It's another journey today in the Way Back Machine, friends, only this time, let's just journey back to late March of 2011. I had just finished directing our high school's production of Grease, a show that will probably be one of those "legendary" shows to which every show we do for the next couple years will be compared. It had a big cast, huge audiences, and was just a really good experience for everyone involved, especially the kids. My seniors sadly wandered off into the last quarter of their high school careers, finding themselves a bit adrift now that their primary extracurricular activities (speech and drama) were over for the year. My younger students, within a day or so of Grease closing, began appearing in my classroom with one question: "What's the fall show going to be?" We have a year-end banquet to recognize drama and speech kids, so I promised them I would have a decision made by then, giving myself about a month to read some scripts and make some decisions.
I assessed the talent I had remaining once graduation wiped me out of some major players. I did some searches, dug through my script library, and came across an old favorite of mine that I thought just might work for us -- Woody Allen's Don't Drink the Water. It had been several years since I'd read the script, so I curled up one night and read it again, immediately hearing the voices of many Drama Club kids. The script had a flexibility that would work well for me, with several of the parts being open to either a male or female in the role. It was funny, and I had several upcoming seniors who were natural comedians. There were some issues with the humor being a bit dated (it's set in the American embassy in an Iron Curtain communist nation in the mid-1960's), but I realized with a little tweaking and suspension of disbelief (like conveniently "forgetting" there isn't really an Iron Curtain anymore), we could have a pretty timely and funny show. I made the announcement and began circulating the script amongst Drama Club kids, building early excitement for the show before school was even out.
Over the course of the summer, I re-read the script many times (typically about once a week) and began working on a set design (one that changed many times over the course of that three month period), figuring out what dialogue updates needed to take place, picking audition cuttings, and generally getting ready to hit the ground running when school started at the end of August.
We held auditions right after Labor Day, and let me tell you, auditions are just as stressful for directors as they are for actors -- maybe even more so. I sat in the auditorium over the course of two nights knowing that I was going to have to break some hearts, especially when over thirty kids showed up to audition for roughly thirteen speaking roles. There were some loyal Drama Club kids who just wouldn't be able to be cast. Once I'd kind of settled on WHO I wanted/had to cast, I needed to start thinking about HOW to cast them. For me, I typically work my way through multiple cast lists before a final one is posted on my classroom door the morning after auditions. I might leave auditions with one concept for the cast list in my head, but then I go home and re-read the script (or at least portions of the script), "listening" for voices I've heard in auditions. I spend some time at the gym, thinking things through on the elliptical machine. Sometimes, I have to strike some deals with myself -- "Okay, Mel, you can cast that freshman girl, but you can't cast her as the lead." Sometimes, an epiphany strikes me through one of my readings and someone I hadn't really planned on casting emerges as the ONLY person who could possibly play that part. I type up a cast list right before I go to bed, and then I sleep on it -- sometimes waking up in the morning to make a slight tweak here or there.
There's maybe nothing worse than the day the cast list is posted. For every giddy face walking down the hall clutching a newly received script, there are at least two more sad, dejected faces that can't make eye contact with me. In years past, there has been anger over cast lists, Facebook campaigns challenging decisions that were made. (Oh, the heat my music director and I took over our Grease list!) Ultimately, though, things kind of settle into a groove and we're able to start those first rehearsals.
I love the first read through of a script. It's usually relatively informal. We meet in my classroom, circle up desks, and just sit and read the script aloud for the first time. There's something really incredible about hearing the characters that I've lived with in my head for so many months finally have a real voice and real life. Every now and then, you have an "Oh, crap!" moment where that person who auditioned so beautifully suddenly seems devoid of any expression, but those moments are few and far between. (And that person usually gets it together over the course of rehearsals.) The sense of company that builds in that first read thru is also pretty darn exhilarating. I take the idea of a "company" very seriously as a director, and seeing it all come together can be a little emotional for me.
As much as I love the first read thru, I also really hate the first week or so of rehearsals. This is when I'm little more than a traffic cop, telling people where to move and when. There isn't necessarily a lot of acting going on at this point so much as just getting the basic choreography of the show down. Actors are tethered to their scripts, so their physical engagement and development of character is borderline non-existent. It's a slog getting through that first week or so, but slowly, eventually, we get to a place where characters begin to emerge, where I can become a guide through that process and help students develop stronger and more realistic characters, where I can actually teach the kids rather than boss them around.
While this is going on, I'm also working on creating the physical existence of the show. That set design that's resided on paper for the past months begins to take shape. Walls come up, paint is applied, details are added that turn our little stage into whatever we need it to be -- a posh English sitting room, a parfumerie, a hat shop, a jury room, a high school cafeteria, or the reception area of the US Embassy. Lights get designed and focused. Sound effects are created. Posters go up. Costumes are pulled or found after hours scouring the local thrift shops. You get to a point where you find yourself sitting in a darkened auditorium and this thing you've lived with theoretically for eight months (almost the same amount of time it takes to birth a child -- how odd is that?) is suddenly a living, breathing organism that is ready to share with the world. I often cry on opening night from happiness, from exhaustion, from relief, from the sadness as I realize this could be the last time I work with some of those kids on stage, but largely from the sheer overwhelming fact that this huge thing has somehow come to life despite actors who struggle to learn lines, kids who drop out at the last minute because tech week conflicts with basketball practice (yup -- that happened), cues that just don't want to work the way you wanted them to, and all the petty little issues that come up no matter how hard you try to keep them away. You've laughed, you've cried, you've pleaded and cajoled. Sometimes, you've even yelled. Whether because of or in spite of your best efforts, it's alive...and it will all be over in a matter of days, and the walls will come tumbling down, the costumes will be packed up in a closet, and the kids will wander off down the hall. Peace will return to the land, and you'll be resentful and long for those crazy nights after school where you could feel your hair turning grey because Michael just can't seem to enter through the right door!
I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- I have the best job in the world. No matter how stressful this process may be, I wouldn't dream of doing anything else. I only hope that my students get that lucky when they go out into the world -- to build a life, a career that has more good days than bad and that makes every day a new adventure.