Saturday, March 24, 2012

Eight Steps

This week I spent my first big block of time directing the Titanic cast. Blocking, for those of you that enjoy plays from the audience, is when you (the director) tell the cast where to stand and move when they are on stage and WHY they are there, WHY and when they enter the stage, WHY and when they leave... (because I guarantee they do not decide these things for themselves when they are 14 - 18 years old). So this week, for example, I barked instructions to 9 DOZEN (very awesome) kids for three hours straight, until we had achieved the days goal of getting everyone where they should be. We blocked 27 pages of a 138 page script.

I was going to attend my nephews ball game this afternoon, but I had no voice left for cheering. And I was in a stupor. I didn't know my own name by Thursday afternoon. By Friday I was courting the angel of death. Tonight, after dragging my sorry butt back to the high school this morning, on a Saturday...for more rehearsal...I GET to chaperone Prom. Woot. I'm dying to pull on panty hose right now. Can you feel my excitement. This must be the karma returning since I never went to Prom when I was in high school. I've been to FAR too many proms since.

The thing is, I wasn't at rehearsal by myself. The kids were there too. And they were at rehearsal before I was, and left bouncing their way to the parking lot because they are all headed to Prom. I can get up the stairs and in a dress...I think I can... I think I can. Did I shower today? That was so long ago.

We teach at a charter high school for kids that are interested in having a performng arts twist on their basic education. There are no auditions, no tuition. Our school's annual attendance rate is over 95%. Our kids like school. They chose to put their name in a lottery and get pulled out of a hat. Because we are a public school we must accept everyone that "get's pulled" until our desks are full. Our kids have just chosen to put their names INTO that hat. I consider that a kind of contract. They put their faith in me, and I earn that faith by doing my best.

I am the artistic director (the arts version of the athletic director). We don't have any athletics at our school. No cheerleaders, no drill team. We have P.E. of course, but our athletes are in the dance studio all day, or on stage all night. Our kids also wear uniforms, khaki pants and a polo shirt. Those are the three big differences between our school and a regular district school. The combination of being able to choose the school, narrow the focus of their education and narrow the clothing choices creates a kind of unity, an awareness of the privilege of education, higher expectations on both sides of the desk. I don't like everything about charter schools, but I like that.

Our school is divided into 6 "academies." The kids choose to take their elective credits in one particular subject. Originally it was to help us predict how many classes we would need in each area. If we would need to hire additional teachers or move faculty around, we could tell because our freshmen had to list their main interest on their registration form; Actor Training, Dance, Music, Musical Theatre, Technical Theatre and Visual Art. (Side note that you probably already picked up: Andy is the head of the Actor Training program here. Nepotism is alive and...well.) Next year we are adding an Honors Academy. Academics are taken very seriously here.

The side benefit of the academies is that it sent a message to the public that we are best equipped to teach a kid that is interested in the arts. Our arts teachers are professional artists as well as certified teachers. We are not really a school that can rehabilitate a student that has failed everywhere else. Though we have no way of preventing those kids from getting into the lottery, we have welcomed them with open arms and I have seen that miracle many times.

If a kid isn't coming to school, or isn't turning in work, we can know that information almost instantly.  Every Friday morning we come together as a faculty and discuss what is being done to help the kids that are struggling. You will often hear "Is anyone getting any work out of so and so and if so, how are you doing that? I was bothered by that in the beginning. I wondered why the teachers cared so much. See, I worked in big district schools for 15 years and I NEVER thought I'd teach at a charter. My father was a regular district teacher for 35 years and the thought of leaving that system seemed a bit of a betrayal for some reason, even though, our school is public too.

Charters aren't popular with district schools. I guess everyone thought that having an arts charter would take away jobs or drain the talent out of the other schools in the county. Attending those school's plays has taught me otherwise. There are enough artsy-fartsy kids to go around.

In fact....

I would guess, that in the eight high school musicals last Fall combined, there were probably about 500 kids in costume across the county. 500 kids memorizing, focusing, singing, dancing, acting, being part of a team, accomplishing a goal, meeting a deadline, managing their time, taking a risk, opening themselves to criticism, being vulnerable infront of an audience, keeping their grades up to stay in that play, coming to school, showing leadership, making friends, making memories that will last forever. Sounds so cliche. But true. T.R.U.E.

108 kids auditioned to be in our spring play "Titanic: The Musical." Because we have so many artists that came to our school to be involved in musical theatre, we do a "NO CUT" show once a year. Basically, if you audition, you get cast. We do it to encourage some of the younger kids to try out without the horror of not seeing their name on the cast list. It takes the risk out of auditioning. it doesn't guarantee where your name will be on the cast list...but you'll be on it somewhere, provided you have the grades to audition. Those younger kids will be your leads one day and we don't take that lightly...we are constantly on the look out for a future Jean Valjean, a Tevye, Dolly, Pippin...

Last Fall I attended a forum on the educational arts at a teaching conference in Chicago. In one of my classes, teachers from all over the United States were complaining about the economic downturn and how it obliterated their arts budgets. In some cases, whole arts programs were cancelled. Everyone in the room was trying to learn how to raise money so that they could produce plays, or get more kids involved in plays. Some of them had been assigned to direct a play even though they taught math or science during the day. Schools that don't have the money for a drama teacher, will sometimes offer a small addendum to a sucker teacher that will create the miracle after school.

I listened in horror. There was a school that had never produced a musical, too expensive. Another guy talked about not having the money to have a tech class during the day. He was coming in on the weekends to build his sets and he even taught himself how to sew out of necessity. On the flip side there were many teachers that were geniuses at creating excellence with no money at all. These ideas were what we all came to hear and they were flying around the room, feeding us. Imagine if those teachers had the money to just TEACH, and not be a fundraising machine too.

I work in a state where the arts are "not dead yet." I work in a school where the kids are expected to audition and they come out in droves. I work with kids that are filled with joy when they learn how to sing harmonies with their buddies. Sometimes I tear up at rehearsals because the "Ah hah" moments are happening at light speed and en masse. It's one thing to see a single kid get a concept, it's entirely another to watch it happen to 106 kids at the same time.

So "Titanic..." has 106 cast members (a couple of them lied about grades, a couple dropped and a couple were added). We will add the help of about 40 student technicians, making the total team, 146 members strong...or weak if you look at it that way. Some will. What that means is that we are going to have to come up with 106 Edwardian style costumes (1912), complete with hats, all the brass buttons and Navy uniforms we can find in the desert, 2012. We are going to have to build and sink a ship on a flat piece of concrete. We are going to have to load it in and light the Amphitheatre after a concert on Saturday night and open the play three days later. We are going to have to teach the 40 of them that have never been in a play before, how to do that to, and do it to our expectations.

There are 8 steps between my office and the back door of the theatre at our school. Every day at 3:05 I take those eight steps into rehearsal. Usually I take eight steps back because I've forgotten something, script...keys....whatever...but eventually I make it into the auditorium. On that eight step journey I say to myself "if you don't give 100% of your talent, how can you expect your kids to do the same? You are not dead yet." And no matter how hard the day, how S.U.C.K.Y. I feel or how tired I am...I have eight steps to get my poop in a group before I have to lead by example. I know this for sure - whatever attitude I bring into the room, will be the attitude of the rehearsal. I set that temperature. If I am not willing to bring life and passion to the game, how dare I ask them to?

But who cares how hard it is to be a drama teacher?! I knew...nobody held me at gunpoint when I signed the contract. I try to always remember that my kids CHOSE to be at this school and CHOSE to be in rehearsal with ME. On the first rehearsal of Titanic we learned the finale number to Act One Scene One. That sound!!! Imagine it! 106 kids singing 6-part harmonies to a Maury Yeston score. It was glorious. And they knew it. Eyes opened wider, kids sat up straighter and looked around. Did they hear that right? That sounded good. Wow! That satisfaction of doing something well...that feeling of knowing you learned something, you gave 100% and it paid off! They will reach back to remember and reach forward to grab at that feeling their whole life! What a great drug of choice.  Imagine if every kid in the world had an opportunity to set that standard in their systems while they were in high school instead of searching for it in less productive ways. Yet I fear...that this opportunity is disappearing around the country.

For the time being, I will make it a priority to bloom where I'm planted and help my kids do the same. Eight steps. Every day.

This week I reached for the 100%. Was it as easy as taking those eight little steps? Oh hell no. But I like to think this eight step program helps "re-set" me. It does. I've had to do it for years. If I didn't, I'd surely be dead already. But I'm not.

I'm not dead yet.