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.
In PART 1, we covered selecting a show, reading perusal scripts, and securing the performance rights. PART 2 covered creating your documents, PART 3 helped you assemble your team, and PART 4 addressed the casting process. Now it’s time for…
It’s time for the first rehearsal! Excitement will be high: if you can take advantage of the energy now, you might be able to carry it through your entire production.
Build A Team
First and foremost, make sure to invite EVERYONE: performers, tech crew, marketing staff… this is when everyone can meet and learn about the responsibilities of each member of the team. If you’ve got a large group, you could make formal introductions and create clever nametags or have the kids make their own. If it’s a close-knit bunch, then a few icebreakers are a great way to kick things off.
Depending on your school and rehearsal schedules, you could make this into a social gathering: provide pot-luck dinner, pizza, or snacks, and let the students relax before getting to work. Or, once you’re finished rehearsing, save a few minutes for cookies on the way out. Collaboration is a critical part of the success of the production, and team-building cannot be over-emphasized. Speaking of team-building, if it’s appropriate for your school culture, invite the principal or other administrators. They’ll get a first-hand look at the importance of theater at their school, and students can see that their interests are being recognized.
If you feel that your parents are a helpful and friendly bunch, invite them to the social portion of the rehearsal. They might meet carpool buddies or start brainstorming about ways they can help with some fundraising. Plus, they can be there when you go over the rules and expectations of the cast and crew and take home any important forms. When you do reach out with the invite, make sure it’s clear that they’re only RSVPing for the get-together and not the entire rehearsal. To them, it should seem like their child is off to any other class at school.
Once your students are ready, start off with a warm-up, both vocally and physically, and get the kids used to doing this routine at the start of every rehearsal. If it’s a dance-heavy production, talk to the choreographer or a coach about a few flexibility and conditioning exercises to include —singing and dancing take stamina! (Warm-ups are also a nice way to get everyone in the cast a chance to be in the spotlight: at each rehearsal, a different student leads the group through the sequence—and I find that it’s fun to join them.)
Decide if you will handle your administrative discussions before you start the read-through or after. If you do it before, you’ll ensure that you get it all done and won’t run out of time at the end of rehearsal; if you do it after, they’re less likely to lose any papers you might distribute. (This is especially important if you decide to invite parents.) I tend to do it before the read-through starts because I can underscore the seriousness with which I approach the show. I try to give the students as close to a professional experience as possible, so I want to start out with a discussion of my expectations for them. Those include:
- How many rehearsals can I miss?
- Are we required to attend every rehearsal?
- What’s the rehearsal schedule?
- Do I have to provide any costumes or props?
Go over the rules as well: No food backstage, no cell phones anywhere on stage or backstage, etc. If you use actor contracts, read through one here and tell students when they need to be returned. Outlining everything ahead of time doesn’t guarantee that students will remember everything that was said, but it can make it all sound a little more familiar.
I also do my administrative discussions first because I present introductory dramaturgical material at this rehearsal. Even before the first read-through, I like to give an overall presentation of the plot summary, the time period the play is set in, and any relevant historical facts. I’ll talk more about dramaturgy in a later post.
Finally, it’s time to read the script! Be warned: if it’s a show the kids are familiar with, they will want to sing all of the songs instead of just reading them. Ultimately, this is your call — I prefer for my students to read lyrics at least once so we can all make sure that we know what’s being said (or sung). Everyone should have a pencil so they can mark unfamiliar words or pronunciations and note any questions they want to revisit later. Because you’ll have the full cast and crew assembled, you might want to pause along the way to check for understanding; otherwise, it might be in the midst of rehearsals when you realize an ensemble member or designer is misinterpreting the themes or plot. You can also use this time to make notes on characterization and blocking/staging. You can never be too prepared! But most of all, have fun! It’ll be time for the hard work soon enough.
Part 6: Table Work
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.