As readers of this blog already know, we are HUGE advocates of musical theatre in schools. But we are also the first to admit that putting on a musical is hard work, especially for the teachers. It is the teacher who is usually expected to be the director, choreographer, stage manager, and producer; all while still being a teacher!
That is why we have asked Kimberly Patterson, the Theatre Arts Teacher and Performing Arts Chair at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida, to write this series for our Spotlight On Musicals blog.
The series will outline the process of putting on a musical from start to finish, providing helpful tips and maybe even some new ideas. Topics will include:
- Applying for a license with a publisher
- Budgeting and creating calendars
- Assembling your team
- Running rehearsals with a student crew
- Working with your technical theater team
- Managing the house
…and many others. Whether you’re a seasoned producer of school theatre or you’re just starting out and have suddenly been put in charge of it all, this series will have something for you.
Your students are a team on stage, relying on each other to know their cues and perfect their dialogue. You get to choose your team, too: the group of people who will help you get the show on its feet. Designers, choreographers, musical directors, accompanists, conductors… these are all people you might need, and it’s hardly an exhaustive list. Where to begin?
If your school has a robust theater department, you might already have your team in place, or have a regular collaborative arrangement across departments: the musical could be an endeavor shared between the visual art and music departments. If you don’t have established staff, reach out to other faculty and staff members; they might have a host of hidden talents—or at least want to help with the less specialized of the production. For example, my costume coordinator is also our school librarian. She can’t sew the costumes, but she does source items from thrift stores, manage rentals, and purchase necessary accessories and wigs. She makes sure everything fits, and keeps it all organized in the dressing room. If alterations are needed, she coordinates with a parent volunteer to make the adjustments.
Does your school offer a supplement to teachers who take on additional tasks? Many schools pay teachers if they coach after-school sports. Check with administration to see if the amount of time that goes in to producing a musical works the same way.
If you need to hire staff outside of school, figure how much is in your budget and be prepared to negotiate. Will they get paid by the hour or in a lump sum? Do they need any special clearance to work with your kids? Local theater companies, dance studios, colleges, independent performing arts instructors, and building contractors make excellent sources for finding qualified applicants. Take advantage of the larger school community, and ask parents and administrators if they have recommendations, or talk to other schools in your area.
Parent volunteers could be a blessing — or more trouble than they’re worth. So many parents want to help, and so often they make the production so much easier. Make sure you work out how they’ll be helping before you bring them on. How much control over the artistic process will they get? If they’re helping with supplies, do you reimburse them, or are they going use their own money? Even though they’re volunteering their time, it’s always nice to thank them in the playbill, on a special display board, or in a curtain speech.
Working with students… how much responsibility should you give them?
First and foremost, because this is a school production, learning should be the top priority (even if it’s extracurricular), with enjoyment following closely behind. I try to give my kids as many opportunities to gain new skills as possible — even when it means they’re not quite as helpful as I need them to be. However, it often ends up being a good investment, especially with my freshmen and sophomores; by the time they’re seniors, I feel much more comfortable giving them lots of responsibility.
Even the students who seem the most mature and competent are still teenagers, and will have the same challenges as any high school student. College visits, big exams, and family trips can all interfere with a rehearsal schedule, and such things are pretty much non-negotiable on their end. Plan for contingencies by doubling up roles (two stage managers, a team of tech crew) or using students solely in an “assistant” capacity and have them work with an adult mentor.
Because documentation is so important, consider creating manuals for your team members. They could be organized by job title or main task (set designer, lighting crew) or by type of helper (student, volunteer, school staffer). Not only can you outline the job description and expectations, but you can also gather the small bits of information you personally know by heart and make sure it’s shared. This includes campus hours, emergency phone numbers and procedures, behavior policies, and, if you have it, technical specifications and set/costume inventory. If nothing else, it will decrease the number of people with regular questions (or give you an easy response: “Go read the manual!”).
Part 4: Auditions
Kimberly Patterson is a two-time graduate of New York University, with an undergraduate degree in Dramatic Literature, Theater History and the Cinema, and a Masters Degree from the Gallatin School. Her program in Individualized Study focused on performance studies, dramatic writing, and technical theater, and her coursework included scenic design, puppetry, and “ritual-as-performance.” She spent more than a decade in New York City working in Off- and Off-Off Broadway theaters in almost every capacity possible. As a playwright, her plays have appeared in the New York International Fringe Festival and the New York Musical Theater Festival; her musical, Oedipus for Kids!, is published by Samuel French and has been produced around the U.S. Kimberly has extensive experience working with educational technology, and has managed online content and curriculum development for McGraw-Hill, ProQuest Education, and Curriki.org. When not working behind the scenes in Oxbridge’s auditorium, Kimberly plays Japanese taiko drums and is a performing apprentice with Fushu Daiko.