Teaching Drama

They don’t know the rules yet – from Guest Blogger Allison Williams

Thanks to Allison Williams (author of Hamlette, Mmmbeth, Drop Dead, Juliet!, and The Scarlet Heart) for this thought-provoking post about making high school theatre.

Amanda Palmer wrote this week on her blog (largely not safe for an educational audience, so find it on your own) about doing Cabaret at the American Repertory (big deal in Boston) Theatre. She’s a medium-sized rock star, and a big enough deal to pick the director. So she picked:

Her former high school theatre teacher.

And apparently, one of her not-friends asked, “When are you going to grow up and leave that high school behind?” and hence she has written a long and beautiful post, an ode, really, to her high school theatre teacher and all the amazingness that he cultivated in her and her classmates and high school theatre.

I get it.

I 100% get it.

I get it because I was a high school theatre misfit and you have to be pretty mis-fitted to be a misfit in the drama department and yet I still sat in the theatre every day to eat my lunch, and I still went to all the Thespian competitions, and the year my duet scene got judges’ choice at District Competition was a pretty good year.

I grew up in Florida, biggest Thespian convention in the nation then as now, and I still rank shows I saw there, and shows I saw as an adult guest artist at other Thespian events, among the best shows I’ve ever seen.

A Digression – Best Shows I Have Ever Seen:

  1. Sleep No More (ART/Punchdrunk)
    Macbeth meets Hitchcock meets art installation in a three-story abandoned school tricked out like an elaborate movie set in every room. We got to follow the actors anywhere we wanted.
  2. Firebugs (Florida Thespians/Douglas Anderson School for the Arts)
    Arsonists move into a guy’s house. He swears they can’t be arsonists. It’s actually an allegory about Nazism, It was the first time I realized a play could be about something other than what it looked like it was about.
  3. Historias de La Teatro (International Thespians/a Texas high school)
    Told in Spanish and English, three awesome stories about life in Texas and Mexico. The only set was four chairs they borrowed from a restaurant across from the theatre.

I could go on, but you get it.

And I get it because I do most of my directing as a guest artist, sometimes at colleges and often at high schools, and directing high school students is one of the most fun, collaborative, amazing, incredible experiences I get to have in my life time. They don’t know the rules yet. They don’t know they’re supposed to “respect the text”. They don’t know they’re supposed to take it all very seriously, to find the right answer as soon as possible and then repeat it from rehearsal to rehearsal until it’s set in stone. And their audience usually hasn’t seen the show before and doesn’t care how Bebe Neuwirth or Neil Patrick Harris or Nathan Lane did it.

When I sit in a room of high school actors, lay down some framework, and start them making stuff, they make stuff. And they get excited by making stuff. And I get excited by the privilege of making stuff with them.

I trust them.

I trust them to listen to their instincts, to tell me when something feels weird in a script I’m workshopping or let me know that they don’t understand a line in a script I’m directing. I trust them to bring what they have, every night.

My last experience making a show with professional actors was, at best, rocky. We survived. The show got good. But in my moments of deepest rehearsal frustration, I found myself thinking, Good grief – the high school students get it, why don’t we? Why are we so paralyzed with fear and ego that we can’t just make something together?

I don’t want to go back to high school (once was enough). But boy, do I ever wish I could bring a little high school theatre with me to every rehearsal and every show.

About the author

Craig Mason