Friday, October 10, 2008

Directing The Diary of Anne Frank: Open Up a Can of Kale

When I was directing high school plays, I was constantly exhausted. You have to remember that I did this my first two years of teaching, which is brutal for everyone. Teachers in their first five years of teaching tend to work 60+ hours on a regular basis because everything is done from scratch (and I think English teachers need to work even more). You’re reading novels for the first time, learning short cuts in grading essays, creating engaging activities from nothing.

Add on to that 15-18 hours of drama practice, plus all the subsidiary directing duties (organizing with the creative team, dealing with high school student drama, talking to parents about why their child wasn’t cast as Hines for an hour, ordering lights, sticking around late for the lighting designer, finding costumes and props, cleaning, and so on), and you work a heck of a lot. In fact, my first year when I was directing the musical, I was working 100+ hours a week. I calculated my paycheck, and I figured that I could have been working at McDonalds for 100 hours and earned the same amount of money.

Those two years, I was constantly exhausted, getting four or five hours of sleep on a regular basis. Four times during those two years, I wound up with really bad cases of strep throat, one which laid me up for an entire week (they always happened during the plays).

When I was directing The Diary of Anne Frank, the play has the characters surviving off old kale. That was the semester I had three creative writing classes in addition to my two American Literature classes, which meant that there were about 95 short stories handed in (for two short story assignments), 95 poems (for about five or six poem assignments), and 95 plays handed in, in addition to the usual things I needed to do. It was a hellish semester.

Somehow in my mind, I had it that kale was fish. I was too busy to think about looking it up, so I just figured it was fish and determined that getting turkey Spam would be the best way of having a fish-like substance on the table.

In my last mad dash for props as we neared tech week, I picked up turkey Spam (in addition to cat food, a cat box, and cat litter for Mouschi) and showed my prop person how it should look on the plates.

I made the kids eat the Spam. I figured it had to be better than eating actual fish anyway (I don’t like eating things that swim, unless it’s a really gifted chicken or something), and it was easier to manage than fish. You just open the can, dump, and cut. No need to worry about choking on bones or a funny smell or anything.

It was so funny that first time with the Spam, the expression on the kids’ faces. I started out to cast the show different than normal—my Mr. Van Daan was originally a thin boy who dropped out (because he was upset he wasn’t cast as Peter)—but when he dropped out, my only other option was a somewhat round boy, who was very sweet and did very well with the role but wasn’t the brightest boy on the stage. That said, I actually think he did better than my original Van Daan would have. However, true to stereotype, he dug in to the Spam that first day with it. “Hey,” he said gladly doing his duty, “just eat it. It’s not so bad.” Everyone else groaned.

Nobody in the audience ever did ask me why my kale looked like meat, and it wasn’t until a few years later that I realized kale didn’t swim along the river bottom.

I guess we all learn at our own pace. And maybe Mr. Van Daan wasn’t the only one involved in the production who wasn’t the brightest.

the Broadway Mouth
October 10, 2008

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