Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Has Anyone Seen My Keys?

Remember that old adage "Those that can, do, those that can't, teach?" I dare someone to say that to my face. I've always said I could never kill someone, even if they were attacking me, but if the preceding comment had been that adage, I would kill them and feel good about it. I have had contact with some G.R.E.A.T. teachers this week and each of them, has made my life easier. They are artists in the highest degree, because they know how to teach the art. They have so much talent and passion that it oozes out of them and all over their students. It's because of who they are that I write this today.

Mark Daniels at Weber High always makes a big impression on me, because he shares. The man does not have a territorial bone in his body. Years ago, when I was directing Once on This Island at Lehi, he gave me resources that I could not have afforded in my infant program. He made our show look like a million bucks. He did not ask for anything in return and he never does.

Phaidra Atkinson is another selfless drama teacher. Phaidra decided to quit teaching to raise a baby. Something I would kill to do. But while she was "gone" she created an organization called "Utah Advisory Council for Theatre Teachers." This network has become invaluable to over a hundred drama teachers in the state of Utah. Before UACTT, we were all strangers who saw each other occasionally and were polite. It was an isolated field despite the fact that 150 of us exist in the same state. Now, we are empowered because we belong to a group of people that are just like us! We are bonded together because Phaidra saw a need and knew that she alone had the passion and the time to accomplish such a thing (and the brain). Phaidra is a super hero to me. SO many are....

Drama teachers all start the same way...

Sometime in junior high school, Andy and I and most of our teacher friends, were bitten by the theatre bug. It's deadly. The bite will fester for years eventually turning into a full-fledged flesh and brain eating ailment.We WILL die of this disease. They will find us on a lift gripping the last lighting fixture in our paint covered hand, or in the costume shop flopped over a serger. We might be slumped in our chair with one hand resting peacefully over our grading program and in the other...our last diet coke. Not even our life long addiction to diet coke can save us from this deadly bug. The only thing that saves an actor from an early death is teaching drama. Warning: this does not stop the disease it just slows the progression of it down to about 30 years...perfect timing, since you spent all our retirement money on plays anyway.

There are some early warning signs of the disease. The first is sleep deprivation. Not because you don't sleep, but because you can't turn off your brain. "4 yards of muslin...two gallons of black paint... safety pins...poster to the the the t-shirt...collect the receipts for the t-shirt...finish the fundraiser...set up another I have a house manager for this show...why can't I get to sleep....did I order the tickets to New York...who is still going to New York...wish I could get off my Ambien......Sleep deprivation will kill you. Your brain needs to rest too.

Cure: stop doing theatre.

The second symptom is an eclectic office (messy much?). Most offices contain a desk with a computer (gray metal, district issued, one drawer doesn't work), a chair (that you found at the thrift store for a play and sort of adopted), and several bookshelves (full of scripts that you always meant to read) and a diploma on the wall in a cheap frame that says some college gave you permission to give the theatre bug to other people. Don't they know?!?!

But the unique thing about the theatre teachers office is that it contains all the things that you don't want the kids to steal. Fog machines, a hazer, snow machines, confetti canons, a shelf full of vintage hats, a 1940's radio that still has its original tubes. There are various posters from shows hanging about, a few dust covered trophies from 1992 that served their time in trophy cases and got kicked out eventually. There are also various "directors" gifts: a signed baseball from the Damn Yankees cast, a ceramic bottle engraven with "Ashes of Pains in the Ass" on it and various Greek style masks that you have collected or have been given you over the years. Most of them say "Made in China" on the back. There may also be framed Playbills from those trips to New York that you always take with your students because that is the only way you can afford to go out there.

I could go on and on about the office. It's got it's own stereotype. In the movies when set dressers are assigned to create a drama teachers office, its one of the easiest assignments ever because they probably grew up in one.

The third symptom of theateritis is losing your keys. It begins with one simple phrase: "Has anyone seen my keys?" So and so took them to the and so took them to the custodial closet...the costume shop....the dock and so used them to break into the office and so used them to get into the counseling office to change his grades... But if you stop to open every door yourself, you will not be able to do anything else all day. The anxiety level of having the only set of keys that float around a bunch of high school technicians will kill you.

Cure: stop doing theatre.

The fourth symptom of the disease can be found in your shopping cart. Your cart is divided into two sections: stuff for your personal life (milk, eggs, dog food, diet coke...) and stuff for the play (four different kinds of tape, a five gallon bucket of black paint, safety pins, double stick velcro, black socks...) You absolutely don't have time to come to the same store twice. (Tuacahn High School's playbill should read "Produced by Walmart.")

Cure: stop doing theatre.

The next symptom of theatritis is your aversion to sunlight. Classical vampires got nothing on you. You get to school in the dark, you leave in the dark, you work in a dark theatre all day. You own ten pairs of sunglasses, your skin is whiter than all the cast of Twilight combined, you may have had retina surgeries, you found a mushroom crop growing in your dark places...

Cure: stop doing theatre.

The next symptom is your urge to critique everything. You are watching the news and you see Ann Curry with a hair out of place. "Comb your hair Ann," you shout at the screen, "What is Matt Lauer wearing...geez...." You can't stand to watch Glee anymore. Even reality T.V. has lost it's edge to you. They want reality? "They should try directing a cast of kids that can't hit pitch. That's reality!"

Cure: stop doing theatre.

You can diagnose the next symptom by looking in a drama teachers car. In the back seat are the props from the current play that you just picked up at a thrift store. In the trunk are costumes from the last play that either need to be taken to the dry cleaner, or have come from the dry cleaner, and have never made it back into the costume storage. You might have a stack of posters from 1997, (that's when you bought your car) a few from 2003 and a box of props you borrowed from another school that you needed to take 2006. Oh, and one more the end of the year, when you are getting the heat from the financial office, where can you find a drama teacher? In her car, looking for receipts amongst the fast food containers, diet coke cans and empty Excedrin bottles.

Cure: Stop doing theatre.

Someone stricken with Theateritis also knows the ins and outs of every thift store within a 300 miles radius of their home. Two or three times a year, Andy and I embark on the "D.I.'s Across Utah" tour. D.I. stands for Deseret Industries, and those thrift stores are loaded with theatrical essentials. One persons trash is another drama teachers treasure.

Cure: stop doing theatre.

Two or three times a year, all the drama teachers in the state of Utah convene at various competitions and conferences. It's like a giant symptom identification-fest. You can see the varying levels of theateritis in their eyes. We don't run toward each other, we lumber. We nod. We shake our heads. "How are you...Tired...You? Exhausted (one up) my show opens next week...I just closed my show...what are you doing next?


Yes. That's right. The last and final symptom of the dreaded disease is addiction.

We complain 24/7. We cry in our exhaustion. We shake our hands in frustration when we see those teachers that DON'T have theateritis leaving the school at 3:00 done for the day. We will complain about the amount of work it is non-stop, but we will not stop doing it. True? T.R.U.E.

We are as ridiculous as any drug addict. We need an intervention. This is a truth: its impossible to find someone that will cure themselves by walking away from it. Jerry Ellison I'm talking to you. ;-)

For some of us, me included, its the only thing we know how to do. It's a God-given set of skills and we know it, and we are a way. Once the bug bit, back in 1978, I was never interested in anything else. It became the only thing I thought about. I remember reading Shakespeare in high school English class  and getting so choked up I had to hide the fact that I was crying. Nerd alert! But artists have to be passionate about it because it sucks the life out of you and feeds you in the same breath. Artists have to be willing to starve for their art. They have to be willing to have a garage full of costumes and a car full of props.

Non-artists will say to us "You are addicted to the applause," the ecstasy of the ovation...kind of thing and that really bugs me. Teachers never get to be on stage. But the highlight of my life is watching young people experience a standing ovation because they worked for it. They earned it. It's so much work for them too, when average kids run out of the building at 3:00, my kids sign on to do three more hours every single night. Then they get the ovation...Ah! To be in the hall after they are exiting an ovation is as close as I will ever get to winning the lottery. That pay-off gets you through to the next play, and the next....

But far and away the only reason I have not walked away from this job sometime in the past 22 years is because I've seen this particular art form, the theatre, and it's system of creation, change the lives of young people for good. I'm not willing to walk away from that I don't know a single teacher that is. It's the number one reason we do what we do. What we are truly addicted to, is seeing the kids use the theatre as a safe haven for their own personal progress across the board. I've seen the ultimate introvert, the child with straight F's on their report card, make a 180 degree turn once they have been bitten by "the bug." They might never do theatre again once they are out of high school, but they will be endowed with great faith in themselves, faith in the team and faith in hard work.

Things I've been privileged to witness in the last 22 years:

  • I've seen drama cure ADHD
  • I've seen drama create lasting peace in a struggling family
  • I've seen drama replace a hard-core drug addiction 
  • I've seen drama renew a kid spiritually
  • I've seen drama tame autism
  • I've seen drama conquer laziness
  • I've seen drama create self-confidence so many times I can't count
  • I've seen drama lift a kid out of serious depression and give them a reason to live
  • I've seen drama teach a child to stretch their capabilities
  • I've seen drama encourage a kid to go to college (by paying for it)
  • I've seen drama conquer every kind of fear
  • I've seen drama help a kid through their parents divorce
  • I've seen drama give a life, even a good living, to so many kids
  • I've seen drama create life long learners, life long creators, life long examiners of the human condition, life long givers
Early last week we lost a good friend of ours, Bradford Garrison. Bradford was a great teacher. He loved kids. He made us remember that what we are doing MUST be fun or we will lose the passion for it. He taught me that passion is the main gift we give. Who cares if they fail miserably, how did you make your students feel about themselves? Did you model passion for everything you do, or are you ornery because you are the last teacher out of the building? I've never forgotten that. Bradford was an incredible example to me, a brilliant actor too, and I mourn his passing this week.

It's because of him that I am thinking about all my teacher friends and wondering if I am accessible to them and do they know how much I love them? I just want you all to know that, for what it's worth, I am cheering for you!!! The kids are to...but they might not have the good sense or maturity to tell you. So on their behalf...please allow me to express to every drama teacher in the state of Utah and the NATION, that I know how hard you work. When you feel isolated and abused, I know how much you have to know to do what you do every day. I know how much you have to sacrifice for other people's kids. I know how much you truly care. I know how much you give. For what it's worth.

This is the time for all of us to look at our group of friends and see beyond what we see every day. Is there someone that needs us more today? Is there someone struggling in depths we can't understand? How can we subtract from their fear, their anxiety, their feelings of being overwhelmed? I make a pledge today to be more like Mark and Phaidra.

Those around us will just have to listen to us complain about how hard it is and help us get the resources we need to continue to change lives...because we know how to do that. And huge.

Continue to DO THEATRE - don't let the disease drag you down, let it lift you. You must practice the craft yourself if you are going to teach it, be in touch with it, grow with it, believe in it's power.

The only cure for theatritis is feeding the positive side of the art. Have a bunch of opening nights. Keep your eyes on the kids that need you. It is no small thing that they are placed in your path. Their growth will lift you because that is why you do what you do. Remind yourself WHY you continue to feed the bug. It's so much work to get kids to do what you know they are capable of doing, and when the play opens - they pull it off, (they always do) and you can finally sleep that night. (Unless 14 people came to the show and then you're screwed.) But hey, you got the kids to opening night, no one lost an eye, and they were all incredible. WOOT! Those are the pay-off nights. Too bad the ratio of stress to opening nights is so horribly one-sided. So what do you do? You direct MORE plays! woot . (Symptom #6) ...

Because those that CAN, TEACH.