Directing high school plays was a love/hate experience for me. I loved working with my kids, and I loved directing them, but it was always a time of long, long hours (usually followed by bouts of pretty serious illness from getting no sleep) and trying to balance the demands of directing with the demands of being an English teacher with 60 short stories to grade.
Still, whenever I see a high school play, I always think back fondly on my experiences (and my students), wishing I could take that task on again. There’s such satisfaction in seeing an entire audience erupt into laughter over something a student says—something that took you thirty minutes to pull from him.
I was a very insecure director, probably because, at the time, I was pretty insecure about everything (now it would help if I was a little less secure). Now, though, as I see more and more high school and community theatre productions, I’ve come to see that I did possess many key strengths that directing an enjoyable production requires. I never felt like the shows I directed were ready for Broadway (some directors do pat themselves on the back nicely), but I was always very proud of them. I have since become more so.
There were several principles given to me by my college director (and a few I picked up myself) that I let guide me in directing my shows. Over the years, a few of those principles have dropped by the wayside, and a few have been reaffirmed by what I’ve seen.
1. Never pre-cast shows. This was something passed on to me by my college director, and it is something I am proud to say I stuck to during my time as a high school director.
It’s imperative for kids to be able to walk into an audition and know that they have a chance at getting any part in the show, and it’s only fair. Kids grow in talent and ability, and it’s amazing to see the leaps some kids make in ability between shows, and if the roles are already cast (or if a show is selected for certain students), then they never have a chance.
I directed in a fairly small school, and like most small schools, the number of boy parts in musicals is disproportionate to the number of girl parts. The only thing I did was to select shows I felt like I would have enough boys for and to think over the boys I had to make sure I had several boys from which to choose for leads, in terms of singing ability and range. However, I never once thought about who might be cast, only whether I had a good chance of finding anyone. I simply wanted to give everyone a fair chance.
This actually worked in my favor on the final play I directed at my former high school because a large group of my talented seniors decided not to audition because they wanted an easy spring. Had I pre-cast the show, I would have been let down by missing some key people. (Interestingly enough, I wound up with a spectacular cast that was a pure joy to work with, completely lacking in teen drama, attitude, or ego. It was an amazing experience.)
2. Stir it up. When casting, I always stirred it up as much as I could. Naturally, you have to have the talented people in the key parts, but I worked hard to give many people a chance. As for the actual lead roles, I never once repeated the students as leads because I wanted to give everyone a chance to shine (that is not to say that leads didn’t wind up in large supporting roles in other shows, though even that was never a given). Your number one concern must be the audience, but it’s good to give everyone a chance.
3. Put your audience first. There is nothing more satisfying to a kid than to hear an audience burst into uproarious laughter at their line or to hear someone in the audience cry. Kids will be energized no matter how good or bad a show is, but they feel it more acutely when they know they’ve reached the audience.
I always let this guide me, and I never once regretted it. The kids often got tired during rehearsals when I made them do the blocking for the tenth time and there were mumblings of “Isn’t it good enough?” But I tortured them (and me) by doing it again (and again and again) because I wanted them (okay, and me) to do it the best they could. The audience can feign a standing ovation; they cannot feign mass laughter or any of the other energizing responses felt while performing.
4. Trust the original creators. While there are many talented high school and college directors out there, a relative few of them would ever be ready to tackle a new production on a Broadway stage like a George Abbott, Abe Burrows, or Gower Champion. Don’t try to better them by changing the work.
There’s always room for interpretation, but interpretation doesn’t fall under throwing out scenes, songs, or rewriting the entire libretto. No kidding, I attended one atrocious high school production of Godspell that had been entirely rewritten. Not only was it directed like a third rate kiddy concert, it was written like one as well. Horrendous!
Most people have seen those productions—they cut out “Motherhood March” (since it’s not in the movie and therefore they can’t tell what to do with it), cut out “Rock Island,” or “Her Is.” Often changes are made to reflect film versions, but the problem is that the movie and the play are constructed differently. “Motherhood March” from Hello, Dolly!, for example, is an extremely satisfying number, when it is well-directed. I once heard of a production of The Pajama Game that used a gun instead of a knife-throwing board. Yes, it is a challenge to make the knife-throwing board and walls, but when you do the work, your audience’s response rewards you greatly for your work.
5. Select a show based upon your limitations. One of the most important abilities it takes to put on a great show is your ability to schedule. A show will fall apart if you struggle with managing a tight schedule or cannot work into it needed extras—time to work on accents, the time to locate bizarre props, the time to acquire the right costumes. Unfortunately, this is something one really only learns the hard way. However, if you select Fiddler on the Roof, you’re going to have to work in time to teach your actors—at least Tevye—to speak in a Russian accent. If you’re doing Mame, you have to make sure you have the budget to acquire and the time to find all of those period costumes.
6. Hire a great support team. Whenever I see a high school show, I am always thankful for the fact that I had great set designers, the best high school choreographer, lighting designer, and a wonderful costume designer (and so on). Yes, they were under my vision as the director, but they always far surpassed what I could ever have asked for. They made me look good.
I was very fortunate, for other than the lighting designer and the costume designer, I inherited everyone else from previous directors. Now, if I were to embark on the same course, I would be very careful in finding those support staff instead of taking in whoever was there or finding whoever was willing.
7. Keep it all in perspective. So many high school directors take themselves so seriously. There’s one pretty bad director in my area who gets coverage in the local paper when his shows open. He practically trips over himself patting himself on the back and emphasizing his work in developing his “program.” Obviously, it’s important for us to take our work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. There’s a big difference.
8. Keep seeing shows! So many directors don’t take time to see other shows. It gets to be a little like inbreeding because not only do they not grow as directors, they keep perpetrating the same directorial flaws.
One of the best experiences for me as a director has been to watch other directors take on shows I’ve done. My college director said in doing so, we would learn our weaknesses and their strengths, and that is ever true.
9. Pet Peeve: Not every show is Rent. Ditch the glaring head mics. I recently saw a beautiful production of a period show where the lavish costumes were destroyed by the kind of mics public speakers use. There are great mics that can be purchased or rented that either clip onto the lapel, or better yet, can be somewhat discreetly taped to the forehead and covered with make-up (like on Broadway). In recent years, I’ve seen an increase in high school shows that use these bizarre microphones, and it usually takes me the entire first act to get past the fact that they’re there. It worked for Rent and The Civil War because it gave them the rock concert effect. Oklahoma! does not need a rock concert effect.
the Broadway Mouth
December 6, 2007