to change my expectations. I didn’t lower them, but I did recognize that my expectations for this cast weren’t realistic. I had to see them for who they are, and try to make the best of who they are rather than focusing on the fact that they were not my past students. I had never done a musical with predominantly 6th Graders in major roles. Maybe it was too much too soon, but at this point it was too late. I had to make it work. The set wasn’t what I’d expected, and there were critical components missing. I had to make it work. The survival of this department depended on my ability to make these students feel successful, regardless of what my creative vision or challenges might have been.

I also had to make the students more accountable. So we had “The Talk.” That’s when I sit everyone down and tell them if they’re not committed to making this show happen, let’s stop wasting time and money. If they are, then I need to see them put in the extra work necessary to make this show happen. They did. They were in my room or on stage during lunchtime to practice. I saw them running lines when they had free time in classes. Students were going over choreography on their own, and making appointments with me to work on vocals. I got at the end what I should have demanded from the beginning. All and all, we made it work.

Was it the perfect production? No, but from my years as a playwright I have learned that perfect productions only exist in my imagination, where there are no limitations or factors beyond my control. There are also no surprises or rewards. This production was one of the most important of my ten years as Theatre Director at my school. I learned how I to restart from scratch, and how to make a show work when it all seems for naught. I also learned that I needed to change the way I work and never take for granted that the way it’s always been is the way it will always be. If I persevere, and have faith in the transformative power of Educational Theatre, even when all seem hopeless, the show will go on.