Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Hero's Journey

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to meet a professional actor. We only chatted briefly as we waited in a buffet line, but during the course of the brief conversation, it came out that I was a high school drama teacher. This actor smiled and said, "That's the work of a real hero." I smiled and thanked him, but inside, I have to confess I sort of rolled my eyes. Here's this guy who has worked with actors like Matthew Broderick, Michael J. Fox, and Keanu Reeves telling me that I'M a hero for spending my days trying to convince a bunch of teenagers to remember to cheat out and not mumble? Whatever!

Lately, though, I've been thinking a lot about that comment. While I may not be ready to call myself a "hero," I have definitely gained an appreciation for just how many challenges I have to face every day. Here's just a glimpse into the battles I've faced just this week.


1. The day started with my principal coming to me to tell me that one of the actors in my show (let's call him Adam) was not eligible to be in the play. Adam had been struggling with his grades all semester long. Several "deals" had been cut with Adam to keep him in the play -- including attending extra tutoring sessions after school. Adam failed to do what he had been required to do, and so I was left with no choice but to do as the principal directed and remove Adam from the play. Have I mentioned that the show opens in about 10 days? I spent the morning scurrying around the building. My first conversation was with a freshman in the show (let's call him Brian) who has a very small part. I asked Brian if he would consider playing the much larger part Adam was vacating. He agreed. I then had to find another freshman who had auditioned for the play but was not cast (let's call him Chad). I asked Chad if he would be willing to take Brian's part (which he had wanted in the first place). I also informed both Brian and Chad that they had 10 days to learn their new parts. Brian is in my 7th hour class and he came in that day and said, "Man, I went from having 8 lines in this play to having 80. What are you doing to me??" I should note that Brian said this with a smile. At yesterday's rehearsal, Brian appeared onstage with a script in his hand the first time we ran through the scene. He then went backstage and ran lines with his leading lady while he was not needed onstage. When we ran the scene again, Brian walked onstage with NO SCRIPT and only called for line ONCE.

2. There's a young freshman girl in my play (let's call her Melanie). Melanie impressed me with her audition. She was young and sweet and fresh and seemed to have a cute, perky energy that matched how I envisioned the character. Ever since that initial audition, Melanie has never seemed to have that same energy onstage again. In fact, at times, she's seemed downright bored. I kept trying and trying to get her to show that energy I'd seen all those weeks ago, but it just wasn't happening. I was beginning to think I'd made a big mistake by gambling on an unknown freshman rather than casting one of the sophomores who'd auditioned (and auditioned well but all seemed just a little too smart and mature for the role). Monday's rehearsal was disrupted because about 90% of my cast was gone to a conference chorus festival (don't even get me started on that one!). I called Melanie and the girl who shares the scene with her that was causing so much trouble. (The other girl -- we'll call her Katrina -- is a junior and very talented and very frustrated with what she's not getting from her "partner" in this scene. Katrina is the kind of girl who will email me after a rehearsal just to pick my brain on her character's motivation and what she can be doing to breath more life into her part.) Melanie, Katrina, and I ran this scene over and over and over, and slowly but surely, Melanie came to life. Suddenly, we had a lively, fun scene. The change was immediately apparent to my AD, who when she saw the scene run today, came rushing back to me to say, "Melanie's got it!! She got it!!!"


1. I had to deal with the fallout from Adam's removal from the show. The kids were sad to see Adam go (he's a very popular and well-respected senior, a Drama Club officer), but every single one of them said the same thing, "Well, he did it to himself." I did have one student try to convince me to postpone the show -- until I pointed out that in addition to posters and programs and such already being printed, that the next available weekend for us to perform would be spring once we factor in speech contests (about 80% of my cast is on the speech team), winter break, and the spring musical.

2. One of the biggest ongoing problems I've had during this show is with another senior who has had a real attendance problem -- to school and to rehearsal. We'll call him Ethan. Ethan is a talented young man, but he has some issues onstage. He has a hard time relaxing, sometimes struggles to find his character's voice, and struggles to memorize lines. He's also chronically late to rehearsals because he chooses to use the 15 minutes between the end of the day and the start of rehearsal to drive to Dairy Queen and get a Mr. Misty. It's incredibly frustrating. The kids joke that we need to get a Drama Club t-shirt that says, "Has anyone seen Ethan?" because I start just about every rehearsal saying that. Tuesday was our 8th to the last rehearsal. Ethan was in class that day. We were waiting for him to arrive so that I could go through general announcements (I wanted to explain the Adam situation, remind them to turn in their t-shirt money, and go over a couple other things) We waited and waited -- still no Ethan. We tried calling his cell phone. No answer. Finally, another student went to the office to page him (thinking maybe he was in the building) only to learn that his mother had just called the office to tell them that Ethan had come home after school and gotten sick. Have I mentioned Ethan has the lead? And that we only had 8 rehearsals left? And the last time I'd seen Ethan in rehearsal, his lines were still a mess? Yeah . . . .


1. I was out of the building today to attend a workshop (perhaps more on that later). Since my workshop wasn't until 8:30, I went into school to get some things ready for the kids to have rehearsal tonight (there was a chance I could be late) and to remind my AD (let's call her Rachel)to start rehearsal without me. I also told her that if Ethan was not in school today, she was to find another boy who is in the show (we'll call him Will) and tell him to come to rehearsal tonight. (He's only in the 2nd act, and we were running Act I) I was able to get out of my workshop a little early and was in the auditorium moving some furniture around when the bell rang and in walked Will. "Rachel said you wanted me to come tonight." I put a script in Will's hand and said, "You're playing Ethan's part for today. You're now officially his understudy." I hate to say it, but Will did a pretty kick ass job even with the script in his hand. That boy may have just "bought" himself a big part in the spring musical. Hell, he may have "bought" himself the lead in this play if Ethan doesn't get his shit together!

Six rehearsals left. Whether this hero's journey has a happy ending or not lies entirely in the hands of about 20 high school kids. They haven't let me down yet, but that somehow doesn't stop the fear from rising in my throat every time I say, "We open next Friday."


Jen said...

I agree with the professional--you're a hero! And that's without the ongoing offstage drama. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for a relatively drama-free conclusion to your already tumultuous week...

Danielle Mari said...

And for those of you thinking this kind of drama only happens in high school.... think again. It may, in fact, get worse with adult actors!

Keep on keeping on, Mel. It will all work out eventually. Magic of theatre.

Why does theatre have to be so dramatic anyway?

NICKI said...

I remember when my best friend was cast in the fall play, and I volunteered for set building since I had field hockey was a similar production, but turned out great in the end. The kids will come through, and you sound like a great director. I think now about how much headache we must have caused Mr.Raymond...poor guy, he never let it show!