Friday, July 20, 2012

The Mento Becomes the Manatee

I am a high school drama director.  Well, that is one of many hats I wear throughout the course of my days, but it's a part of my job that brings tremendous reward.  I love watching my students bring life to the words on a page, watching them grow over the course of a production or over the course of their four years with me.  Sometimes, I think that those moments when my kids are on the stage and I am standing at the foot of the stage guiding them through a tricky scene are when I am at my best not just as a teacher but as a human being.  Not to get all Drew Barrymore up in here, but there really is something magical about kids in the arts, and the relationships I get to forge with them inspire me daily.  We have seen each other at our best, and yes, we have seen each other at our worst, but the bonds that are forged in our little (well, not so little) Drama Club are pretty incredible.

And I am their fearless leader.

Most of the time.

A few days after our spring musical closed, my music director came to me with a proposition.  Our regional office of education had received a grant that funded before and after school programs to reach out to kids both at risk and kids who just needed something to do during those time periods.  As summer approached, the program director wanted to spin the program off into a summer program to keep kids connected to the school during the off months.  A hypothetical idea that had been floated when he sent an inquiry email out to the faculty mentioned theatre.  I saw the email and, to be honest, deleted it.  I had just finished a pretty solid nine months of directing and coaching speech.  I needed a break.  I was looking forward to a summer off for the first time in several years -- no outside teaching, no acting, nothing.  My music director saw this proposal, though, and was intrigued.  He wanted to do some sort of summer theatre program.  My initial reaction?  "Absolutely not."  Like I said, I was pretty wiped out.  Add to it the fact that, to be honest, I wasn't quite ready to do theatre without my group of seniors who were graduating.  I was dead set against this whole thing.

And then I thought about it.  I thought about how much I love working with my students, how much fun it could be to do theatre with them without the added "burden" of homework and lesson planning.  Within a couple hours, I was standing in front of my music director and saying, "I'm in."  We came up with the idea of doing two one acts -- I would direct one, and he would direct the other.  And then he floated another idea -- what if we did THREE one acts with the third show being directed by a student and starring.... the two of us?  He was itching to act, and I have to admit I was, too.  (I try to do some sort of acting once a year to kind of keep those muscles from atrophying, and the deadline was approaching for me to get onstage again.)  We immediately decided that my assistant director, a young woman who has been my AD for the past four shows I've directed, was the only logical choice for this gig.  Luckily, she said yes AND was agreeable to us presenting her with a show that was already cast ... with her teachers.  

And so I've spent the past month directing six of my Drama Club kids in Christopher Durang's The Actor's Nightmare and appearing onstage as Susan in Durang's short Funeral Parlor.  Directing Actor's Nightmare has been on my personal wish list for years, and having the opportunity to work on it with six pretty tremendous kids was a dream come true.  I loved watching them find different shades to the absurdity.  I gave them a lot of freedom to explore and craft their characters, a freedom they took to heart.  I had one girl come to me and ask me if it would be okay for the actress she was playing to have a Southern accent whenever she wasn't playing a character.  I had another boy come to me with some ideas for his character's costume based on research he had done.  Every day was a new adventure for us.

And then when that rehearsal was over, it was time to take off my director's hat and become an actor.  I will not lie -- the first rehearsal with my student as my director was a little intimidating.  Suddenly, I had to walk the walk and do all the things I always tell my kids to do -- cheat out, listen actively, project, be fearless.  I had to put it all on display.  What if I didn't have it?  What if I revealed myself to be one of those people who couldn't do and so had to resort to teaching?  

Once I got over those fears, the experience became a bit surreal.  It was weird to stand on the stage that my kids had stood on and getting that sense of joining in the legacy of our program as a participant and not just the director.  Add to it the fact that at times, it was sort of like being directed by ... well.... me.   My young AD/Director has only ever worked with one director -- me.  What she knows about the creation of a show came from working with me.  She used my vocabulary, she employed a lot of my style, and as an actor, it was pretty darn cool.  There was also nothing quite like the pride that comes from seeing someone you have mentored over the years blossom into a confident, thoughtful leader in her own right.  Getting to be in her first show was an honor that I know I will cherish. 

Tonight was our performance, and it brought some new fears, particularly when the lights came up and the front row was filled with my students -- past and present.  I looked to the wings and saw several of the kids who had been in the other one acts standing in the wings to watch the show.  No pressure!  But then I heard the words I've said to so many kids over the past several years and knew that now was the time to walk the walk and to "go all in."  

When people roll their eyes and ask me how I can stand working with teenagers all day, my answer lies in moments like these when, to quote Tracy Jordan, "the mento becomes the manatee."  This summer was filled with those moments -- seeing new leaders for our program emerge, watching a director be born, witnessing torches being passed and accepted.  There aren't many jobs where you get to experience things like that.  Many of my peers were a bit horrified that I was giving up my summer to direct yet another show, and yet, when push comes to shove, I know that there was nowhere else I would rather spend my summer than in that auditorium with those kids.


Danielle Mari said...

Great post, Mel! I bet it was a wonderful night! Was your director happy with your work?

Mel said...

I think so. I did tell her that I expected her to thank me when she accepted her Tony for Best Director someday. :)

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