At my school, a Xaverian Brothers Sponsored Catholic school, we have a charism that we live by: build enduring relationships-whether student to student, student to teacher, teacher to teacher, teacher to parent, etc.-we strive to create a community within our school that lasts more than the four years between when a student enrolls and when he/she graduates. Theatre is a natural vehicle for relationship building, but it also tests relationships because sometimes constructive criticism and the rejection process (which are very important to the theatre process) are not welcomed. So, how do you go about building a program that builds relationships, improves students’ theatrical skills, and turns out a great product? I can tell you from experience its not easy, but I do have a few tips to help.
Reward hard work
I inherited a program that generally rewarded seniority over talent and productivity. My father, a former professional football coach, used to say that if he could fill his team with low maintenance and high productivity players and get rid of the high maintenance and low productivity athletes then he would have a very coachable team. This completely fits with the ideology of my program. Yes, we want to have fun, but we also have a show to put up. If I don’t cast the hardest working people, then I can’t do my job-it becomes ‘work’ and no longer any fun. Since I took over about five years ago, I have followed this model. Sometimes it means that the seniors get the biggest roles, sometimes its a freshman, sometimes something else-but we never fail to turn out a great show. So our product visibly backs up the decision.
For me this ‘rule’ helps to combat some of the entitlement that millennials have become so well known for. I find that the kid who has some talent and works his butt off will in the end give a much better performance that the kid with oodles of talent who won’t listen. It’s all about coaching. The first kid is coachable, the second isn’t-and if my experience is any indication, the second kid will cause you no end of headaches and other problems.
Always be honest
I find that my students are mature enough and old enough to hear the truth (as long as its phrased constructively). The more I can make the audition, the rehearsal, or the crew selection process transparent the less confusion there is. At the end of each school year I announce what productions we are doing. The purpose is two fold: build student interest and allow students to use their summers to prepare for whatever their goal is (for example: playing a specific part by getting voice lessons, reading the script, etc.). Going into auditions I post character breakdowns, hold interest meetings detailing audition requirements, and put on workshops to help students prepare their auditions. I want a chance for students to get feedback, but also I want to see what a student’s work ethic is prior to casting them. A student who comes to every workshop is clearly invested in the process and the show. After auditions I make myself available for students to get direct feedback from me on their audition. I begin with asking students if they have any specific questions. I want to make sure that from the gate they get the information that they’re seeking. It also helps focus the meeting to have student address what information they specifically want to hear about. Next I allow students to see the video of their audition, I point out strengths and weaknesses. Finally I wrap up with what steps the student needs to take going forward-whether they are in the cast or not, this helps students to understand that growth is an active process.
When speaking with large groups (parents or students), I speak more generally, but try to keep the transparency of the thought. For instance, “I found that most students in the senior class did not come prepared to this audition. Some did not have their music memorized, some sang off key or out of tempo, some forgot words, or just didn’t seem to be invested. On the other hand, I had a slew of underclassmen who came in off book, knowing the music, had a clear sense of character and motivation.” So I don’t specifically name names (keeping it general), but the essence of the statement is factual.
There will always be the parent or student who doesn’t understand some aspect of the casting or selection process. However, those who want to improve will take advantage of this honesty. Those who don’t really want to hear the truth will generally avoid taking advantage of this opportunity because then they’d have to take into consideration a different perspective from their own imagined reality.
Emphasize the team
Getting back to that seniority thing…I reward seniority by giving those who have dedicated time over and over again with a “spot on the team”-sometimes that’s in the cast, sometimes it’s in a crew leadership role, sometimes its just on a crew. But everyone gets a spot, as long as they’ve filled out their paperwork and showed up to the meetings. This is one of the hardest things for my students to accept-that sometimes they aren’t the right fit for a certain role or that they didn’t make the cut. Many times seniors fall back on the “But I’m a SENIOR!” argument. My reply to this is, “Yes and you’ve earned your spot on the team. You haven’t earned the right to dictate what spot that is.”
Get to know the parents
By and large I have some amazing parents in my program. For the most part, they just want their child to have a good experience and grow. I believe in collaborating with parents, you are a team in helping to shape their child. The more you can build relationships with parents and emphasize how your goal is overall growth in the whole child, the easier it is for a parent to swallow the tough love times.
Create opportunities out of disappointments
The part that no one ever wants to talk about is the R word: REJECTION. However, rejection is a natural part of not only theatre, but life. I try and work though rejection with students and parents by encouraging them to turn disappoint into an opportunity. So you didn’t get the role you wanted, or you didn’t get any role? How are you going to turn what you did get or not participating in the show into an opportunity to learn something and improve?
Nurture the individual, but do what’s best for the group
When you’re running a program, you have to steer the group. Sometimes that will benefit certain individuals, sometimes it will leave those individuals behind. However, your job is not to teach one student but many. Be open and honest and truly care about the individual. Sometimes that means that you have to let them go onto different opportunities-like an outside of school show or company. Other times it will mean giving them a list of voice teacher, acting coaches, or dance studios. But always it means listening and showing the individual that you are invested in them no matter if you’re working constantly together or not.