Thursday, January 29, 2009

Seeking the perfect show

The counselors are asking the fine arts teachers for the upper-level class lists already, so I'm working on cobbling together my Advanced Theatre class for next year. As usual, I'll be girl-heavy. Right now it's looking like fifteen girls and six boys in the class.

I rehearse my competition play out of the Advanced class. Last year I knew I had the perfect Romeo, and so I selected the show based mainly on him. I'm trying to find the right show for next year's kiddos, and I'm drawing a blank.

First, some words about the competition. The rules limit each cast to fifteen actors (doubling is fine, the rest of the kids will be understudies and crew). Though I am allowed to do a show with as few as three actors, I prefer larger shows so that I can get more kids involved. Not to mention that the judge for this year's contest was flabbergasted when she found out that about three quarters of my kids were 7th graders. "You're going to be a powerhouse next year," she said.

I tend to divide most theatre into two categories: director-centric and actor-centric. Director-centric shows have more intriguing concepts, staging conventions, blocking, and tech. Actor-centric shows are no-nonsense, people-in-a-room-hashing-it-out realistic theatre. I greatly prefer the former, but the latter tends to do better at competition (my flashy and awesome R+J was beat by a simple show with honest, good acting). Dramas usually fare better than comedies at competition.

Though my six boys will be solid, they're green. Only one of them was in R+J, and he's not very good. The other five boys, all 6th graders this year, are fine, but no one I can build a show around. They'll work fine in supporting roles, but I can't pick a Cyrano or any show that rests entirely on one boy's charisma. The girls are experienced and capable. Most of them are probably better suited to comedy, but there are a few who could easily carry the right dramatic lead.

So, in addition to "what show should I do?", I have another question. How much do I pick the show based on the contest, and how much do I pick what I think is right for the kids? For instance, I want to do a show with a larger cast because I like working with so many of the kids, and I don't want to have to say "no" to some of my favorites. But what if I find a great show that'll do well at contest, and it only has five actors? What if I think The Diary of Anne Frank will impress the judge, but my kids would grow more by doing a wacky farce, which the judge might think is too light?

Competition is what it is. Debating the usefulness of competitive theatre is kind of pointless, since I know that I have to do it. But as I weigh what's best for the school and what's best for my particular kids, I find that those things aren't always in agreement. I doubt a football coach would play a less talented kid in an important game just because he knows that kid will grow as a result. Is it silly of me to pause over a similar option? How can I remain a serious competitor and look good to my bosses while still being true to my kids?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

You Never Thought This Stuff Would Play This Way...

It seems that my life has taken the strangest of turns. I've been asked to take the JV Cheer sponsor job for next year.

I'm good friends with the Varsity coach and she asked me last year. At that time, I just laughed at her and pled busy with my duties as Spirit Club sponsor. But when she asked me again last Tuesday, it made more sense.

There have been three JV Cheer sponsors in as many years. Although two of the tree had chosen to leave the school, all of these sponsors were baby teachers who didn't handle the "teen drama" of the job very well. The JV squad has long had a repuatation for backbiting. I've been thinking hard about that and about what skills I have that led everyone to ask me to take this job (my principal, the athletic director, assisstant athletic director, varsity cheer coach...I worry that they'll bring the custodians in soon!).

Here's what I know I can do: I can make kids see themselves as a family and as a team. I had a sense of that before our summer together but after NITS, I really think I can do this. We might be the only cheer squad around with daily check in. We're going to use hard rules and heap praise on each other's heads. I know this is a twisted use of our methods, but I do think this sort of respect is what these girls have needed.

So I need more suggestions. I'm perfectly willing to let you laugh at this for a bit but after that I wonder what other ideas you have to teach these girls how to live in a community.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Musical theatre unit

Last year I directed my first musical (Annie Jr.). It was more fun than I thought, and not quite as hard as I dreaded. Also, choreographing the dances was relatively painless, and fun in an I'm-working-outside-my-normal-sphere-of-creativity kind of way.

So now I'm thinking of doing a musical theatre unit in my class, and I'd like some input. I'd like to start in the first week of February, and spend three to five weeks on it. Since my classes are 48 minutes long, and we'd have to take time at the beginning of class to strike the desks and at the end of class to reset the desks, I figure we'll have about 30 good minutes of working time a day, which leads me to believe we can stumble through one song each week.

I imagine I'll start with some numbers from Annie Jr., since I'm confident with them. I'll likely start with "NYC," since the choreography we used largely entails tableaus, and not that much "real" dancing. Then I might do "Hard Knock Life" or "Never Fully Dressed," but I'm worried that the boys might bristle at being forced to do "girl songs."

I'd like to give the kids the opportunity to work in small groups to choreograph their own numbers, but there are several challenges to this idea. First, what songs? I can't allow them to have free reign, or it'll just be a lot of grinding to Solja Boy. I also thought of teaching them a dance from a movie, but most are just way too hard (my wife suggested the dance from the end of Napoleon Dynamite, and I think that's a pretty good choice). I figure I'll need to give them a list of songs to choose from. Then, what about the noise? If there are four groups in the class, that's four CD players blaring, and four groups bumping into each other. I have a large room, but still. It sounds pretty tough.

I'd like to end the unit by teaching kids a number fron this year's musical. We're doing Willy Wonka Jr., and auditions are right after Spring Break, so we'll need to be done by then.

Have any of you ever done a musical theatre unit before? How do you combat all the "this is gay" and "I didn't sign up for a dance class" stuff? How do you let the kids be creative and set their own choreography, but not lose control of your class?