Sunday, October 02, 2016

Middle School Drama Teacher: Memo to Self

Going into our performance of A Wrinkle in Time, adapted by Morgan Gould from Madeleine L'Engle's classic novel, I was feeling pretty much like a failure.  With missed cues and hesitant lines, our dress rehearsal ran an hour and twenty minutes, more than twice the show's expected running time.  I looked back over weeks of rehearsal for ways I could have exerted tighter control, pushed kids harder, drilled more.

Then, after a dinner break, kids performed the show under 40 minutes; the large ensemble stayed in character, eerily disengaged or openly passionate as needed; the principal characters looked into each others' eyes, touched each other with tenderness or urgency, spoke lines with total conviction and clarity; a simple shift of lights cued the audience when we were moving from one locale to another.  Not a failure after all, I was a genius.

Let's remember a few things.

Those stupid improvisation games make a difference.  
Before I'd assigned parts, we sat in a circle to read portions of the script and spent precious rehearsal time on those time-killing drama games that kids love.  We played "group shape" ("form a giant shoe in ten seconds, using everyone's body as a part"); we warmed up as "blank pages" who stared straight ahead while someone tried to make actors laugh; we played the mirror game; in a circle, successive actors exaggerated a gesture that the first one presented.  In the end, these games were basic to the Ensemble's best moments - as creepy automaton cheerleaders on planet Camazotz, as a giant swan for flight over the planet Uriel, as an entourage of mimics when young "Charles Wallace" is possessed by "It."

When you stop rehearsal to get at the feeling of a moment, don't worry about lost time.  
I beat myself up for all the afternoons we didn't get through our schedule because we worked on a certain confrontation or a quiet response.  In the end, it was the actors' conviction during those moments that made the audience willing to overlook a delayed exit or the tangling of the long white cloth.

Cue-to-Cue does help.  
In my panic, I created a "cheat sheet" for the Ensemble and me, and spent thirty minutes the afternoon of the show simply calling one cue after another, by nick name:  "Giant Swan!  Soccer game from Hell!  Make a Wall!  March!  Take a Wall!  Prison! Bowling Pins!"   With no principals to flub a cue, movements became fluid, and the principals, watching, suddenly saw their place in the scheme of things.

Even more time with the principals alone could have been a help.  
The father, mother, children, and "witches" met with me 90 minutes in the second week, just to improvise as family, to discuss backstories, to get familiar with each other in character.  In the last week, I called off a run-through of the show to let the principals work just the final two scenes.  It was risky not to rehearse with lights and cues, but we all felt surer of where we were headed after that. We could have benefitted from reserving half an hour every week for that kind of work.

It doesn't take much to make a splash. 
We had a black stage, black curtains, and black clothes.   Still, we had spectacle: stormy lights on a girl's attic bedroom stage right; the dancing of a long swath of white tulle in figure eights around the principals to transport them; and the "galaxy" light.  People talked later about the sudden emergence of "The Red Eyed Man," a satanic figure twenty feet wide and ten feet tall.  He was a puppet, voiced by three boys in unison, his face a blank red mask suspended from a fishing pole,  swooping down into the faces of his interlocutors, his gesturing arms ten-foot poles topped with work gloves, his shimmering black robe nothing but plastic from Party City.     Everyone was creeped out! Our final effect was achieved with a wide wall of black cloth that encircled "Meg" while the Ensemble chanted "Hate! Hate!" isolating little "Charles Wallace" stage left to say, in silence, "No one.  No one loves me."  It was our finale: Meg broke through the black enclosure to embrace her little brother, and the ensemble, backing up against the black back wall, simply raised the black cloth over themselves to disappear instantly! (We'll forget the time that the cloth got twisted, exposing one frustrated sixth grader who did his best to look invisible.)

All's Well that Ends Well.

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