Archive for the THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM Category

WICKED KANYE OF THE WEST

Posted in LIFE IN GENERAL / RANDOM RAMBLINGS, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2015 by erikball123

Upon reading this I fear that the Kanye secret service will be deployed, and my body will never be found and you’ll never hear from me again…so read quickly.

I have to address the Grammy Awards and the absolute disgrace of a man known as Kanye West. I say man, rather than artist, because I want to be very careful in how I distinguish him. An artist is someone who creates original work which is to be enjoyed by others, hopefully inspiring them to create something original themselves, ultimately making this world a better place. While this isn’t the standard Webster’s dictionary definition…I’ll stick to it. A man is someone who respects others, defends others, loves others and leads by example. Kanye West is no man.

Beck won Album of the Year, and I must admit these things before I continue so that there isn’t any confusion. I didn’t watch the Grammy’s, I don’t own a Beck album, I don’t own a Kayne West album, I don’t own a Beyonce album. I’ve listened to songs from all albums (I teach high school, for the love of God. Even if I didn’t want to hear, they get rubbed off on me by proxy, like some weird audio mono) and I want to make the bold statement that all three artists in my opinion are talented, creative, worthy-of-an-award artists. I would also like to recognize that Beyonce (who has won 20 career Grammy’s, more than any other woman) and Kanye West has won 21 career Grammy’s (at the young age of 36). With that said, I must subject you to Kanye’s comments to Vanity Fair after he stormed the stage (ala: his embarrassing, most-likely-drunk, moment when Taylor Swift won the Grammy in 2009) as a “joke” to protest Beck’s winning Album of the Year. He turned around and sat back down before saying anything this time…but the message was sent. Here are his comments:

KANYE WEST: “I just know that the Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us. We ain’t going to play with them no more. And Beck needs to respect artistry, and he should have given his award to Beyoncé. At this point, we tired of it. What happens is, when you keep on diminishing art, and not respecting the craft, and smacking people in the face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration. We, as musicians, have to inspire people who go to work every day, and they listen to that Beyoncé album, and they feel like it takes them to another place. Then they do this promotional event, and they’ll run the music over somebody’s speech, the artist, because they want commercial advertising. No. We not playing with them anymore. And by the way, I got my wife, my daughter, and I got my clothing line, so I’m not going to do nothing that would put my daughter at risk, but I am here to fight for creativity. That’s the reason why I didn’t say anything tonight. But you all knew what it meant when ‘Ye walked on that stage.”

Here’s what I’d like to address: the messiah complex. From a simple drama teacher’s perspective, who is desperately attempting to nurture and foster a working relationship with young artists everyday, these comments and attitudes, create a sort of status symbol that, by virtue of Kayne’s mere influence in the music industry alone, woos young impressionable minds into thinking that these actions and comments are okay. Justified even. Mr. West refers to respecting artistry. What about Beck’s art? Mr. West refers to the Grammys not respecting the craft. What about respecting the awards ceremony that has blessed Mr. West with 21 previous awards? He says Beyonce was smacked in the face after delivering a monumental feat of of music. Isn’t that merely one man’s opinion? Apparently the governing, voting board thought otherwise. Isn’t that okay? (After all this is just another man or woman’s opinion. Why does your opinion carry more gravity than another’s, Mr. West?)

The problem is not the awards ceremony, not the Best Album of the Year award, not Beck, not Beyonce….the problem is the mainstream media and the music industry. This sort of behavior is unacceptable and to use a word that Kanye loves to use: “DISRESPECTFUL.” This is nothing more than a powerful producer’s little-boy tantrum…and he knows he can get away with it. (After all, he’s done it before without repercussion. Hell, his and Taylor Swift’s career THRIVED after the outburst in 2009. Even more testament to the fact that the world lives and breaths based on what is fed to them.)

People who get SO powerful, so big, so untouchable (people like Oprah Winfrey, Tom Cruise, Kanye West…etc.) they forget what it is to be a human being, someone who must RELATE with others…someone “in the trenches” dealing with life on an everyday basis. How are we supposed to co-exsist, if mega-stars like this refuse to live by simple, thoughtful morality-based rules that we hold each other to every day. If anyone else rushed that stage during Taylor Swift or Beck’s acceptance speech….ANYONE at all….security would have pounced on them. But, Kanye, he’s above the rules and law.

On a much watered-down level (although one might argue, equally as important, at least to them), this mentality is what plants the notion in students’ minds that when they aren’t cast in the role they believe they deserve, then it’s perfectly reasonable to BLAST the director or student who did get the role. (At least behind their backs, right?) It’s the same mentality that tells society, that a rule of order, especially a subjective / creative one, is not a strong-hold and subject to public scrutiny if any one individual so chooses. (Look at all the frivolous lawsuits out there! “I think they’re wrong, because I don’t think that’s the way it should be!!”) It’s nothing more than glorified, attention-seeking temper-tantrums and it’s ruining this generations perception of what it means to be a true artist.

No one has the right to an award. No one has the right to assume that their agenda is more important than another. And certainly, no one should use someone’s celebrated achievement or recognition to float their own agenda or demand attention. That’s nothing short of being a sore loser. (With an emphasis on “loser.”)

I asked a few of my students what they thought of the matter. They responded “I thought it was hilarious. I don’t know Beck…but it’s just Kayne. It’s something he would do.” *Sigh*

For the record, I have nothing against Kanye West or Beyonce…and I’m not a Beck fanatic. I merely think that young artists today have very few role models…someone to demonstrate that it’s the ART that’s important, not the exposure or attention or legacy or power or money or awards or clothing line AROUND the art.

No doubt Kayne will be all over the news today because of his actions. He’s the mainstream media’s babydoll. I betch we’ll hear about Kim Kardasian’s thoughts on the matter as well. And we’ve all seen the Vine of Jay Z’s reaction…because that’s important too. I’m sure that word will spread about Beck’s Album of the Year win, as well…but I doubt there will be any coverage that won’t feature news about West “pulling another Kanye.” I suppose that’s what makes me sick to my stomach the most.

I’d better go. I must get back to my world and a job I take great pride in, and one that gets harder and harder with every year as this world shape-shifts into a land of right-fighters and Google-schooled know-it-alls.  It’s a world of high school theatre where impressionable visionaries are born and discover hidden treasures within themselves. It’s an Indiana Jones 4-year window and it’s my duty to ensure they use their powers for good, not evil. It’s a privilege of directing, nurturing and mentoring…or as I call it, shaping little Kanye’s into selfless artists.

 

Brilliant Moments in the WOODS

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, REVIEWS, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2014 by erikball123

My favorite line in INTO THE WOODS has always been the Witch’s “I was just trying to be a good mother.” It’s widely received (on the stage anyway) as a laugh line to transition a moment. But in Rob Marshall’s version of this story, it’s a poignant, remarkable bookmark that made me almost tear up sitting in the Red Rock Regal Cinema. You see, everyone LOVES Sondheim. (And if you’re a theatre person and don’t…we’ll stone you to death.) But, the thing is…WHY do people love Sondheim? As a patron, is it his release from formulaic musical convention? As an artist, is it the challenge of skillfully crafted material? As a young actor, is it the blood, bad buys and nuances that are so much fun to love of hate? I think the answer is YES on all accounts. But, I would ask you to look past all of this for one moment…and look at the relationship between WORDS and MUSIC.

bernadette

Bernadette Peters (the Original Broadway WITCH) rehearses with Stephen Sondheim.

 

I’ve argued with anyone who has ears that Stephen Sondheim is a poet. The words he uses in his songs are cleverly and perfectly set to the moment. High schools across the country have presented INTO THE WOODS…heck, there is even a Tumblr site dedicated to low-budget Milky Whites, that I find most amusing. (https://www.tumblr.com/search/lowbudgetmilkywhites) From a producer’s perspective, INTO THE WOODS has a wonderfully twisted ensemble with parts for skilled vocalists, up-and-growing “green” performers, and optional ensemble parts. It has little dance (which is always a concern for drama groups) and costuming, set and prop elements can be as simple and complex as you’d like. The only tricky element is the source material, which in turn bookmarks this musical as a perfect example for those theatre groups hoping to engage students in lessons about simply telling a good story. (And for those who have a hand for creating transportive theatre, the show is a wealth of opportunity.)

Rehearsal for Faith Lutheran's INTO THE WOODS (2005). Andrew Eddins and Cash Black portrayed the tormented Princes. (Please Note: Kelly Odor and several lunch tables are in the background!)

Rehearsal for Faith Lutheran’s INTO THE WOODS (2005). Andrew Eddins and Cash Black portrayed the tormented Princes. (Please Note: Kelly Odor and several lunch tables are in the background!)

I’ve seen about a dozen live INTO THE WOODS productions. (Including one I directed in a high school gymnasium.) I’ve seen wild variations. One included a minimalist production told in an aristocratic living room during a thunder storm, as each high-society snob acted out the parts in turn “making up the story” as they went along. Interesting. I’ve seen video projections, puppetry, one told inside a closed book store and even one production where the Witch transformed from beautiful to ugly (instead of the other way around) and they played it off that the Witch preferred it that way. Hm. I’m sure there was an intended creative choice there and an accompanying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” message they were trying to send (much in the same light as Violet’s invisible scar, in Violet – The Musical, maybe??) Lots of fun to be had with characters we all know already…which is why I think directors feel magically compelled to “reinvent the wheel” (as snobby critics say) in their artistic vision of this particular musical. (Which is why it is so often regarded as a “good musical to produce.”)

The Central Park INTO THE WOODS.

The Central Park INTO THE WOODS.

 

The Original Broadway cast was superb…I show the filmed production to my classes…and it served as a springboard for Bernadette Peters to be cast in platinum as the production’s “forever Witch.” (Much in the same way that we’ll compare everyone who plays Elphaba to Idina.) The Broadway Revival, which started out in L.A. and featured a GIGANTIC giant foot that stomped on patrons waiting outside when it transferred to New York was wonderfully bland. I blame Vanessa Williams as unconnectable Witch, but that’s just me. (Loved her in Ugly Betty!) The British version wasn’t really well-received and included the new song “Our Little World.” (I can take it or leave it. I usually disregard it. The show is long anyway. Do we really need to lament more on the Witch and Rapunzel’s relationship and combing her hair?)  The Central Park, free admission production offered about 4 years ago was untraditional and offered a creepy Witch, a jungle-gym of a set and a Little Red in a bicycle helmet! I can hardly wait to see the Roundabout Theatre variation that is slated to head to Broadway very soon. (I’m ga ga over the piano concept in their minimalist design. Wackadoodle!)

Roundabout Theatre's INTO THE WOODS.

Roundabout Theatre’s INTO THE WOODS.

INTO THE WOODS is everywhere, which was why I went into the theatre today curious. I was pleasantly surprised at Marshall’s “CHICAGO” and I liked…not loved…liked, Burton’s “SWEENEY TODD.” What was going to become of another one of my favorites, and arguably a more often produced musical (moreso than CHICAGO and SWEENEY TOOD) at a high school level. I’m always worried how the non-theatre-going demographic is exposed to theatre in general. Live theatre is the most essential storytelling device we have in the world today. Music is the only thing we as a culture universally share as a binding agent. (We all love music.) Put the two together…and we have the opportunity to move mountains. As a director, I have the privilege (and burden) of shaping a production in the manner in which I hope to offer it up to an audience (full of the most critical theatre-loving critics and first-time theatre goers). When you take a musical that already means so much to you, personally…and redevelop it as a movie…the opportunity to loose integrity is great. (I would argue that the elimination of the chorus of pie-eating patrons in the Sweeney movie made the London masses, a collective character and important voice in the story, made the movie more about a monster of man…instead of the fact that we all might have a little bit of a monster inside of us. “Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?” How do we know to think about that, if we don’t have a collective voice telling us? But, I digress.)

The cast of Rob Marshall's movie version of INTO THE WOODS.

The cast of Rob Marshall’s movie version of INTO THE WOODS.

The Rob Marshall INTO THE WOODS is quite possibly the best theatre to film adaption I’ve ever seen. It’s a wonderful story, presented thoughtfully without any loss of integrity. Those who love the musical will love the movie. Those who have never seen the musical will not miss out on any “inside jokes” or thematic elements potentially lost int he translation. There aren’t any. It tricks you. It’s not a movie-musical….it’s a musical-movie. On three different occasions I burst into a round of applause after a musical number, forgetting that this was a movie, not a musical. It nips and tucks in all the right places, and while I’ve been hearing a drone of “I wish the song NO MORE was included” among my theatre friends, I would argue it was not needed. The handling of the Mysterious Man was well-done, and the elimination of the physical Narrator (replaced wisely by the voice of the Baker, foreshadowing the tear-jerking final moment…which was BEAUTIFUL) made the song a bit redundant. They covered what they needed to cover…and good news!…you can still sing that song in the musical! Other missing musical elements are minimal, but as you’ll note, they were all connected to theatrical devices within the story that were eliminated in the movie. Nip tuck, nip tuck. (It’s a movie…without an intermission.)

What struck me as the most profound choices in the film were the choices. Allow me to highlight a few. *SPOILER ALERT*

  • The fact that there wasn’t a single title or credit at the beginning of the movie…brilliant. Immediately it plunked us down into this world. Before we could blink an eye…we were 20 minutes into the film and all of the exposition was laid out for us and we were actively engaged.
  • The contemplative “On the Steps of the Palace” was whimsical and perfectly staged as a moment in time. How often have we scrambled our brains to make a decision in a heartbeat…millions of times throughout a day? How wonderfully theatrical of our director to present this song in such a way, and deconstruct the moment that we all know as a simple act of leaving a shoe behind. Fun stuff.
  • The Princes’ song “Agony” (a borderline stereotype portrayal of the rugged and babyfaced Princes we all know from their respective stories) found two very likable characters temper-tantruming through splashy waters as they gaze upon their kingdom. It was thoughtful, well-filmed and hilarious. You INSTANTLY championed these two devise characters.
  • There is a danger in putting Johnny Depp as the Wolf. Who doesn’t love Johnny Depp? Those not familiar with the show may be heart-broken to only see him for ten minutes of screen time and catching stills from the set prior to watching the movie made me nervous. In performance, traditionally the Wolf is either portrayed as a personification of the age-old lesson of “don’t talk to strangers” or as a evil man of some kind, because all men are dogs…or, rather, wolves. The publicity photos saw Depp as a sort of Zoot Suit wearing gigalo. (Aside from the addition of some fun fur…Depp kinda looks like he was taken right off the street in his usual wears and onto the movie set!) I was pleased to see that HOW Depp portrayed the Wolf. It was very wolf-like…darting between trees to catch a glimpse, his trademark sneer when offering a sprig of flowers to the girl….it was VERY fun. I didn’t care how he was dressed…all I cared about was the fact that Depp was “the wolf” and how it was related was acceptable to me. Sometimes I wonder if I analyze stuff too much. HA!

depp

  • The kids were GREAT. Daniel Huddlestone as Jack and Lilla Crawford as Little Red were perfect fits. (I would have loved a bit more snarkiness from Red…but, I’m being picky.) Emily Blunt is a superstar as the Baker’s Wife. James Cordon is adorable and sympathetic as the Baker. Everybody loves Pitch Perfect’s Anna Kendrick IN Pitch Perfect. They were quick to critique her in this film…but I would argue that she gave Cinderella the exact amount of torment. I was initially worried that she’d be too contemporary, but she was wonderful in the role. Tracy Ullman, Chris Pine….shoot, the entire cast was simply well-suited for their roles. Is there an award for CASTING a movie?
  • Now let’s talk about Meryl Streep. Preface: I’m a huge Bernadette Peters fan. I’ve always thought Streep was a great actress, but I never understood the tidal wave of hype about her. (In the same breathe…what’s up with the torrent love affair with with Barbara Streisand? I like her…but I don’t get the obsession. Another blog post for another day.) With that said…I cannot imagine another actress who could have played the role better. She sang beautifully and extracted from us the perfect about of sentiment and emotion. We loved her…we hated her…we feared her…and (most importantly) we found ourselves feeling sorry for her. In the song “Children Will Listen” (which is a song that could stand-alone as the show’s landmark) we were transported from the world of many characters’ strife to the inner struggle of a would-be mother and her desperate struggle to connect with her child and shield her from the dangers of the world. It’s beautiful. I LOVED “Last Midnight” for the same reason. I love how I can COUNT ON my students getting pissed off when the Witch disappears at the end of the Broadway version. “Did she die?” they ask. Maybe…maybe not. She’s definitely gone. They HATE unresolved. (Remind me to never read them the folk tale “The Lady and the Tiger.”) The Witch is at the center of this story…and Streep connects in every right way. (And I love the blue hair.)

I’m thrilled that another generation of could-be theatre goers will be exposed to this movie variation. It tells a great story and more importantly it relates (through WORDS and MUSIC) that truly no one is alone in their pursuit to communicate, be needed, protect and survive tragedy together. It’s a bedtime story and when the Baker is telling the tale to his son in the final moments…and the camera peels away…you desperately want to remain, a part of the audience. But no…our director takes us out of that world…and then for the first time presents the title: “INTO THE WOODS” reminding us it’s just a story. Wow. Brilliance.

INTO THE WOODS is the story of all of our lives, (whether we’re Bakers, Princes, Witches or Giants) and can effectively remind us that at the end of the day, we’re all going into a world that presents dangers, and only together can we survive and more importantly thrive.

I sit, poised and ready to purchase the Blue Ray upon its release. I have the projector in my classroom warmed up.

Attend…a REALLY GOOD tale.

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, DIRECTING FOR THE STAGE, FAITH, FAMILY and FUN, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2014 by erikball123

I believe the role of a Lutheran teacher is to foster a relationship of trust and mutual respect with a student so that they (collectively) can take advantage of academic, social and religious information, skill sets and opportunities to the fullest. It is then the Lutheran teacher’s job to provide an opportunity for the student to demonstrate their understanding of the topic through practical application or performance.

Enter drama teacher, stage left.

The school where I teach and direct will offer SWEENEY TODD as part of next year’s season. The musical by Stephen Sondheim (American theatrical composer, and arguably one of the most influential composers of the last three decades) and Hugh Wheeler (book writer) is one of the most celebrated musicals of all time, garnishing a veritable trunkful of top honors including the Tony Award – Best Musical, the Drama Desk Award – Best Musical, and the Olivier Award – Best Musical (a feat that not even the likes of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA or LES MISERABLES could accomplish.) It is a tale of a Victorian-era, London barber, Benjamin Barker, who is incarcerated for life under a false charge, so that a tyrannical judge may covet his wife. Barker, now 15 years later and a pale fragment of the man he once was, escapes back to London hoping to find a loving wife and child, but finds, that the city has changed, in much the same way he has. Finding out through an accomplice Mrs. Lovett, who owns a meat pie shop under his old barber shop, he finds that his wife is now dead and his daughter is being held as a ward in the same Judge’s care. Focused on revenge, Barker, who adopts the alias Sweeney Todd, seeks revenge, and cooks his victims in Lovett’s meat pies…and through a course of sub-plot twists and turns, finds that in the end, love and the cruelties of this world have blinded him. It is a poignant, humorous (oddly enough), telling and relatable tale that audiences love to be a part of. (Much in the same way 13 year-old boys root for the bad guy during a WWE wrestling match. Macho Man Randy Savage was always my favorite.) There is a savageness to the elements of the story….but we all know that wrestling is fake.

sweeney and lovett

George Hearn and Angela Lansbury in Broadway’s SWEENEY TODD.

 

It’s a ghost story, make no mistake about that. This generation probably won’t be so anxious to sit down to the George Hearn and Angela Lansbury broadway version, because a much more accessible Johnny Depp version (with 3D blood effects) is much more attractive. That particular version is a box-office wonder, no doubt…and I enjoyed it. But Hollywood is not the stage, and movies are not theatre. They can be theatrical…but the human element of creating a stage production is ever present that in order for Sweeney Todd to work, it absolutely must have an audience….like a courtroom full of jurors ready to put to trial this man who will plead for a second chance throughout two acts. I hope the audience judges this show. This is a “musical thriller” that invites audiences to “attend” the tale of Sweeney Todd. Not listen, not observe….”attend.” Become a part of the story. The story itself is masterfully written. I regard it as living, breathing poetry for the stage. It controls, with masterful precision, dark humor and caricatures which would appear to be as superficial as Dicken’s Ghost of Jacob Marley, and yet as real as any neglectful, self-serving icon of today’s media world. Sondheim’s music, which any theatrical scholar or theatre-lover might argue, is nothing short of genius with four-part harmonies (and a one-point, overlapping four-parts of melodies) interweaving themselves into a tapestry of a time we’ve only ever thought about. It’s twisted in the same way our perception of that particular time might be.

So, why, then? Why SWEENEY TODD?

I would argue that the ugliness of this secular world and human nature in general is quite evident in nearly every musical. It’s essential to the conflict and plot resolution. When we presented INTO THE WOODS (another Sondheim classic) we presented questions regarding infidelity, sacrifice, death and greed. In ROMEO & JULIET (another show, well-received by audiences at my school) we examined suicide, betrayal and nearly every other character died a bloody death. In DRACULA (yet another thrilling offering) found us identifying with a monster, who sucks blood and turns into a bat at night. These offerings are not unlike Irving Berlin’s WHITE CHRISTMAS where one theatre patron was moved to comment that the “I Love a Piano” song was all about sexual innuendo. (?!?!?!) I reeled for a bit in disbelief, as I thought WHITE CHRISTMAS to be as innocent as the driven-snow (or in this show’s case, lack of snow) and then remembered that every patron has the right to an opinion.

How theatre is perceived is very interesting to me. There are those that won’t bat an eye at a production of GREASE. (Heck, a year deosn’t go by when our 8th graders don’t perform a lip sync competition to “Greased Lightning!”) One might argue that this seemingly innocent story is a stereotype of a “rebel without a cause” era and therefore “good clean dirt.” I argue, any story “without a cause”, even one that goes against morality, is bad storytelling. Even those hardened atheists out there would have a very hard argument against the fact that the Bible contains brilliant parables about morality.

Perception is often based on an individuals’ relationship to this world. But, you see that’s what’s so glorious about the theatre: people bring their own feelings, relationships and personal insights to the venue. It’s what works within them as they contemplate the story and character’s dilemma. It’s what motivates them to come to conclusions at the end of the show as to whether or not they enjoyed the production. I’m sure there will be some people that won’t categorize Sweeney Todd in their top ten. But it’s this same personal insight that also influences them to choose Fruit Loops over Bran Flakes in the cereal aisle. Fruit Loops are better…and that’s their choice and opinion…and they’re not wrong for feeling that way.

These offerings are essential to the Christian high school student looking to learn more from or make a career in the theatrical arts. I would argue that in the secular works of this Darwinistic world, these are stories worth telling, as they challenge our sensibilities, asking us to decipher good from evil, truth from fallacies and right from wrong. As artists (in design offstage and as performers onstage) it is essential that we find God in our work. As a theatre teacher and director, it is my privilege to put in front of the students productions that I believe will be well-generated examples that would serve this purpose well. Shows like JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, while a wonderful, engaging (and successful) theatrical offering, guaranteed to put a smile on the face of even those who sit in the back pew on Sunday, on the flip side, from a content structure standpoint, it’s a flawed show (in my opinion), as it doesn’t reflect on God’s saving grace, and leaves those who are unchurched little connection to the ultimate goal, which I would assume is to invite an audience to attend the tale of a lost man who is wronged. In that particular story, all ends happily with bright-sparkly jazz hands. Does this make it a show “not worth doing?” Not necessarily. Rather I might argue it is worth the investment, as it provides an opportunity to learn more. As a teacher, it’s a win-win opportunity.

The value of a ghost story about another wronged man that ends tragically and with the villain (which we find ourselves strangely a bit sympathetic with) meeting his end due to his naivety, is equally important. It’s the same reason the Bible story of Job is valuable. (He maintains his love for the Lord regardless of all that happens to him.) In the case of SWEENEY TODD, we challenge the audience to think about what would happen should “Job-y Todd” lose his faith…and instead run from the deliverance of evil in hot pursuit of a revenge he believes he needs.

The world of theatre is an escape from reality and will always be presented as a means by which to discover anew the value of one’s mind, heart, soul and faith. It interrupts the artificial sensibilities we possess, that of a hot-bed media conglomerate, wrought with agenda that interrupts our perception of how and who we should be according to our faith. In the end moments of Sweeney Todd, the ensemble sings “To seek revenge may lead to hell, but everyone does it and seldom as well.”

SWEENEY TODD is not unlike any other theatrical production. It’s a love story about a man who was wronged and hopes only to return to a reality he once new in the comforts of the only love he had. He’s a killer yes. (So is Dexter, Dorothy Gail from Kansas, nearly every Shakespearean protagonist, David, Sampson, Cain, etc.)  These wonderfully relatable characters serve as foils for deeper meaning. In Sweeney’s feverish pursuit, he forgets that sometimes the blessings we so richly are afforded by a loving God, are right in front of our faces. (“Don’t I…know you…mister…?”) *For those of you who know the show…you know what I mean. For those of you who don’t…you’ll see what I mean.

I look forward to producing this musical. But, more importantly, I look forward to providing an opportunity for my students to practice (through their own skill-sets and sensibilities) delivering a thrilling story that will charge an audience to think about the world around them and their station in it. I will ask them to find God within the work and demonstrate an understanding of why there might just be a little bit of Sweeney in all of us. (“Isn’t that Sweeney there beside you?”) It is my hope that the audience might be able to relate to elements in the story, much like I hoped that we might relate with two estranged ogres last year (more fictitious characters). The brandishing of a razor…the flouring of a meat pie….the trapped song bird….that’s all beautiful, symbolic elements of a love story set to the stage and served up with a bit of a jolt. (Like the feeling one gets when they ALMOST has a fender-bender in the afternoon traffic.) I hope patrons leave thinking “Thank God.” We should be so lucky to have a loving God that we can trust in when we are awoken to the dangers of the world.

I appreciate, more than words, that I have an administration that trusts that our production of SWEENEY TODD will be presented with artistic and creative integrity and a clear vision that would challenge students to look beyond the opportunity to merely “play a bad guy”. I hope you’ll attend.

The Process of Creating: Handle with Care

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, DIRECTING FOR THE STAGE, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2012 by erikball123

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.

Auditioning for a Musical in High School

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, DIRECTING FOR THE STAGE, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2011 by erikball123

You have no idea how hard it was for me not to do a High School Musical / We’re All in This Together play on words for the title of this post. I suppose I’m more interested in people being attracted to this post for what is it rather than being attracted to the cleverness of the title….much in the same way I’ll never be able to appreciate the Twilight movies because Kristin Stewart is a strung-out mouth-breather and Robert Pattinson is a jelly-headed monkey with sweaty pits. Anyway….(Sheesh! Where did that reference come from? I gotta stop drinking V-8 before bed!)

I’m going to try to categorize the process of auditioning and give some advise in all areas. My goal here is to effectively prepare students (especially those at Faith Lutheran High School…holla!) for their upcoming musical audition. Faith Lutheran is looking forward to “ALL SHOOK UP” this spring…and next year “LEGALLY BLONDE.”

Needless to say these are two very demanding musicals…but I would argue they are amazingly fun too. I hope in the words that follow you can capture a joy in approaching your audition by gaining some sort of peace of mind. After all…this is supposed to be fun, right? I would like to thank the Music Theatre Guild, Signature Productions and my past theatre professors, as they certainly have all contributed to what I’m about to share.

DIRECTORS

There is a common misconception: directors are a roadblock of sorts in the efforts to successfully win the Nascar race that is an audition. While the process of auditioning is certainly a step in putting a show together, I would argue at a high school level (and when I refer to things at a “high school level” I’m talking about Faith Lutheran specifically. Surely other schools have standards that would support or oppose my comments. I argue that after 12 years of doing this I’ve found the processes I describe to be successful, that is all) the director WANTS a student to succeed. Let me give you two scenarios:

  • A student who has done several shows and regularly enrolls in drama classes…this kid might be considered a “drama kid” (a wonderfully stupid label…all kids are dramatic…like, really! Psh!) and has maybe even earned some leading roles. If this student walks into auditions, most likely the director has worked with them before…or the director at least knows of their work ethic. Don’t you think the director would hold them to a high standard, knowing they want to pursue performing outside of high school? Knowing that they are there to re-prove to all the other kids that they are deserving of the role (a tough speed-bump to approach, believe me)…knowing that even though they’ve had an opportunity to do a leading role before, they are a human being with desires, dreams, goals and hopes (just like the boy or girl who has never received a role.) Sure, there are going to be students who don’t appreciate their gifts….sure there is going to be arrogance….sure there is going to be entitlement issues. But underneath all of that is a human being who WANTS TO DO WELL. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Whether or not they’re re-proving themselves to the parents who don’t pay attention to them….or merely hoping for a lead so they can “finally get something of substance on their resume”…whatever the reason….the director of the approaching drama student WANTS them to succeed. Why? Because it is in the show’s and the student’s best interest.
  • Now take a student who has never done a show before. (Perhaps they’re a senior who has “always wanted to give it a shot”…or a “jock” who finds a studly role in the show appealing to their ego.) Or maybe…just maybe….it’s a student who has auditioned 5 times prior and has never been cast. All types are looking forward to facing a director with glaring eyes, and a strong opinion of them already. Well, I’m going to tell you something…..YOU’RE RIGHT! Those glaring eyes are filled with hope. That strong opinion of the type of person “you are” is about to be challenged by the type of person “you could be.” I promise you (on a stack of Bibles) that the director WANTS YOU TO SUCCEED. First and foremost, who doesn’t like an underdog! I cannot begin to tell you the number of times someone has flown under the radar and wow-ed me with an outstanding audition. I also love seeing “green actors” get their sea legs in a role and find that they have a passion for something they didn’t even know they had a talent for. And to those who keep trying after countless “failures”…to be granted a chance to finally do what you hope for, it’s thrilling. Why WOULDN’T a director what to give that gift to someone?

So, I don’t care who you are, if you want to audition for the musical, I want to impress upon you that every high school theatre director (if they’re worth a spit) wants you to succeed. This is why being a director is one of the most rewarding and heart-breaking jobs ever. Not every student will get that chance.

Directors are looking for the best fit between role and actor. PARENTS, READ ON. Directors don’t simply put the “best actor” in the “biggest role.” It doesn’t work like that. The actor needs to have what it takes to be able to fulfill the demands of the role. That includes chemistry with other actors, technique (in vocals, dance, etc.) and how a student takes direction. This is HUGE in high school theatre as directors are burdened with many issues regarding rehearsal space, school conflicts, budget, volunteers helping with set, costumes, etc. and many more! If a student is VERY proactive and works hard on their “job,” then a director can trust that with some creative tweaking, that job will get done. If the student’s approach suggests that they will be a liability (or at least, someone we’ll have to “deal” with all the time) then the attractiveness of their offering won’t be as golden. Parents, don’t storm into a rehearsal and pull your student out saying “we have to go, right now.” It’s creates a huge problem. While the play in your world may be another bullet on your list, for the production, yanking your kid out nullifies productivity in that rehearsal. I think parents sometimes forget that we high school directors (and the student actors) have a job to do too.

This is why I’m constantly nagging the students to make a good choices throughout rehearsals….clean up after themselves in the green room….be kind to others, preventing backstage drama….and being respectful to their fellow students and volunteer adults. Nobody wants to work with someone who thinks their proverbial “poop doesn’t stink.” Not in high school, not in college, not in the industry. I always saying (somewhat jokingly…but somewhat not) “It’s one of two choices: a good choice or a bad choice. What one are you looking to achieve?” Back to auditions….sheesh. See how I get side-tracked!

I want to clear up one last thing. In an audition, directors are looking for what you do RIGHT, rather than what you do WRONG. (Which is why if you mess up your words in your song…keep singing!) Mistakes are expected, so try not to focus on them. Instead, show us what you are capable of.  Edmvnd W. Golaski once said “While the actor’s ego may crave the largest role, getting a role that’s the right fit is probably more conducive to happiness during the production period. I would argue that it’s in your best interest to be yourself, show off what you do well, and trust that the directors will put you where you can shine.” I like that.

BEFORE THE AUDITION

  • PICKING THE RIGHT SONG: We are looking for a song choice that suits your voice and shows off the dynamics of what you can offer in range and personality. Remember, this offering is no less storytelling than your acting audition, so make sure it’s a song you “perform” well. If a director has set up rules to follow (aka: do not sing something from the musical, an up-tempo, etc.) then FOLLOW THEM! Do not challenge the director before you even open your mouth by bending the rules. There are a million songs out there…find one that satisfies the requirements and makes you look good. If all else fails, choose a simpler song that you KNOW you can sing well. Avoid songs that are tremendously overdone.
  • THE SCRIPT: Some high schools make sides or scripts available to students before auditions. You absolutely need to acquaint yourself with the show. Read through the show, find scenes that interest you and rehearse them. Make solid choices in character / approach that you can bring into auditions with you. Nothing too solid. If the director wants you to try something completely different…be flexible enough to change it up. I recall my callback for Mr. Salt in Willy Wonka, the director wanted me to read him as a bustling oil tycoon. I donned a rip-off Yosemite Sam and turned the character into a southern tornado. I got cast in the part and was never asked again to approach that “type” of character. I believe the director was testing me.  Unless the director requires you to memorize something, don’t bother. Know the scene well…but don’t add another stress to your plate. I guarantee you the “worth” of you having the scene memorized will not be weighed in your favor as much as you’d hope it would. Directors don’t care about that at this stage of the game.
  • DANCE CALL: If you are considering a career in performing…get into a dance class. Bottom line. Even if you’re not a “dancer,” any sort of movement will take the edge off a dance call. (Trust me…I’m not a dancer.) But, if you are unaccustomed to dancing / dance calls…my advice is to come prepared. (Bottle of water, towel, comfortable/move-able clothes, appropriate footwear.) Prepare yourself to do your very best. (Even if your very best is the best dancer’s very worst!)

THE DAY OF THE AUDITION

  • CHECK YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR: It so funny to me that a student can be so conscientious about what their boyfriend / girlfriend is doing behind their backs…but they have absolutely no sense of object permanence when they sit in a room during an audition. A director can see you rolling your eyes. A director can see you making a comment under your breath. A director can see you isolate yourself from others. Make it a point to be outgoing, enthusiastic (about everything and everyone.) Be kind. Be helpful. Be proactive. Be welcoming. Be encouraging. Be supportive. Nobody…nobody wants to work with the alternative. If you have a hard time adopting these traits…then your social personae is telling you that the impression you’re leaving is not as important as your status at the school. A director sees that too.
  • THE AUDITION FORM:  Someone once said “be illustrative, not exhaustive” when filling out your form. (Especially when detailing your experience and relevant skills.) Please come prepared to write down all of your conflicts. (Everything…that means talking to your parents and making sure orthodontist appointments don’t surprise anyone!) Good rule of thumb: “when in doubt, put it down.” Be honest and clear. Misunderstandings always create confusion…and you never want to purposely leave something off or lie.
  • IN GENERAL: Usually auditions are held after school. Try to go about you day normally. (I know, I know…easier said than done!) But, seriously, working yourself up into a tizzy ain’t gonna do you no good…so eat a good breakfast, work hard in class, eat a healthy lunch and then approach the auditions with a collected mind. Avoid pre-audition gossip and do your best to think about your audition instead of focusing on others.

DURING AUDITIONS

  • SINGING: I’m a big believer of telling a story in your song. Understand what the character is feeling in the song, and become that character. Personally, I don’t mind if you read your lyrics off of a piece of paper…but in a professional audition, you’re going to want to have that thing memorized. You will most likely not get a chance to sing the whole song. (Most directors put a limitation on offerings…mostly because of time.) If there is a part of the song you want the directors to hear…make sure you include that part.
    • THE VOCAL DIRECTOR is looking for the following: VOCAL QUALITY, MUSICIANSHIP, TECHNICAL DETAILS (pitch, dynamics, etc.) and are you ACTING THE SONG. The director is looking at a bigger “package.” Does your voice and body language suit the song you’re singing? Are you entertaining? Overall, please remember this….we know this is probably NOT going to be your BEST offering. So have fun!
    • THINGS THAT EFFECT YOUR VOCAL AUDITION – There are a million factors that will effect your audition. Ex: Are you just getting over a cold? Did you just flunk your science test? Did you get into a fight with your boyfriend/girlfriend? All of these things will creep into your audition. If you can remember: NOBODY EXPECTS PERFECTION…then you’ll do okay. If you do run into “trouble” and forget your words…my recommendation is JUST KEEP SINGING. Say any word in the world…it doesn’t matter….but don’t stop. You know the notes….sing them. Sing any words that come to your head. One of two things will happen. The director will realize what’s going on…ask you to stop…and allow you to start again. OR, the director will let you finish…and RESPECT the fact that you didn’t give up. I KNOW I WOULD! Never say die in a vocal audition. REMEMBER…the director WANTS you to succeed!

  • ACTING – Listen very closely to the directions given by the director. The best way to do this is by looking them directly in the eyes and giving them all of your focus. This is hard to do sometimes, because you’re nervous, fidgety and attempting to find some sort of comfort by connecting with your friends/classmates. When the director talks…shut your mouth, look them in the eyes…and follow their directions as best you can. If you are unsure of something…ask.
    • WHAT IS THE DIRECTOR LOOKING FOR? They need to see if you can portray a character in such a way as to effectively tell the story. (This means they’ll be looking at character choices, relationship, reactions, and delivery.) Don’t allow words to get in your way. You’ve already read through the script, right? So you know what’s going on in the scene? If a word or two gets in your way…just GO ON! You know how they respond…so RESPOND! Students have this weird notion that they have to deliver every single word perfectly…and if they miss one….they’re out! Just focus on TELLING A STORY. Best way to practice this: At home, pick a scene from a musical. (Look at them all. Which ones WOULD be a good scene to use in an audition. Usually that’s the one the director will use!) Go through it a couple of times with your friends. Now….drop your scripts. Seriously. Put them down. Now, do the scene without the privilege of the lines. Make up the lines. Keep the same intention / goals / relationships, etc…but just get through the scene from beginning to end without the scripts. Afterwards…revisit the scene WITH the script. You will find that the discoveries you make when you’re NOT buried in words are usually MORE FUN to watch. Apply them. Practice makes perfect. Some of the best auditions I’ve seen in high school were ones delivered by those who worked on their scene work BEFORE auditions. Just sayin’.
    • TAKING DIRECTION: I guarantee you at some point the director will give you instruction. Again, 90% of the time, they’re testing you. They are not so interested in the final outcome so much as they are the journey you take to get there. Listen…focus…take chances…and perform!
    • TAKE CHANCES: This is tricky. I’m not telling you to light your shirt on fire and call it an “acting choice.” There are good choices and bad choices…remember? What I’m saying is, make a FUN choice that helps tell the story. People want to be entertained. Why deny them of that honor in auditions. Have FUN! But make sure that whatever choice you make….supports the scene.
    • START THE SCENE WITH ACTION! This is huge for me. Never start a scene with the first line of the scene. Why? Because everyone else will. That’s why! Trust me. Start with a moment of action (pantomime even) that sets the stage for the first line. Also…end with action. The script is just words. WORDS, WORDS, WORDS!
    • LOOK THEM IN THE EYES: Chances are you won’t be paired with a scene partner of your choice. In any case, when you are performing, LOOK THEM IN THE EYES. It’s a little detail, but I’m surprised at how many people DON’T DO IT. If you are buried in the script…or in a distant land somewhere spouting words into the empty universe….you’ll never connect, and ultimately it’s empty and void of an entertainment value. Instead, force your energy upon your scene partner by talking to them and making eye contact. They will do one of two things: 1.) Take that energy and run with it, offering it back, thereby creating a cool back-and-forth pulse to the scene. 2.) Or, fight against it. If this happens…and sometimes it does…I promise you it makes YOU look good. Just remain persistent and let the little bugger flop in the boat like a helpless fish. (Somewhat insensitive…but so is fishing.)
    • SAY THANK YOU: A simple thank you is enough. No need to walk over and shake the director’s hand (unless they offer it.) Just look them in the eye…say thank you….and be gone.
    • DON’T STOP BELIEVING: No matter how the scene is going…keep going. If you struggle to find a heartbeat in a scene…keep going. If you flub a line…or your scene partner loses his/her spot in the script….keep going. Never, never, never stop and ask to start again. Never apologize for your offering. Never mutter how bad you thought you did as you leave the stage. Bad, bad, bad monkey!!! No, no, no. Head held high! Stiff upper lip! Act that scene….and if it sucks….well, then….suck wonderfully!!!! Just don’t stop.

  • DANCING – Listen very carefully to the instructions given by the choreographer. Make SURE you have had enough water to drink before the auditions. (That includes you, wafer-thin Tyra Bank wanna-bees who eat only celery every other Tuesday.) You will most likely be tested on how you follow direction, technique, application, interpretation, and energy. (Also, are you focused and driven? Or sloppy and distracted?) My suggestion (and I don’t dance that much) is to do you best. Focus….and do your best.
    • Something technical to think about. A choreographer tends to stand in front of the group to give instruction. Most choreographers are right-handed…which means they will turn over their right-shoulder to give instruction and watch as you execute the moves. It would behoove you to stand toward the front and stage right. Just sayin’. You’ll be noticed more. (Nobody ever got noticed standing in the back. That’s why us good old fashioned Lutherans sit in the back pews. It’s the closest to the coffee in the narthax and we most likely won’t run into the head of the church committee-of-the-month.)
    • FOCUS – In on of the dance classes I helped team-teach, one of my students challenged me to Dance, Dance Revolution. I failed miserably. It was NOT pretty. I remember the same game at my brother-in-law’s house. Empty house…game system all to myself…and I’ll tell you what, I did about 100 times better than I did in class. Why? Because I didn’t have distractions. I focused. You can do it! Final word on this….have fun. Choreographers want to work with people who WANT to work hard…and have fun. If you exhibit neither of these traits….it’ll be a HUGE up-hill battle. If you screw up…keep going. The only time I think you should ever leave a stage during an audition is if you are going to PUKE, PEE or FAINT. Then, by all means, exit stage right.
  • CALLBACKS – Remember this, unless otherwise stated, callbacks are NOTHING MORE than another audition. What does that mean? It means the director needs to see more of you. That’s all. It’s not a right of passage. It’s not a green flag so you can advance to the next level. This isn’t American Idol. You’re not going to Vegas baby. (You’re already here!) Tighten your belt, strap on your helmet and gear up for more of what you just went through. It’s JUST another audition. Directors may give you something specific to work on. My suggestion is to focus on that and give it your best shot. DO NOT focus on who’s reading for who…and who did / didn’t get a callback….blah, blah, blah. See, you’re back acting like a typical high school student. You’re above that.

AFTER AUDITIONS

  • RELAX – Try to relax. You just been through battle. Remember there are many kids in there vying for the same part you want. In essence it is a competition. But, did you do your best? Did you take chances? Did you execute everything you had in you? If so…then you have absolutely nothing to worry about. If you don’t get cast, then it wasn’t because you didn’t do something. The goal for you as an actor in an audition is to walk out of that room with confidence in what you offered with no regrets. Another goal might be to make sure the director is thinking about YOU when the auditions are over. You’re unique…you’re special…you’re deserving…and you have EVERY BIT as much right to be considered for that role as the next guy. (And if you don’t think so out of the gate….there your #1 problem. Work on that self-esteem thing before auditioning next time.) The point is: The director is rooting for you. Most likely your parents, brothers / sisters are rooting for you. Your friends are rooting for you. God is rooting for you. Why in the world wouldn’t you be your #1 cheerleader. Have confidence in yourself! You can do it! And if it doesn’t work out, then next time you’ll do it. You need to generate a tough skin. The performance industry is the most rewarding industry out there…but it’s the toughest. It’s ruthless. And you need to be able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off…and start all over again. If you’re unable or unwilling to do that…then don’t get into the performance industry.
  • ONCE THE CAST LIST IS POSTED:If it’s posted on a call board, then approach the cast list, take a gander and then walk away. I recommend celebrating or reacting with disappointment several….several steps away from the cast list. Make it an agenda item. An appointment. Check the list…then go away. If you linger it’ll be perceived that you WANT to see others’ reactions (good or bad.) If you react (positively or negatively) and linger, it’ll make the approach to the cast list just that much more difficult for others. Please, for your sake and the sake of your fellow classmates, just check it out…and step away. If it’s posted online or if you receive word regarding the cast list via email…then you have the opportunity to reacting in the comfort of your own home, snuggled up with your ladybug pillow pet. Anyway you want to react is fine, but I beg of you to refrain from engaging in rumor mill gossip as a result.
    • Please keep in mind three things:
      • 1.) Regardless of the role you received…there is always someone out there broken hearted that they didn’t get the role you got. So appreciate the opportunity.
      • 2.) If you got a leading role…be humble. Remember, with great power come great responsibility. Get ready for a lot of work. (And that work shouldn’t include beating down misconceptions of others saying that your arrogant.)
      • 3.) If you didn’t get cast…please remember, this was a VERY difficult decision. It’s NEVER personal. (Parents, I understand if you roll your eyes. The job of directing a high school production is something I’m very honored to do for the school. They trust me to put in place a fair system that will determine a cast. I, and most directors, take this responsibility VERY seriously because it is our passion. We want to see children flourish in the art of theatre, not suffer as a result. After every cast list is posted, I spend a good two-three weeks as a make-shift guidance counselor, talking with students who are disappointed and working through their auditions, having a collaboration regarding what they could be doing better for the next time.
      • FACEBOOK: Can I just say one thing. I’m a huge Facebooker…I have a Twitter, a Tumblr and every other en vogue app de jour. With that said…please remember, EVERYTHING you put on Facebook is read by everyone. If you’re happy…awesome. If you’re sad…that’s perfectly reasonable. But if you feel compelled to self-medicate yourself by posting the highlight or greatest regrets regarding the posting of a cast list over the world wide web in any format…ultimately your positing yourself to hurt someone. I have been on the back-handing side of things with regards to this, and I have witnessed first hand these types of postings totally disable a person’s joy in auditioning in the first place. Frankly, it’s the reason my wife cancelled her Facebook. Not because she was attacked…but for the same reason neither of us will ever chaperone a school dance: it’s paints students in such an ugly light. We see knee-jerk sides of their personalities that we wish we hadn’t. I ask you to think twice before posting, that’s all.
      • PARENT CONCERNS: I’d say 95% of the complaints I hear from parents as a result of their students not receiving roles they believe they deserve, are brought to my attention because they believe I’m not providing an opportunity for them (in the form of a leading role.) I hope they’ll look at the bigger picture and see that while I cannot give every student a leading role…what I can do is provide opportunities for them to GROW. (Whether it is in the form of an onstage role or a supportive dialogue with the director) so that at the next time, the student can effectively expand on those opportunities and re approach the next play/musical. If you’re a drama director at a high school level, I challenge you to keep that open-door policy after auditions. If a student falls into the background after an audition…seek them out. Have a dialogue with them. I view this as the most important part of my job. Shows come and go…as do classroom dynamics…but that personal coaching is what builds character, which should be paramount.

IF YOU’RE A STUDENT: I am very interested in your continued success as a performer. If you have a question (vague or specific) that I haven’t touched on in this post…please leave a comment. I promise to respond.

IF YOU’RE A HIGH SCHOOL DRAMA TEACHER / ADMINISTRATOR: Please let me know what you’re thoughts are on this topic. I’m also interested to hear what others think are the current challenges of drama programs in the school system as we approach this generation of students. (Especially in light of diminishing fine arts programs nationwide.)

IF YOU’RE A PARENT: Please let me know your concerns as a parent of a “drama student.” I believe strongly in the classroom trinity: STUDENT, TEACHER and PARENT. Collectively they create harmony. (And anyone who has worked with me will tell you that without the direct support of the parents at Faith Lutheran…I wouldn’t be able to do what I do everyday.) I care greatly about your concerns, and would love to hear your thoughts on the matter, knowing that we all have the students’ best interest in mind.

I hope this was helpful.

“A CHRISTMAS STORY” targets Faith Lutheran

Posted in ACTING ONSTAGE, DIRECTING FOR THE STAGE, FAITH, FAMILY and FUN, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM on November 2, 2011 by erikball123

We hope you will all join us for the Faith Lutheran Theatre Company High School Spotlight Production “A CHRISTMAS STORY” – Get your tickets now at www.FaithTheatreCompany.com

School Spirit: Not Just Lip-Service

Posted in LIFE IN GENERAL / RANDOM RAMBLINGS, THE HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE CLASSROOM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2011 by erikball123

In my efforts to lick my wounds, I offer you all a challenge: offset the mad-man ramblings of one Dale Earnhardt when he quipped “second place is first place loser.” Have we raised our standards so high that we can’t even see the feet we’re standing on anymore? Seriously. I’ve often spouted about how I’m blessed to teach at Faith Lutheran…but make no mistake, it can sometimes be a “everybody gets a gold star” type of place. That’s not the real world. That’s not how life really is. Take it from an actor who met more closed doors that open when making a living in Chicago. You gotta have a tough skin, because sometimes life doesn’t happen to fall into place the way you expect it to.

Last night at the annual Faith Lutheran Homecoming Lip Sync event…the Senior class was defeated by the Junior class. (I was the adviser of the Senior class, along with my dear friends Chris and Christian.) Some say that the results of the judging were unjust! Some were outraged! Some wallflower seniors shed tears! One student threw a roll of toilet paper. We all deal with anger differently, I guess. I went to the drive-thru of McDonalds and inhaled two cherry pies in record time.

Allow me to explain what a Lip Sync is, first. Every Homecoming has a theme. This year’s was “VEGAS.” Every Homecoming event circulating this theme had to do with an individual Vegas casinos. The Lip Sync competition is one that pits classes against each other in spirited rivalry as they cut a four-minute music mix based on the given theme, and perform a costumed performance to the music, while attempting to lip sync to the vocals, as an ensemble. The theme for the Lip Sync event was HARD ROCK CAFE, and the seniors were given Queen, Journey and Rolling Stones as their music selections. The Lip Sync is truly one of the most attended and fun events we have on campus. (Even the teachers perform in a faculty skit. It gets really silly!) I’ve always loved it because it demands the students to work as an ensemble and draw on each others’ creative spirits.

Ours was REALLY cool too! The story followed a group of seniors from the hall (with various crazy hall passes) to the bathroom where there was a party going on. (Stall 54!) The Asst. Principal bursts in a gives everyone lunch detentions. While at lunch we meet some rather colorful lunch ladies, some boot-scooting girls and some Harlem shuffling boys. After the boys fall in love with the lunch ladies…the Principal comes in and issues a Saturday detention, enforced by the Saturday detention campus police (on bicycles…including a tiny clown bike.) The students are disgruntled…but in the end one brave student says “hey, guys…let’s get past all this…after all ‘We Are the Champions.'” Cue music. Everyone ends up very happy and unified…and we take a class picture. It was a very fun 4 minutes.

I’ve always thought that competition is a good thing. I don’t coach any sport, but the second we begin doing contests “just for fun” is the day Rome falls. I can’t imagine any red-blooded 4A school in the country suiting up for a friendly game of ball where they didn’t keep score. Wouldn’t happen. So, in this case, the Lip Sync is judged. I would say the vast majority of the time, the Seniors win…simply because this is their last hurrah! They usually pull out all stops and generate a lively, energetic and touching offering. Something they can be proud of. This year was no different and I was proud to be an adviser.

With that said…I find myself a bit disheartened today. Like every heated competition, there must be a winner. When that winner is announced, surely there will be a group of people who are upset by this. Well, the dust settled…my group of seniors were defeated (and by a bunch of Juniors! The audacity!)…and I found myself facing a handful of faithful lip stinkers who have taken the defeat very personally and are steadfast in their theories that the school is “out to get them” or “hates the senior class.” One student even punched a hole in our foam board restroom stall that we made. (Ironically, he was the one that the toilet paper as well. Restroom rage?)

Please allow me to put forth my perspective: I think the senior class worked a lot of hours perfecting dance moves, pulling together creative ideas, making costumes/props, and including people from all four corners of the class dynamic into every faction of the offering. It was inspiring. Were there those that rolled their eyes? Yes. Were there those who didn’t care as much? Sure. But overall…I’d say that the class represented themselves very well. I was there from day one…I saw how this coming-together of minds morphed from a puddle of goo into a full-fledged production. I saw people struggle and sweat. I saw the spirit.

Now, did the winning team struggle? Did they overcome trials and tribulations? Did they inject even half as much spirit into their offering? Who knows! I certainly don’t. I hear grumblings just like everyone else…but I can imagine that they had their share of trials as well. And I’m sure everyone can agree that everyone wants to win. But, here’s the thing…(and I’m sure some seniors have personal, or big picture gripes about what they are experiencing this year versus what is deserved)…there is no perfect system. Like every audition I conduct…I am to be trusted to make a decision that will affect a bigger picture. Those judges were picked by student council and it’s up to them to issue the final decision. If the seniors would have won…we’d be facing the same uphill climb with the Juniors. They’d be mad….etc. Now, one might argue that because last year the Junior (now Seniors) under my direction again (sheesh! I’m cursed!) came in second place….and we had a REALLY cool offering. But we’re not talking about last year…we’re focusing on this year, and the stuffy Gym atmosphere, and the new judges, and the alpha and omega stars which were aligned and the fifty-thousand other things that made this particular lip sync unique.

Now, before all the seniors who read this hit the Stumble Upon button, grumbling madly…I would encourage you to think about this…school spirit is what YOU make of it. It’s not a magic power…it’s not something granted or earned….it’s not something someone is entitled to. It’s a mind-set.

If you took: kindness / optimistic / determination / courage / thoughtfulness / faith and Hawaiian Punch and made a crazed milkshake…maybe with a dash of Red Bull…that’s school spirit. It’s what you feel when your home team scores a touchdown. It’s what you feel when every member of your class puts their hand in the circle and you shout “TEAM!” together. It’s what you demonstrate when you high five someone who just did well, or comfort someone who feels sad. It’s a frame of mind that supports you and guides you and helps you make positive choices. I argue….it’s the influence of the Holy Spirit working through you.

School spirit is like Bigfoot. Do we really need proof that it exists? If everyone in the room agrees that it does…that’s enough. And that’s what’s FUN about it! (Frankly, that’s what’s fun about Bigfoot too!)

I’m sad for my senior students. I have the great fortune to look into their eyes and see good people. Even those buggers who are naughty…(you know who you are)…I stand behind them with my hand on their shoulder and I tell you, they are good people too. That’s the thing about Faith Lutheran, it’s a school that truly does care. It’s an imperfect place…and there is room to grow…but no one wants to be on the receiving end of a second place trophy. While I argue that this contest was in no way personal…and that my students can use this experience to help paint the color of the fabric of their character…I will say that it sucks to lose as a senior to the juniors. I tip my hat to them, as they did a fine job. But, I hope that the four-minutes of Lip Syncing isn’t what these students will take with them on their personal journeys after graduation. I hope it’s a bigger scope of experiences.

Did you know that Jack Nicklaus (some would say the greatest golfer of all time) came in second place 19 times, in 19 separate major golf championships?

Did you know that Star Wars (a film in a year that redefined cinema in nearly every regard, and was considered to be a shoe-in for Best Picture) lost the Best Picture Oscar to “Rocky?” (Gotta love the underdog irony there.)

Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears were both runners-up on Star Search before becoming world-wide music icons.

Al Gore (probably one of the most famous runner-ups ever) received more popular votes than any elected President ever….still lost to George W. Bush.

This is absolutely no consolation to the efforts demonstrated by the class of 2012. But, I would argue that while upsetting, it gives us all something to talk about today. (Even if it is commiserating.) And after all, isn’t that what spirit week during Homecoming is all about? A chance to come together? I mean…let’s say we win our football game this Friday. We’ll walk away…together….going “WE ROCK!” But, if we lose this Friday…hypothetically….then we should be able to walk away….together…going “DARN YOU BULLDOGS!” Here’s the thing…there’s a saying “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’m not sure I LOVE the saying…but I am a huge fan of teaching students to have a thick skin.

Instead of adopting the “pick yourself up and dust yourself off” mentality…I suggest we think of things this way: If we’re all trying to be SCHOOL SPIRITED…even if we fall on our faces…we’re still moving forward….together.

The students are disgruntled…I understand that. But, I’m letting you all know…I feel strongly that we will all be able to champion through this situation. Seniors deserve a chance to shine! If it isn’t going to be as the winners of Lip Sync, then let it be as good sports.

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