Friday, September 20, 2019

Why Directing Community Theater Is Like Teaching

Readers of this blog generally get a dose of whatever is on my mind, and what's on my mind at the moment is theater. I'm coming down to the wire on one more community theater production; The Music Man opens one week from tomorrow (by all means, feel free to stop by). I've been doing this and school theater for thirty-some years, and yes, it's an awful lot like teaching. Once we get the obvious out of the way-- it's all showbiz. Let me count the other ways.

You Work With What You Get

Big time Broadway directors have it easy. If you decide you want to cast someone who's  5'3" with blue eyes and blond hair with a cleft chin and a baritone voice, plus juggling and tap skills-- for the  chorus--  you can have your pick of twenty such guys. In the community theater world, you tend to get what you get, and your challenge is to figure out how you  make a show out of that. Not that I don't get plenty of great performers, and not that I haven't had the opportunity to pick and choose from several prospects for a part. But there's a tricky line to tread; on the one hand, you have to have a vision going into auditions, but on the other hand, you cant hold so tightly to it that you can't get the show cast at all.

It's like a classroom. You can curse your fate every day that you don't have a room full of enthusiastic readers with a good grasp of writing basics, or you can just accept that your students are who they are. You may have your favorite Ron Swanson quote, and at my house, we do, too. There's an episode  in which Ron is telling a story about a getting shot in the foot with a nail gun. Leslie's exclaims, "You only have nine toes?!" And Ron replies, "I have the toes I have." That's pretty much it.

Adaptability Is Not Only Necessary But Rewarding

Broadways shows are mostly written for lots of men. Community (and high school) theater tends to be testosterone-deprived. But (see previous point) you adapt. You look for characters who could be gender swapped, and you do what you have to do. Funny thing about that-- sometimes it makes no difference at all (the patriarch in Brigadoon and the wine dancers in Kiss Me Kate work just fine as women). But sometimes it opens up all sorts of cool new subtexts. If Belle (Beauty and the Beast) has a daffy mom instead of a daffy dad, it creates some whole new undercurrents. Or cast a female Laertes and watch what happens to how Hamlet plays out.

Point being that sometimes you have to adapt for your limitations, and it actually causes you to land on some rich and powerful things that you might otherwise have missed. If you insist that the text or the plan is absolutely sacred, you will miss some exciting moments. Ditto for the classroom. You can stick hard and fast to the plan, even the Big Plan that was hatched before you even met the students, or you can grab the teachable moments and adapt the plan to better fit the students who are there in front of you.

Different Performers Require Different Directions

Some actors like to know exactly what you want them to do. How to stand, how to gesture, when to move. Others like a more global direction-- "Your character is really angry, but also frustrated and a little sad, so show us that when you play this scene." Some want to the director to work closely with them, and some just want to do their thing without someone breathing down their neck all the time. And every single one prefers a differently mixed cocktail of praise and criticism. As a director, you have your own particular way of delivering all of these things. Plus factoring in the material you're working on.

One size does not fit all.

Collaboration Matters

I have one directing partner with whom I've worked about a dozen times; we split up music and stage directing a bunch of different ways, but I always do better work when teamed up with her. On top of that, a director depends on a whole team for costuming, sets, lighting, orchestra, the whole works. Being familiar with how those jobs works helps keep a director from asking for stupid things; being open to listening to the people doing those jobs helps the director grab some great new ideas.

Collaboration is harder for most teachers, but if you seek out collaborators within your department and building, it will benefit your class.

The Hidden Nuts And Bolts Matter

It's not enough just to have a set-- you have to be able to get it on and off stage and stow it while the rest of the show is happening. So much of staging a show is not Grand Artistic Vision, but engineering. Where do we hang this costume for a quick change? Which dressers are going to handle which zippers on that gown? How do we make that prop work?

If we get it right, nobody really notices the effort it took. The best technical work is invisible even while you're looking right at it. This is also true for teaching. This is why so many people who went to school still don't know a damn thing about how a classroom works-- they never saw the technical parts.

Be Prepared, But Don't Set It In Concrete

Study the script. The study it some more. Figure out your production design, your set, the whole works. When the production starts work, you are supposed to be the expert, the person who knows more about this particular production than anybody.

The "I learn more than the students" or "student-directed" classroom makes me nuts. If you aren't the leader and expert in your classroom, then why are you there? Why are the taxpayers paying you? It would be nuts for a director to aay, "Oh, I just let the actors direct themselves." Collaborate, sure. Accept input definitely. Being the leader doesn't mean that you function like a totalitarian monster, but somebody has to drive the bus.

Beaten People Don't Do Their Best

You get the best performance out of people when they feel confident. In an ideal situation, they are confident because they are doing an undeniably great job. But in the amateur theater world, not always. The thing is, people who have been beaten down do not do their best work. So your only hope of getting a great performance out of people is to support them and build them up. To the extent possible, find out what they need and give it to them.

This principle works with directors and actors, administrators with teachers, teachers with students, and basically humans with other humans they have responsibility for or authority over. It doesn't mean to avoid all criticism or never mention something that's wrong, but you do those things with the end in mind of building the person up. Yes, I know there are times when it's really hard. Then you go home and scream into a pillow.

Dream Big and Enjoy What You Get      

Community theater is like July and September. You start out with big dreams, big goals,  big visions of what you have in mind. Then reality hits you like a bathtub full of cold water. It can be discouraging. But the gig is not to bend everyone else to your will and vision; it's to lead the creation of something good out of the pieces parts you've got. It's a tricky dance-- you need to be driven by your vision and fight for all the very best parts, but you can't ignore reality, and you must always remember that you are working with live human beings. One of your most necessary skills is to know how to push as hard as possible without pushing so hard that you break things.

Yes,  there will be people asking why your production didn't use the same grand effect as the Broadway version (our theater doesn't have enough fly space to accommodate a full-sized helicopter). And there are plenty of people these days who demand that you teach kindergartners how to write short novels and sophomores how to create genetically modified life forms-- and of course get them all good grades on the Big Standardized Test, which can be the equivalent of spending your entire set budget on buying every cast member a really nice pair of shoes.

Try not to get distracted. You may well not end up exactly where you envisioned at the start, but with luck and skill and effort and good partners and carefully applied expertise, you can end up someplace great and wonderful and rewarding.


  1. The "I learn more than the students" or "student-directed" classroom makes me nuts. If you aren't the leader and expert in your classroom, then why are you there? Why are the taxpayers paying you?

    It all started when the "Sage on the Stage" got a bad name and the "Guide on the Side" became the holy grail of pedagogs. When the being a "facilitator" was deemed superior to an actual "teacher".

    In forty tears I never met one serious student who preferred discovering and constructing new knowledge or skills without the benefit if interesting and engaging direct instruction. Why on Earth did any sane adult ever think that the complete burden of being educated (teaching and learning) should be carried by children and adolescents.

    If you are a new teacher reading this, please, please take it to heart. Your students want (and need) a teacher, a sage on the stage. The last thing they want or need is for you to place the full burden of learning on them.

  2. I feel this on a deep level. Break a leg! (from a kindergarten teacher out here who is currently directing Chicago) :)