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directing operetta in high school choir

I am currently directing a high school choir production of "Pirates of Penzance" for a colleague.  I am certified in music and theater and have directed over 30 dramatic and musical  productions.  I am looking for YOUR words of wisdom regarding working in someone else's program.
 
Personally, I have performed in the production almost ten times -- in high school, college and professionally -- as a pirate, Samuel, Pirate King and Sergeant of Police.  I am VERY famiiar with the entire book.  And I am a FUN director.  We will accomplish great things as a cast.
 
There are students in this production that do not want to be in the show.  THey are not MY students.  They do not know me or the show.  They do not want to attend extra-curricular reherasals.  Some of the chorus are as gung ho as the leads.  Others, however, I fear will serve as distraction of detriment at this point.
 
What are your words regarding those who do not wish to participate?  I have shared my advice with the choral director regarding the differentiation for the different students.  They still need to be assessed, even if they do not perform.  I believe they should learn every note of the score, performance or not, and perform in a "jury" of sorts as well as a written component to replace the actual perfomances.  The time committment should be about the same . . .
 
I look for your advice for my colleague.  I know what I would do, but we are different and I may not be as understanding of someone with a different point of view.  Please let me know what you think!
 
Paul Townsend
Scottsdale, AZ
Replies (9): Threaded | Chronological
on March 25, 2012 9:35am
Hi Paul,
 
I have been in your shoes quite a few times.  I did ALOT of directing, co-directing and choreographing (and teaching the dances) of HS musicals through the years and most often, not my own program. One of the musicals I did, "Once Upon a Mattress," I played Fred (the leading "lady") in HS, co-directed a HS summer program of it in college, and choerographed it about 20 years ago--know the show backwards and forwards.  Same idea as your situation.  Most of the shows I did I knew by reputation before I was engaged to do the shows--and Gershwin's, "Lady Be Good" just about killed me with the different forms of dance required, lots of work but it was wonderful .
 
I really don't think whether you know the show as well as you do has anything to do with the situation you find yourself in but it will help. It's good you do and have ideas as to what you want to do---and the slackers are preventing you from being able to and it's frustrating.  But as you point out, it's not your program and these are not your students.  The kids don't know you and I'm sure as they do begin to know you, they will see you are fun, the show is fun, the music is fun and G & S is FUN! There might be--as I encountered a few times--a question of loyalty to their teacher.  If they appear to cooperate with you, it might feel "disloyal" to their teacher.  Show them you are in to do a job--direct "Piratates"--and not steal their teacher's gig and that might help. A little crazy but it happened to me several times, especially when I worked at  local HSs.
 
My question to you is this--is this show instead of their usual choir?  There could be some kids who WANT to sing choral music (and that's  GOOD thing, all things considered) and are being forced to be in this production when they signed up to sing Bach (or something else).  Eventho I love performing in musicals (I would sing the Queen in ".......Mattress" in a heartbeat--only thing I haven't done in it!) some folks don't.  And operetta is even more different than the usual HS musical.  So this is what I would SUGGEST to the choral director--all the kids have to participate.  The ones who don't want to be on stage will learn the choral parts and will either sing back stage or will be out in costumes and stuck in the back of the rest.  They will sing but they won't have to do anything else.  It is up to the choral director to figure out the rest and to come up with a solution YOU as the director of this show can tolerate.
 
Being an independent contractor in your situation is tough and one in which I haven't found myself for a few years and that's okay.  Being neither fish nor fowl is unsettling and I can relate.  Boy, can I relate!
 
Good luck--or "break a leg, fella"--and am going to follow this thread with interest.
 
Marie
on March 25, 2012 9:45am
Paul,
 
I would recommend taking your lead from your colleague. It's their class, their syllabus, their grading, their curriculum, and their students. If your colleague made it clear at the beginning of the year that all students would be in the production, attending this number of extra-curricular rehearsals, then the students are aware of their commitment. They should also be aware of the consequences if they fail to honor their commitment ... which should have been spelled out by your colleague from the start.
 
IF your colleague was not clear about the commitment--or not clear about the consequences for students not making the commitment--that's a different ballgame and I would think you would have more latitude. But even in this case, I would run it by your colleague and have them make the actual decisions.
 
Best of luck!
 
Tom
 
PS: IF your colleague wants them all to do the show, there's always the possibility that the recalcitrant students will eventually buy-in ... especially with your fun style/high expectations.
on March 25, 2012 11:26am
Paul:  Excellent discussion so far, and I agree with both Marie and Tom, as I usually do!
 
What came first to my mind as I read your post is our situation here at the college level.  In our music department we absolutely REQUIRE our majors to participate in an ensemble every semester except their student teaching semester.  It's an article of faith for MOST music faculty that this is an important and indispensible part of learning to be a functioning musician, although it always leaves the question of what to do with keyboard, composition, and technology majors.  (In our case we require even those students to pass an entrance audition, a continuation exam, and recital requirements AS A PERFORMER.)  And there are always those who want to take it further and designate some ensembles as "major" and others as "minor."
 
Our Theater Arts Department, on the other hand, has NEVER required its majors to take part in productions, at least on stage.  (There are design and technical classes they ARE required to take, in which they serve effectively as slave labor for putting the productions together, of course.)  And that has always both puzzled and bothered me, since theater is--or at least should be--just as much a collaborative effort as ensemble performance, although some productions are better compared with chamber music than with large ensemble performance.
 
Perhaps the difference is that ensemble performance need not also involve solo performance, whereas in theater there is ALWAYS a differentiation between the leads and the "cast" or chorus--white contracts and pink contracts.  The closest we have ever come in our annual Summer Musical (20 years now, and counting) was "Oliver," in which there are no REAL leads (not even Oliver himself) but a long list of SECOND leads. 
 
But our theater department practice does suggest at least one approach that you might want to consider, in collaboration with their regular teacher, of course.  More than half the work in ANY production takes place off stage, back stage, and in the front of the house, and there are plenty of absolutely essential jobs that might be very well done by students who really do NOT want to be on stage as actors in the first place.  Perhaps at least worth considering?
All the best,
John
on March 26, 2012 5:15am
I hope this won't sound too sunny or jolly, but belive it or not as the rehearsals progress you may find one wonderful opportunity to identify one or two kids who really have hidden talent, or who learn that they really like what you're doing, or who miraculously "get it". If you approach the project with that in mind, it may help you to keep smiling. Kudos to doing G&S!
on March 26, 2012 8:38am
In my recent experience, the "I don't want to" or "This show will be lame" is generally code/defense mechanism for "I did not get the role I wanted." ..or.. "I'm afraid my mom/teacher might take me out of the show for grades/money issues/behavior/being needed at home"...or "I'm not talented/brave enough to do this, knowing that some friends classmates might ridicule me/distance themselves from me." ...or ..."I'm terrible at memorizing, and I'm really afraid I'll flub all these word-y patter songs"...or...even though you as their director are positive and fun, they may be concerned that close to performance you will be very exacting and they will not measure up, causing you frustration, which you might express.  Sometimes they just think it's fashionable/cute to be a diva!  :(  This type jugementalism/fear  [students criticizing/ridiculing each other]  has secretly, but strongly infused itself into society in recent years.  (Some adults, unfortunately, do it , too. :( ) Many carry an "all-or-nothing" concept   - "If I'm not the winner of American Idol, I'm nothing and I should never perform".  I have seen this in students, even though they signed for Chorus and have been in it several months.  (This is, at first, hard to understand/believe for folks like us who have always loved performing! :)  But it's real - I've seen it in many students - sometimes their parents reinforce it. 
I recommend a dual approach, if you can work it out:
1. Try to arrange time to speak privately with the "don't-wannas".  Gently ask them non-theatening questions to see if some issues I mentioned above, or similar ones, are in their way.  If it really sounds impossible ("I"m about to flunk Algebra, and I have to see the teacher at the same time as rehearsal"), then work with the Chorus teacher on an alternative assignment - (maybe they can do research and write some cool program notes - like in a patter-rap form..:)...or sew trim/hem skirts/glue feathers on hats at home...)  If it sounds  like they really could do the show, then make a deal [ written contract, if nec.] with them:  "If you prepare your part, and cooperate in rehearsal/performance, you'll get a good grade and Mr./Mrs. ____(their Chorus teacher) and I will never ask you to do this again."  (As Ann says, they'll probably grow to like it :)
2.  If you are not too far into the rehearsal period, and if there are enough capable students, see if you can double-cast.   On "Blue" night, "Blue Cast" performs.  On "Green" night, Green Cast performs. (Use school colors, maybe..?) Each cast, on their off-night,  handles the props and small set pieces, helps with costume difficulties (zippers, resistant buttons, hairdos, hook and eyes), and generally supports their corresponding cast member.   They can usually sing in the chorus scenes as well, or backstage. This can do wonders for equalizing diva-attitudes, and getting the backstage work done!  Have 2 responsible Stage Managers to watch for any issues, such as refusing to bring props to sabotage a performer, or leaving with friends before cleaning the make-up table. Those kids lose major grade points, and get detention [or similar consequence] for disrespect!!   In my experience, however, this is rare.  They all share the positive-pressure of an imminent show.   By the end, they've learned 2 skills - performing and backstage support.  If you do, I highly recommend having both casts at every practice.  Require the off-stage cast to take notes, which you quickly scan-check (it's their ticket home).  Be sure to alternate evenly, so that one group does not get bored sitting/taking notes.
Bonne chance/break a leg!
--Lucy
 
on March 26, 2012 7:56pm
Lucy:  Double casting sounds like a terrific idea, but has its problems.  Only once in 21 years have we double cast anyone for our annual Summer Musical.  For "Annie," considering the vocal demands on Annie (who appears in every single scene), we decided to play it safe and cast two Annies.  (We also cast two Sandys, thinking that each dog would get used to working with one girl, but ended up using only one.)
 
I was vocal director that summer (although my mom died and I was gone for 6 weeks), and told our two Annies several things:  (1) Whenever one of you is on stage, the other should be in the audience, watching, taking notes, and then sharing those notes with the other; (2) Do not try to imitate each other, play the character as she makes sense to YOU so you can BE Annie.  We also scheduled their performances very carefully, so that not only did each get the same number of performances (in the event we did not have to fall back on one for vocal problems or illness), but each got a Friday, a Saturday, and a Sunday matinée.
 
But our stage director found that it took almost twice the time in rehearsals, because each Annie had to have time on the stage to get her timing and her interaction with the other characters down.  (And for the other actors to get two sets of timings and interaction as well.)  For two completely different casts I suspect that it would take AT LEAST twice the preparation time, because watching from the house, while necessary, is NOT the same as being in the scene.  And of course it also multiplies the hassle (and expense) of costuming as well.
 
But if that isn't a problem, I really like your suggestion.
 
Regarding the American Idol response, I found the reaction of my show ensemble cast much better and more positive (although this was to one of the shows that was an earlier version of Idol).  Their reaction was, "if we were on it, we would kick butt!"  And they would have!!
All the best,
John
on March 27, 2012 7:14am
Lucy - a gentle emendation, here:  you suggest a contract of some sort (which is really unimportant, in the end) and then you have the director saying "Mr./Mrs. _________ will give you a good grade and I will never ask you to do this again."  Beware the promise HE can't keep.  I'm assuming you meant the first part of your statement to be based on a prior agreement with the teacher, but that can be violated, and then the director's word is worthless.  The second half of the statement really scares me, because it suggests that the student can opt out, which may not in fact be the case.  I would strongly suggest a more straightforward approach after discussion with the chorus teacher - and let (as someone else suggested) the chorus teacher make the promises of future benefit.  Remember, again, what someone else said earlier:  he's the contractor; he's the hired hand for this.  The job description and person that needs to be satisfied is the one doing the hiring - the chorus teacher.  Let that person set the parameters of participation and the penalties/benefits of not doing so.
 
I do, however, agree very definitely with making ALL the students help out with set design, program design, etc. - leads included.  Especially in the high school setting, there's too much the tendency to think of a person having the lead and thus being exempt from "grunt" work.  Not so; everyone should understand by the end of the production just what it takes to put together a show - and this IS a teaching/learning situation.  There's already too much of a tendency for the "actors" to look down long noses at "crew" and thinking that somehow they're better.  Puts me in mind of a funny, if probably apocryphal, story about an opera diva, cast as the lead in "Tosca," who had been miserable to the crew.  During the dress rehearsal, at the very last scene, supposedly at the top of Castel Sant' Angelo, Tosca hits her last high B-flat and flings herself off the wall - onto mattresses or other soft landing material.  Not this time.  The crew had replaced it with a trampoline.  Needless to say, she supposedly hit some notes even SHE hadn't thought she had, as well as having an unexpected "return" engagement!  I doubt seriously it really happened; the crew would've been fired on the spot for those kinds of shenanigans - BUT - the point is for actors/singers to remember that nothing they do on-stage would be possible without the full cooperation and creativity and preparedness of the techies and the crew in front and behind the stage.  And that statement from someone who has been in both situations.
 
Ron
 
 
on March 27, 2012 7:47am
Ok..I am trying to not be such a a "frequent flyer" on Choralnet ;), so here's the short [ hopefully not rude or cryptic] responses:
True, John. 
Paul, I hope this will be helpful:
1. Costumes with (hidden) elastic, belts, sashes,  and vertical hem tie-ups should fit any body type - used by both performers.  And often for several shows, since the styles are somewhat adjustable.
2. True - note-taking is not the same as on stage, but that's where their imagination should be used.  They should fully imagine themselves on stage -  moving, acting with the one who is.  All performers - and audiences - need imagination.  :)  Tricky moments in scenes can be worked out on their breaks - or even simultaneously - in another space, or side-by-side on stage.
I applaud John's - and any director's  - empahsizing that students develop their own interpretation of any role.
3. As to the "Idol" issue, I think it has to do with the different student population.  College ensemble folks have a matured confidence, and likely a higher family income.  My high-schoolers [and remember, 9th-graders are often emotionally-socially still in middle-school ;)] lived in an area of  low-income, low-cultural-awareness [save some pop/gang culture].  Many of their parents "ran them down" frequently.  Remember the scene in "Sister Act 2" where Mom takes the sheet music away from the soloist, saying that it is no way to make a living?  That scenario is real and frequent in our community, :( and seriously challenges enrollment efforts of all our Choral Directors.
Paul, hopefully this is not your situation :), and you have worked it all our by now!  I'd love to hear how it turns out!  :)
Best to all,
--Lucy
on March 27, 2012 8:19am
I agree with John.  In the past three years I have been the vocal coach (I'm also the chorus director) for Grease, Oklahoma, and The Music Man, in a high school.  In each instance there were students who, for whatever reason, did not want to be on stage.  There is so much technical work putting together and running the show that many students became carpenters, painters, lighting, sound engineers, costume makers, etc. that everyone participated and got credit.  And they all ended up thoroughly enjoying it.
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