Sometimes you want to do a show on a tough subject matter. Sometimes your administration doesn’t want you to. On our Drama Teacher Podcast, teacher Chris Evans shared his experience and insights about producing a play on gun violence (Clowns with Guns). Here’s his advice.
Tip #1 Never make it a surprise. Communicate.
“The doors to the theatre have always been open.”
It’s critical to communicate up front with as many stakeholders as you need to: administration, teachers, parents. Give people the opportunity to ask questions, so they can understand what’s behind the material. Invite them to rehearsals, encourage discussion. If you need to ask permission, then ask. Don’t surprise administrators or staff with something you know is controversial.
Communication provides the opportunity to educate everyone on the reasons WHY you want to do a particular play or try a particular genre. Maybe it’s about developing your actors’ range, or about linking to a current event or promoting media literacy. Plan ahead, prepare your thoughts, and be open and honest in your communication from the start.
Tip #2 Embrace the audience reaction.
“I tell the kids in my class–if your audience walks out apathetic, then why do it? If they walk out angry, sad, happy, and humming the tunes, then you’ve won.”
A difficult play might mean an offended audience member. If you believe in the material you’re working with and its importance, then consider the ‘offense’ the result of an engaged audience.
Maybe it offends them in the moment, but makes them stop and think about the subject material in a different way. Maybe it prompts a discussion in a classroom about a genre or subject matter. Maybe it reaches the one person in the audience who really needed to connect with something that spoke to them.
Tip #3 Be prepared to hear “no.”
It’s equally important to respect the other side–to respect that people are going to disagree with your choice or your opinion of why you want to address difficult content in a production.
School administrators have a duty to protect and represent the community, the teachers, the students. Some will be willing to take risks and some won’t. Some won’t be ready today but may be ready next semester or next year.
If you hear “no,” have a plan B. For example, suggest performing a monologue from the show instead of the entire show. Keep the lines of communication open and look for a compromise that moves things forward.
If you feel passionately about taking on difficult material, then persevere. Continue to ask, not tell. Continue to communicate. Embrace audience reaction. Always be on the look-out for creative ways to tackle difficult subject matter in theatre.