Back in business

The theatre business, that is…

In my last teaching blog post, Highs and Lows, I talked about our fall Thespian production and how we produced it offsite at one of our sister schools in the district because of an emergency mold and asbestos abatement that occurred in our building in the fall. Through the great challenge of the experience, our students successfully transferred our production to a different venue. So much so, that we were asked to do a reboot of the show on our own stage on the Friday after we returned to our building from winter break.

We spent that first week of January preparing the production, a 30-minute version of the monologue piece called “American Dreams” by Linda Britt, which highlighted a series of immigration stories. It was a very timely piece, especially since the vast majority of our school district’s families are first- and second-generation immigrants. Our staff and students connected easily to the material, because many of the stories were a reflection of their own experiences. We were really excited about jump-starting our drama club experience in our own house with this piece.

Alas, despite four days of tech meetings and rehearsal, those out-of-our-control obstacles always seem to get in the way. Over the course of those first three days, half of our cast members wound up quarantining from COVID exposures. In addition, an unfortunate snow storm was going to move in during the wee hours of Friday morning. There would inevitably be a snow day, so we preemptively decided on Thursday to postpone the event, in hopes of giving our entire cast a chance to shine in front of a live audience.

Of course, the disappointment of putting things off was there. At the same time, I was also putting off spring musical auditions, because between the pandemic and the sudden shift back to remote for asbestos really decimated our students’ connection to Thespians. I had chosen to do “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” because there was only a requirement of six people in the cast, and there was flexibility in being able to cut sections if the need presented itself. It is also a lovely, small show that I had wanted to do for many years, but because of the small casting requirements, it always stayed on the back burner. This year, with our Thespian troupe rather emaciated from pandemic attrition, it seemed apropos to bring it to the forefront. After all, we were still dealing with the Omicron variant and we had no idea if we would have to go back to a remote situation. With this production, I had the ability to go big or small, depending on who turned out for auditions.

We normally audition in December, just after we close up the fall show, but since we weren’t going to return to in-person until after the new year, I decided to wait and see how our fall reboot went. Maybe we could garner a little more interest and inspiration if more kids saw the production onstage. Rescheduling the performance for a week later, we showed our mini-production that Friday to six socially-distanced audiences and streamed it for the rest of the school to watch in their classrooms. It felt incredible to officially re-launch Thespians on our own stage for the first time in two years. Our seniors were reminded of the glory they experienced in the fall of their sophomore year, the last time they worked a live show at our home base. That success was the signal for our spring musical season to begin.

In early January, just when we returned to the asbestos- and mold-free building, the chorus teacher approached me to let me know that there was a young man, a senior, who had a nice voice and seemed like a responsible student. I had asked my colleague to keep an eye out for anyone in his classes, particularly young men, who might show a spark of interest in trying out for the musical. I hate to say I was desperate, but when student actors aren’t banging down your door, you need to do a little (a lot of) recruiting. He came through and walked a lovely, quiet young man down to my classroom and introduced us. I asked him a few questions, mostly to make sure that he wasn’t being coerced into meeting this strange dance teacher lady, and there seemed to be a genuine interest there. I gave him some information about the show and auditions and told him I was looking forward to see what he could do. I was hopeful that he would show up.

Another nice recruitment story: after one of the reboot performances, another colleague presented one of her students to me, saying how much he had enjoyed the show and how he might like to join Thespians. After a few more probing questions, it seemed like I might have another performer to test out.

Just over a week later, we finally held auditions for “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” They were live and in-person in the dance studio over four days, and nine eager performers (including the two new young men) stood before me waiting for their direction. I took them through a watered-down version of what auditions used to be like pre-COVID. Before the pandemic, the studio would be brimming with students – the competition was significantly higher and they felt a pressure in those few days to stretch themselves in ways they had never before considered they could. Dance auditions were crowded, electric, and kids were literally “on their toes” to show everyone what they could do, even if they were a complete novice.

This year was a kinder, gentler version of musical auditions, which included my two newly-recruited friends. Prior to the first day of auditions, I was quite unsure if I would even have enough students to actually cast the show. Fortunately, experience dictated that I just needed to have patience and faith; they would be there. This year was no different.

Vocal auditions were day one, and the performers experienced their first “step forward and sing a verse” angst. Day two: acting auditions, where they had the chance to read short monologues for several roles and “play” with different characters. On day three, we danced a jazzy routine to the opening of Snoopy’s “Suppertime,” where they brought their best snappy, Fosse-like movements. They warmed up with jumping jacks, planks, and a game of freeze tag to bring out their latent inner children. I showed them the no-nonsense director/choreographer, barking orders and staying a few steps ahead of them, keeping them guessing and alert. They started pegging each other for different roles through the process, helping each other along the way. It was the early seedlings of developing a new family unit; finally, it felt like Thespians was back.

On the last day of auditions, we ran the dance and I put them through the paces of dancing three at a time, since that’s how things had always gone “back in the day.” Once we finished, I sat them down, handed out scripts and told them their parts. This was unusual, because usually I’d post the cast list the next morning and run for the hills so they could process the news. Since all nine were going to participate, I decided to get things moving. Not giving them any time to think too hard, we got to work and started our act one read through.

The read through took two days and was a lot of fun. We were all sprawled out on the studio floor, the kids read their parts and I played the songs for them to hear (which most had already listened to the music on YouTube in order to figure out what the heck this Charlie Brown musical is). They were fantastic, doing their best to do a cold read with some sense of characterization, singing along with the tunes they were familiar with. We were all relaxed and eager to get started. When we finished act two, I had them clear the floor, open their script to page one, and staging began. In a rehearsal-and-a-half, we had the opening number on its feet.

One of my favorite parts of rehearsals are the epiphanies: those Aha! moments where I am suddenly inspired to try something. It’s a split second of a moment when a new idea comes to me, my eyes bug out, draw a quick breath and blurt out “Oooo I have an idea!,” which endlessly entertains the eagerly-awaiting actors. There’s usually an “uh oh, there she goes again” uttered by the veterans, because they know they’ll be doing something off-kilter, or silly, or fabulous. I had one or two of those moments in those first rehearsals, thus indoctrinating the newbies into the chaotic mind of a crazy director. By the end of the number, they felt accomplished, satisfied, and looking forward to the next rehearsal.

At the end of the rehearsal, we all sat for a little debriefing. I explained how this is the process of making theater happen in person; we get something on its feet and get back to it later, but not before we start putting something else together. It is a manic, overwhelming, discombobulating affair. It is also the most fun that they will have in their high school experience. (Not that I’m biased or anything.) I’m really looking forward to taking this group of kids through their first high school musical on our stage. I’m also praying that we can make it to the beginning of April without going back to remote learning.

One day at a time.

2 thoughts on “Back in business

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