Episode 211: Putting together a touring high school show
How do you put together a touring show with your students? Drama Teacher Mike Yoson and his advanced production class completed their first tour this past year. Listen in to hear the successes and struggles of this fabulous project.
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Resource Company.
I’m Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well.
Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 211. Woot, woot! And you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode211.
All right. I love starting with questions. I have so many questions for you! And then, it becomes interactive. You can answer. I can’t hear you but… well, actually, yes. Yes, I can. Of course, I can. I always hear you.
Do you have an advanced theatre class? Are you looking for a new challenge? What about a touring show? Can you imagine putting that together with your students? Eh? Yes? No? Never? Maybe?
Well, our guest today did just that, and you – lucky you – get to find out all the successes and struggles of this fabulous project.
So, let’s get to it. I’ll see you on the other side.
LINDSAY: Hello everyone!
Lindsay Price here from Theatrefolk. Thanks for joining me!
I am talking with drama teacher – Mike Yoson.
MIKE: Hello! How are you?
LINDSAY: I’m fabulous! I’m fabulous!
So, tell everybody where in the world you are.
MIKE: I am in Piscataway, New Jersey. That’s the central area of New Jersey, about an hour outside of New York.
LINDSAY: Very cool, very cool.
How long have you been a drama teacher?
MIKE: This is my third year – fairly new.
LINDSAY: That’s okay. That’s all right. We know lots of people who are new.
What was it about teaching? What drew you to teaching drama?
I grew up being the biggest drama kid ever. I actually went to school for acting. I went to school in New York for that. And then, after I lived there for four years, I came back to New Jersey and I ended up working at a school for students with multiple disabilities as an aide. It was a school that I’d worked at in the past and I ended up having a full-year job there.
Through my time at that school, I realized, “Hey! I think teaching is a really cool thing to do and I really enjoy it.” So, I decided to combine my two passions.
I went back to school, got my theatre ed certifications, and started teaching high school.
LINDSAY: Have you been at the same school since you started?
MIKE: Yes, Piscataway High School.
LINDSAY: But it’s a very specific shift, eh?
MIKE: Oh, yeah.
LINDSAY: To go from “I want to be a performer” to “I want to be in the classroom.”
What do you think it is about being in the classroom that that’s the thing that you wanted to pursue?
MIKE: Well, I loved my high school theatre days. I look back on it so passionately. I just think it was so much fun.
Once I started delving into the teaching, I realized how cool it was to expose kids to theatre for the first time or even develop their skills if they were “theatre kids” from birth like I was. Just to see them grow and develop and find a new passion or just find a place where they can grow more confidence. That’s what I love about teaching theatre.
LINDSAY: You’ve been doing it for three years now. What’s one thing that was pretty unexpected about teaching that they didn’t really prepare you for when you went to school?
LINDSAY: Unless you had an amazing teacher, unless you had an amazing school.
MIKE: I had great professors and everything.
I guess the biggest – how do I say it? – obstacle starting teaching was that not every kid is super passionate about what I’m teaching or what we’re doing in class. My first year specifically because, when I came into my position, the theatre classes moved to the visual and performing arts department, so they were taught by an English teacher prior.
There was all these new classes that they could take, so these kids got placed into the class or some of them took them but some of them were totally not into what we were doing. So, kind of finding that balance of teaching theatre but also trying to make it very relevant for them, too. For the kids that weren’t super on the Broadway or film track, I found that challenging when I first started.
LINDSAY: It’s so funny, eh? Because I think everybody loves theatre.
MIKE: I know, right?
LINDSAY: Everybody is into it and they just want to sing in the halls. I’m not even in the classroom full-time! I just go in to do a little bit of playwriting, a little bit of this, a little bit of workshopping, and I’m always like, “What do you mean you don’t want to be here?”
MIKE: I know, and that was really baffling at the beginning. I was like, “Why are you in this class then? There are so many other things for you to take.” You know, a lot of them suck it out. I think, by the end of the year, I always say to them, “If you can be a little bit more confident leaving this classroom, then I did my job.” That’s really what I focus on when I get a student that really doesn’t love theatre the way I do.
LINDSAY: Absolutely, eh?
That’s really the thing. There are a multitude of skills – if they choose to – that they can take away from the class.
LINDSAY: We’re here today because we’re talking about that you have had a very specific experience with your advanced drama class which I think is an awesome thing to talk about. You used one of our plays which is awesome – The Bright Blue Mailbox Suicide Note. The link is in the description.
You took your advanced class and you toured with a show. Talk about that decision first. How did that come into play?
MIKE: I guess, to back up a little bit of my history at the school, I started, I had two classes. They were supposed to be like a Level 1 and a Level 2. But, again, like I just spoke about, when I first came in, there was no real Level 1 or Level 2. It took me my first two years to kind of try to get that to a Level 1 and Level 2.
Finally, at the end of last year, I was like, “I think we’re ready for a Level 3 at this point.” So, I named the class Theatre Production Workshop. It was kind of like my advanced theatre students and a lot of them wanted to pursue acting or go to school for it, so I wanted the first half of the year to be this audition unit – like, preparing for college auditions and stuff. But I also wanted it to be very production-oriented. That’s where the thought of doing a touring production came in.
Also, I’d observed it in other districts when I was doing my teaching and saw the success that it was in those districts, so I really wanted to make that part of my program here at my high school as well.
LINDSAY: If you’re talking about how you’re going to advance, you know, what is the pinnacle of theatre? Well, it’s performing. Touring is such a unique animal.
MIKE: Yes, it was.
LINDSAY: Yes, we’re going to talk about all these things.
There’s so many moving parts and there’s so many different aspects. We’re going to go through them all. Let’s start with choosing the show.
Did you choose the show? Did your students help you choose the show? What were your elements when you needed to choose the show to tour?
MIKE: How did I choose the show? I started with an audition unit at the beginning of the year. I had them do monologues and so on and so forth, so I could see where my talent level was and what they felt comfortable with through the monologues they chose to perform and their work ethic through that entire audition unit process.
And then, what I ended up doing was I gave the kids a survey which I took from the course that you guys offer on DTA. I adapted it.
LINDSAY: Drama Teacher Academy, yes, very good – play survey.
MIKE: I ended up taking that survey. I adapted it a little bit. I wanted to see which kids were interested in definitely performing in the show who wanted to take a production role in it, or who really wouldn’t mind doing both, or didn’t care either way what they wanted to do.
I had 14 kids in the class. Most of them wanted to be in the show. I mean, there’s only 14 kids. That’s not a lot of kids, but I needed a lot of roles. So, I had started looking through DTA for that.
And then, it was really important to me – especially because this was the first year that my high school students would feel very comfortable and confident with the material that they were producing and putting on, but also appropriate for the audiences that we were going to be performing for.
With my supervisor, we decided that the 8th grade students in our district would be the best audience for us. And so, I knew we would have an 8th audience. I knew we’d have high school actors. When I came upon Bright Blue, I just felt like it was the perfect relevant play that both audience and actors were going to enjoy watching and performing.
LINDSAY: I’ll bet too, not only did you have to think about who is your audience and who are your actors but the transportation aspect – you know, the set. You can’t have a big beautiful set in a touring show.
MIKE: Yeah, definitely not.
I knew it had to be simple and I’m not the best techie drama teacher either, so I knew that what we needed to work with tech-wise and set-wise needed to be fairly simple.
And so, reading Bright Blue, I knew we could do that with boxes and we could do that with tables and little props and things here and there. Also, I knew everything had to go on a big yellow school bus to get us around, too – with all of us on it. Yeah, that definitely played into what we could produce.
LINDSAY: I spent six years in touring theatre – some children’s theatre, some other theatre. Year one, we had all these ideas about how “oh, sure, we can do everything, and it’ll be in a set.” The last year, it was literally a folding chair and a nice suit because loading and unloading, I think, is some of the most trying. You really get a Tetris because you’ve got to figure out everything is going on.
MIKE: Oh, yeah, the kids were really good at putting everything on the bus. I was like, “Okay, go, do it.”
LINDSAY: Rule number one – anything that the kids can do, make sure the kids do.
MIKE: Yeah, exactly.
LINDSAY: Very cool.
So, minimal set, flexible for your actors, you know who your audience is.
How long did you rehearse? What was that process like for you?
MIKE: I ended up picking the play early November. And then, we ended up starting rehearsals on the play mid-November. It was kind of pretty fast. And then, we performed in the very beginning of February – like, the first or second. It was fairly quick, and I think that’s one of my things for next year. It needs to be a little bit longer – the process – because I felt like we did run out of time towards the end.
LINDSAY: There’s nothing like a looming production, particularly I would say 8th grade. I think 8th grade middle schoolers might be the toughest audience.
MIKE: I know, yeah. I was a little worried about that, but they did good.
LINDSAY: The process, the procedures of touring – did you divide up the tasks? Was there a routine? Did you practice a routine? “Here’s how we’re going to load. Here’s how we’re going to set up. Here’s what we’re going to do when we get to the school.” Is that something that you did beforehand? Or was that trial and error?
MIKE: I kind of wish we had time to do something like that, but it kind of was trial and error once we actually got on the road.
To back up a little bit, because most of the kids in the class were also performing in the play, they did pull double duties. The kid playing Jake was also the head of the costume department. The girl playing Karen was the scenic department. Everybody had jobs in terms of production. They were really responsible carrying things or making sure things were in order when we were about to load or unload the bus.
But, for the most part, it was just like, “Everybody grab something. Make sure everything is on the bus. Make sure everything is there. Make sure everybody is there that’s supposed to be there and then move on to the next school.”
I think, next year, I would rehearse the load in, load out, because I felt like it did get a little messy sometimes.
LINDSAY: Yeah, I think the routine is almost a part of your show, you know?
You could even get into discussing with your students about the – not the presentation you make – your first impression that you make, particularly with a touring show because your show actually kind of starts the instant you walk into the middle school and the teachers that you talk to or the principal that you talk to and what impression are you giving when you’re setting up or you’re loading down. That’s an interesting thing to discuss, I think.
MIKE: Yeah, definitely.
Because this was the first year we were doing this, and this was the first group of kids that would have the opportunity to put something on, I made that very clear at the beginning. I was like, “We need to make a good impression because I think this is something that could continue year after year after year.” Not that if everything went wrong, it wouldn’t happen, but I really wanted them to understand the power of what we were doing – not in terms of even the play but in terms of this tradition that could continue year after year.
LINDSAY: Just think of it, in other places, you guys are an hour from New York, so maybe it’s not the same, but there’s lots of places where middle school students have no access to theatre and they don’t get to have a theatre come to their school. I have a very clear memory of being in elementary school and seeing a live performance in my gym, and that’s not something that happens very often anymore.
What a great possibility to make it an ongoing thing!
I forgot this question, so now I’m going to go back.
Because you had your students pulling double duty where they were acting and also doing something on the production side, how did that fit for them? Was it overwhelming? Or do you think they handled it well?
MIKE: It was challenging, I think, at times.
I think it’s also in the way that I planned everything. I mean, I think I did a good job but, at the same time, I think there’s definitely room for improvement in years to come.
What I ended up doing was, when we made the rehearsal schedule, I sat down with the kids that were on our stage management team, and we created a rehearsal schedule. I made sure that they included production days. We would stop rehearsing the script. “On this day, you would work in your departments and do what needed to be done.” I kind of gave them a production checklist of what each department should do and what the due dates would be. I think it worked for the first month of rehearsal.
And then, when we started to get closer to the performance, everybody ended up really wanting to work on the script and work on their characters and the scene work and stuff. I kind of felt that way, too. So, we kind of moved away from production and then we rehearsed the show. And then, probably the finishing touches of the set and the finishing touches of the program and stuff like that kind of fell on my shoulders on my free periods during the day which I kind of thought that might happen, especially the first year.
I think, next year and the years to come, definitely bring more time into the rehearsal process and to schedule more of those production days and make sure the kids are fully getting that experience in their production department because they got a really good start with it, but I kind of think the end fizzled out.
LINDSAY: Well, again, as that performance comes closer, I can totally get where they’re coming from.
What was it like for them to tour a show? To get on the bus, unload, do a show, get back on the bus, do another show? What did you observe from your students?
MIKE: I think they loved it!
After the whole process was over, we kind of had a reflection. One of the students said, “I had a great time! I really felt like I was busy, and I felt like I was important.” It was like, “Get on the bus. Unload the bus. Set up for the show. Do the show. Take everything off the stage. Put it back on the bus. Go to a new school and do it all over again.” I think they really enjoyed the experience a lot, and it’s something that, again, they’ve never had the opportunity to do before.
I think they also thought it was very cool because they were performing at their old middle schools. We have three middle schools in the district, so each school, I had some kids that were alumni of that school. I think they felt very proud to perform on the stage that they did in middle school as well.
I think that, overall, it was a good experience. I think they all enjoyed it.
They also enjoyed being out of school and being in the theatre all day, too.
LINDSAY: I’m sure!
Because it’s a little stressful, were there any interpersonal problems that came up when they were in the process of trying to put the show on and traveling with the show?
MIKE: You mean conflicts between the kids? Yeah.
I was so lucky. I said this to them at the beginning of the year. “I’m so lucky to start this class and this process with this group of 14 kids.” They were such good eggs and I had them in my other classes – either two years or one year previously. These were the top kids of each class. I was very lucky in that sense.
However, there were times when some kids – I guess one particular student didn’t necessarily want to work with their production team or had too many ideas and didn’t necessarily communicate those ideas in the best way. Some students did get annoyed at times. But I think that’s also part of the process of working with people that might have different work habits than you.
For the most part, I tried to let them handle it – unless, of course, it came to a point where they couldn’t, then I stepped in. But it really wasn’t bad at all.
LINDSAY: Just to give a sense for other teachers who might be doing this, what was your budget for this? Because I know you charged the schools to bring in the show, right?
MIKE: This is what we did. I actually am very fortunate that we were able to get the rights of the play just through my yearly budget that I get for my classes. So, we paid for the licensing and everything.
In terms of costuming, the kids used their own clothes. The show warrants that.
In terms of some scenery, we used stuff that we had in stock here, but we also made flats out of foamboard that I had material from a previous year from doing something else.
For the first year, I kind of just used what we had and just used the money that I had leftover in my yearly budget to just get all the licensing for the show.
LINDSAY: You made it part of what you had available to you.
LINDSAY: But then, you raised money as well?
MIKE: We did, yes.
We did three shows – well, one show at each middle school. And then, we did do one performance here at the high school. Again, because I didn’t need to spend any of my own money or I didn’t have to spend any of the after-school theatre activities money for the play because we just used my budget, like I said, we ended up just having a suggested donation for the high school performance.
We ended up donating all of it to a foundation for suicide prevention. We raised over $500 which was pretty awesome, and I think it made the kids really proud that not only were they putting on a work of entertainment and theatre, but it was for a greater purpose other than just what they were doing on that stage. That’s what we did this year.
It may change in the future because I feel like we possibly could charge ticket prices for our high school performance and then donate some of the money to a foundation, but this year we just donated everything.
LINDSAY: Sure. When you’re starting out, just get the show done.
MIKE: Yeah, exactly.
LINDSAY: As we’re wrapping up, you talked about a couple of challenges – more time. Can you think of a couple of other things you would like to change for the next time that you do this?
To reiterate, more time – I think I would start at least two to three weeks earlier than I did this year.
I think the second challenge was that the kids did pull double duty. Even if they didn’t receive a role in the play, they were understudying a role in the play. Everybody was playing actor and production. I think, in the future, I would try to have some kids not be part of the cast and only focus on production. I guess that’s going to depend group by group that I get each year, but I’d definitely try to separate it.
Those are the two biggest things that I feel like I definitely want to change next year.
Also, just continuing the production process further into the preparing for the show – like, not having it stop at some point and just focus on the acting. I want them to be production work focused all the way through. I think that’s one of the main lessons of the tour.
LINDSAY: And putting on a show. It’s not just the acting. It’s the whole kitten caboodle. It’s the whole process.
LINDSAY: For somebody who’s watching or listening, what would be one piece of advice that you would give a teacher for putting on a touring show?
MIKE: I’d say just pick a show that you know before you even start or cast that you could successfully put on. I felt very confident using this play, knowing the group of actors that I had and knowing my capabilities as a teacher and a director of what I could do. So, I just know, if there’s going to be bumps along the road – and also a show that can adapt to each space.
Like, each middle school had an auditorium, but every school was a little bit different. Not always did our set pieces fit behind the stage even though they weren’t huge things. It just doesn’t happen, so we had to adjust right before the show.
So, yeah, I would say, choose a play that you know you’re going to be successful with at the end of this whole process.
LINDSAY: I think adaptability is the hugest thing for touring theatre, especially if you’re going to a whole bunch of different spaces. You just never know. You could be in a gym for one show and then in a nice theatre for another.
MIKE: Yeah, absolutely.
LINDSAY: Oh, this has been lovely.
Thank you so much, Mike, for chatting with me! Thank you so much for sharing your insight on this really unique and absolutely doable project for an advanced theatre class!
MIKE: Thank you so much! It’s been a pleasure! Thank you!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Mike!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS!
It’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play!
Let me tell you about the play that Mike referenced, referred to in our conversation – The Bright Blue Mailbox Suicide Note.
This is one of my plays. It explores how a group of teenagers publicly and privately deal with the issue of suicide.
Jake, the main character, finds a suicide note in his mailbox. He doesn’t know who it’s from or to whom it is addressed. His friends speculate, joke, lose interest, while Jake becomes obsessed. He goes on a crusade to find the author of the note. Instead, he stumbles on a secret he never wanted to know.
Bright Blue is honest. It’s very straightforward. Also – this is so important to me – has humor.
Issue plays that are steeped in misery only make an audience miserable, and I have seen so many of these, and that is not the intention of an issue play.
The intention of an issue play should be to have the audience reflect on the issue. If they are miserable – whether it be because the person onstage is so sad or so angry or so miserable in whatever pain they’re going through – they turn away from what they’re watching.
We’re always supposed to remember that an issue play is a play, and that means the goal of the play is to communicate and, sometimes, humor is the best way in a drama to communicate.
That’s why, also, my biggest piece of advice when producing a play on a very serious or sad subject is not to play the sad. Let the story stand without the additional sad layer. Now, that doesn’t mean you’re unemotional, but you always want to communicate. Also, make sure that your actors are not overwhelmed to the point where they can’t communicate.
That’s The Bright Blue Mailbox Suicide Note. You can go to theatrefolk.com to read free sample pages. Or click the link in the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode211.
Finally, where can you find this podcast? Go to Theatrefolk.com/podcast and there you will see we are on iTunes, Android, Google Play, Stitcher, and more. That’s Theatrefolk.com/podcast.
And that’s where we’re going to end.
Take care, my friends. Take care.