I’ve had a fantastic semester with my first ever theater arts class. Performing is something that has been a passion and pursuit of mine since grade school. In fact, before the idea of teaching ever crossed my mind, I had the goal of majoring in musical theater and trying to “make it big” as an actor and singer. While my career changed direction, my love for theater still exists, and when I found out that I’d get to teach a semester of theater arts, I was pretty pumped.
I’ve had many awesome experiences teaching this class. We started out learning about theater history in America–many people don’t know about the massive cultural influence that dramatic works have contributed (and still do) to our nation’s history. I later worked with students to build their acting skills, spending time developing the basics–we began with how to stand and walk with confidence and created characters from there. I pushed my students to think about the physicality of their characters down to the smallest nuance–the fingers, the eyebrows, the spine–to notice how everything combines to send a message of emotion and personality. We worked on vocal projection and characterization, then on chemistry as we practiced showing character relationships through touch, expression, and vocal reaction. I taught design basics for costumes and sets, and watched students present detailed sketches of their creations. We sang pieces from musical theater. We read and analyzed Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to explore the idea of the “thinking man’s play.” Above all, my students had me laughing my head off on a daily basis as they presented witty skits and played improvisation games. I was… pretty much in heaven. As much as I love writing and literature, (and film, food, art, animals, cities, the ocean, etc.) theater is definitely a competitor for the position of What I Love Best. Sharing that joy with students is extremely satisfying.
The week before spring break, I talked to my class about the idea of a final assessment. Aside from the theater history unit, all of my assessments for the class had been performance-based (naturally). I liked the idea of a final performance that would roll together everything that they had worked on throughout the semester, but I wanted to get an idea of what they’d be comfortable with and willing to take on. To my surprise and glee, they were gung-ho about presenting a “for real” performance. The following was our process for getting from concept to curtain in seven weeks flat.
WEEK ONE: We started with an initial discussion to answer the vital questions–Should we present an already-published play, or write our own? If we write our own, what should it be about? Should we invite the general public, student body, or just family members? Where should the play be held? When should it be held? Once we got those basic questions answered, we decided upon an evening performance, in the auditorium, for the general public. We also decided we’d like to write our own material. The most popular idea was a “fairytales retold” type of story where characters from different tales could intermingle and run into some strange situations.
Once the concept was clarified, we began to mold it into something. Since all the students would be acting in the show, each student chose a character they’d most like to portray on stage. Then, five small groups were given two days to write twenty minutes of original material based around the characters of their choosing. Each group presented a reading of their script to the entire class. After each skit was presented, we had another full class meeting (with me taking down minutes in real time, displayed via LCD projector). We discussed the aspects of each skit idea that we liked or disliked, and started listing ideas for ways in which we could fuse the material together. Since one group’s skit was about a self-help group for fairytale characters, the students decided that we could use that situation as a device to jump off from into “flashbacks” of the stories that led up to each character’s arrival in therapy. It sounded good, and we were ready for week two.
WEEKS TWO-THREE: When students arrived on Monday, they were expected to join a committee in order to focus and specialize their work as we prepared for the performance. I reiterated that in order for any type of performance to get off the ground, I needed my class to work hard for me, and I needed to be able to trust that they could collaborate like adults. If I was to be the director and orchestrator of this extravaganza, I knew I would not have time to spend energy on classroom management. The classroom needed to manage itself. In order to help the students with that, I introduced them to the criteria I expected them to fulfill in order to recieve participation credit. I used this document: HOW TO COLLABORATE LIKE AN ADULT , which may be the most useful classroom document I have ever written. My students took it to heart, and got down to business at a level that, truly, stunned me. They were Ready To Go, so I just got out of their way.
I provided the structure of the committees that they could choose from. The Writing Committee would be in charge of taking the current skit ideas and using them as a starting point to create a full one-act play of 30-50 minutes. They used Google Docs to collaborate and communicate as they worked together to develop the script. The Production Committee was in charge of all the show’s technicalities–designing, determining, and creating all costumes, set pieces, props, and lighting. These students also functioned as the show’s set crew in addition to acting. The Promotions Committee handled the design of all promotional materials, like posters, t-shirts, and locker signs. They were also in charge of organizing fundraisers (thanks to these kids, we raised nearly $300.00 to cover all of our costs via community sponsors and a massive bake sale). The Student Direction Committee helped the writers develop characters, and eventually worked alongside me to coach our cast on their acting. One girl even put together a student directing handbook as part of her senior English project. Finally, the Mangagement Committee created a calendar, helped me (and everyone) stay on schedule, and determined all the channels we needed to go through to secure a performance space and get our fundraisers going.
We spent two weeks meeting in committees in the library, where there was plenty of space to gather around computers, or scatter paperwork across big tables. I also gave each committee one “Official Theater Arts Business” pass so that they could move about the building as needed to check in with administration, fetch keys for the costume room, or obtain raw materials. While students occasionally, and without intent to harm, overstepped this freedom a bit, they were extremely productive and responded to my guidance about the etiquette that neccessarily accompanies the trust they’d been given. While they worked, I did too–mainly in order to get us a performance space that wasn’t already taken on the one evening we had to work with. Graciously, the middle school in our district was able to offer their auditorium. We set a date and things started to get real!
WEEK FOUR-FIVE: On the first day of week four, the script was hot off the press and we did our first readings. We walked through rough blocking and gave the students a chance to familiarize with their characters. We made some edits based on character consistency and the reality of our set budget, so the initial script quickly went through a few iterations. One scene was completely rewritten. After everything seemed pretty finished, we got down to serious business as far as building convincing performances, choreographing chases/falls/fights, and growing increasingly comfortable with the flow of the story. Meanwhile, students who weren’t being coached were building set pieces, running lines, or folding programs. This all happened in my classroom every day, with all the desks pushed back against one of the long walls. I also lucked out in a huge way as my next door classroom neighboor, the wonderful Mr. M, offered his room as additional space for students to run lines. As a fellow performer, he also offered some tidbits of advice to the budding young actors that came his way. By the end of week five–just as the calendar required–the kids were off book. (Mostly…)
WEEK SIX: On week six, we started traveling to the middle school auditorium during our class time to rehearse. Again, luck was definitely on our side. Both the high school and middle school administration were very accomodating with our daily journey, not to mention the walk between buildings only amounts to about 9 minutes of travel time. The first two days were completely “prop commando” as my students called it–no props, scenery, or lighting at all–as we got used to the space. On Wednesday, we started adding props, lighting, and scenery as much as possible. After-school obligations began to appear for me: picking up some costume rentals and hauling large set pieces/costume items between buildings. The show was really coming together. My inner director was busting out all over the place. As kids played their scenes I was constantly barking out corrections and encouragements. (The most popular things I shouted each day were probably “I DIDN’T HEAR ANY OF THAT”, ”YES! BETTER! KEEP GOING!”, and “FIX IT NOW”) I had hearty chuckle at least eight times a day, due to my students’ hilarious stage antics. I started to fret a little bit though. Several kids were still consistently missing their lines, and nobody was loud enough to be heard from the back rows. But nevertheless, the announcements were read and posters were posted. There was no going back, so I got my game face on.
WEEK SEVEN: Monday through Wednesday of the final week, we ran troublesome scenes and worked the many transitions between scenes with lighting and set elements. We finally had all our set pieces, costumes, and props, so we made sure we knew how and where all those things would move and contribute to the show. And I stopped supplying missing lines. Those first couple days were rough to watch the students grope and stall, trying to resurrect those occasional forgotten lines whilst a tidal wave of frustrated silence practically flattened me. We also had “projection bootcamp” to improve the volume of students’ voices onstage–I sent them to the next door classroom and we listened to each other through the wall. It greatly illuminated the difference between a projected voice and a regular one, and everyone improved quite a bit. By Thursday, we were ready to rock. We held an additional dress rehearsal after school, which went fairly smoothly. Afterward, witches, warriors, princes, and wizards sat on the front of the stage, feet dangling, as I gave them each last-minute corrections. The show would be the next evening, and we were nearly ready.
On Friday in class, we went over the logistics of the afternoon and evening as well as some last minute reminders. Students also got one more chance to practice troublesome scenes. Of course, some t-shirt decorating and general excitement also took place. We did one more run-through immediately after school, without costumes or makeup. Then, we had an obligatory unofficial meeting at Jimmy John’s. Mr. M offered his generous co-chaperoning services, which I gladly accepted. Everyone was in great spirits, excited and happy, including me. The peaceful feeling of “it’s as good as it’s gonna get” started to wash over me. I knew my kids would be great.
We returned to the auditorium and the students started getting their hair, makeup, and costumes ready. Nostalgia overwhelmed me as I thought back to the many productions I’ve taken part of in the past. It was strange and beautiful to be on the other side of the process, knowing the nervous anticipation and excitement that they were feeling, calmly bustling a dress that had suffered a slight rip, gently painting monkey and joker faces, giving out those “You’re going to be so awesome” encouragements to ease nerves, and ushering the students backstage as audience members started to arrive.
This can only end one way, right? The show was absolutely fantastic. The characters all showed up, including the overzealous villains, cantankerous fairyfolk, and lovestruck princesses. My students executed everything perfectly, nobody forgot a line, and the audience loved it. I was floored by how well they did, and overflowing with teacherly pride. Probably the best part of it all, other than having the special privilege of getting to watch them do their thing in spectacular fashion, was seeing all my students bounce out from backstage after the last bows, smiling and jumping happily in their assorted wings and capes and tails and crowns as they ran to greet family and friends. Pure happiness. And a great accomplishment for each and every one of them.
It was a small play, in a small auditorium in a small town, with a small audience. But it was one of the biggest things I’ve done as a teacher, and I couldn’t be prouder of my very own theater arts classroom company.
**All images used with formal consent of students’ guardians and/or student self-consent if eighteen. Skillful photography by Ms. J. Editing for blog purposes by yours truly.