Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It’s only the beginning of second semester…AND NOW YOU ARE BURNED OUT

Miss O's First Theater Production Class: Drawing by Don McInturff


            To Recap: In previous posts you’ve read about how I prepared to teach, how exhausted I got, and isn’t this fascinating? I’ve also introduced you to teaching a skill via talking about a novel, and one arts curriculum overview (and one typical unit) so you could see all the shit that was sitting in my head, ready to deploy in a class, in directing shows, and now in writing this thing. To hold in one’s head 150 new names, 300 old names (the juniors and seniors), 200 names of colleagues—and all of their stories; plus a full script, design ideas, acting notes, and what key fits which lock; novels, stories, plays, grammar, and humanities and science connections; and memos to pay bills, get the sump pump fixed, go to the store, don’t forget the dentist; the new computer grade book program and how to average for interim reports; and which parents to call today between grading stacks of essays—walking around with a head like this can really take a toll. Not to complain, merely to observe: This is what being a teacher is.

In all the madness of teaching and learning and grading and chaperoning and festival hosting and drama directing (to say nothing of trying to have some sort of inner life, and social life, and learn the customs of the different places I lived), I never had a moment to really reflect on anything I was doing. Even after the first year at my first school, when I packed up the pick-up truck and took a road trip cross country with my buddy Debbie (who photographed every hotel I would not stay in in favor of camping, and bless her heart, she camped), I mostly stared gratefully at landscape and sky and relatives—oh, so many—who lived across the nation. I just wanted to empty out my head and be with trees, desert, road, ocean. School memories? Fuck ’em.

When I returned to the dreary little apartment above Edna’s beauty shop on the small main drag of the tiny rural town that was my first adult home, what was clear to me was that for all I knew about language arts and theatre arts, I had no idea how to put it all together in the classroom, and I could not work alone. It shocked me that I was expected to do all my teaching and all my drama club stuff—all that directing/designing/building work alone; I wasn’t prepared for that. Theater is COLLABORATIVE. That’s what I like about it. Much as I love kids—and they are great colleagues—I needed adult support. I am collaborative by nature when I work (though I must absolutely LIVE alone). Starting out, I did not know how to ask for help, and no one was forthcoming—not that I blamed them. Theater is time-consuming and demands many talents, and unless you have passion for it, well, who would do it, especially with teenagers? When I left teaching the first time in 1990—burned out beyond anything I had known, even during the time of all-nighter exam weeks at Tech—I never expected to return to teaching or even to theater. By then I was living in a 150-year-old former schoolhouse on the edge of a wood on cheap rent and a wood stove, and there I expected to die, smoking my pipe and staring at the duck pond.

I have used this outhouse many, many times. Yes, I have.
But I had a bathroom in my actual old house. This is at the cabin at my friend's farm. 
I have a sense of drama. I can't help it.

            My career-resuscitator was the Bread Loaf School of English, a master’s program for, oddly enough, English that I began the summer I quit teaching. I drove my pick-up to the Green Mountains of Vermont having a feeling that something momentous was happening. It was. (I got in on a rural teacher scholarship, a huge pay-off for my three rudderless years in Central Virginia—that, and great stories, good people.) The focus on theater at Bread Loaf is key, and it was there that I saw in practice how to integrate drama into my English classes and began to rethink how to teach theater as a subject. I learned to teach at that place—that’s where it was modeled for me. I also realized I should be learning stuff because I love learning, not only for how I would “use” it in a classroom. That place energized me over five summers, enough so that by the second summer I decided to have another go at teaching that lasted 12 more years. If it hadn’t been for Bread Loaf, well, I really have no idea who I’d be.

Lisa O and George L at Bread Loaf, 1994; photo by Jean L

            Enter what I call Luxe High School, home of my next and last teaching job. When I applied to the county (along with many other Virginia counties) the last place I expected to teach was my former high school. As in where I went. And my old senior English teacher called and set up an interview. I nearly fainted. (Did I tell you that story? How it happened to be the only job that was open in Northern Virginia, how my former senior English teacher interviewed me, and how the first day I was there, I walked into the girl’s bathroom beside the foreign language pod, collapsed into the a corner and began sobbing, “Oh, my GOD, I can’t be here, I can’t do this”? In my head, in the moment, I split the school into two: the old one I went to, and this new one where I work, thanks to Mental Illness, my old friend.)

            Jane Williams [I’ll call her] was the drama director, and I was to be her assistant. She became my mentor and my creative champion, and we worked as a great team for 10 years—well, for 7 or 8 years, and faked it for two more. (We eventually went the way of Astaire and Rogers, Kelly and Donen—it’s hard to sustain any partnership, and in the end we wanted different things out of theater.) But while it lasted we produced some great stuff. Above everything, Jane taught me the mechanisms by which you harness a support network of set builders, scenic artists, costumers, and box office people. I was always one to thank anyone who helped me, baking cookies and holiday treats and making cards and crying. But what people need, Jane realized (and I had yet to learn), to make them keep their promises and commit to you, is money. So we divided the yearly $1,200.00 drama stipend by anywhere from 6 to 10, sharing it with school faculty and staff who helped us out. (Perspective: As I’ve pointed out, an assistant volleyball coach got $3,000 for six weeks. For further reference: My yearly raises in regular pay ran to about $250 to $500, and none for the first four years I taught at Luxe—step-increase freezes that I never got back. And just for giggles, this little stat: After 20 years with a master’s degree, I would still not see $60K.)


            Way back some blogs ago, I mentioned how the first thing you have to do to direct a show is develop a Production Concept. So here we are at Luxe High and we are going to do A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Step lively, people!

[An Apology: I really thought I posted this blog already. I’ve alluded to it in the Costume posts, but I never did. So here it is: The Production Concept explained.]

            Before you choose a script after all your summer reading, you need to know what it should look like in your mind. Here’s what I’ll say about Midsummer: I’d always wanted to do it but had no idea how I’d do it. One summer in a workshop intensive at Bread Loaf, a director/professor and actors did a morning of scenes from this play, and something occurred to me: The play is a dream. (Blown away by my genius for grasping the obvious, yes?) It is someone’s dream...and suddenly how to do the forest and what the costumes should look like didn’t scare me anymore. Because it really didn’t make any difference. What was important was how we humans manipulate our dreams to try for an outcome that we think we want. Just shadows, a fantasia, and it is fun. (I hope you are seeing a pattern with the word “fun”. Not as in “ha, ha, dee, dee, dee”. Fun should be a rich experience. I am deeply serious about fun.)

            I began by researching past productions done by professionals. I went through oodles of books. One set of photos I saw had the actors playing the four leads all in some version of white, making them essentially interchangeable. Another set of photos had Theseus and his court, as well as the Rude Mechanicals, in modern dress. And it seemed to me we could lift fairy costumes straight out of a Halloween catalogue. Okay. The set? Most of the stages were bare in the pictures, and I remembered that most every Shakespeare play I’d seen had a bare stage. It’s all spelled out in the lines, “Here we are in the forest of Arden.” “Here we are at court.” Marcel Marceau had only to “sit” on a “park bench” and he created a whole world. Let it go, I told myself.

(An Aside on the Art of Mime)

(Seriously: Marcel Marceau, the French mime, was perhaps the most stunning performer I’ve ever seen live. In 1987 he did a sweeping U.S. College Tour to try to promote and save his art. I studied mime. I loved it. If I repeat myself, forgive me: In a lecture the day following the performance, he stood in boots and jeans and button-down shirt and spoke flawless English to decry street mimes (“You are in a box?” …hand, hand, hand… “You are an idiot! You are ruining my art!”) and try to teach the meaning of his art. What was his art? “Mime is the study of attitude. In one gesture…” and here he lifted his “hat,” “…you know I am a gentleman.” He continued, with motion: “Every animal has his own style: Every lion moves like a lion; a horse moves like a horse. Unless they are sick or dying, every animal has a style, every animal except Man. Man must always search for his style. It is our tragedy, but it is also our beauty.” I wept. The mime is the student of man’s style, of man’s attitude in time. It’s thrilling to do it. And really, really hard: When you fake-pull a hundred pounds, you really may as well be pulling 100 pounds, because it’s what you are doing. But it’s worth it, in the service to a story of being human, I think.) 

Marcel Marceau, from Google Images

(Another quick story: Before the start of M. Marceau's amazing show, my friend and fellow mime, Debbie, noticed a woman coming down the aisle with an usher; Debbie began to laugh. She was crying with laughter, and trying to stifle it. "What's so funny?" I asked. Debbie said, "I just saw something beautiful, but I don't understand it," and she pointed at the woman. "She's...blind," she burst out, and she collapsed laughing. "It's a MIME SHOW." I love my friends.) (P.S. I just recounted this to Debbie on the phone, and she reminded me that the show was delayed because the sound equipment hadn't shown up. "The night was rife with comedy," she said. Yes, it was.)

Back to the Concept: Tangents Are Part of All Good Teaching. You Heard Me.

            So: That’s as far as I’d gotten when the school year began and my Theater Production class was thrust into the whole thing. So right after the first Play Project, the kids had to suffice with a few lectures and then into the woods…literally.

So we are doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We need a forest.

My TP class that year (and here is a great regret: I never saved a copy of each year’s rosters) had some unusual kids, many of whom had nothing to do with the drama club--artsy types who went on to study music and work at Borders, that kind of crowd.

            So we went to the library and I asked kids to find as many books with pictures of forests as they could. We spread out the books, and began leafing through them. I brought “self-stick” notes and the kids marked the pages of the pictures they liked best.

            I prefer this to the Internet. There is nothing like leafing and marking and spreading out whole pages to see what you see.

            We were drawn to this one photo of a forest after an ice storm. Everyone in the class kept gravitating to it. Someone said, “It’s called A MidSUMMER Night’s Dream...?” Yet there we all landed.

            (Did I mention that we read the play aloud in class? We did. I made sure that before the actors were given the books we’d ordered that my class did a reading using those books. It’s important that the people designing the play should read it. I’m a nut that way.)

            So we checked out the books that had pictures that we liked. We went back to the room, and went back into the script to see what would actually justify a forest after an ice storm. Well, the seasons are out of joint.

The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts 
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems’ thin and icy crown 
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set. The spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,

By their increase, now knows not which is which.
~A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, Scene 1

            Okay. We keep the ice.

And the color palette? A student artist named Greg said, “The Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis, you know, to match the ice...”

            And a set was born.

            That’s how it happens.

Aurora Borealis from Google Images

            There is a big difference between, say, The Music Man and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is really no “conceptual” innovation that needs to happen with Meredith Willson’s (yes, “Willson” has two L’s) musical Iowa triumph. It’s a lovely turn-of-the-century American story with music and should be utterly played as such. Now, a show like Chicago, you can conceptualize, set in a kind of timeless America, costume it in black lace and have a great show. But each show is different. It’s important to be fair to the needs and expectations of the play.

And just to remind you: We’re in a public high school doing this level of artistic thinking. Isn’t that cool?

PARALLELS: I think there is a way to teach theater production thereby showing
a. the reasons arts-based or trades-based education can be valuable
b. how taking a play through to production is like structuring learning of any subject in any classroom.

For example, I establish a certain vocabulary at the outset...and then we launch into something we are trying to understand. We—and this is mostly me now—push to do the work and make it happen. Throughout this time, we are, as a class, doing units of study in set, costume, makeup, etc. (see previous posts), and by spring, they are ready to try the whole thing again, this time with a firmer grasp--because they had the original fall show madness to bank away. I think this is why the class was always so successful.

And I ran on that creative high for many, many years. Until I didn’t.
The Final Burn-Out: Knowing When It’s Time to Leave

            I ultimately left teaching, and left directing two years before that, not completely by choice (but mostly). I’m telling it now because I sort of want to get it over with, like pulling a Band-aid off really fast.  I’ve talked a lot about setting up curriculum, and doing shows, and living the teaching life. Now here is some of the emotional shit.

So this is a discussion of criticism and its effects on kids. The moment I am about to describe is seminal in my experience as a drama director, and while I know feelings were hurt, I do not regret it. (I only bring it up here because there are a lot of kids I need to apologize to for sneaking out the back door of the drama club two years later, the way I did. It wasn’t intentional. I was too emotional about my departure, and too little of a grown-up to do what grown-ups do, and smile and act like everything was my idea. It wasn’t.*)

(*It strikes me that this could be the beginning of a hilarious novel about a high school drama club. Maybe I will write it.)

            It was the end of the Monday technical rehearsal before the Thursday opening of Annie. The actors knew all the lines, the singers knew the songs, the dancers knew the steps, the sets looked good, everything should be working. And yet the show was simply lifeless, just agony to watch. I am a terrific judge of the shows I direct. If I can watch the show over and over and over with real engagement, it’s a great show. I am not wrong about this. My biggest fault is that I cannot “settle” when it comes to a show. If I think the show is not as good as it truly could be within everyone’s abilities, I will push everyone until it gets there. This makes me extremely unattractive on the Monday of tech week. As I say, I don’t care. I have friends.

            The kids assembled on the apron, all 100+ of them. The pit orchestra had struck and headed back to the band room (all students, by the way, and one adult on piano). My colleague, Jane, was assembling line notes to pass out to the actors. I looked at the kids. I paused. I breathed. I spoke.

            “I won’t say you suck, because that is not constructive,” I began. Their eyes widened. I saw one young actress roll her eyes and sigh, her hatred of me sealed forever, I assumed, but she’d really irritated me with lazy line readings in rehearsalsnice kid, but still...I couldn't worry about it. “I don’t say this to hurt you. I say this because I don’t understand it. The Orphans in ‘Hard Knock Life’ are fantastic--they have the energy the show needs.” I pointed out a few other lovely moments. “But...I mean, you all know the songs, the dances, the blocking...everything is in place. It’s just...” and it hit me: “We don’t believe in Annie. Maybe I don’t believe in it, hadn’t believed in it. We have to believe in this show. I think I’d been writing it off as a kids’ show, and really, it’s a good story. We aren’t telling it. I don’t know how to solve this. I’m asking you. I don’t know how to solve it. What are we doing to do?”

            One of the girls in the cast said, referring to Molly Shannon’s Saturday Night Live character, “You mean, like ‘Superstar!’?” And the kids laughed. I took it in.

            “Yes!! I think that’s it! You have to believe you are superstars, that the whole story is up to you! And do that tomorrow. Because, guys, we cannot show this show to an audience the way it looks now.”

            I mark this as the moment when Jane decided, after eight years coaching (that’s what we call directing in high school) together, that we needed to part ways (though that was two years off). She was outraged, and understandably, that I would speak so frankly to kids this way, after how hard they had been working. Maybe I wanted to get pushed out, I don’t know. Jane rushed up, and said, “Well, unlike Miss O’Hara, I thought you all were wonderful!” And she proceeded to give notes and explain what a great show it not only would be but already was; and yet...not one kid was buying it.

            The next day, we had our second try, a dress-tech rehearsal. I milled around the stage beforehand and talked to cast members and we threw our arms up and cried, “Superstar!” I went into the house, got on the headset, called for quiet, cued the orchestra (which sounded just amazing, and all kids, under Mr. M’s direction—we had great music teachers in our school). The show began. From the opening number, the change was astonishing. They weren’t there yet, but they really were onto it now.

At notes time, Jane told me I was not to say A WORD. She was barely speaking to me, and who could blame her? The cast listened to “Mom,” as she praised their every song and corrected only minor points; they were silent, tried to listen, but they were looking at “Dad.” When Jane finished, she reluctantly said through very tight lips, “Miss O’Hara, do you have any comments?”

            I said quietly, lips out and head nodding, as I surveyed the cast, “You didn’t suck.”

            You could have heard their collective sigh in Utah. I think a whole weather system changed as a result of that sigh. “We didn’t suck!” they exclaimed.

            What kind of monster am I?

            Opening night was SRO, jam-packed with kids and parents, and the show was STUNNING. The audience was in raptures. At intermission, our set designer and tech ed teacher, whom I’ll call Karl, looked up at me to where I was calling cues in the house on the headset, and I threw up my hands, and we just roared with laughter. I went backstage and told the kids they rocked.

            On closing night, the cast assembled as usual in our “green room,” the choir room, this time to give gifts before the warm-up. Their present to me? A five-pound SUCKER. They applauded, I collapsed with laughter, and I told them I was amazed and humbled by how terrific they made this show.

            Jane, I know, never forgave me, and the relationship frosted. Finally, after one more year of strain, she told me, kindly, that she did not ever want to work with me again. She’d recruited a new young drama teacher to take my place, someone “who is a better fit.” What was there to say?

            Maybe I was too hard on young performers, too hard on students. It was part of my make up. I was hard on myself, I pushed beyond the beyond. And it’s not as if I didn’t have a sense of humor, a sense of fun. Some of the best laughs of my life happened at play rehearsals with those wacky teens. (Jane called that “goofing off” and “wasting time.” We were, at times, very different people.)

            But I have to be honest with myself: Very few people in the audience know the difference between what I would call an A show and what I would call a B-minus show. My parents can tell: When they saw the first show I didn’t direct (I only helped out with sets through my TP class), my mother said, “Wow, we can tell you didn’t direct that. Is this what the shows will be like now?” (The show was okay, but nonetheless they stopped coming.) By contrast, Karl (who was now heading a Tech Ed department at another school) said to me, “I don’t see any difference between this and the shows we used to do.” And as I looked around at the audience reaction, I realized that almost no one did.

            Directing for ego—even if it is only perceived as ego—is deeply unattractive. I couldn’t settle for less than the best I knew we all could give, but at what cost? For every young performer who remained close to me, Jane assured me that I lost two. I also lost the friendship and respect of a colleague of long-standing. And yet I know I would do what I did exactly the same way, because that’s who I was. Who I am.

            At the end of the day, for better or for worse (surely there is one more cliché to pile on), I am an artist before I am a teacher or a friend or a colleague. I can let go of a friend—though I suspect there to have been no real friendship there—before I can “settle” for what looks to me like a shit show. Neurotic? No question. But true to my vision? It’s the only way I sleep at night. And the shows were gorgeous.

            The moment I knew my drama coaching days were OVER? The man who took over for Karl with the sets, Mr. X, one afternoon strode wildly downstage from the set-building area at the back, walking right into the middle of a rehearsal (of the last show I would direct at the school, though I didn’t know that then) and interrupting the entire scene, a moment when the actors were just getting the sense of it. “I gotta ask Miss O’Hara something,” he yelled at the confused crowd of actors. “Hey,” he beckoned to me, “come look at this.”

            I screamed, “WHAT? NO!!! Don’t do that!”

            And Jane looked at me. With a tense anger in her voice, she said, “Why are you like that? Who cares? Just see what he wants.” When I was still fuming upon return— the actors... concentration... losing the momentshe added, sharply, “Lisa, get over it.”

            I can promise you this: I will NEVER get over that.

            Now if you want me, I’ll be in the bar. A New York City 
freakin' bar.

Miss O' with former students, 2011 at Mara's Homemade
East Village, NYC

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