ONLY MAKE BELIEVE, WITH GRADING:
An Introduction to Drama at Your High School
I have this idea that all of life should be viewed as educational theater. Viewed through such a lens, you really start to see how we are all in an unscripted show: Rising in the morning (and the philosopher and father of modern psychology William James wrote a whole essay just about the source of the impulse to get out of bed), making the coffee, going to the job, performing the chores of dressing or cleaning, for example, are a few of the predictable bones upon which we flesh out each day’s actions. The drama, of course, is in how we cope with the unexpected, whether merely unknown or ultimately catastrophic: a rainstorm, train delays, a fire drill, a traffic jam, a sudden death, a need to fill in for an absent colleague, an emergency dental appointment, a funny story. Our responses to the energies of the world, the forces of the universe--whether from people or nature; whether political or personal, local or global--help to make up a little thing that I call “Life.”
[Insert fatuous silence here.]
[Cue mariachi band.]
Here’s the point: We know that life is not a rehearsal, in the sense that no day gets a do-over, but it is a rehearsal in the sense that tomorrow is another day and we get another shot at acting similar scenes out in a new and better way. Which is why actors rehearse. (A student in one of my English classes came to see our drama club’s production of The Music Man, and liked it so much, he decided to come again. This was his first live theater experience, and this is what confused and amazed him: “The show was exactly the same both times! I mean, the dances, what they said, and where they moved, and all of it: They did it all the same way!” Isn’t that cute? If you don’t know why that’s cute, little angel, you need to get involved in performing arts.)
And because I think it’s helpful to remember that life is a living rehearsal of a kind, and because I happen to hold theater at the center of my daily life, I thought I’d use it to introduce the section of this blog on teaching theater production in the course called, cannily enough, Theater Production--the mounting of shows for audiences--with high school students. It’s theater as educational experience I’m talking here. But I’m also going to talk about education in more general terms, using my specific experiences. This section of the blog is not only intended for teachers of theater, but for teachers in general, and then for people who would like a way in to see how a teacher learns the job, and conducts classes, and works through a teaching career. Okay, and for stories.
Even the best intentions for art can go bad, so lest I come off as a total Art Snob All Superior and Shit, I will parse the idea of what a high school theater can be. Most of us didn’t have theater classes in high school. I know how many I won and lost over my fifteen-year career, for a start. But who among us hasn’t at least heard of The Drama Club?
Ah, the Drama Club. Let us consider this fabled extra-curricular activity.
What’s the aim, point, purpose, agenda of a high school drama club? Fun? Profit? Fame? Education? Early love affair with Fred and Ginger movies (or High School Musical) taken to a new extreme? Below are synopses of some versions of drama clubs I have known, participated in, or heard about:
TYPE 1. THE DRAMATICS Kids run it. These kids are clique-ish, tyrannical, and by most firsthand accounts have a lot less talent than ego. “A LOT less. Like, who do they think they ARE?”* Any adult is just there to keep it legal, i.e., prevent homicides. They do “adaptations” of “Sophocles.” Cabaret shows. Plays by Tim Kelly. The members/ performers/designers have parents who bring roses to opening night. And guns.
TYPE 2. THE THESPIAN SOCIETY An “adult” teacher runs it, under the misapprehension that he/she is Orson fucking Welles. This man/woman is puffed up, ass-sticked, tenured. His/her/its colleagues hate him/her/it. The kids worship him/her/it for about two plays. Then they join Marching Band. Or, more desperate, Lacrosse. This drama club would not TOUCH Tim Kelly. It’s O’Neill...or nothing. The four kids who stay the duration leave for college to carry on this legacy. Fortunately, most find a healthy substitute for this sort of theater life, such as illegal drugs.
TYPE 3. THE DRAMA CLUB A benign teacher with good taste, a real appreciation, but frankly no artistry, becomes club sponsor. He or she is very kind, enlists the help of equally kind colleagues, does plays with smallish casts--Plaza Suite or Charley’s Aunt or Something by Tim Kelly**--under the assumption this is less difficult to manage; borrows set pieces from a local furniture store; and has kids bring “costumes” “from home,” or rents key costume pieces from a place in the next town; has ads placed in the backs of programs to raise money, because the shows, sadly, sell almost no tickets. (Unless it’s a musical. Cue cough.) And the tickets are just photocopies of a sheet someone typed on a word processor using the “table” feature. But it’s a very pleasant enterprise, very few traumas. They often take field trips to see shows at nearby colleges. Only the students with genius will feel blindingly unfulfilled, and that’s what college is for.
TYPE 4. YOUR DRAMA CLUB. Because you know who you are, don’t you? You are an icon. You have the three T’s under your dance belt: Talent, Taste, and Training. You have pushed for classes in your school. You teach them. They worship you. You not only enlist the help and support of colleagues, you strong-arm it, give a thousand favors and call in every single one of them at crunch time during tech week. You cast every kid who auditions, or make them stage crew, or have them pass out fliers. Because they will make their families come to the show. $$$ (cha-ching). This is about more than art or helping the kids: $$$. This is about showing the goddamned athletic department that you, TOO, have a role this in the success of this school. Your ego is on the line. $$$. Oh, not the SHOW. They’re just kids--the audience forgives anything when it’s kids. It’s about MARKETING. No able body goes unused, no potential ticket sale untapped. You prove, time and show again, that your club matters!! “Read my receipts!” Sure, you are probably suffering from OCD, have the manic energy that leads to hypertension and early death, and are divorced or, likely as not, never married. WHO CARES???? Look at that BOX OFFICE! $$$.
TYPE 5. My drama club.
This will take many posts to talk about. I don’t know that it’s any better or worse or much different than the four I described, I mean, in the big scheme of the world...a world that pretty much only has about 30 good years left before we, at the rate we are going, deplete the fresh water, topsoil, air quality, and everything damn else it takes for our form of life on Earth to not only—what did Faulkner say?—not only...something...“but prevail.” My ass. But this is about theater/re. For most all of my life, it’s been the only thing that holds me together.
Every life situation can be written as the opening or second act scene or ending of a play. What I love about theater is what I love about life: It is ephemeral. An actress I knew (whose graduate degree, interestingly, was in architecture, a profession that professes to build something to last) once observed, “The two most common gifts to actors are flowers and Champagne. And I think, what is more fitting?” The flowers die and go to the bin and the Champagne gets happily tossed down someone’s gullet. For every show, sets are built and torn down, makeup is used up and washed off. I love set strikes almost as much as rehearsals. Clean the slate. Start fresh. In school, I love graduations as much as I love first days. You will not see me shed a tear on these occasions. (I have this idea that for people who cry when they graduate, they really think that this is as good as life will get, and god love them, they may not be wrong. Have a hanky. Take mine--I won’t be using it.)
End Scene One.
*Disgruntled sophomore Petra B., Really Rich Township, New Jersey, who is “way more talented.”
**Tim Kelly, American Playwright: Seriously, a genius. He spins (spun? Is he still alive?) out plays like McDonald’s makes burgers, everyone is served, and every drama teacher wishes he/she had thought of it. Competition one-acts, interpretations of classics; I once acted in his version of Dracula. “Joke, yes, joke!” was a line from that play spoken by the doomed (or does he live?) Dr. Somebody, played to melodramatic perfection in 1980 by my friend Chris Leone. It’s my personal belief that saying, and enduring ridicule for saying, this line drove Chris to the bosom of the United States Army, where he served for over two decades.