finally, the crash course: how to direct shakespeare with 25 13-year olds.

March 28, 2007

remember how i said i was directing some youths? learning experience all around- those youths (age average, 6th-8th grade) damn near killed me, then turned around and told me they love me and i have to come back and direct them again next year. i just ran into one of the gremlins during tech-dinner with a few edward3 cast members (rosie, who it’s good to work with again, and a chick i was briefly in college with).
so, starting late (other schools cast it by december for an early march performance with christmas break in between) with only 6weeks total going into auditions, we originally called 2days of auditions- day1 for general auditions, day2 for conflicts and callbacks.
lesson #1: the audition process is indicative of how the whole production will operate, start to finish.
they said they usually did a “workshop” before auditions, where the auditor would help the determined analyse text and work on their pieces. i said it wasn’t necessary- i wanted to see how quickly they grasped the language on their own and how well they took direction, so i sent out sides on monday for semi-cold readings wednesday-thursday. anybody who didn’t take sides in advance got them when they arrived, and auditioned last so they had some prep time. i just used scenes from midsummer for auditions because i didn’t want to choose a play before i saw the talent pool, so i was simply looking for 22 students who looked like they could handle performing shakespeare for a healthy audience (the folger’s stage limit is 25, and we wanted offer the opportuntity to as many as possible, leaving room for musicians and/or stage crew).
lesson #2: at this age, in urban
america, the confident students seem to be white girls and black boys; overall, white boys and black girls made a poor showing @ auditions.

lesson #3: they are not professionals- if taking on a similar challenge, remember this detail and bring a camera to auditions (so glad i thought of it in advance) because they don’t have standard headshot/resumes so you have no other way to put faces to those names on the pages post-audition. also remember this lack of professionalism applies to timely progress, commitment, and similarly important parts of the process of creating theatre- not that i expect them to be professional @ their age+stage, i’m just saying to recognise the ramifications.
auditions took so much longer than i expected. we could’ve used another day, but couldn’t afford the time, which was the theme of the process.
i racked my brain trying to figure out what shakespeare worked with the audition fallout. i asked for suggestions on the audition form because i wanted to know what they were interested in, but the few who suggested all said midsummer, which i’d suspected since the reason i refused to do it is that every year, way too many @ the festival do- there’s nothing quite as lame as the day’s 4th mediocre half-hour cut of midsummer, featuring an overly-shrill helena-hermia-catfight delivered by non-professionals with no vocal variation, comic timing or real stage combat, no matter how much you like shakespeare or working with youths, or both. i wanted my students to do something different from the rest. i thought about richard3 and would’ve done it with more time, but it didn’t seem wise to try anything requiring too much backstory- 5weeks of rehearsal isn’t enough to explain the relationships and histories. thus, choices were narrowed to a comedy. then i realised the thing to do was the comedy with the right number of characters- i picked as you like it because it had so many characters in it’s simple plot.
i cut it to what i thought was a half-hour script (i’d thought we got 45minutes onstage, but no) which i was to find out too late, was not half-an-hour-long in their hands. i set up a rehearsal schedule, assigned roles, shifted some lines and characters to make best use of what i had, and started working through the text with them, making sure they understood every word, so they could deliver with verisimilitude.
lesson #4: no matter how many times you tell them to ask about anything they don’t understand, they won’t. and then, when you ask them what something means and they can’t tell you, they’ll promise to ask in future, but still won’t. they’re not that smart yet.
it was like pulling teeth. it took forever. i’d eased them up by breaking up rehearsal to only call those i’d need for a limited number of scenes each day, since we were starting @ the top and working our way through, in order, deconstructing language along the way. every day we didn’t get as far we should’ve because those gremlins were always late, in spite of the fact that they didn’t even have to change buildings to get to rehearsal after school, with time accomodation for lockers, bathroom and babble before they had to be ready. i also never had a single rehearsal with every cast member called, literally until the final rehearsal, on the day of the performance @ their school (day before the folger). they drove me to distraction.
lesson #5: do not assume that because they chose to audition for a play they must know that the point of being in a play is acting, and thus it doesn’t matter whether they like each other in real life or not.
lesson #6: do not assume that they can see far enough past who they like/hate this week to recognise that if they don’t come to rehearsal, they’ll be the ones onstage not knowing lines+blocking, and that when they don’t turn up others in their scenes can’t rehearse either.
i damn near killed some of them. repeatedly. there was a point when i genuinely believed that they wouldn’t be ready to go on, and cried. and that’s not even counting shit like the school having to go through
dcps to get a ladder delivered to the premises to hang the backdrop for the performance @ the school, never getting it, and parents having to weight balls of twine and throw them up+over the grid to hang it from the corners without support so it never looked right; or facilities never cleaning up the broken glass offstage right, or the fact that of all the stage lights we only had lamps in a maximum of 7, and sometimes none at all- it was the worst.

but those youths was a best- i had a girl come and tell me she wanted to play jaques because she wanted the “all the world’s a stage…” monologue. i made her audition with it, and she rocked it, so i had a killer jaques (she was awarded for excellence in acting @ the folger)- plus, the youth i cast as touchstone because he had so much damn lip was so amazingly good that he shared the top award of the day with a little feste who looked to be barely 11 but delivered one of the best feste’s i’ve seen, making the day’s other, very good and noticeably older feste look slight by comparison, making me relieved that 2nd-best-feste distinguished herself by closing with such a sweet little a capella solo that everybody went home deservedly rewarded.
and apparently, my touchstone’s mom ran into the mistress of the revels smoking a cigarette outside and the mistress, knowing i’d directed one of the schools, asked who she was there to see, and was told “my boy markus; he’s playing tombstone”…
we had a ball, in spite of glitches like my silvius (dopey sweet, very smart, but seemingly dyslexic) missing an entrance and keeping us waiting for about a minute during the school performance because he thought he had time to go to the bathroom down the hall during a supposedly half-hour performance, then @ the folger, cracking the back of his head on the ground during his stage-fall and scaring the shit out of us, minutes before his mom arrived, late and having missed the whole performance because he ignored my advice to call parents during the break and let them know we’d be going on earlier than previously stated- he went down and just didn’t get back up, which made us all think he’d forgotten his line and was stalling- it took a minute to realise he wasn’t up because he couldn’t. i had to run up onstage and help him up but he insisted on finishing the show- grims got him an ice-pack and he got hugged+kissed and publicly lauded by the mistress and was everybody’s hero in the end, after nearly giving me a couple of low-grade heart-attacks.
they were so good @ the folger, after being so bad. but by the end of the process they were loving the daily warmup, which they’d hated when i instituted it to strengthen+loosen bodies+voices- reminding me if i left out anything (even pelvic isolations, which they’re usually way to embarrassed about @ that age), remembering that nobody goes to theatre to see ordinary people living ordinary lives, using correct stage vocabulary and etiquette, and plus, they somehow found much better manners than they had when i met them. some of them truly learned what actors’, directors’ and writers’ tools are and how to develop them.
i was really proud of all the work they did, their parents were thrilled to bits, and they all want to work with me again, so my standard concept worked: treat them like the young adults they are instead of like children, assume they can rather than can’t, and they’ll live up to the standard you set.
walk good.

this post is also over @ my usual haunt.


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