Episode 93: Directing the Non-Traditional Play
High school director Ray Palasz talks about directing Drum Taps, a theatrical adaptation of Walt Whitman’s poetry. Why is struggle an important tool in his directing process?
Welcome to TFP The Theatrefolk podcast, the place to be for drama teachers, drama students and theatre educators everywhere. I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
We are now heading into the Christmas season! It’s December, so it’s now officially all right to listen to Christmas carols, hang your lights and put up decorations. What that stuff happens in in November, just weirds me out. Worse – when you go into a store before Halloween and there are Christmas decorations out? Why? Why? But I digress.
Everyone gets a little, or maybe a lot busy this time of year and here at Theatrefolk Global headquarters, we do too. So we’re re-visiting some of our previous podcasts during December.
This is a replay of Episode 93, directing the Non-Traditional Play with teacher Ray Palasz.
You can find it in the show notes for the replay of episode 93at theatrefolk.com/episode93.
What’s so great about this episode is how much the students in Ray’s story were not expected to succeed – and that didn’t stop Ray. The number one thing I learn from teachers is how students will rise to the occasion. Students are going to perform to whatever expectations you set. And, if you set a low expectation of your students, that’s what they’re going to give to you.
Let’s hear what Ray has to say with his situation and his students and his very high bar of expectation he has for them.
Lindsay: All right! Here we are on the Theatrefolk Podcast and I am overjoyed to talk to Ray Palasz today.
Lindsay: How are you?
Ray: Pretty good! How are you doing?
So, let’s start out. If you could tell everybody where you are in the world?
Ray: Okay. I am one of the theatre directors at Lake Central High School which is in Saint John, Indiana. We are in the northwest corner of the state, about 35 minutes from Downtown Chicago. In fact, when I look out my classroom window because of our elevation and I’m on a third floor, on a clear day I can actually see the skyline of Chicago so it’s kind of cool.
Lindsay: How awesome to have that sort of in your backyard!
Ray: Exactly, yeah.
Lindsay: Are you able to access it? Do you see a lot of theatre?
Ray: Yeah, my girlfriend and I, we probably go see about four or five shows a year up there and I have some friends from college that do shows up there and, every once in a while, I try to get up there when I can to see what they’re doing. So, I definitely take advantage of it and I know some of my students do as well so it’s really nice.
Lindsay: Cool. So, how long have you been a teacher?
Ray: This is my tenth year.
Lindsay: And what got you into it?
Ray: You know, I had some really good inspirational directors as a child growing up. When I was in middle school, I had people who really directed me well – a guy by the name of Tom Witting who got me in my first show when I didn’t make the basketball team in sixth grade and then we did a musical together.
And then, the next year, I had another amazing woman, Gloria Kijewski – she got me through seventh and eighth grade. And then, I had a couple of really great directors – Ann Witting and Henry Hertz – in high school.
And I grew up outside of Chicago so this is all in the same area. These are all people that I know and they got me into theatre and developed me even more as an actor and as a director.
Actually, it’s kind of ironic because the woman, Gloria Kijewski, she directed me in seventh and eighth grade, next year, her daughter will be a freshman in our program here at Lake Central High School so it’s kind of like coming full circle.
Ray: Yeah. So, I had a lot of really good directors growing up who inspired me, who gave me some good opportunities at roles, and developed me well, and then that carried on through my experiences about plays in university.
Lindsay: What do you think about their teaching really stuck with you?
Ray: You know, I think it’s the fact that I was exposed to a variety of works. You know, all throughout high school, we did musicals, we did straight plays, we did contemporary pieces, we did some Shakespeare. So, I got a lot of experience with different types of theatre.
They always had fun with what they did, but they impressed upon me a really strong work ethic that, yes, it’s fun and the end result can be a lot of fun when you look back on it but, you know, it’s work – it’s hard work at times – and there are times when, you know, we’re not going to be laughing a lot because we’re really going to be focused in on what we’re doing. And so, that really just inspired me and I love the fact that the power that theatre can have.
I remember, in Illinois where I grew up, they had statewide theatre competitions and one of them is Reader’s Theatre and, junior year, we did an adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s story, Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, about him going to prom, and it was hilarious and it was so much fun to put together.
And what, really, I love the most about it, it made me realize the power that theatre has is, when we were competing in the final round of the state finals and we’re performing in a classroom setting and, right in front of us is a long table with the five judges, and the judges were laughing so hard that they were slapping the table because it brought up so much memories for them and we had brought all of that out for them. And so, that was sort of the high end of it.
And then, at the other end of the spectrum, being able to do other types of shows where we really brought out the emotional part of things, I had the pleasure of working on a production of The Laramie Project when I was doing my student teaching, and even though I didn’t have a lot of say directorial-wise, just observing the process and observing the effect that it had on teenagers across the state of Indiana was really powerful.
So, I’ve really become big into, you know, “How can we take a piece of theatre and really impact the audience in some way?”
Lindsay: Awesome! Well, let’s get right into it. So, is that, would you say, your prime directive is as a high school theater director?
Ray: When I pick shows, I want to pick shows that are going to give students an opportunity to play different types of characters from what they may have played the last couple of years. But then, also give them a chance to do a show that brings something different to the audience.
When I pick a one-act, it’s for a competition so I need to pick something that is going to have a bit of a competitive edge and be a little bit different and that actually was one of the big things that the judges at both our regional and our state competitions said about it. In fact, one of the judges actually wrote on the score sheet, “Thank you for giving us something different.”
Lindsay: Ah! Well, we should mention that the play, you were talking about Drum Taps, right?
Lindsay: Yes. So, Drum Taps is my adaptation of Walt Whitman’s Civil War poetry. So, what sparked you about just that it was very challenging and different, if I might say so?
Ray: That’s part of it. Actually, it was a beautiful thing. Just like I said earlier, you know, when I was in high school, we did it in reader’s theatre in Illinois so I knew that and I really loved it, and the woman who teaches our acting classes had had the students dabble with it a little bit the year before so I knew the kids had a bit of an introduction to it.
But then, also, I used to teach a lot of American literature several years ago and we taught Walt Whitman when we talked about the Transcendentalists and I really love that era and those times of poets and what Walt Whitman had to say.
And so, when I saw this script, it was almost like the perfect storm of theatre for me. I had the Reader’s Theatre which I was really wanting to try to get into over the next couple of years with the kids and it had the American literature stuff that I hadn’t had much chance to really work with in the classroom. So, it was both of those things, and just the way that the poems were laid out to create this really nice arc of a story about the impact that war has.
And, the more we worked with the show, the more I realized that there’s a lot of parallels from what Walt Whitman’s talking about in his poetry back in the 1860s and what we experienced over the last twelve years or so as we’ve been fighting wars in the Middle East. You know, people went into, you know, the Middle East ten years ago after 9/11, you know, really excited and confident and, you know, “We’re going to defeat the enemy,” and now, here we are – very war-weary and wanting something different and realizing that, you know, war is hell and I like the way that the script was laid out like that.
Lindsay: You know what’s actually really horrific is that I’m doing a World War I project right now and it’s the exact same thing. I’m reading letters and it’s the exact same thing of that “We’re going to go! We’re going to go to war! We’re going to give them hell!” and then, no, it’s not. And I totally agree, that’s what’s so remarkable about Whitman is that it’s an experience that we don’t seem to be learning from.
Ray: Well, so much time passes by and we forget about it and then it’s, you know, “Oh, yeah, that’s right. It is pretty bad, isn’t it?”
Lindsay: So, how do you approach a non-traditional play as a director?
Ray: Well, the first rehearsal that we had, we sat down and read through the script. One of the great things I love about Theatrefolk’s website – if I may plug you a little bit here – is that you provide access to excerpts of the script. And so, one of the things over the summer when I had announced what the show was, you know, on our Facebook page, I put, “If you want to read the excerpt of the script, here you go. Here you go.”
And then, when the school year started, we still had a few weeks before auditions so I said, you know, “You can go ahead and read. You know, I’ve got copies of the script. Go ahead and check them out.” But only a couple of my cast members had actually really read the script. Others had just read his poetry in general and so knew a little bit about him.
So, we read through it and I didn’t really preface it with much of anything. I let the actors kind of be shocked, be surprised, be confused by the way it was laid out, especially with the chorus type lines. And then, I explained a little bit about what Reader’s Theatre was about because some of them had seen the Reader’s Theatre production from the year before.
Lindsay: And why don’t you just throw in a brief of what you feel your definition of Reader’s Theatre is?
Ray: Oh, gosh. My definition of Reader’s Theatre is that it’s theatre that really breaks down the fourth wall and brings the audience on to the stage to experience the story. And so, everything we really did was designed to pull the audience in to make them feel like they’re a part of that war and the experiences that these soldiers were going through.
So, as we read through the script and they, you know, had the nervous giggles about the challenges of getting these lines said clearly and together and in unison, I really put the script in their hands. I knew some of the things I wanted to see in some of the pieces, but I said, “I want you to just experiment with it. You know, poetry’s meant to be read out loud so read it out loud, find those key words, verbs in there that indicate some sort of action you might be doing, or the character you might be playing, and try some things out.”
What was interesting is, you know, we had four actors in our show and then we had five technicians and we all were at every single rehearsal. And so, I had actually the technicians out in the audience. They were watching and we would do one excerpt or we would look at one poem, they would play around with it, and then the actors would say, “Well, let’s try doing this. Let’s see what we do here.” And I would ask them some questions about choices they made and characters they were trying to go to play. And then, the technicians would chime in with, “Well, you know, here’s how it looks from the audience’s perspective.”
So, we had sort of that immediate feedback from an audience by way of our technicians and that’s really how we approached it because I didn’t want it to be me playing this one-man game of chess with these actors on the stage. I wanted them to really absorb the literature and really get into the owning what they were doing on stage and make it more natural.
Lindsay: Why did you think that was important for a play like this?
Ray: Well, to me…
Lindsay: Or any play.
Ray: You know, one of the plays I direct in general. But, I think, for a play like this, it’s really important because it’s poetry and the actors need to be able to understand it.
And, you know, we did some book work, we looked at lines, and I had, you know, we had dictionaries out and I actually had a copy of, you know, Leaves of Grass out, and we were looking at the comparisons and what the words were saying.
But it was just so important for them to really understand and make those discoveries and struggle with it. I mean, they did struggle with it and there were times where I could tell, you know, after going to school for six and a half hours and coming to rehearsal for two hours that, you know, sometimes by an hour in, I could tell their eyes were glazing over, their brains were a bit worn out because we had everything going on and then they were tackling this stuff.
But it was really important for them to struggle with it because, I think, too often, I see students who just expect the answer to be given to them and, you know, even in my English classes, they just want me to tell them what the poem is about, they want me to tell them what the story is about, and I really wanted to force them to make those discoveries on there, and they even had conversations with themselves.
There were times where, you know, one person would start talking about a choice they made and then another actor would start talking about responding and chiming in. Also, they had a conversation where I’m just sitting there, big old smile on my face, just saying, “This is why I love directing,” because I want them to make those discoveries, especially for a piece like this because it is so tough. You know, I was there to catch them wherever they might stumble, but I think it was really important for them to grasp that on their own and make those discoveries on their own. And they get it. I think they really matured so much as actors.
You know, this was our contest piece and I always say that my contest shows are like the varsity football team – you know, you’re taking the best of the best, and these four actors that showed up were the only four actors I had audition. They were amazing and most of the people, when I told them afterwards at the competitions that, you know, these were the only four that showed up and I told them some of their backgrounds, they said, “Are you kidding me?” because I have one of them as a freshman this year and the other three have never really had big roles before.
One is a senior who did some supporting roles but never really had the opportunity to shine as a lead role and the other two were girls who were sophomores and, of course, in high school, if you’re a girl in theatre, you know, it’s a cat fight to get those parts because you have so much competition and neither of them up to set point had had any major roles either – they had a lot of walk-ons.
And so, to be able to see them develop and struggle with it really made me proud to see that they could do it and they gained, I think, a new sense of confidence in themselves as performers as a result.
Lindsay: Well, when you talk about the power of theatre, that’s it right there, isn’t it?
Ray: It is, it really is, yeah.
Lindsay: That’s wonderful. That’s amazing. I’m sitting here with a big smile on my face going, “Ah!” See, those are my favorite stories. My favorite stories are always the underdog stories. I always want to hear about how somebody’s grown because of their participation, you know, as opposed to someone who can sing, dance, and act up a storm.
Ray: Yes. And then, we had the one newspaper that covered us about a month ago as we were getting ready for a benefit performance and one of the actors was responding to questions about, you know, what did they learn, how have they grown, and they said, “You know, it’s amazing because it’s actually helped me in my English classes as we’ve been writing stuff and reading poetry and I have this better sense of what I’m doing in there because I grappled with it on the stage,” and, to me, like you said, that’s the power of theatre – it’s more than just an entertainment venue. It’s life.
Lindsay: Oh, 100 percent How did you deal with, because it’s poetry and it’s really easy to make it a static presentation and I really tried in the script to inject as much as possible, but how did you deal with the physicality? Making sure that there was some action on stage?
Ray: Well, first of all, we looked at trying to figure out who these four actors were going to be as people in the war. What were they doing before the war? And it took a couple of weeks for them to really figure it out and it came in the first couple of poems in the piece, you know, that one was a farmer, that one was a doctor, one was a scholar.
And so, they started to discover that and then that kind of trailed into how things went. You know, the scholar became the infantry leader in a few of the pieces. And so, it started with figuring out who they were as human beings before the war and then, you know, how did it affect each of those people as they were going through the war? You know, the scholar experienced it a little bit differently than the farmer, than the doctor, and so that was really kind of how we worked from there.
We did bring props into it. We brought Civil War type rifle pieces. We had, you know, a book for the scholar. We made a wooden crate with rope handles that we put a blanket into. And so, we had some props here and there to help signify some things and then we played around with pantomime as well to really act out what they’re doing.
There’s the wound-dresser, for instance, where they’re bandaging up the wounded, you know, we spent a lot of time thinking about how are you doing this? And, you know, they struggle with pantomiming, you know, because there are four people, I said, “Okay, pair up,” and we went and we got some rolls of paper towels and I said, you know, “Here’s the motion you are going to do over and over again, and you’re going to practice it on each other until it’s in your muscle memory.”
And it was kind of funny because we were doing this is in a hallway because we couldn’t be in the auditorium at the time and we had some people walking by who weren’t in theatre and they just kind of were staring at us like, “Well, that’s interesting.” But, you know, it helped them understand what they need to do with the pantomime.
Lindsay: Well, and what a fantastic thing to go, “Okay. We don’t know how to do this. Well, let’s do it,” as opposed to not doing it, like, letting them struggle with it.
Lindsay: Love it. Okay. So, what would you say was your most challenging moment in the rehearsal process? What was the one that stood out that sticks out in your memory?
Ray: I think the whole thing where just – and it’s one thing that we still, every once in a while, struggle with even at this point of the process – it’s getting the lines right.
You know, students have this habit of approximating lines every once in a while and, in pro script, even though I tell my actors, “No, that is still wrong. You need to say it the way the playwright wrote it because they wrote it a certain way for a reason,” in poetry, it’s even more important because there are certain words that Whitman chose to use and you can’t just say it a certain way the way you want to. You have to say it the way he wrote it.
So, we did struggle with that and we still, you know, look at scripts every once in a while when we’re in rehearsal and I go, “Okay. That’s not the line.” So, that’s really I think the thing that, overall, you know, has been our biggest struggle because it is poetry.
Lindsay: Was it just repeating and repeating and repeating? Making it muscle memory that way, too? Is that how you worked it?
Ray: Yes, that and, you know, their assignment, especially early on, was every night you take twenty minutes and you go over your lines and you read them out loud. You know, I said, “If you read it in your head, you’re not moving the mouth and the tongue and the articulators and so you’re not really practicing it full force. You have to actually say the words out loud so your mouth and your tongue and all of your articulators are understanding how it is supposed to go,” and that has really helped in terms of getting the lines right.
Lindsay: I think that’s a great piece of advice. Okay. And now, what was your most rewarding moment? When did you know that it was all going to work out and come together?
Ray: Well, we had twelve rehearsals before we went into regional competition which I didn’t even realize that it was only twelve rehearsals until after we performed at the regionals and they did a really great job and they were talking with some people from another school and they go, “Wow! That was really good. How long have you been working on that thing?” and they go, “We only had twelve rehearsals,” and they’re like, “What? Only twelve rehearsals?”
I don’t even know when I felt it was going to come together. I always knew that this group had the potential, but I would say probably about halfway through the process, I was really getting a sense that this was going to happen and it wasn’t necessarily because of what they were doing on the stage. It was because of the people that I was working with.
You know, so often in high school theatre, you get the division between actors and technicians that creeps up or you get the issue of lead actors with big egos that look down upon the little people in the ensemble and that didn’t happen.
I remember one day, I was doing some one-on-one work with two of the girls and they came to me and they said, “You know, there’s some people who don’t think we’re going to be able to repeat because last year we took first at regionals and they think it was a fluke,” and they were obviously upset about it so they let me know and I said, “Look,” I go, “We can do this. There’s not a doubt in my mind we can do this.”
I said, “You know, I don’t have to do this show but I chose to do it because you guys came out for it and you’re a great group of people personally and I want to do this show with you guys,” and that was a little bit before halfway through the process. But, a couple of days later as they’re rehearsing, I’m just watching all this happen and I’m thinking, “Everybody’s just like, they’re doing their own thing, they’re supporting each other, they’re really wanting this thing to come together.
I think I told you in an email earlier on that, you know, we originally wanted to do the large cast version which, you know, I was hoping to have about ten or twelve people in it and that I only got four people and your small cast version calls for five. So, we had a great laugh that first rehearsal trying to split up the fifth person’s lines. But it was just the attitude of everybody that I really got the sense about halfway through that, even though at first I think they were feeling a little bit timid and nervous that this may not really work out, by about the sixth rehearsal, everybody was feeling like, “We can do this! This is something that we can do and we are going to be proud of and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got and, even if we don’t make it on to the state conference, we’re going to go out there and give them hell.”
I think that was the most rewarding moment for me because, as you said earlier and I’m the same way too, believing in the underdog – really trying to bring that person who maybe doesn’t get the lead roles and really working with them to develop them. I love it when they get on stage and it makes the audience go, “Where have you been and why have you not been doing theatre?” and then they go, “I have been doing theatre. I just haven’t had a big role before.” Those are the moments I like the most.
Lindsay: Sometimes, all they need to hear is that someone believes that they can do it.
Lindsay: I truly believe that – teenagers – they just want someone to tell them that they’ve done a good job.
Lindsay: And that’s why, sometimes, it just breaks my heart, particularly in adjudication situations where someone feels it necessary to rip someone to shreds and I’m like, “You know, I think there was a different way to do that,” and they will rise to the level and the expectation that you set.
Ray: And one of the things that we did this year in Indiana that we haven’t done before – as far as I can remember – is, after each show performed, the judges actually sat at one part of the theatre and the cast and crew came over – anybody else who wanted to come listen could come listen – and the judges would sit and respond and talk about what they saw and the things that they liked and the things that they thought needed more work.
The great thing was our judges were very good about not saying, “Oh, that stunk,” but to say, “You know, if you want to make this better, here’s what you can try,” and actually offering suggestions. I think that’s really important because, you know, it is educational theatre when it comes down to it and they’re developing, they’re learning – they don’t know all the tricks of the trade and a high school director can’t give them all the tricks of the trade – and certainly not in twelve rehearsals – and so, having that outside feedback of somebody who can say, “You know what? I’ve done this kind of thing before, try this. This might work,” and then, when it actually works, it’s like, “Yeah, see? They knew what they were talking about!”
So, that’s what I love about what I get to as an educator – seeing that change and that development. I mean, I learn so much even from just listening to the adjudicators.
Okay. One last question. So, what advice would you give to teachers who might be scared by a non-traditional script or one of those who might, “Oh, my students could never do this,” – what advice would you give to them?
Ray: Take the risk. You know, we talk about acting as taking risks on stage. Take the risk! Have confidence in your actors.
Actually, in hindsight, I don’t know if I would have had the kind of experience I did have if I had the large cast version and if I had all those people. It just worked really well with a small group. But the idea of taking that risk, playing around with it, and it may not turn out the way you wanted it to when all is said and done, but then you’ve got something to work on for next time.
When I was in college, one of my professors talked about theatre as basically like a science experiment and, you know, before you start production, you make some hypothesis about how you think this is going to go. And then, you know, the production is the procedure through the whole process and then, when you’re all done, that’s when you’ve got your results from the performances and you make your conclusions.
As long as you approach it from “no production is ever a failure” – like, every production has results and conclusions you can draw for next time – I think that is the most important thing to keep in mind.
As long as you, as the director, have a handle on what you’re doing, just like a teacher, you know, if you have a handle on what you’re doing so you could guide the kids, they’ll follow you, you know? I’ve hinted it to the kids that next year I’m looking at doing a Shakespeare piece – actually from Theatrefolk. I came across a Shakespeare cutting that I’m really intrigued to do – and some of them would go, “Really? More poetry?” “But this is actually like going back to traditional theatre! This isn’t Reader’s Theatre and it’s different and we haven’t done Shakespeare!” and it’s like, “I know what I’m doing here.”
Take the risk That’s what I always encourage – take the risk.
Lindsay: Fantastic! That’s awesome.
Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to talk to me today.
Ray: No problem. My pleasure, Lindsay.
I just love hearing how students who aren’t supposed to succeed, who aren’t expected to succeed, and – ugh! – they just shine, shine, shine. I love it, I love it, I love it.
You can get the show notes for this episode at theatrefolk.com/episode93.
So, before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Drum Taps – very much a non-traditional piece of theatre and I’m just going to talk just a bit about my non-traditional musical, Shout, which I so dearly, dearly love. It comes in a one-act version and a full-length, and it has to do with what happens when you keep feelings inside.
In the full-length, we have four teenagers and we’re following four stories and each teenager is just they have something very specific going on inside of them that they don’t talk about. You know, whether it’s family issues or characters who want to break up with each other and they won’t say the words. When you’re feeling alone and you keep everything bottled up inside, these are the stories of Shout and what happens when you don’t let it out.
The music was designed specifically for student performers. It was written by Kristin Gauthier who spent many years performing professionally – she toured with Les Mis – and then went into the classroom so she knows both worlds and she knows how to write music for students so that they are able to sing it.
Head on over to theatrefolk.com/shout. We’ve got the full libretto you can read. You can hear the music. You can watch students perform. You can watch students talk about their experience performing Shout. And just that whole notion of expectation and raising the bar and I just remember the first production that did it, I asked a student why they thought that they could do it and, very clearly, she said, “It was because our teacher believed in us and told us we could do it and we thought, ‘Yeah! Why not? We can do this.’” Theatrefolk.com/shout.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast?
We post new episodes every Wednesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk. You can find us on the Stitcher app and you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search on the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.