Episode 96: How to Succeed with a Class Production
Have you tried to put together a class production and it just didn’t work out? Teacher Rassika Risko shares the successes and challenges of getting 28 grade nines in front of 300 middle school students.
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for drama teachers, drama students, theatre educators everywhere. I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
This is a replay of Episode 96 and you can catch the links for this episode in the show notes at theatrefolk.com/episode96.
One thing that many classes do in a semester is put together a play and perform it for a feeder school. Some classes devise the play or in this case they have a playwright in the area (me) who comes in and works with them from brainstorming to reading to rehearsal and now performance.
And this was not an senior class or an after-school program or a drama club but a grade nine drama class, and the experience has had its rewards and challenges for me, just as it’s had for their teacher, Rassika Risko.
So, I thought it would be a great podcast to talk to her about those successes and challenges in getting an entire class on the same page, to do a play, and then not only perform it for each other but an invited audience. They had to perform their play in front of 300 middle school students.
So, let’s get to it.
And put a spring in your step!
I do all these things, but I still don’t feel completely happy.
I know what you need! You need to become a Roppet!
A Roppet? What’s that?
Lindsay: All right! Here we go.
So, I am here with Rassika Risko. Hello!
Lindsay: How are you?
Rassika: Fine. Thank you!
Lindsay: So, we just had a rehearsal. You’re in rehearsal right now with a play that I wrote and it’s your grade nine class, right?
Rassika: Yes, it is, and you are rehearsing a show with your class to perform in front of your theatre middle schools.
Lindsay: That’s correct. So, what I wanted to talk to you about was about, I know that there are a lot of our teachers who listen who either do a show with their class or want to do a show with your class and I thought we could talk about the good parts about that, the pitfalls about that.
So, first of all, what’s your work background? How long have you been a drama teacher?
Rassika: I’ve been a drama teacher since 2001 which is – oh, math! – a long time ago! I am a science teacher as well.
Rassika: Thirteen years ago, and I’ve been teaching drama, if not full-time, at least part-time for that time. I taught at one school for five years and then I’ve been at Governor Simcoe since 2006.
Lindsay: Cool. Oh, and the exciting thing for me is that this is actually happening live in my backyard because, usually, I do these over Skype so I never get to talk to anybody.
Rassika: Oh, that’s exciting!
Lindsay: And why drama? Why did you choose drama?
Rassika: I had an amazing drama teacher in grade ten and I’m not athletic and I was awkward socially and drama was the place for me. It was organized. I felt like I could be part of a family. I had friends from different grades. It was easier for me to get to know people in drama than it was for me to try and get on a team that I just wasn’t going to get on.
Lindsay: And that just sort of stuck with you always?
Rassika: Yeah, we did a show in grade ten, then eleven, then we got a new teacher in grade twelve and I loved her – I loved her, she’s the reason I became a teacher – and then I learned how to stage manage and direct kind of through that avenue there.
Lindsay: Why teaching? Why explore drama through teaching professionally or as a profession?
Rassika: Well, I was in university. I had to go to university for science because my parents said they wouldn’t pay for me to do theatre so drama was my minor. I had done a lot of stuff at McMaster Musical Theatre so that was kind of my drama experience. And it was the summer before my fourth year and I had a med school application in front of me, a teacher’s college application in front of me, and a midwifery application in front of me – believe it or not – and the med school application was $350 so I said, “Nope, not doing that,” and I looked at the teaching one and I said, “I think I’m going to try this,” and I applied, I got in, and when I got there I just knew it was where I wanted to be.
Rassika: Yeah, it’s pretty cool.
Lindsay: Okay. And now, thirteen years later, what would you say was the biggest misconception about being a teacher?
Rassika: It’s easy – it’s not easy. There’s nothing about teaching that is easy. These kids come to school with their baggage and you have to learn how to navigate your way around the baggage while getting them to do what you want them to do or need them to do. And, in this day and age, I find the challenge is getting kids to believe that they are able to do what you want them to do without quitting.
Lindsay: Is that maybe what you love about it? When you can do that?
Rassika: Yes, absolutely. I love seeing kids change through the power of theatre. I love seeing kids do one show with me and then they’re hooked. That, honestly, is better than teaching drama. Like, the after-school drama is just way more enriching than I ever thought it could be.
Lindsay: Have you always done shows with your classes where you take a class and you perform a show for an audience?
Rassika: It depends on the chemistry of the classes. Sometimes, the make-up of the class is a reason that kids are in it doesn’t work so well so I won’t do it that way. But, if I have a class like I do with my grade nines now who are high functioning, they are – for the most part – very engaged and want to do work, they want to be challenged, then yeah, then I’ll do a full show with them.
Sometimes, with the chemistry of the class, it doesn’t work that way and it’s not worth the frustrations that it will bring upon for half of the class and myself to do something when the other half of the class isn’t engaged.
Lindsay: How long does it take you to realize whether that’s going to happen or not?
Rassika: I think after the first or second units in performance assignments, I can really get a sense of where the kids are.
This class was unique because I was kind of moving at my usual pace and they wanted to move faster; they wanted to get up on-stage and be challenged to do assignments and be challenged to do the next unit, and I thought, “Okay. These are the guys I want to do something with,” because they were just moving faster than I’ve ever had kids move before.
Rassika: Yeah, it was awesome.
Lindsay: So, what are the challenges? How many kids are in this class?
Taking a full class and putting a play on with the intention of performing, because it’s not just for a class, they actually have to perform in front of an audience – what are some of those challenges?
Rassika: Challenges are having the whole class buy-in at the same level because, of course, in every class, you’re going to have a handful – five or ten percent – who just don’t engage or can’t engage or just choose not to engage so that’s an issue.
And our school’s special because we have one-hour classes so getting everything done in an hour can be quite difficult at times. So, that’s the other challenge you have to look at in terms of rehearsal schedules and times.
But the biggest thing for me is making sure that the entire class is on board and with you on the journey.
Lindsay: And that was very interesting today because you gave small ultimatums.
Lindsay: You gave small ultimatums to four kids that, if they couldn’t get their act together, and the show is – what is it? – the show is going up next week, and you told them that, if they don’t get their act together, they’re going to be replaced.
Rassika: Yeah, I don’t like to do that because, at the end of the day, it’s kids at class, but at the same time, when you’ve asked them repeatedly to do something and you know they can do it and are choosing not to, for the betterment of the entire production and the other 90 percent of the kids who are working their butts off, it’s only fair to them at that point to push them to the ultimatum and then it’s their choice because I’ve given them every opportunity, I’ve given them plenty of time. We are less than a week away from the show and I do not want the whole production to suffer because of these four or five kids.
Lindsay: How do you assess a production process?
Rassika: I do a daily mark out of two – I know that sounds silly but I do a daily mark out of two.
Lindsay: Why two?
Rassika: It’s easy. It’s easy to handle. It’s easy. If you’re late, you’re automatically down to one. If you’re a goofball in class, you’re down to a zero. If you’re absent with no excuse, it’s a zero.
So, they get a daily mark out of two for the entire process. We do weekly, I call them “drama logs” – they are weekly recaps of what’s happened that week, what left an impression on them.
Lindsay: These are the things that the students have to fill up.
Lindsay: A weekly journal?
Rassika: Yeah. So, I assess that. I will assess their performance based on their performance rubric and then they will do a reflection after the fact so that’s the other part of their mark. So, it’s a four-layered assessment.
Lindsay: What are you looking for their performance rubric?
Rassika: I’m looking for engagement in character, use of their voice in terms of vocal variety, projection, articulation. I’m looking for the overall impression that the show has. So, what does the whole piece look like? I’m looking for how they engage with each other. I’m looking for their character development in terms of movement, in terms of voice. And I’m looking for their focus on stage.
Lindsay: How much percentage of their mark is this?
Rassika: Well, this year, this is special because this is their performance exam so, between the performance, the daily marks, the journal, and the reflection, it’s 20 percent of their final mark. So, the stakes are high.
Lindsay: That’s pretty high! And pretty interesting when you give an ultimatum to four kids that they’re going to lose 20 percent – a lot of their mark!
Rassika: A lot of their mark, right? But again, it’s a choice. I don’t push kids unless I think… My line is to them, “I demand excellence because I know you can give it to me.” So, if you don’t push them, they won’t rise to the occasion. So, I’m pushing them.
Lindsay: Yeah, we talked a lot today about choice – about you’re making this choice.
Rassika: You’re making the choice not to do what I’ve asked you to do. You’re choosing to be lazy. You’re choosing not to be engaged so I’m choosing to say, “I’ll replace you at 2:30 this afternoon at rehearsal.”
Lindsay: Now, how do you go about getting an audience? Because that’s the second part of this – not only are you working with a class to perform a play, the huge part of it is that there’s got to be somebody there to watch it. So, how did you go about getting an audience for this?
Rassika: This one was awesome. I have a really – oh, my gosh, what’s the word? – she’s an awesome kid – I don’t know how to tell you – a senior student who made me a great poster.
Lindsay: It’s a beautiful poster. I’m going to put the poster in the show notes. But I think that’s a good thing to do – to go after your arts classes and get them to help you out with your materials.
Rassika: Yeah, and then I approached the tech teacher. He sent me four of his amazing students to do a short little promo video that was set to music. And then, Lindsay created a teacher guide, study guides to send out. So, when I sent the invitation out, I sent it out with the teacher guide, the study guide, with the poster, and a couple of weeks later, the link to the promo video. So, there was material ready for teachers to look at. We picked a day in June so I gave them – elementary schools get really busy near this time of the year.
Lindsay: Just to make clear too that this is a play that was specifically for middle school students and you approached middle schools.
Rassika: Yeah. In the invitation, I said, “We would like to invite your grade seven and eight students.” I gave them a quick outline of the show and I gave it to them about four weeks ago so there was plenty of time to arrange buses and letters to go home to parents. And then, a couple of teachers asked if they could bring their grade six students and we talked about the content and they are bringing so it ends up being a mix of grade six, seven, and eight students.
Lindsay: I think this is really important to point out. This is not just a, “Hey! Come see my show!” This is really advocating to get an audience.
Lindsay: And I think, too, that I’m going to just say, if you can send me that promo video again, we’ll put that in the show notes, too.
Lindsay: And I have the teacher’s guide. So, it’s like you’re really working to get these middle school students.
Rassika: And it’s about making them feel like you need to come see this piece. This is something that can’t be missed. You need to bring your students to it.
Luckily, we have a good reputation and a good relationship with the feeder schools that, when I do invite them, they – more often than not – will come as long as the schedule works. I only charge a dollar a student because I know some of them have to pay for bussing. Sometimes, I’ve been able to get funding from the board to provide the transportation so that helps as well. And then, the chaperones are free.
So, we are lucky. Our theatre can seat 500 so we’re able to invite every single feeder school – which is about eight or nine of them – and have a good, healthy audience for the kids.
Lindsay: And how many are coming?
Rassika: We have around 300 coming. Plus, some of the parents of the kids are coming which I think is really awesome as well.
Lindsay: I think so, too. I think that’s really great, particularly when you’ve got a play with the subject matter for this play is depression and about sometimes, those things, people get a little awry and they don’t want to deal with that when they’re seeing a show. So, I think it’s really awesome to be able to get that audience.
Rassika: Yeah, and I think that really helps because, I know as a teacher, when I’m going to see a show, the study guide makes a huge difference in terms of whether it’s going to be something my students are going to like or not, and just even to break down content, especially with this show that’s dealing with topics like depression and suicide. Suicide’s never really talked about directly in the play but it’s a hot topic for all elementary school students so it’s nice to know that it’s there, it’s upfront, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to prep the kids before they get here, it’s handled in the show very respectfully and appropriately, and then there’s points of discussion after. So, that study guide and that prepping of the students makes a huge difference.
Lindsay: They know what they’re coming into. Like, you know, there’s not a “Hey! Here’s point by point what the show is about,” but there is some guidance.
Rassika: Yes, and I think that’s important.
I know, when I take kids, if I haven’t prepped them versus if I’ve prepped them, the engagement level is completely different.
Lindsay: And how does it help you to get these middle school students to come see a show at your high school?
Rassika: Well, it results in kids coming to Governor Simcoe to take drama. They come, they see a show, they see kids relatively around their age doing something really amazing on stage, and I think they think, “I can do that,” and, “That looks like fun.” Because, if the kids are having fun on stage, younger kids are going to want to be part of that when they get here, and the years that we’ve done some really successful shows for feeder schools, it shows in the registration numbers the following year and the following year after that.
Lindsay: How many years have you been doing this particular program where you do a show and then do it for your feeder schools?
Rassika: I’ve been at Simcoe since ’06 so probably around ’07, ’08. It took me time to get used to the kids here and the way the school worked, and I have a space I can use that works quite well so we have been doing that for about six or seven years.
We’ve also done children’s theatre shows for kindergarten kids in pajamas. Like, we do as much as we can for the outreach because it’s important for our middle schools and our feeder schools to know that we’re here and that we’re excited for them to come to Simcoe when they get here because these are the cool things they can do.
Lindsay: What does your administration think of you?
Rassika: They are very appreciative of the hard work we do and they’re very supportive. They help me – not only monetarily but in terms of support and release time. Other teachers are supportive of the kids when they’re in production mode because they understand the effect it has – the positive impact it has on the school as a whole – so I’m really lucky to be in a building where people get what I do.
Lindsay: So, not only are you putting on a show with your students. You’re putting on a brand new play. So, I’d like to talk about what’s that like. So, what is it like for you to direct a play that’s never been done before that changes, too? Because I’ve been coming into rehearsals and making changes.
Rassika: It’s actually really neat. I love to get scripts from Lindsay like this – I’m not going to lie – and I love being able to have it as a completely clean slate. I don’t know if that makes sense but the ability to kind of say, “I think this’ll work best,” and then to play with it, and then to take the kids’ input – I think that’s important because it engages them with it as well so that process of “let’s try this, that’s not working, let’s try that,” and then to see something that was an idea go from brainstorming to draft to rehearsal mode to production mode – it’s really, really awesome.
And, for the kids, I think, they get to say, “We did that,” you know? There’s something to be said about saying, “We were the first school that got to do that.”
Lindsay: Do you think your grade nines from the beginning to the end – because we’re nearing the end of this process – how has their opinion of what playwriting is and what theatre is, how has that changed?
Rassika: I think they have a greater appreciation for how hard it is. So, you know, it’s “Oh, take drama, it’s easy.” It’s not easy and I think they’re starting to understand that. I just had a conversation with them after rehearsal about being engaged for forty minutes and not turning your character on and off based on when you have a line, and I think they’re starting to understand that it’s hard work, it’s rewarding, and it’s enjoyable but it also is hard work. These are also the kids that have asked me to hold after-school rehearsals eagerly and who are coming.
Lindsay: I find that awesome.
Rassika: So, it’s like the first time in a millennium that the kids are like, “Can we stay after school?” They’re here, they’re enjoying it, they’re engaged, and they’re doing something productive after school which is, you know, more than maybe they were doing two weeks ago.
Lindsay: Okay. So, if you were going to give some advice to a teacher who maybe is having trouble taking a class and going from that beginning stage to production to getting an audience, what three pieces of advice would you say will help them out?
Rassika: Set your kids up for success. So, know your class well enough to know who can handle what parts and who can do what.
My second piece of advice is to push them to be excellent because they can be. If you believe in them, they will rise to the occasion.
My third piece of advice is to always maintain a level of fun because, if it starts to feel like drudgery every day, you’re not going to get out of them what you want. So, as much as I do get serious and do give ultimatums, we also have rehearsals where things get a little silly and we break it down a bit and it just keeps it fresh.
Rassika: Oh, and I also bribe them with treats and food because it does help sometimes. Popsicles go a long way in the theatre.
Lindsay: Pizza, after-school rehearsals. How do you deal with auditions? Because I came in, and we did a reading, and we just sort of randomly assigned people, and then you were very, very clear that just because you’re reading this part does not mean the part you’re going to do. So, how do you deal with auditions and assigning roles when everybody has to have a role?
Rassika: This year was different. I tried something new.
So, I had the kids write down on a cue card the three parts they wanted, in order – the top three choices – and t hen a part they didn’t feel they could successfully do. Then, I took those cue cards then kind of slotted the kids in based on their ability based on what they’ve been doing all year. Then, Lindsay came back in with another draft and it ended up being like a callback.
So, I had placed them in their spaces. I said, “This is a loose casting. I want to see what happens,” and then they did a bit and then I made a few changes and then I made a few changes based on, if I needed to replace actors because kids weren’t pulling their weight, and then I cast the show from there.
So, it just became a question of what did the kids want so I tried to accommodate as many wishes as I could – being realistic and setting it up for success, sorry – and then a combination of me being able to put them into where I think they would be successful.
You know, some kids, I think, I like to give an opportunity to who may not be the first choice for a part but I think, again, that’s just a question of saying, “I demand excellence because I know I can get it from you,” and the potential is there.
Lindsay: And how successful do you feel the casting was?
Rassika: I think, for the most part, it was, “Well, there’s also that five percent I have to put somewhere.” So, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve done except for those few kids that I just gave the ultimatum to. So, we’ll see if it pans out today. But, yeah, I think where it is it’s great based on the ability and the combination of kids in the class.
Lindsay: Now, I’ve done this process with you with a senior class and then with a grade nine class. Which do you think it works better with?
Rassika: Grade nines, absolutely. They just eat up what you do. They just, “Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s go for it.” Whereas the twelves like to argue and give reasons for not being there and give a reason for not being able to do this and a reason for not being able to do that.
Grade nines just do it. There’s not as much push-back from them. Yeah, they just go; they just go with it. From the minute I told them that this is what I wanted to do, they were like, “Yeah! Let’s do it! This is exciting! Let’s go! When’s Lindsay coming?” That was what they said. “When’s she coming?” So, it was good.
Lindsay: I like that. That’s awesome, too.
What changes would you make, do you think, next year? If you were going to do this again, what changes do you think you’d make?
Rassika: I think that I would, from the beginning of the semester, lay the groundwork so they knew what was coming, so that they knew that everything they did would have an impact on where they ended up in the show. So, just knowing that I’m always watching and that, if they wanted big parts of the end piece, that they had to work for them – they had to earn them, they weren’t going to be given them – because, oftentimes, sometimes you’ll have a kid who has an A in your class on paper but they’re not an A on-stage so those kids need to be reminded that it is work, that it is an honor and a privilege – I know that sounds cheesy – to get big parts in grade nine and that, if they want it, they’ve got to go for it. And I think it’ll push them. I think that, if it’s always in the back of their head, it will push them.
Lindsay: Well, I’m fascinated to see what’s going to happen because you gave the ultimatum and then I stood up and said, you know.
Rassika: Yeah, it was nice; I set it and then you backed me right up and I think that that resonated with those kids. I think there’s a bit of panic right now.
Lindsay: It happens all the time. I come in and I float in, like, you know, a happy special guest, and then I say things and they’re all like, “Oh, Lindsay said that! That’s so great!” and the teacher’s just like, “I say it all the time.”
Rassika: I know, and it’s always funny, like, no matter where you go, you know, I did a workshop at the Shaw Festival with my kids for Cabaret and the actor was showing him what he did for warm-ups and I was like, “Yeah, you’re vindicating me. Everything you’re saying right now are things I have been saying to them for four years,” because they were my seniors.
Lindsay: So, all you teachers out there, get a special guest in and get them to say what you’ve been saying.
Rassika: Yeah, and some reason, I’ll watch, 2:30 will come around, those boys will be spot-on. But my rule is you can’t just do it once. Now, they have to do it from now until next Wednesday because it’s not fair on the rest of the class that’s working hard because it starts to bring them down. It’s like that one moment in the scene where one person misses a line – everything falls apart.
Lindsay: I told them, I said, “I’m getting really excited,” and it’s really true and I can’t wait to see what they bring next week.
Rassika: Yeah, I’m excited for it.
Lindsay: Awesome. Thank you very much, Rassika!
Rassika: Thank you, Lindsay!
You know, I especially like all the pieces that were put into place to get an audience to her show. You know, it’s not just throwing something out into the wind. There was an invitation and a video and a teacher’s guide and a poster. You know, all that really helps, I think.
I’m going to include all those in the show notes which you can find at theatrefolks.com/episode96. And I have to tell you that we recorded this last week – a week before the show went up – and I can happily report that the kids did awesome. It was a great show.
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
just wanted to let you know where you can easily find The Happiness Project and other great plays specific for schools and student performance. Over at theatrefolk.com you can look for a play directly by typing in the title or the author but you can also refine your search when you’re looking for a piece. You can look up large cast middle school issue play. You can look for plays that are mostly girls or if you’re in this rare position, mostly boys. That way you’re not just blindly looking at titles you can make sure you’re getting the material that works best for your situation. And with all our plays you can read sample pages so you know exactly what you’re going to get with a play. No surprises.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this wonderful podcast?
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And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.
Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.