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?


At 1:58 PM, Blogger Walker said...

Mabey it's because I'm a little bit anarchist, but I tend to lean more towards what's better for the students rather than the competition. I would rather do a show that benfits the students--allows them to grow as actors, expands their repetoire, explores a new genre, etc.

I think (perhaps naively) that presenting an excellent show at a competition is more imporant than finding the show I think the judges want to see. Of course this policy doesn't guarentee wins. We end up either first or last every year : ).

I don't think you can really predict what the judges want (although drama does seem to be the favorite). I say do the play that's going to be best for your students.


At 8:10 PM, Blogger Meg said...

I'm with Mel! (go Mel!)
I've never had to look for shows that meet such strict and particular parameters, but what about Horton Foote's "The Dancers" (check out all of Horton Foote, actually.)The Manhattan Project and Andre Gregory did a great version of "Alice in Wonderland." There are also perennial classics "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" and "Sorry, Wrong Number." There are a million versions of plays on The Orphan Train, and some of them are good and might work. Google them?

You probably know how much I hate competitive theater, but I've also won every award imaginable while being forced to do it, and I always put the kids needs ahead of anything else. Screw the judges--there's no point in trying to outguess them or please them--they will see your show and your kids on one day; you are responsible for growing your kids as people and as artists every day. Read a TON of scripts of all different sorts, and the right one will present itself to you.

Don't let any folk wisdom about contests sway you if you want to do a comedy! The year I won the state Middle School event was the year I was doing a farce of sorts. (the only other year I had to compete with Middle School we got to the state finals and came in second, but also with a comedy. One of the shows was one I wrote, the other was a prose adaptation of "The Miser." Go figure.) Everyone in the "know" said "Oh- don't do a comedy--you'll never win!" But comedy was the best learning tool for that group. Believe in yourself and do the kind of theater you enjoy working on with your particular kids. It will be great!

And as for the football coach: sports are by design and function competitive. I would argue that theater is by nature communicative and collaborative. The kid who gets kicked off the football field for not being "good enough" is always welcome to come be in my play. We'll win trophies aplenty AND manage to include everyone.

But again: believe in yourself and you'll make the right decision for the kids--it will invariably be right for the judges as well.

At 11:11 PM, Blogger chitarita said...

I've been trying to think of how to put my response to this. Then I find that Meg and Mel articulated it far beyond what I could say. So, simply, amen (AMEN!!) to them and their comments, and be sure to tell us what you decide to do.

At 1:31 PM, Blogger Walker said...

I did "Sorry, Wrong Number" about three years ago. It was absolutely the wrong cast, but I loved the script.

Also, "Competition Piece" is hysterical, and conveniently enough pokes fun at theatre competitions. Doubling is easy with this one.

At 3:05 PM, Blogger Holbrook said...

You're all right, trying to guess what the judge wants is probably pointless. I should just concentrate on doing the best show I can, which starts with picking a show that's right for this particular bunch.

I have a few really awesome girls, so I'm thinking about "The Miracle Worker." However, I think middle school audiences won't be able to handle it. I think they'll just laugh every time Helen makes a noise.

At 8:47 PM, Blogger chitarita said...

They might be able to - I took a whole bunch of kids to see that show a few years ago, and they were as respectful as could be. You could probably gauge future reactions by how they treat students with physical disabilities at your school.

If you do it, you may also want to do some real "life lessons" kind of activities - have your entire cast try doing basic tasks without sight. Like, you could have everyone take off their shoes and put them across the room, then hand out the blindfolds and ask them to find their own shoes and put them back on. Try a similar activity without sound, and perhaps both together. Encourage reflections, either in journaling or in a cast discussion or both.

Treat the disability with respect, in particular for what she was able to accomplish, and they will pick up on your cues. The way your actors feel about it will translate to the audience. And if there are a few kids out there who are, well, jerks, then you and your cast can know that you are better than them and you can shrug it off with some tut, tuts.

At 4:15 PM, Blogger Meg said...

I've seen this show a couple of times at competitions (both middle and high school level) and what I've seen is this: if Helen is effective and believable, the audience buys in. If Helen is self indulgent, playing "disability" or lacks a sense of humor, the audience laughs. It depends on whether they are relating to the character (no laughs) or the actor (laughs.) This is easily solved with competent directing, though, so I don't think you should worry about it.
Have you looked at "The Insanity of Mary Girard?" I read it a long time ago, but I think it's got a lot of ensemble work, if you are interested in that kind of thing. I'm just saying this to encourage reading a ton of plays before settling on one--you've got time, right?

At 9:00 AM, Blogger Walker said...

When we went to states two years ago there were two schools who each did "The Insanity of Mary Girard." I agree with Meg that it's a great ensemble piece.

What was unique was that one version was set in the time period of the play, and the other was very modern--all black boxes and white costumes.

At 7:33 PM, Blogger Holbrook said...

I saw Mary Girard in college. I don't remember much about it, other than it resembling Marat/Sade with a female lead. Isn't the main character imprisoned for becoming pregnant by someone other than her husband? My administration is pretty conservative, and that's probably too risque for them. But I'll give it a read.


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