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9 Lessons From the Director’s Chair

By Alycia Zimmerman on May 23, 2013
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

This isn’t a normal blog post from me, but then again, this isn’t normal teaching life for me at the moment either. As I write this, opening night for my class’s play is five short school days away, and I have morphed from a lesson-planning teacher into a full-time freakishly intense theater director. At the moment, little orphan Annie is pretty much my entire life.

Lesson 1: If You Aren't Willing to Dream About Costume Changes and Curtain Calls, Staging a Class Play Probably Isn't for You

I literally spend all day working on Annie, and it dances into my unconscious mind at night, too.

Given that I am mid-process, this isn’t even a “how-to-put-on-a-play” post or a pedagogically sound blog about best practices when incorporating drama into the classroom. The Common Core is far, far away from my brain at the moment, and I can hardly slow down to catch my breath. Some day in the far future perhaps I’ll write a sane narrative about the rewarding process of staging a musical with my students. Right now, you’re catching me in the heat of the moment as I process what I’m currently learning as a director, tackling tech week rehearsals with my students.

It’s crazy and exciting and I have no idea what I’m doing! But I’m certain that both my students and I feel that going to school these days is much bigger than just, well, going to school. So without further ado, here’s some of what else I’ve learned over the past week.

Is it normal that we now spend more time in the auditorium than the classroom?

Lesson 2: It's Okay to Spend All Day Working on One Thing

This flies in the face of normal school pacing. In “real life,” I teach a different subject every hour or so, and common sense dictates that elementary children don’t have the attention span for longer periods of sustained work. Well, apparently that isn’t the case when it comes to putting on a play, because we are spending entire days working on rehearsals, scenery painting, sewing costumes, and creating publicity posters, with one period running into the next without anyone mentioning the time.

 

Lesson 3: As Much as You Plan for Reasonable Pacing, Crunch Time Will Still Be a Crunch

I thought I had carefully planned so that we’d gradually work our way through rehearsals, with all of the pieces calmly falling into place before the show. We started rehearsals six weeks ago, learning two songs and a couple of dances a week, and working through the show one scene at a time. So why is Annie now what we’re eating and breathing every second of the day? Where did my carefully calculated calendar let me down? Is it possible to put on a play without a crunch period? (I’d love to hear from more experienced dramaturges!)

 

Lesson 4: Delegate as Much as Possible. You’ll Be Surprised

I’ll admit, I’m more than a bit of a perfectionist. But to keep my sanity and to get everything done, I’ve had to let go to a certain extent — and to great results! I have picked students as assistant director, stage manager, publicity manger, etc. And my 3rd grade tech crew has stepped up to the challenge far more than I thought possible. I can totally trust my 9-year-old dance captain and assistant director to rehearse a scene while I work with the paint crew on scenery. It sounds scary, but it amazingly works! (I love it when the assistant director adamantly reminds the actors to “cheat out to the audience.”)

My students are doing an amazing job with the scenery!

Lesson 5: Prioritize and Know When to Let Go

Which brings me to my next lesson: I cannot control everything about this play, and despite my ridiculously high expectations, this actually isn’t Broadway. So I’m not going to fret about the fact that the stage lights can’t be dimmed during the show. I’m going to gratefully let my students’ families work out the costuming details, even if the results don’t exactly match my artistic “vision.” I am, however, going to insist on certain non-negotiable points; every orphan WILL grin during “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile,” so help me!

 

Lesson 6: Let Your Classroom Become a Disaster Zone. It's Okay

I know you’re not going to believe me without a photo, and I’m sorry that I’ve been too busy to snap one. But just imagine my already overcrowded classroom now bursting at the seams with 28 copy paper boxes, each holding a student’s costumes and props. And that’s just along one wall. At the back of the room are a dozen orphans’ brooms, a full-size Christmas tree with a smattering of wrapped presents, bags of bedding, and child-size boxes-turned-skyscrapers. My students can’t even get into the closets to stow their backpacks in the morning.

I’m trying so hard to be Zen about the mess. It’s only for another week. There’s no other alternative. It’s okay since we’re spending almost the entire day on stage anyway. Right?

Thirty large cardboard boxes are stacked high along one wall of my classroom.

Lesson 7: Give Honest Feedback. The Kids Will Respect It

At times I’ve struggled with juggling my role as a teacher and my role as a director when it comes to giving feedback. As a teacher, my feedback is usually very student-oriented. I try to turn feedback into a question that the student can ponder, helping him craft his own teaching point through reflection. I find that while wearing my director’s hat, I’m far less inquiry oriented and far more direct. I don’t hesitate to point out when a dancer turns on the wrong count, or when an actor speaks inaudibly.

Yes, I worry about my students’ self image, and I am nervous about rehearsals that veer toward the negative. But my students really seem to be thriving with the pressure of the direct feedback. So while I share praise when it’s warranted, I also take careful notes during each rehearsal about what the actors and crew can improve on. And I think my students understand that my “tough director” persona is because I want them to give their very best. At least I hope they understand that!

 

Lesson 8: Communicate the Master Plan as Much as Possible

With long days of rehearsals and nary a readers workshop in sight, my students were drowning me with questions about the show, the flow of the day, and what to expect during rehearsals. Frankly, the questions were driving me crazy!

So I’ve started having full cast meetings at least twice a day: once in the morning and once around noon. At the meetings, I briefly discuss the rehearsal schedule, all of the tasks we need to accomplish, and activity alternatives for students who are “waiting” through a scene.

Taking the time to share everything I can right up front has helped to calm things down and bring the questions to a manageable level.

 

Lesson 9: Shelve Everything Else for Now and Go All In!

Finally, I’ve realized that I need to embrace the insanity that is tech week and accept the fact that this is what my life has become. At school, weekly vocabulary assignments, reading routines, and math lessons are all on hold. At home, my husband knows we’re going to be eating a lot of take-out for the next week. Annie songs are constantly looping through my head. And I couldn’t bring myself to blog about anything other than this experience!

This process is far more all-encompassing than I expected, but I’m also having so much fun alongside my students. For perhaps the first time, I actually feel like part of a team with my students, not just the leader of their team. I’m depending on them just as they are depending on me, and that actually feels really exciting.

With the show still a week away, I’m sure I have a lot more lessons to learn. If you’ve put on a school play, please share your advice and wisdom with me… I’m learning as I go! Wish me luck and a modicum of sanity. As my students sing at the end of Annie, “The sun will come out tomorrow” — or at least by late next week, I hope!

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Comments (6)

With the show still a week away, I’m sure I have a lot more lessons to learn. If you’ve put on a school play, please share your advice and wisdom with me… I’m learning as I go! Wish me luck and a modicum of sanity. As my students sing at the end of Annie, “The sun will come out tomorrow” — or at least by late next week, I hope!
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Hi Alycia,

I am so interested in you doing a musical with your class. I was a music teacher for 15 years and now teach in 4th grade. I would love to do a musical to conclude an historical unit but would be so interested to know how you dealt with different issues. Did your school pay the exorbitant royalty fees? Was your administration on board with focusing solely on the musical in lieu of other stuff? I definitely believe that performing a show of any kind addresses so many facets of the standards and/or the Common Core, but not sure how administration would look at that. And finally, how did it go?! I'm sure it was amazing. Kids love to perform, parents love to watch.

Thanks!,
Cindy

Alycia, Congratulations on all your hard work, it looks like you had a blast with your students.

The biggest point is just what Alycia Z. stated they "just love seeing their children perform". I Annie was one of my first productions (with 3-5th grade) I have done many more since then and I have to say that crunch time is important and so is a bad tech rehearsal! It is so awesome that you are using the school day to get ready and I would say that your students are performing more core standards than you could teach each day! I love the fact that you have given the kids responsibilities!
I am now a high school teacher and hopefully I will be the director of "Annie!" next year. I am looking forward to the CHAOS, the acting, the learning, and the fun! Break a leg because if I do the math right you should be performing tonight or maybe it was earlier today? The arts not only teach so much to children, but allow them to internalize the lessons! You will love every minute (it will just take a day, or a week for it to sink in!) Keep up the great work!!!!!

I don't have advice but I teach in middle school and just finished producing my first school play. It was crazy and stressful (especially since I have multiple classes and only had all of my actors together after school). But the kids enjoyed it and the parents did, too. I have very high standards (as I would guess you do as well) and cringed at every missed line or late sound cue but the audience doesn't know what they're missing and just love seeing their children perform. So persevere and trust me, the relief after the show is over is pretty fantastic.

Sarah, that's actually awesome advice, thank you so much! The show is now two days away and it's just crazy at school. The kids are buzzing all day long - their energy is unstoppable. You make a great point about the audience (i.e. their parents) enjoying the show no matter how many hiccoughs happen. I'll have to keep your words in mind when I'm cringing. Thanks again for writing in - it's great to know another first time director survived this, and that there's a light at the end of the tunnel!

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