Enjoy this replay of our January 2014 LIVE Drama Teacher Hangout. The topic was “Directing First Time Actors” with Forrest Musselman, a theatre teacher who shared some very valuable tips for working with beginning actors.
Thanks to everyone who participated. We had a great time.
Lindsay: Hello everybody! Welcome to our Google Hangout!
We’re sorry that we have started a couple of minutes later. As you will see, it’s just, it’s a me-show right now. It’s me! We’re supposed to have another teacher on for interview, Forrest Musselman, who is also one of our newest playwrights. He has written a play called A Deep Poetic Journey into Something. But this is live, and this is technology, and I have to tell you, we had an absolutely awesome dress rehearsal last night. So, as is the way with theatre, awesome dress rehearsal, opening maybe not so much. But we have a lot of questions.
We sort of put it out there that this Google Hangout was going to be about some production issues that you guys face with your students and we were thinking specifically this is a great place to start those first-time actors, right? You are dealing with some students who have not been on stage before and they don’t quite know how to handle it. I’m sure you have all been in that situation where you have two beginning actors and they’re in a scene and they do the entire scene like this, facing each other, and it’s like, “Okay, that’s great… for you and you,” but that’s not theatre and there’s a whole sort of lingo and language that students have to learn and there is a whole… It’s just a whole scenario.
So, you guys have really asked some very interesting questions about how do we help first-time actors on stage. And this really great one that I see in our Q&A – we have a Q&A actually here in the Hangout! There is a Q&A button which I think is over on the, well, it’s on my left-hand side. So, you decipher which one it is and I can’t say that I’m all that good at deciphering between my left and my right. But it’s there and I can see some of you have already chimed in with questions which is really awesome, and Annie, I see your question – “How do you avoid giving the standard note to inexperienced actors?” How can you be more [insert emotion here], right?
It’s a result orientated note that I often feel compelled to give due to a lack of understanding of standard vocabulary. This is something that you see all the time. I see it when I was directing high school students and boy, do I see it all the time in my adjudicating. You know, when I am watching, there’s a lot of beginning actors I see giving monologues and dialogues, and also, when I adjudicate main stage or full productions or one-acts, that’s a note that comes up time and time again, you know? We need more. And, for me, what I want to convey to an actor is, well, “What does you character want? What’s going on with your character? What do they want in this moment and what are they doing to get it?”
So, we take emotion completely out of it and I think that is the best thing to do. You don’t really want to say to a young actor, “Be sad. Be mad. Be joyful or angry,” because then what happens is you get the stereotypical “Argh! I’m so mad!” or “Uh-huh-huh,” and there’s lots of sobbing and it is the presentation of emotion rather than a character having a true experience. So, we need to take emotion completely out of it. So, that would be my very first thing to say is, “So, how do we approach the moment without the emotion?” and it always, always, always comes back to character want. “What do you want? What do you want in this moment and how desperate are you to get it? Are you so desperate that you are reaching that level of frustration? Is it something that you want that’s going to make you just so incredibly happy?” See? We’re getting to the emotion. The emotion becomes a bi-product of the want.
And then, “What do you want? What are you going to do?” So, we have an action in there and that’s always good, too. If we can avoid emotion and if we can get an actor to think of action – because then that covers your blocking, too – and then, “What’s in your way?”
“What do you want? What are you going to do? What’s in your way?” This nice little package just really covers, oh, it just covers character development in playwriting, it covers character development in script analysis, and it’s really a tool, it is really the number one tool that you can give to an actor to get them somewhere that we don’t need to rely on them overacting an emotion, right? That’s something that we don’t want.
So, we have to go with, “What do you want? What are you going to do? What’s in your way?” and then, “How are you going to deal with what’s in your way?” And this is something too that, if they’re having trouble figuring that out for their character, go a step back and give your students scenarios as warm-ups in which they are involved. So, it could be a scenario between two best friends, it could be a scenario in which a student is trying to get a good grade, you know? So, you’re taking it right down to the situation that they find relatable – situations that they find relatable in their very life.
So, if you can get them into situations in their very life then you can move them into acting a character that’s not them, then you can get them acting maybe into dealing with this notion of emotion.
Craig: I have one too, Lindsay.
Lindsay: Hey, Craig! I didn’t even introduce Craig. Craig is trying to find Forrest. Craig is waiting through the forest to find Forrest. But, please, tell me what you’ve got.
Craig: Well, we’ve been in email contact and Forrest is trying to get on but we’re having trouble navigating the intricacies of the Google Hangout here which is funny because last night worked just fine but, of course, here we are.
Lindsay: That’s what I said.
Craig: Yes, I heard you.
Lindsay: Good dress rehearsal.
Craig: But you want to stretch it for time so I’m going to repeat what you said.
Sometimes, though, I will say, sometimes this happens even in the professional world. There’s a miscommunication between the director and the actor and sometimes the director thinks they’re being very clear, and maybe they are, but maybe the director’s been giving so much feedback and the actor is clearly not getting what the director is trying to say and, you know, when someone keeps trying to tell you how to do something, it just gets harder and harder for you to process because clearly you’re not following what they’re trying to tell you and I know there’s this big bug a bear about giving line readings – a line reading is just where the director says, “Say it like this,” and that’s true, you don’t want the director going through the entire script telling you exactly how to say the line. But I’ve been in professional situations where even that – giving a line reading – sometimes the best way to communicate the emotions that you’re trying to get across is maybe what frustrated means to you is not the same way that the actor processes the word “frustrated.” So, sometimes, if you say, “I want you to say a line like this,” then maybe they can take that and then internalize it and say, “Oh! He means this!” which is something maybe different than the word you’re using, but you’re going to get that emotion across. So, line readings aren’t always a bad thing.
Lindsay, how do you feel about line readings?
Lindsay: You know what? I think you’ve got to use what’s in your arsenal. And there was another question on here – I think this one was on Facebook. It goes, “How do you read your actors?” and I think this is why a director’s job is so terribly difficult is that they have to determine individual acting styles and how individual actors respond to notes. And what you’ll find is that you have to come up with a different way of communicating with, maybe, you know, ten or fifteen different actors. And I think that you will find that you will be able to say, “Hey, can you bring me more,” and not even finish and you will get, your actor will go, “Hey! I can do this!” and then sometimes you’re going to have to give a line reading and I think that you can’t throw out something because it’s not done, right? Use every trick in your arsenal.
All right. I see thumbs up!
Craig: Yes, I had to come in with some breaking news here. It seems we’ve had someone join us, Forrest Musselman. Forrest, just put your thumbs up if you’re ready to talk.
Forrest: I am ready!
Craig: All right!
Lindsay: So, Forrest, we had a brief conversation last night because you are in Minnesota.
Lindsay: And a brief conversation about the weather. How are you doing over there?
Forrest: Well, it’s pretty balmy today. It’s actually twenty degrees this morning so we’re able to go outside and do some things. But it’s supposed to get really bad later, Sunday going into Monday. There’s an artic vortex moving in, they said on the news last night.
Lindsay: Oh, my gosh.
Forrest: So, we’ll be about twenty-five below on Monday.
Lindsay: Well, ear warmers and everywhere. Okay. So, right now we just started talking about specifically dealing with the issues that often first-time actors have on stage, right? They get on stage and they don’t have the language and they don’t have the experience and they don’t have the lingo. So, they don’t often give the performance that they could. And you are in the middle of directing a show right now. Do you have any first-timers in your show?
Forrest: Yes, I do. I have three or four that are new this year.
Lindsay: And how are you dealing with that?
Forrest: Well, for starters, I gave them very small parts. So, it’s a great experience for them to watch the older kids work and how they do things and that’s more of an observing sort of thing for me because they can sort of get a hang of what’s going on and then learn from that experience so that they can build experience and know what to expect when they come in for another show.
Lindsay: Do you find using your older actors very useful in sort of grooming I don’t think is the right word but just sort of maybe instilling something in your younger actors.
Forrest: Yeah, they tend to, I repeat the same things over and over and over again, and after a while, you learn as a teacher some of it becomes sort of like a Charlie Brown cartoon where you’re the teacher and it just kind of goes, “Blah blah blah blah blah blah,” the whole time. And, with kids, if they’re listening to their peers, it’s sort of they repeat the rules to the kids and say, “Hey, you shouldn’t do that,” or, “Watch where you’re standing,” things like that, and I just have to have patience and let the older kids sort of give instructions and then step in whenever I need to.
Lindsay: I think that’s a really great tip. Another question that came through on Facebook was, “How do you instil the discipline needed to be successful?” and I think a great tip there is use your older students. You know, have them be the disciplinarians, yeah?
Forrest: Yes, definitely because they know the rules and sometimes, especially when they’re seniors or juniors, they don’t have the patience or they think that they know everything at that point. So, let them assume the leadership roles. It’s a good learning experience for them, too. And sometimes I’ll talk to kids about how to be a leader and, you know, because sometimes they can get a little gruff or say some things to younger students and the younger students will take it the wrong way. And so, I use that as sort of a learning experience too to say, “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t have said this,” or, you know, “Be a little bit nicer,” things like that, and it usually works out pretty well.
Lindsay: It’s a good teachable moment, right? Like, it’s for all – for the young ones and the old ones. Yes.
Forrest: Exactly, yeah.
Lindsay: Okay. So, let’s talk about the real basics. Let’s talk about, first off, memorizing lines. How do you get your students to memorize their lines? Are you good at motivating them?
Forrest: Well, I just give them a deadline. So, you know, it’s usually I have a six-week rehearsal period and the first three weeks they’re allowed scripts and then there’s a certain day where they know that they’re off-script. And I don’t know how they do it. They always memorize their lines. They seem to be very good.
I was never good at it myself when I acted in high school and college. So, it’s just a repetition thing, I think, for a lot of those, repeating them over and over again.
Craig: Are there consequences if your students don’t know their lines by the off-book date or have you just been always been a lucky so-and-so and they’ve just always known them on the right date?
Forrest: Well, it just gets frustrating for them. It’s almost an embarrassment for them because, if they’re off-script and they don’t know their lines, then they’re throwing off the rehearsal , and I always know that the first few days are going to be horrible – that nothing’s going to be accomplished because they’re off-script and they’re having a hard time, but it’s sort of a motivational thing that’s the equivalent of being naked on stage sort of like a bad nightmare. So, they want to get those lines memorized quickly so that they can start building on their characters and moving on from that.
Lindsay: I think too what was really important was that your cut-off date is three weeks. So, they have three weeks. It’s not like, you know, the week of the show. So, they’ve had all that time as with the script as the crutch. So, I think that’s a really great tip. You know, chuck the script as soon as you can so that they are learning their characters without that script in their hands.
Forrest: Yeah, you know, the first three weeks is just sort of about blocking and maybe finding their characters a little bit. But I’ve always found that they do not find their characters until the scripts are out of the hands and if they start internalizing the lines and so then they can start playing around with the lines and then the characters really start to come out after that. And so, that’s important for me. I feel like the three weeks is blocking and then that fourth week when they’re off-script is really nothing is getting accomplished other than they’re solidifying their lines, and then you have the remaining two weeks to really work with the characters and really fleshen things out.
Lindsay: Cool. I just saw Jenny and Jenny I think I attributed your question to Annie but it was your question, and you have another question which is specific to learning lines. “Are you ever willing to remove a student from a show who won’t learn their lines?”
Forrest: I’ve never had to do that. I’ve had to remove a student for not showing up for rehearsals or not showing up to school, and I’ve had to remove students for bad grades because they were failing some grades, but I’ve never had to remove a student for not knowing their lines, and I’ve been doing it for twenty years. I guess, I don’t know, I’ve been fortunate I guess. I’ve never run into that situation.
Lindsay: That’s pretty good. Do you do musicals? Do you do musical scores?
Forrest: Not really. I’ve done one musical in all of my directing which was the Wizard of Oz.
Lindsay: Was it, like, a horrible experience?
Forrest: It was pretty stressful, yeah, because I know nothing about music as far as teaching it and, I mean, I still had someone helping me but musicals are a big undertaking. It’s a lot of work there, definitely, because you have to bring in someone from music and someone that knows choreography and plus you have so many students that are in it in the first place so it’s a big undertaking and I’ve never been privy to doing them.
Lindsay: We have another question here about comic timing. This particular teacher is doing Noises Off. “How do you instil comic timing in your students consistently?” What do you think, Forrest?
Forrest: Well, in a way, that’s almost like a natural talent. You know, some kinds have it and they’re awesome and you don’t have to do anything with them. With others, you have to almost show them to model it. I do a lot of modelling sometimes.
Lindsay: Oh, what does that mean? Talk about that.
Forrest: Well, I’ll just come up on stage and I’ll do the line and I’ll show them how I think it should be done and then they’ll mimic it. So, that helps a lot. I’ve also done where they have to pause in a certain way and I always have them say, “Pause, pause, pause,” in their head or, “Beat, beat, beat,” or something that there’s internally thinking something and then that kind of helps with the timing, too.
Lindsay: Craig, you’ve done a lot of comic acting in your career. What are some tips you have for teaching comic timing?
Craig: Well, like, Forrest is right. I think it’s natural or it’s not. But, for the kids for whom it’s not, they can still learn a lot of basic techniques, one of which, especially with farce. Farce, for the actor, should be way more serious than any other genre of theatre. The wants, it should be above any other want that you ever played in any other play. So, the wants for the actor are just tantamount, even if you’re hungry, even if your character says, “I’m hungry,” they are hungry. They are insatiable. The other thing is, especially with farce but with all comedy in general, it’s just never, never, never, never be funny. Never try and be funny because that’s the worst thing in comedy is when you’re winking at the audience, and it goes again to the wants. It all really does just stick with the basic acting technique. It’s just what your characters want and what are the obstacles in the way, and it so happens with farce that whatever your character wants is huge and the obstacles are always way, way bigger – they’re always life and death, and if they’re not literally life and death then think of them emotionally in terms of life and death.
Lindsay: Awesome. Oh, yeah, go ahead.
Forrest: I always think of comedy too, especially with farce or anything that’s sort of over the top, is to always exaggerate or over-exaggerate, and I always tell the kids that I’ll pull you back if I think it’s too much and to keep pushing themselves. And I think a lot of it too is about posing and I always use, like, Jim Carrey as an example or any of the other good comedic actors that use posing or, you know, coming up and finding a position or just sort of over-exaggerating everything that they do. They’re a character upon themselves.
Craig: Physicality and doing a little bit of workshop stuff with Commedia dell’Arte will go a long way to helping with what your characters resting state is – I forget what I was going to say. Lindsay, say it for me, will ya?
Lindsay: Well, what I’m going to say is, I think, specifically the teacher asking the question about Noises Off, yes, do a workshop on Commedia dell’Arte. I think that’s going to be your best tool because there’s lots of exercises online that you can find to introduce those kinds of comedic timing techniques.
Okay. Let’s talk about blocking. Forrest, when you are blocking a scene, how much creativity do you allow a student with your movement? What do you do?
Forrest: Well, I usually have a basic plan for the scenes, you know, “Walk here and sit there and do that.” Once that’s instilled, I watch it a lot of times to see if the kid is comfortable, and if they have a tendency, if they look like they want to move somewhere or do something then, you know, I’ll encourage that. I’ll say, “Hey, you look like you just wanted to move there. Why don’t you go ahead and do that?” And they’ll ask questions, “Can I do this? Can I do that?” and, if I think it fits what’s going on, I’ll say, “Sure, go for it.” And I’m always changing the blocking, too. Like, there’s sort of an initial blocking then, as we keep exploring the play or moving forward, then we’re always changing things and always kind of experimenting with how we should move and where we should go. If the kids have ideas, that’s great, and sometimes their ideas are much greater than mine and that’s the great collaborative part of theatre.
Craig: I agree, and I think it’s helpful to have that environment that you’re talking about, Forrest, where, if the actor feels an impulse to go somewhere, especially early blocking rehearsals, just go there. And, going back to what you said before, I was once told the best note you could ever get from a director is to pull back because you have to push yourself forward. The director can only push you so far.
Craig: And so, if the director’s telling you to pull back then that means you’ve explored what you’re doing as deeply as you’re going to explore it.
Forrest: Exactly. And I think I’ve only had to do that for maybe two or three students in my career so far where I’ve actually said, “Okay, you’ve gone far enough, that’s plenty.”
Lindsay: I agree. I find students, they hardly ever are going as far as they could, right?
Lindsay: And that would be so, I’m always trying to tell students, “You know, it’s always so much easier to pull back than to keep going so just keep going, keep going, and see what you can do.”
Forrest: Keep pushing yourself.
Lindsay: And it must be so great too, particularly with exploring blocking with, again, that three-week period where they are not on book. Like, I think that’s the best, that’s the longest I’ve ever heard in talking to teachers a process where our students are off-book and I think that’s fantastic.
Forrest: Yeah, I guess I didn’t realize that. For me, that’s always been sort of a norm for me and I’ve done that since the first year that I directed so it’s a good process. It’s worked well.
Lindsay: Do you find your blocking changes? Do you rehearse on stage or do you rehearse in a rehearsal room or classroom?
Forrest: Yeah. Well, we’re fortunate enough that we have an auditorium in our school. We’re one of the few high schools in our county, really, that has an actual theatre, and it’s a small little auditorium – it’s only 200 seats, 200 people – so we’re able to rehearse on stage. It’s kind of a smaller stage compared to other schools but we actually have a stage so that’s good.
Lindsay: I’ve been to so many barns, so many auditorium barns where it’s a huge stage and huge audience and the students get lost which leads to my next question which we have had a lot of people sort of chime in about and that’s projection. What do you do to get your kids to project?
Forrest: Well, I do, there’s vocal exercises that you can do. One of the things that’s helpful for me is sometimes I’ll have all the kids just lay on the stage floor and put their hands on their stomach and then they do breathing exercises where they can feel the stomach going in and out, and then how it tenses up when you push, when you say, you know, “Hey!” and then they have to feel their stomach tighten up and I encourage that that’s where they need to be pushing from from the diaphragm. And so, that helps a lot also with enunciation – lots of the “lips, teeth, tip of the tongue,” those sort of vocal exercises and what-not. And then, I also do – I call it – the sound check where I’ll stand in the back of the theatre and then they’ll have to say a line and then I’ll say, “Well, that’s not loud enough because I couldn’t hear you,” and so that makes them recognize how loud they actually have to speak. And just during rehearsals too, doesn’t matter what’s going on, I’ll always stop if I can’t hear or understand a word. I’ll say, “What?” and then they’ll have to repeat it and go on.
Lindsay: Instil it early, right?
Craig: Well, I think it helps, as an actor, to go stand – and, again, this is something you could do professionally even if you have voice training – you go stand at the very back seat and watch a scene that you’re not in, and it tells you a lot about the space that you’re in and what kind of volume you need to put out there.
Forrest: Yeah, and we have, like, one-act play competitions where we have to go different schools or colleges to compete and that’s one of the things that I’ll have them do – sort of sit in the back and listen to a play. I think that’s a great piece of advice to do that.
Lindsay: Do you have any students who suffer from stage fright?
Forrest: Yes, I do.
Lindsay: Yeah? What happens?
Forrest: Well, I’ve had students have nervous breakdowns.
Lindsay: Oh, my God! Okay, I don’t need to know about that.
Craig: But we’re laughing in a nervous breakdown here.
Lindsay: How do you handle that, eh?
Forrest: You know, you try to calm them down as much as you can. I always try to keep a light mood before the show. We’ll do warm-ups and joke around and have a lot of fun. I know they’re nervous but, to me, I always tell them too that to be nervous is good, and if you’re not nervous then something is wrong because being nervous gives you that energy. There’s so much energy with nervousness till all you have to do is harness that energy and make it a good thing, and that gives you the added extra oomphf that you need on stage. So, you just calm them down, sort of realize and let them know that it is okay to be nervous, that, you know, I’m nervous too and I’m not even going to be on the stage. “I’ll be watching you but I’m nervous for all of you as well.”
Lindsay: As a director, I was the epitome of the nervous director. I’d, like, sit in the very back and I’m like, “Don’t touch me. Nobody, no, no, no. Don’t sit with me. Don’t touch me.”
Craig: Well, I think nerves are a good thing. Nerves mean that you care about what you’re going to do, you care about how it’s going to come across, and I think the best counterbalance to getting too nervous is to just be prepared and to realize that you’ve already done all the work and then what you’re about to do in front of the audience is basically a celebration on exhibition of all the work that you’ve put in over the last months.
Forrest: Exactly, yeah. It’s what they’ve been working for.
Lindsay: Have you ever had a student who’s refused to go on stage?
Forrest: I have not. But I’ve had a few close calls. Just this past play that I was directing, there was a girl that had a pretty bad nervous breakdown – she was crying and things like that – but she was able to pull it together and then she was fine for the show. But, for a moment there, I was like, “Oh, boy. Here we go.”
Lindsay: Is that another situation where the students themselves can help another student kind of get over their fears?
Forrest: Yeah, and what was fortunate for me is that she had a brother that was in the show as well. So, he was able to talk to her and help out.
Lindsay: Let’s talk about just a couple more of the technical things such as enunciation which is my biggest thing and also students who talk too fast or who are sort of in their own heads and they are not getting that they have to communicate clearly to an audience. How do you deal with that?
Forrest: Which part? All of it?
Lindsay: Okay. Let’s go first with enunciation.
Forrest: Enunciation, it’s just, again, those exercises. They almost do it sarcastically sometimes where, you know, I’ll give them a word or they say a word and I say, “I couldn’t understand it because you’re not enunciating the last part of it, you know, and with your Ts, and your Ds, and ‘do you understand?’” and do things like that where you’re over-exaggerating the word and they have to over-exaggerate the syllable. So, they’ll do that and they’ll do it sarcastically a lot of times but I want them to understand. And then I’ll say, “Good! That was great. Just keep doing that,” and they sort of understand that the theatre sort of swallows those sounds. And so, even though they’re on stage and they think it’s being over-exaggerated and it sounds stupid to them, us sitting out in the audience, you don’t notice at all. And so, that’s an important thing for them to learn about that.
Lindsay: Do you ever videotape them and then show them?
Forrest: No, I haven’t done that as much. I’ve tried it a few times and it is effective. It’s something that I don’t do as often as I should. It’s been something I’ve been thinking about doing more often just because of the accessibility of technology now that I have, you know, the teachers, everyone in our school now, all the teachers have their own iPad. So, you know, that’s something now I can bring into the theatre and just quickly videotape them and then turn around and show it and say, “This is what you look like.” And I wasn’t able to do that before. I mean, I could come in and videotape it but then it was a process where you’d have to bring them to another room and hook it up to the TV and what-not. So, I think with technology it’s going to make things a lot easier and I think it’s something that I’ll be exploring more in the future. It’s a great idea because, in their mind, they think they’re doing something that they’re not.
Lindsay: I find that where students lose actually both articulation and their speeding up so they’ve got that one-two punch in there is when they’re right in the middle of an emotional scene, right? And they’re just being so emotional and yet all communication is lost. Have you ever had students do that?
Forrest: Yeah, and a lot of it is nervousness, too. They’re so nervous that they’re just going through the lines. Because I’m a speech coach as well and the goal is, you know, we always find a piece or a cutting that is so long, let’s say it’s six minutes long, and by the end of the season, I want them up to seven minutes with the same piece. So, it’s the goal to find the pauses and to experiment, and it always works, too. It always ends up getting longer and longer and longer because they know where to slow down and where to add add effectively with those pauses. And I know that with the scripts too, you know, in Minnesota, for the competitive plays, you can’t go over thirty-five minutes or you’re disqualified in the competitions. So, I always pick a play that’s running about twenty to twenty-five minutes in length, and by the end of the show, we’re pushing thirty-five because of pauses and what-not.
Lindsay: My biggest piece of advice for directors out there who are picking competition pieces is exactly that. Pick a piece that is at least ten minutes less than your cut-off time so that you never have those problems. You never have to rush, you never have to worry about audience reaction, putting them overtime. You just work the play.
Forrest: Exactly. It never fails. That’s one of the things I’ve learned as a director, that your initial time, that first read-through time, it’s always going to be ten to fifteen minutes longer than that by the end.
Craig: Yeah, and I was a victim of that in high school where our show went overtime and we knew that we were close and there’s nothing like that stress of being on stage and doing a show, but at the same time, seeing the director walking back and forth in the wings with the stopwatch in his hands. Everyone was just panicking and then we still went overtime. And another show, this is interesting, another show in the same festival, they were going overtime and they just stopped the show at the time limit. They just turned off the lights and ended the show.
Forrest: I’ve created early out scenarios before.
Craig: Who wants that though?
Forrest: I know but, you know, like, if you’re cutting it so close and you don’t want to cut anything, and it’s never gotten to that point but we’ve had to run emergency cut-off scenarios where the people in the booth will be timing and they’ll do, like, some sort of light cue to signify to the actors that we have to wrap it up, quickly.
Lindsay: It’s like your emergency response scenario that you have to practice at school.
Forrest: And we do, we would practice it. It was actually during A Deep Poetic Journey Into Something was when we had to do that. We had to come up with emergency stops because we were starting to push the time on it.
Lindsay: Okay. So, ah! You’ve done the perfect segue. So, let’s talk about that! So, you directed the first production of A Deep Poetic Journey Into Something.
Lindsay: So, what was that like, first of all, to bring your own script to life?
Forrest: Well, I’ve been doing that for a long time. I think it’s been fortunate for me to be, you know, for one, I’m writing for teenagers and I’m writing for youth groups and so what perfect opportunity to be a theatre director in a high school where you can basically workshop your own work every year. And I don’t do originals every year but, when I do, I just think it’s really fortunate that I can do that. It’s definitely nerve-racking because you never know. As a writer, there’s always that self-doubt about whether or not it’s actually good or not and so you have to kind of go through that every time. But then, once you start doing the public performances and getting feedback, it becomes extremely helpful because then you can make changes and that’s the great liberty about doing your own work because you can change lines and you can do all kinds of stuff to the play that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to do if you were going to do someone else’s show.
Lindsay: All right. So, just give a little brief, teeny tiny synopsis. We have your main character in your play, Jane, and she’s basically going through a crisis of self, yeah?
Forrest: Yeah. She just feels like she’s sort of trapped in this box and she wants to break out of the box and be different and be cool. It’s really about she just doesn’t know who she is and we use that sort of block metaphor as sort of a vehicle throughout the show because she’s trapped in these blocks and we have shadows that signify that as well.
Lindsay: Yeah. So, one of the things that you used when you were staging it was the use of shadows – you have shadow screens and then actors behind. Did you always know you wanted to use shadow screens?
Forrest: Yeah. Well, I always wanted to do a play with shadows because it had started with, at one point, I directed the one-act play, The Veldt by Ray Bradbury, and we had a rear projection on that because, if you’re familiar with that play or not, it takes place in this room that’s computerized so it creates these sort of living pictures on the wall. And so, we used rear projection to do that and we have a scene where they were arguing behind the screen and the father, as he’s yelling at the kids, he gets bigger and bigger and bigger with the shadow, and then the kids got smaller and smaller and smaller. And, ever since that scene, then was like, “I would love to do a show where I can do even more of that,” and it just sort of happened to fit in with the other ideas that I was having.
Lindsay: So, how did you direct your students to act behind a shadow screen?
Forrest: Oh, that was tough. We started right away. We had the shadow screens right away and it was a lot of just experimentation about what can we make for images and what can we do, and they had to understand how to move with the light because, if you move closer to the light, you get bigger, and if you move further away from the light, you get smaller. We’d have kids that would move behind the curtain and then other kids would come out in front and watch it so they could understand – if I’m standing here, this is what I look like. It’s just a lot of experimentation in the beginning because I didn’t even know some of the images that I was going to use and so it all kind of came through the rehearsal process.
Craig: Technical question! Did you build these screens yourself?
Lindsay: That was my question!
Forrest: Yeah, I did. It was actually pretty easy. It was just muslin. I bought muslin and had someone sew – they hung on bars, PVC pipe, that’s all I made, and made stands out of PVC pipe and hung them up. It was really easy to make.
Lindsay: So, basically, did you just make a frame of PVC and then hung the muslin on the pipes like that?
Forrest: Yeah, the top of the muslin, they had sewn a pocket.
Lindsay: A sleeve.
Forrest: Yeah, a sleeve. Thank you.
Forrest: And we were able to slip through the bar, and I had three screens and it basically covered the entire stage. And, yeah, it was three squares and they were eight by eight.
Lindsay: Each square was eight by eight?
Lindsay: What light did you use?
Craig: Affordable as heck, right?
Forrest: Yup! I had PAR cans. I just had three PARs and just set them in the back and that was it. I built these little wooden triangles that they could sit on so that they slanted up and they kind of shot up towards because I found that, if it was shooting straight forward, it was actually shooting, the lights were so strong it was shooting through the fabric and right into the audience and that was uncomfortable for people that would be sitting in the audience. So, I had to put them on the floor and then I shot them up at a 45-degree angle.
Lindsay: Do you think that, because it seems like you do a lot of trial-and-error with your work, do you think that sort of leads into your students’ understanding about really what the rehearsal process is all about? That they know that you have to try and fail and try and fail?
Forrest: Yeah, and they get used to that. It’s always funny with the new kids that come in because, you know, I’ll set the initial blocking and then I’ll change something and then they’ll look at the script and they’ll say, “Yeah, but you had me moving here and doing this,” and I say, “Well, yes, but now I’m changing it.” It’s funny that it happened the other day and one of the older students sort of looked at her and commented, “Get used to it,” because they all knew that that’s what happens. So, they just get used to my method, I guess.
Lindsay: So, we’re actually coming up to the end of our time and I wanted to talk about you writing for students. Is that something that you just, did you fall into it because you’re a teacher and you were frustrated with plays? Have you always been a writer? Why is it that you write for teens?
Forrest: Well, you hit it on the head right there. I was so frustrated with, when I first started finding scripts that teenagers could do, and I used to have the philosophy that, “Why should students be doing plays about adults when they have no understanding of what it means to be in that situation or to be an adult to begin with?”
Lindsay: That’s always been my philosophy, too.
Forrest: And so, I wanted to find more and more plays that could deal with that and it just, I don’t know if it was me or what, but I just felt like there was nothing out there, and then if it was, it was so select. So, I just decided, and I’ve been writing all my life anyway so I just decided that I would tailor or just start writing stuff that would tailor the kids’ needs and that would be about teenagers.
Lindsay: And so, where did A Deep Poetic Journey Into Something come from?
Forrest: It was a mixture of images and ideas. Basically, the idea of wanting to do a shadow play and then the idea of a teenager struggling with self-identity or trying to figure out who they were and, you know, it’s just a combination of things. There were so many things that went into creating that play, it was like ten different things came from all over that kind of created that show.
Lindsay: And you just sort of harnessed it?
Forrest: Yeah, pretty much. That play was definitely an interesting process about how it got created. And then, once I cast it, I mean, I didn’t even know who was going to play the main character and then once I picked our lead character, then I actually started changing the script more to tailor her and what she could do. One of the great things is I found out that she could cry on command so there was the scene where her father dies and it was a pretty powerful scene because she could make it work.
Lindsay: What was the audience response?
Forrest: There was a lot of sniffling, yeah, yeah. It was great. A lot of sniffling in the audience because they could identify with her emotionally and there were a lot of teenagers, I got so many compliments from that show from teens that identified with her, and she got a lot of compliments too – kids coming up that she didn’t even know that said, you know, “You were so great and it reminds me of me so much.” I was fortunate enough that play made it to the state competition in Minnesota when I did it and I got emails from students afterwards. So, it really resonated a lot with kids and I’ve never had a reaction like that before. There’s something about that play, I think, that just sort of tapped into how they feel.
Lindsay: Well, that’s the mark, I think, of a really great youth play is that, when you are hearing from the students themselves. I always know that it’s a tricky line because we write stuff that has to resonate both with teachers and with students because it’s the teachers who, you know, buy the plays. But when you can get a student who says, “I want to do this play,” and, really, it’s a real mark of pride for me.
Forrest: Yeah, it was a big accomplishment. It’s actually one of my favorite shows that I’ve written from a personal standpoint. I’m glad you took it.
Lindsay: Yeah, I was just about to say we’re glad to have it! It’s awesome!
What do you think, Craig?
Craig: I think that’s good. What I’m thinking right now is I’m so glad that Forrest made it.
Forrest: Yes, I am too. I was getting worried there for a while.
Craig: You were?
Lindsay: I was like, “All right, vamp for forty-five minutes, all right, here we go! Put on my tap shoes!”
All right! Thank you everyone for joining and thank you so much for your questions! I think that we are going to, we liked seeing what you guys need and what you guys are asking and that means that we can take it and, you know, do things with it and hopefully, you know, make your lives a little bit easier. And, all right, go out and enjoy the rest of your Saturday!
I’m out, Lindsay Price. How about you, Craig?
by Lindsay Price
Help students take their show from first audition to opening night with The Student Director’s Handbook. This easy-to-use ebook is full of guidelines, tips and templates designed to help students create a vision, circumvent problems and organize rehearsals on their way to a successful production.