The Wonderful Exhaustion of Directing a High School Play

The high school I teach at is very small, and sponsors two theatrical shows a year: a high school and a junior high musical play, all done by one staff member, as a part of the Music Department. Outside of that curriculum, students do not have a consistent opportunity to perform. Every once in a while, a teacher or even a student will attempt to put on a show, but at great difficulty. Just this pas year, after asking around, I found there was really no one offering to direct a show. I thought that was rather unfortunate. I didn't perform in high school, but was very much involved in the theatre program at Benedictine College, led by the ever-formidable Dr. Scott Cox, and those times acting were such a huge blessing and joy to me. I felt that, knowing I had a little talent and experience under my belt, that I'd offer myself as director of a high school show. 

Which is insane the more I think about it. You see, outside of acting, I have near-zero experience in theatre. I was very much involved in a lot of what happened on my campus (politics, church, other clubs), but theatre was the one I wanted to keep "pure." That is, it was a way for me to be creative without any sense of ambition, any sense of vanity. Just a way to enjoy myself and others and give people a good thing. I took no classes, wanting to keep it obligation-free. As such, I have no formal training in acting or production. 

The Daunting Role of Creators

But I had to start somewhere, so began with auditions and callbacks in early December, utilizing the help of the musical theatre director (the also formidable Ms. Elizabeth Ogg) to guide me on tricks she had picked up. I decided to do Twelve Angry Men, as the gender was inconsequential and there are no scene or costume changes. Casting was a strange experience. I could see some students who were obviously far more skilled than their peers, and could do 7 different roles, and some students who had never acted before and could maybe do one role. It was then I realized how much teaching would be involved in directing. Actors, of course, are the actual vessels by which a play comes alive. The decisions (big and especially small) make something real or obviously fake. I came to understand, though, that the director is the ultimate world maker, taking words on paper and crafting them into a live, in-flesh production. I would be responsible for helping these kids realize that there was something very real on the script, and that they were going to make it happen. 

If casting made me aware that I would be coaching the cast on things they've never done before, then the first table work is what showed me the possibilities I could do. Whenever I stopped the reading to prod the actors and actresses what they thought a line meant, I already knew what I wanted the answer to be. As I conversed with them and looked at them, more possibilities were opened, and I could see the exact visuals, the exact feeling I wanted to get from them. That first rehearsal gave me a thrill of creative excitement. With the young men and women in front of me, we would, for lack of better words, make something truly special. 

Of course, it's not always easy. After winter break we began weekly, two-hour rehearsals to focus and hone our characters, work on what lines meant, discuss motivations, and train our minds to understand the characters as they were, not as we wanted them. This is where I had fun. Reading scripts, to me, is like trying to find all of the fun little passageways and hidden doors in an old building, where addition upon addition has concealed but not destroyed old rooms. What a character said can either be just a filler line, or something monumentally revealing. I like those nooks and crannies in character development, and I tried to share that with the students. We had fun, no doubt, but its hard work when you have to do this for every character. After Thursday rehearsals, I would be absolutely exhausted. 

Then came blocking. Good heavens this was difficult. Designing a set and trying to make it work to what you want is not easy, especially when your stage has limited dimensions. Add in tight-fitting props and furniture, with 12 people on stage at all times, and you now have Chinese Tetris. Each decision I made about what someone does at any given moment had unseen and infuriating ramifications later that severely restricted future options. Now, blocking isn't hell, just purgatorial. I enjoyed the puzzle of making things work, and it was absolutely delightful when a perfect moment came together. But brain drain is real, and I sometimes tried stupid things thinking I was brilliant. 

"I Will Murder Someone By the End of the Week"

When it came time for daily rehearsals in mid-March, many of the creative decisions were made. Most things after that were making the decisions better, or adding something not previously thought of. The big things that come out of daily rehearsals were developing skills and techniques. This was very hard on me. "Fake it 'till you make it" is an essential mantra. I tried to think of as many tricks that I had learned during college or things that may have helped me if I had done them, and tried to get my cast to work. But my lack of formal education showed. I am still very grateful that I had a mentor at the school to guide me on what she knew to work. 

Sometimes though, no matter how supportive of a cast or crew you have, a rehearsal sometimes just sucks. If you've ever been an athlete, you know of a few practices in your career when the plays just were jiving, the mechanics were all off, and the team not functions. I've had my fair share of days when the coach would shout, "GET OFF MY FIELD, AND QUIT WASTING MY TIME." Those days exist in theatre, too. 

It's crushing when your actors have yet to memorize a line you needed mastered a week ago. It's sleep-depriving when the set isn't ready until a day before the show. It's hair-graying when the light system worked fine on Monday before show, but you have to get flood-lamps the day prior because the light software shutdown. It's blood-boiling frustrating when you have one or two cast members who won't stop talking, interrupting, or "back-seat directing" during rehearsal. I can count how many times I was easily capable of taking another human life without remorse. 

But the show must go on. As difficult as it was, my cast and crew were phenomenal, and we persevered through a great deal to make an excellent show happen. I cannot be more proud of those kids for the work they pulled off. I could name a major and visible accomplishment or development in each of them. Their progress is what made the bad days worth it. 

After the final show, I was exhausted, torn and beat up. My hands were cracked with stress and eyes a few shades darker. But I knew that I had found something exceptionally important, and something that had to be done again. I've been working this off-season to prepare for the next show, a Shakespeare, to be better than the last. I honestly can't wait!

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