As readers of this blog already know, we are HUGE advocates of musical theatre in schools. But we are also the first to admit that putting on a musical is hard work, especially for the teachers. It is the teacher who is usually expected to be the director, choreographer, stage manager, and producer; all while still being a teacher!
That is why we have asked Kimberly Patterson, the Theatre Arts Teacher and Performing Arts Chair at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida, to write this series for our Spotlight On Musicals blog.
The series outlines the process of putting on a musical from start to finish, providing helpful tips and maybe even some new ideas. Topics include:
- Applying for a license with a publisher
- Budgeting and creating calendars
- Assembling your team
- Running rehearsals with a student crew
- Working with your technical theater team
- Managing the house
…and many others. Whether you’re a seasoned producer of school theatre or you’re just starting out and have suddenly been put in charge of it all, this series will have something for you.
Thus far, we’ve posted PART 1: Selecting a Show & Securing Performance Rights, PART 2: Creating Your Documents, PART 3: Assembling Your Team, PART 4: Casting, PART 5: First Rehearsal, PART 6: Table Work, PART 7: In Rehearsal, PART 8: Production Decisions, and PART 9: The Tech Team. Now it’s time for…
No one ever WANTS anything to go wrong; however, there are bound to be hurdles and challenges along the way. It’s easy to tell you to maintain a positive outlook, keep a calm demeanor, and treat everyone with civility and respect. It’s hard to maintain those qualities while you’re in the middle of it!
Below are some common challenges, and some suggestions for ways to approach them.
There’s nothing worse than a student who misses too many rehearsals, even if you have a signed contract from the student and parent indicating the attendance policy. It’s unfair to the rest of the cast and crew, and can have a negative impact on the quality of the production. Refer to this contract and warn the student that he or she isn’t sticking to this commitment and there can be consequences. I’m a fan of second chances, but only one.
Start preparing your understudy or plan how you’ll re-configure the blocking. If you decide you need to reassign the missing child’s role, switch up casting, or remove him or her from the production altogether, be sure to keep the parents in the loop. It doesn’t hurt to let a parent know about the absences and about the warning. This can be an incredibly difficult decision for you to make and a heart-breaking consequence for the child, but time management is an important skill and your production is still taking place in an educational environment.
Actually, it can be worse if there is a serious reason or circumstance beyond the student’s control, like illness or a family emergency. In this case, as before, begin preparing your understudy and look closely at your script. If possible, maintain close contact with both the student and parents. If you do need to make a change, try to find a way for the student to keep a connection with the show, whether in the ensemble or in another production capacity.
First, the dreaded cellphone. After implementing a “no cellphones backstage” rule with so-so results, I’ve started collecting them at the top of rehearsals. The cast hates it, but we do stay on task. They check them at breaks, and can let me know if something important at home is going on so that I can keep an eye out. A hanging shoe organizer makes a great cellphone holder, and each pocket can be personalized with the student’s name. Also a good spot for keys, wallets, IDs—anything important that can be easily misplaced.
If needed, add a code of conduct to the student contract, and, as with attendance problems, refer back to it. Does your school have a policy on assigning detentions, and might it be an option for extracurricular activities? If you have enough adults to spare it, place one on backstage duty. This can be a two-fold benefit: it discourages disruptive behavior and provides a source of assistance to the kids if they need it
If you, gentle reader, happen to be an administrator or parent, I know that you would never engage in any behavior that would make a drama teacher or director crazy. But it does occasionally happen.
- An administrator has questions about the script after you’ve started working on it
- Another teacher desperately needs to use the auditorium on a night you’re scheduled to rehearse
- A parent wants to help with the production… by telling you how to do your job
These situations are incredibly challenging, but they can be survived. Hopefully they are all caused by misunderstood communication or lack of knowledge about a situation. And, to be truthful, many people who don’t work in theater don’t always have a sense of the amount of work it can be to put on a show. They might not even realize their requests are causing strife. The best thing you can do is to stay calm… take a step back or take some time before you respond (especially if you’re going to send an email). Negotiate politely and fairly, but firmly. Learn to pick your battles and determine if the looming conflict is going to impact the experience for the students or the quality of the show. If the answer to those questions is “no,” sometimes it’s best just to let it go.
If an administrator has a concern about the show—even if it’s already been approved— find out specifically what the issue is. Maybe he or she has only seen a Hollywood film version of the show (HAIR, DREAMGIRLS) and has unrealistic expectations. Perhaps there’s a concern about language; can you explain that the show is set another time period and represents life as it was then (CABARET, PORGY AND BESS)? These concerns can transform into meaningful discussions and teachable moments, which is what makes theater such a powerful medium. Remind your administrator that you can’t change the content of the play, but you can add a parental guidance notice on advertising so that there are no surprises, and give the audience a chance to decide for themselves.
Part 11: Tech Week
Kimberly Patterson is a two-time graduate of New York University, with an undergraduate degree in Dramatic Literature, Theater History and the Cinema, and a Masters Degree from the Gallatin School. Her program in Individualized Study focused on performance studies, dramatic writing, and technical theater, and her coursework included scenic design, puppetry, and “ritual-as-performance.” She spent more than a decade in New York City working in Off- and Off-Off Broadway theaters in almost every capacity possible. As a playwright, her plays have appeared in the New York International Fringe Festival and the New York Musical Theater Festival; her musical, Oedipus for Kids!, is published by Samuel French and has been produced around the U.S. Kimberly has extensive experience working with educational technology, and has managed online content and curriculum development for McGraw-Hill, ProQuest Education, and Curriki.org. When not working behind the scenes in Oxbridge’s auditorium, Kimberly plays Japanese taiko drums and is a performing apprentice with Fushu Daiko.