The Process of Creating: Handle with Care

There are element of the process of developing a character that is worth sitting down and taking notes on. I would also argue that the deconstruction of any audition is worthy of spending countless hours on. The preparation before an audition, rehearsal or show is the nuts and bolts of an actor’s process and what puts the fuel in the ‘ol gas tank, as far as I’m concerned. A person’s reflection of the piece (actor, audience or otherwise) is the greatest joy and one of the most rewarding experiences theatre has to offer. But most importantly, I think is the fundamental art of storytelling. Above all things…did the audience walk away having been educated or entertained by an effective story?

All of these concepts, and more, are stations in a student actor’s process.(When I say student…I mean teen, adult, seasoned professional, etc.) Some advance on them like a mighty general leading an army. Other at least acknowledge them.

I’m in my ninth year of teaching high school theatre, and I want to say on the onset that my reflections in this post carry the weight of the culminating years. I don’t want to put any specific class of students under the microscope, but there needs to be something said about all students of theatre at a high school level…I suppose because I’m curious if there is a common thread in America. If so…perhaps my brain won’t explode.

You see, I teach bloody talented students. It sickens me sometimes how blessed they all are with talent. Therein the problem lies. I think they know their talented…and for me, I’m consistently distracted from teaching theatre, and find myself herding talented sheep back to the pasture so that they may continue to graze…whether they believe they need to or not.

Flashback. I remember a group of high schoolers with a fairly average skill set, who enjoyed tackling rinky-dink productions. There was really nothing terribly special about the after-school drama program in my home city. We all did it because it was fun. I supposed in the very end, I can look back and say that we weren’t challenged enough, I suppose. I recall a production of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”  my freshman year. The adaption of the play left a lot to be desired…and I remember the name of the director was Jolly, which I thought was funny…but what I remember most was this one ensemble member. He was a townsperson and didn’t really have a large part…kinda kept to himself. At first, being the sensitive guy I was, I thought he was kinda a dork. He was always rehearsing by himself…thinking up new “moments” to create onstage. He didn’t really relate with the others much…but when directed to do so in the scenes, he was careful, polite and professional. I remember his freckles. He was always trying to dig for something more substantial in his character…which I (at the time) found silly. His character didn’t even have a name in the program! (Oh, but his character had a name onstage! And fears and quirks…and business cards! I’m serious…the dude made business cards!) He was always taking creative chances. Some worked…some didn’t. Okay, most didn’t. I recall Jolly being frustrated with him because of his over-zealousness on several occasions and he was the butt of many jokes. When the show opened…I remember thinking to myself…”he’s so over-the-top.” And that first night when the Ensemble stepped forward to bow…the audience roared. That young man made a definitive impression upon the audience in an overall lack-luster play. I don’t recall him upstaging anyone. I just recall a genuine, honest dedication to the part. And while Tecumseh, Michigan probably isn’t best known for it’s appreciation of the fine arts, I will say that the relationship between actor and audience is an honorable bond and I learn a valuable lesson in that show. That bond is one I take for granted all too often. I did back then…and I still do today.

Students at my school don’t have enough outlets for their talents. I would argue that on average the students are renaissance men and women. Some play instruments, some play sports, some are involved in outside activities, some perform in community theatre, some write music, short-stories or poetry, some sing opera, some tap dance…and some are the most compassionate, caring, God-fearing, lovely people I know. I will go on the record to say that the last nine years have been the most rewarding of my life, as I grow and learn from them daily. With that said…I cannot understand, with the wide spectrum of opportunity lying at their feet…(and if you’ll excuse me as I narrow the scope a bit, as I focus on just theatre) why don’t they thrust themselves forward with the enthusiasm of a puma pouncing a gazelle? One thing is for certain…the school I teach at has limitless resources and opportunities for them to succeed. (I might argue that we could use about two more drama teachers to satisfy the current demand, but I’ll leave that personal sob story and political soap-box program proposal for another post.) I want to name just a few resources that I have the pleasure of surrounding myself with daily.

  • Students attend class in a large drama classroom. (That doubles as a green room / reception space.)
  • Students perform in a 792-seat Chapel / Performing Arts Center with a state of the art fly-rail system, sound board and lobby.
  • Students work on producing shows in a large, scene shop, costume storage room, two dressings rooms and a set-building scene shop patio…all at our disposal.
  • A four-show theatrical season, a summer theatre program, a structured budget, a chorus of after-school activities that include middle school mentoring opportunities, service events, International Thespian Society, trips to California to attend the Musical Theatre Competition of America…and I could go on and on.

“…these students HAVE talent…they DO succeed…they WILL “bring it.” The problem is…they don’t have to CARE about it.”

What I’m talking about today is simply this….I think we are seeing a new dawn of students growing up in a world where they don’t HAVE TO care about anything. I love my students. Believe me…these students HAVE talent…they DO succeed…they WILL “bring it.” The problem is…they don’t have to CARE about it. Please note…I’ve worked in this school for my entire teaching career. I don’t know any other dynamic and I can imagine that my statements could very well be challenged. Please regards my musings with the open-mind that this school…this classroom…these students…this is all I know. Perhaps I’m ignorant. I’m actually okay with that. Pastry chefs are usually quite satisfied spending their entire careers working on pastries. Please forgive me if I offend schools with diminishing theatre programs (or no theatre program!) In the big-picture, I’m blessed beyond what I deserve…and so are my students. I hope you can ponder with that in mind. I’ll get back to the pastry kitchen now.

Students don’t have to care. Now, this is not including some exceptions of course. There are always those who are wonderfully careful about every faucet of their high school existence. But, overall the students in the private Lutheran school I teach at wear a cozy blanket that keeps them safe and warm. This same blanket provides them with reassurance that their days are filled with comfort and security. It shelters them from being weathered and is a soft place to fall at every corner. I think our school/faculty does a great job of providing a quality education to all who enroll and anyone who attends Faith Lutheran is a better person because of it. What I’m talking about specifically is ART. The ART of doing theatre. The appreciate of the strength, courage and sacrifice it take to learn and perform good theatre. It takes an artist who is willing to drop their inhibitions, sacrifice their senses, wander into uncharted territories every day and face a challenge that will beat them down again and again before picking them back up and regenerating them with faith, knowledge and rivers of creativity they never even knew they had. I’ve seen this magic work in high school students. It not a pipe dream…and we’re not talking Vegas smoke and mirrors. The problem is, it requires the student to lose their cozy blanket and expose their creative hearts, unsheltered.

I find that often, my students are unwilling to do that.

I’ve stood in front of them like a starched, spectacled Patton…I’ve delivered masterful speeches, riddled with fancy, encouraging words telling them how proud I am of them. (And every word I spoke was the truth.) I’ve seen them succeed in so many way…I’m losing buttons on my shirt I’m so proud! And in the grand scheme to things, you might be able to step back and look at my argument as a nit-picky, trite commentary. I see it differently. I see students who want so badly to be told that what they are doing is worth something. I see students who find homes in the theatre because it’s the only home they know. I see students who are gifts from God. (And there can be no other explanation.) I need to find a way to SHOW them that the ART of doing theatre….the ART of effective storytelling…the ART of doing the art, is what is the most rewarding thing of all. It’s a sense of urgency one gets when they are without a warm blanket…standing naked in the cold.

I think the problem is everybody has instant access to everything nowadays. I mean EVERYTHING. If I wanted a pizza, right now…I could have one. If I wanted a bear trap right now…I betcha there is someplace in Vegas I could get one…right now. It ridiculous really. I mean…how am I supposed to appreciate anything? And I grew up with parents and grandparents who did a GREAT JOB of making sure I didn’t grow up with an inflated sense of entitlement. What about the kids today? This is all they know. They are LOST without their conveniences. I can’t imagine any of my students in an impoverished school situation attempting to accomplish what they do in the drama program at Faith Lutheran. Heck, I can’t imagine what would happen to them if i didn’t allow them to have lunch in my classroom every other day.

I want it to be know that I can’t blame them. This is all they know…and this is what they’ve grown up with. But, is that good enough? I argue…from a creative aspect…no. If you want to perform (or work in any industry that requires you to create) you must learn to appreciate the process of creating. If you cannot see the worth in it, then you will find yourself resentful and finding shortcuts to get jobs done that you once took great creative pride in doing before.

I had a nightmare two days ago. My wife was a psychology minor in college and when I can remember my dreams, I like to share them with her. Perhaps she can see into them more clearly than I? I was onstage…a big stage…and people were applauding. I recall feeling rushed. I ran offstage and someone threw me towel. It hit me in the face. I wiped my face (I was sweaty) and I ran into a hallway and threw the towel down. I remember more than any other detail that I was upset about the applause. Not mad…not sad…just very upset. Unsettled. I woke from that dream and had a hard time getting back to sleep. The next day at school I couldn’t escape that feeling…and later talked about it with my wife.

“The recognition you receive for doing what you love sometimes comes at a great expense, especially when that same audience doesn’t see or understand what happens before, after or backstage during the show.” I thought there was wisdom in that. She thought the perfectionist in me is constantly fighting for the chance to create…and when the opportunity presents itself, any challenges in the process, and especially afterwards there is applause. But they are applauding for a character in a fictitious situation…not a grand effort by a hardworking artist. (Can you remember the name of the artist off the top of your head who painted “American Gothic?” I can’t. It’s just an example.) There is always someone standing just offstage who is unwilling to simply offer a towel…some relief. Rather, through expectation, it is thrown at me. Forget the fact that we’re fortunate enough to even have a towel. My “throwing the towel in” as I storm off, unsettled…is probably what made me feel so upset when I woke. I didn’t allow myself the chance to see what I did next. I ended things with me giving up.

All to often we get wrapped up in the immediacy of things, that we cannot see the forest from the trees, creatively. People forget that beyond the rehearsal notes…beyond the red scarf or the poofy shirt….beyond the “things” that make up theatre….there is a story being told by a storyteller. The art of telling that story is so hard…but it’s such a beautiful, fulfilling thing.

It was probably the most vivd dream I’ve ever had…and you know something…there are probably a million holes in our analysis of the dream itself…but if you think about it, whether my interpretation carries water with any of you or not, the bottom line is I’m no better than what I accuse my students of.

I think my students don’t have to care about doing theatre…because they are so used to it just being done for them. All they have to do is show up with their bags full of talents. But, I suppose if I’m going to be any mentor / teacher to them, then I need to figure out a way to ensure that what they show up for is a boot camp. A ground zero settlement of structure and opportunity that allows them to fall on their face…skin their elbows…and callous up! Imagine the joy one might feel after creating a character for themselves. Envision a high school musical generated by the collective efforts of a thriving ensemble who have generated something original, refreshing and telling. Who cares if Jimmy-Bob didn’t splatter-paint the barn correctly?! (The OCD side of me says “I DO!!!” But, I must stifle that side of me!) I need to be willing to allow them to fail so that they may succeed. I believe then and only then…will they see that they have the talent and opportunity to create, and be proud of it, every time.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to truly do this. It the same voice inside my head that compels me to spend 6 hours making a single prop or re-write an entire play in a format that more pleasing to the eye. This inability to give it up to the students makes for twinkly-good productions…but leaves my students entitled.

I need to allow my students to be that freckled-face hopeful who annoyed the hell out of director Jolly! I can play Duck Hunt with every chance they take onstage, shooting down moment after moment, guiding them through every line of dialogue…but if I’m a teacher of theatre, I need to be willing to allow them to fail. I’m encouraged by the fact that I have a talented group of kids who are smart enough to rise like a phoenix in the ashes.

That darned Junior back in high school probably doesn’t know the impact he made on my “Emperor’s New Clothes” experience. I find it funny that while I had a lead in “Emperor’s New Clothes” and nightly I (figuratively and literally) “disrobed” my juvenile appreciation of theatrical arts…today I look back and realize that it was a focused, joyfilled Junior who exposed a more vulnerable heart that I ever could. Jolly should be proud.

Today I hope that lovers of theatrical arts (onstage and off) can take a moment to reflect on what the theatrical arts provides them. How can the risk of burying yourself in a creative process (that requires so very much of you) be both rewarding and some of the biggest chances you’ll ever take.

Students of theatre…you are trusted every day to create wonderful stories. Every day is another lesson in another classroom that you must willingly step into so that you may work. Find great comfort in the opportunities that you have. Allow yourself to be vulnerable, so that you can march into battle with no armor, no weapons, and a trust in your own skill-sets and the help of your fellow cast mates. The victory after that battle will be great. More importantly, the story told will be legendary.

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One Response to “The Process of Creating: Handle with Care”

  1. john wennstrom Says:

    “wonderfully careful about every faucet of their high school existence.” I like the image, but I fear its just a typo.

    Let’s go with it….. Maybe things come too easily – the water comes out just by turning the faucet knob. It’s not like you have to labor with a pump handle. Climb back up the hill with a bucket. Or first dig the well. Or, decide where to dig for the well….

    And do you ever really get these comments? This is the 3rd or 4th time I have labored to come up with brilliant comments, and nary a response, rebuttle or acknowledgement do I ever receive.

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