Over the course of a production, a room full of strangers will become like family. The director begins as the best actor in the room. What, you ask? How is that? Let me explain.
When you walk into my audition room, I’m meeting many of you for the very first time. I’m auditioning too. I’m auditioning to be your director. I’m trying to see if my leadership is a good fit for your personality. I’m looking for cues that tell me that we can collaborate. From the first moment you step in to read, I’m trying to be all the things I think good directors should be. I want to be fair, impartial, open-minded, perceptive, encouraging, and most of all kind. I want to build trust. Performers must trust the director. You have to trust my judgment even when you can’t see my perspective. You have to trust that I have the best interest of you and the show at heart when I make decisions. You have to put faith in me that the show will be good and that an audience will come; that you were cast in the right role and that I didn’t play favorites.
You are auditioning as well. Do you have your heart set on a role? You may have dreamed about being that part for some time. It might be hard for you to envision yourself in any other character. You may have strengths in acting but not dancing. You might be worried about your ability to sing well in the audition room. You may feel at the end of the audition that you didn’t do as well as you could have. You might feel like the readings didn’t showcase your abilities properly. You have to take a leap of faith in me just as I have to take a leap of faith in you. Life is an audition. In the words of ABBA, take a chance on me. We at Footlights want to include everyone. If it’s your first time walking in the room, you have just as good a chance at landing a role as anyone else. There is no pre-casting and no playing favorites. Take a chance.
Show week. We all both dread and look forward to it. Actors worry that they're not totally prepared. The backstage crew is training and springing to action. Equipment, sets, special effects, lighting, makeup, and costumes are all being added. More rehearsal time is required. Yep! It's crunch time.
Most often, I get the question, "What do I need to do?" Let me answer that to the best of my ability making generalizations to encompass everyone. First, know when you're supposed to be there. Special words like, "cast call" , "house opens", and "curtain call" seem unfamiliar to the first time thespian. You would have been given a calendar that tells you when you're supposed to arrive. Stick to that schedule and be on time. Your team of directors have worked tirelessly to orchestrate many people like a well oiled machine. If an actor isn't ready for run through because they've arrived late and they're still putting on makeup, then it is very likely that there are at least 35 other people waiting on that one person. Even crew members and show time volunteers need debriefing, instructions, set up time, sound checks, lighting cues written down, etc. There isn't one person involved in the production that doesn't need to arrive early.
Secondly, be present and aware. Whether you are at the merchandise table or your'e the lead actress in the show, inattention can cost the production big mistakes. Being late on a cue or forgetting a line causes dead air and pulls out the run time to be longer. Not having concessions ready to go can cause a long wait line and for some patrons to decide they didn't want a soda that badly. Long ticket lines cause patrons to become frustrated before the play ever begins. Long scene changes likewise mark a group as "amateur" or ill prepared. This means that everyone has to be paying full attention to the production and be giving full effort to their individual tasks for a show to run smoothly. Being on the cell phone or chatting with others sets off a ripple effect of mistakes that can effect an entire performance.
Lastly, do everything you can possibly do to arrive and perform in a positive mind frame. Participate in self care where you get enough hours of sleep, eat a healthy well balanced diet, calm your mind and surround yourself with positive vibes. Talk to others who encourage you and show up to be the encourager when you're in the theater. This burst of light may be the one thing that keeps others going on a day with two performances where the energy might be running low. Don't let personal drama, egos, frustration, or a small slight get in the way of you and everyone else having a great experience that you'll never forget!
We live in a society that is in a communication crisis. When children are at school, they are often in large groups (18-22) where being quiet and listening are prized. The problem with this, is that they don’t master the ability to express themselves effectively. When they get home, they are often in front of a screen. It is reported that children spend an average of two hours on screens per day.This creates isolation. How often have you sat in a restaurant and saw two people, both on their phones during a night out? Humans need genuine human connections to each other in order to thrive. We need deep authentic bonds because it is the glue that holds our communities together. Too often emotions like happiness and excitement are celebrated but we’re not teaching kids how to deal with the big difficult ugly emotions like grief, anger, sadness, frustration, awkwardness, wonder, curiosity, confusion, and disillusionment. We need to teach the youth of our nation how to use and understand every crayon in the color box not just their primaries. How do we go about doing that?
Our society represses negative emotions. In what public space is it acceptable for a child to stomp their feet or shout without some repercussion? Raise their voice? Slam a door? Without some channel for those emotions to go, this creates an emotional bottle of soda that has been shaken with the lid closed. There is nowhere for that pressure to be released. Sometimes it can manifest itself in different places like depression, anxiety, defiant behavior, or anger. The emotions must go somewhere. The performing arts allow youth to cope with those emotions in safe fictional circumstances and gives them the vocabulary to express them in a healthy way. They are encouraged and required to be emotional beings in a creative space where they are getting human interaction away from screens with mentors to guide them and educate them. They form authentic bonds with their peers and mentors.They are required to empathize with each other which is a key element of acting according to Stanislavski's method.
The ancient Greeks understood how essential it was to have this. The name they gave it was “catharsis” which is defined as “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions”. Whether it is an audience member who experiences this through watching the action or an actor who experiences this through acting it out, the result is the same. We find ourselves refreshed and emotionally cleansed from all the mental gunk we’ve been carrying around inside our heads. The common experience draws us closer with those around us creating a support system and real sense of community.
My argument is that students need this but furthermore people need the performing arts as a channel for self expression. People need opportunities to connect with each other in a creative space. Theatre is an exercise in community building and peer bonding that no electronic game can replace. It stands alone as an interdisciplinary communal art form that brings us together. We need it more than ever. Support your local community theatre and arts programs in your schools.
All educators and directors have been there. You're working with actors and students and no matter how many times you go through it, they're still not getting it. You feel like a broken record. You see the potential in front of you and it frustrates you when your student doesn't seem to be reaching it. That's when we have to step back and remember the real goal here.
My aim doesn't lie in just getting this scene right or the song polished. I'm not just trying to get through rehearsal or this show to opening night or to even just get through the season. I am trying to grow a community of people that love, appreciate, and participate in the performing arts. I am connecting people with each other so they can experience art in a deep and personal way. Whether I have an actor participate in one show or every show, the outcome should be the same. I want them to walk away feeling like they accomplished something but more importantly that they are growing as a person through this experience. If I get them only 10 percent further along in their creative process then so be it. Learning is a continuum of degrees not steps that you climb or fall back on. This is where we have to measure success in a qualitative, not quantitative way. If the young actress who who has social anxiety decides to even try to audition for a speaking role then I have succeeded. If the little boy who mumbles all the time finally finds his own voice and projects to the audience, I have succeeded. I am not growing professional actors and actresses. I am developing a community of people who have a deep and personal relationship with art and literature.
We can't forget the big picture in our frustration and fall into a negative attitude with an individual because they're not growing at the rate we want them to. That's like being angry at a plant for not growing fast enough. How absurd would that be!
I remember my mother planted an apple tree in her front yard. She would go out religiously to water it. I asked her why she was watering it so much because it seemed excessive. Her explanation was this.
"If I water this tree for only short periods of time, the tree will not set its roots deep. Instead, in order to reach the water source, it will set its roots shallow. I have to leave the water on so that the water will seep down deep enough. That way the apple tree will be more study with deeper roots". Now think about that for a minute. If I keep supplying my students with information, inspiration, and creative opportunities, then they will set deeper roots of understanding instead of shallow ones. I have to leave the faucet on.
That's the long game here. It's not this one watering opportunity in a rehearsal that will make or break their learning. I have to keep showing up day after day, project after project, season after season to grow the creative, intuitive, well educated, lifelong lovers of performing arts.
Literacy is one of the biggest primary concerns that educators and school systems everywhere have. We live in a modern media rich environment but teachers are hard pressed to get students to read full books and do essays or reports on them. Popular applications like Vine only require 6 seconds of a person's attention and commercials are only 30 seconds long. How do we get young people to invest the time necessary to experience classic literature and boost their reading comprehension?
My argument is for theater/drama and acting.
As an individual with an education degree most of my time in study and student teaching had to do reading comprehension. It is at the center of all subject matters. From learning vocabulary words in science to doing well on understanding the history lesson, reading comprehension sits in every subject. Educators are specifically concerned with students citing text evidence when they make a statement using phrases like "Where's your evidence?". We want students to be able to say "I know because..." and to find it in the text.
In theater, children are not only required to get to know a full length story and understand the broad picture but also intimately know their part. I ask them questions about their character, ask them to fill out Venn diagrams to compare and contrast their person in real life versus the person they are playing on stage. They are required to memorize and recite their lines but also express the emotion behind the actions and interact emotionally with others on stage.
Children have to experience art in a very deep and personal way when they act out the stories. They are asked to talk about the historical time period in which their character is living, where geographically they are living, and the social and political events of the time. They are asked to sing songs from that era and dress like they did. We have to explore antiquated vocabulary and phrases that are less common now. We have to linguistically study accents whether they be canadian or british or mid western etc.
Being able to apply what you read according to Bloom's taxonomy is an essential element of literacy. In theater, students are required to synthesize meaning from the text through exploring the story in a physical space with others and discussing, memorizing, reciting, and emoting it.
I can't name another art form that does all those things. I challenge you to think about theater from an educational standpoint; from a literacy standpoint when thinking about the benefits of participating. If we can grasp the exponential applications of children's time in theater class we can better justify the time and effort spent in there and better appreciate our fine arts educators in the role they play in supporting the other fields of study the students engage in.
Kristi Kargic is executive director for Footlights Community Theater based in Athens, AL. She is an elementary teacher with a lifelong love of performing arts. She strives to provide art in her home community at little to no cost to participants. Kristi is a published poet, playwright, and performing musician. Her motto is "if you build it, they will come."