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Friday, March 14, 2014

Saying Goodbye to the Musical...For Now

If I could just get my entire cast in the same room it would be great...this year's Spring musical is killing me!

It's the end of the year, the weather gets nicer, the seniors gets ready to leave, the sports kick in full gear, the music department travels and competes, the classes get harder to control, and everyone gets a little bit exhausted. Maybe the Spring semester isn't really the place for any full scale productions much less a muscial. (But everyone knows I'm a sucker for a challenge) Trying to rehearse a show is almost impossible in the Spring. Maybe it's better to do concerts and small festivals instead? We already have one acts and talents shows slated for the Spring on our campus...maybe that's the direction we need to be going? So...the question has been "do we need to be doing a musical at all?"

In the eight years I have been teaching high school theater I have played around with all kinds of adjustments to our season of shows. We have two spaces we produce shows in and the opportunities are always there to do more stuff. We have added events and taken them away. We have done extra plays and we have done extra concerts. We have hosted improv nights and we have done hip hop showcases. Each event we try adds a nice variety from season to season. We have learned that by changing things up a little every year you can build interest within the different groups and demographics on campus. It is what has made our Black History Month plays so successful, and now we will be producing Fences within our regular season and not as an "add-on". The big question is how to make sure that we are building seasons that utilize the kids in the department, the kids in the drama classes, and the kids who we know need to be doing theater (without pre-casting the productions).

Unfortunately when we have this conversation it always comes back to the same topic. What about the musical? Up to this point we have continuously let the musical lead all of the decisions we make for the entire season and yet we are not the music department. We are the Drama Dept. The dramatic arts are what should be leading the conversation when we plan our seasons and not a production that revolves around the music arts. This has confused me from day one and I believe it's time to make the change. Tradition be damned.

In the last several years the drama dept has slowly taken over the entire production of the musical, and it has been due to many factors. Mostly the time and availability of the music department faculty and the their interest in the projects we were working on any given year. They are very busy with their own work and they are very dedicated to their agenda...the musical was never high priority, and we understand that point. Our dept taking full control of the musicals allowed the district authorized stipends to go to other theater production staff and to other adults that were more invested in what we were doing (ie, choreographer, costumers, props masters, stage combat experts or extra adult musicians in the pit when needed) This has helped, but even after several years of this format or hierarchy we still feel that we are spending 1/2 our time and most of our budget for the year on a project that isn't entirely in our discipline. This has always been the conflict for me. I have a decent music background, I can direct and produce musicals, I'm comfortable in the musical theater genre, but I feel the time we have to work on our department's core is being sacrificed. The actor's time and training is being sacrificed for more music opportunity. I understand that "acting a song" and learning how to do that well is important, and I understand that the musical is the ONLY place a student at our school will have the opportunity to learn that, but the musical rehearsals rarely allow the time to do that kind of teaching in the end. We are instead forced to deal with the other 100 things a musical demands of us as teachers. Plays are simplified production process and they inherently open up that time to teach acting.

Our solution is to go back to our area of study and try to shift the department and our season back to what we teach in our classes. We feel the musical has been splitting our department into two sections, the singers and the non-singers. This causes a divide in the student involvement during the whole year. The non-singers feel left out during the musicals and the singers tend to do both. The irony is that the singers have the least amount of time available to give. Due to the fact that we constantly compete with the music department for kids, and with additional after school obligations for the choir classes (that count against their actual classroom grade) we ultimately have to let them take first dibs on those kids and our projects usually end up taking the back seat (but it feels more like the back burner). We try to keep a rehearsal schedule but if they have something pop up we usually have to let them go and we suffer the consequences of not having them for our rehearsal. If we try to tell them that they can't miss our rehearsal they'll miss ours anyway (the grade or threats from the other club's leadership win every time).

Our hands have been tied, and we are ready for a change. So we have decided to stop trying to us the same group of kids the music department is using and instead go after a new group within the student body that doesn't carry this conflict.

It has been our school's tradition to do a musical EVERY year, but we have decided to break with tradition and not do a full scale musical next year (I know, I hear the groans from here!) Don't get me wrong, we truly love the musical, I participate in musicals as an actor outside of my teaching gig. I really like producing musicals. However, with our season's revenue at stake, a serious struggle to get the undivided attention of the cast when we are in production, we have decided to make the change. It has been like swimming upstream every time we attempt to stage a musical on our campus, and so we are finally ready to try something new.  

This year in particular we have had lots of conversation in our department about the planning of the upcoming season. What shows to do next year and how to rearrange the season for our department. What will make the season have the most value for us as a department financially. What will help us retain our numbers and grow in the years to come. What will help us recruit new members and keep them busy throughout the year. We really want the focus of our work to return to our core, and we want the season to reflect what we are teaching in our classes (which is not music, it is drama). We want the shows to be an opportunity for the students in our drama classes to practice what they have learned and to develop their acting techniques in the context of a real stage production. The choir students have the opportunity do that with their seasonal concerts and by going to competitions and festivals...our drama students deserve exactly the same. Up to this point I feel they are given half a season to do that...and usually the smaller half. Producing plays will now be our main focus for the next couple of years and when our department feels we are ready to produce a musical again...we will.

This is not a decision we have made lightly. We started this conversation several years ago and it has just finally made it into the calendar for the next season. It will be different to not have a musical in our school year, but we will offer the music students an opportunity to sing Broadway songs in a one night revue in the Spring. I believe that once we rock out a couple seasons of solid dramas and comedies we will again have the funds and drive to properly support a full scale musical. Until then, we will be returning to our roots and bringing the actor front and center (but never underestimate the student writers...we have our second one act musical being produced in the one act festival this maybe for now the students can write and direct the musicals we stage in our season).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Work and Play: A Theater Teacher's Exploration

The First of Many To Come
A blog of exploration...
I have been writing blog pages for the classroom for about two years now, but have never written one for the sole purpose of release and reflection. It is exciting to write about what I do in the classroom and how I also keep busy with the after school program.

This is definitely something I have been needing to do. Time gets away from you and I would like to use this blog as a feeble attempt to slow down the clock a bit. I would like to take a breath after big moments in the year or take a breath and to be given anopportunity to look back on a situation with a new perspective.

Sometimes the stage needs to be gazed upon as it sits empty, so we can begin to see what needs to fill in the space...

The Objective Seems Clear...

This is the beginning of a journey, and I am hoping it pays me back in the end by illuminating areas of my work that need discussion, attention and adjustment. I would like to re-examine areas that just need to be celebrated and reflected upon. In the end I believe the work should improve and the job should stay challenging.

I vow to try and express my opinions and share my ideas with respect to those who know more than little ol' me and I hope they will feel free to comment and share their expertise or ideas in the comments section below the posts.

If I could wish for one thing with this blog, it would be that I give myself the liberty to remain honest but with a promise to be respectful. I know that I have a duty to uphold as a certified and tenured teacher in a MO School District.

I would just like to take this opportunity to discuss, explore the opinions of the experts and look at certain topics in hopes to solve lingering problems or fix situations.

I would like this to be a forum of sorts and for this to work as another source of information for teachers and theater artists. 

I already have people from all over looking at my classroom and department pages 
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