This article was inspired by a situation that happened to me. Recently, I was directing a production of Disney’s Descendants: The Musical with a cast of 23 amazing students in grades 8, 9, and 10. I had been waiting to direct this show for two years — it was originally planned to run in the fall of 2020, but got postponed multiple times due to the pandemic.
I was feeling run-down during tech week, which I chalked up to pre-run jitters and being out of practice for directing in person (I had directed two virtual shows in the meantime). However, I woke up on the morning of opening feeling awful. One rapid test later confirmed that I had Covid-19. What horrible timing. I had to miss the entire run of the show, which was incredibly disappointing.
While it was an upsetting and stressful situation, I was fortunate to have an amazing creative team and supportive administrators who were able to jump in at the last minute to supervise the students and ensure the show went on as smoothly as possible. Nobody wants to anticipate being sick or absent, but having a bit of advance preparation in your pocket will reduce stress should the worst occur. Here are some tips:
Learn your school’s policies for instructor absences in advance. They may vary depending on whether the production is class-related or an extracurricular activity. Who will supervise your students if you’re absent? Does it need to be an administrator or another teacher from the school? Could it be a parent volunteer? If you have hired a team member (such as a musical director or choreographer) who isn’t a teacher but is an adult, are they allowed to supervise?
There also may be different considerations depending on when the performance is. For example, an evening or weekend performance versus a matinee during school hours. Knowing these policies in advance can help you make plans and avoid having to cancel a performance due to lack of supervision.
Try not to be the only adult in charge throughout the whole process. If you’re directing a musical, you’re probably working with a musical director and choreographer who can take charge during the run of the show. But it’s not uncommon for the director to be the main (or only) adult in the room most of the time.
Of course, it’s great to have lots of student leaders working on your show (including assistant directors, stage managers, backstage assistants, and technicians), and they can take the lead on making sure the show goes as planned. But while your students can run the show, they can’t supervise each other, even if they’re legally old enough to.
Having additional adults involved in your production can reduce your stress load (which will prevent you from getting run down and possibly sick) and ensure that teacher-led responsibilities, such as locking up or adjusting the thermostat, are taken care of. It might be useful to make a checklist with these tasks on it, so the supervisor who will be filling in for you will know what to do and how to do it.
Establishing a pre-show routine will help your students maintain some normalcy while you’re away. If possible, have students lead the routine — even when you’re well. It’ll be one less thing on your to-do list, it gives students leadership opportunities, and it gives them ownership over the pre-show process.
While you’ve no doubt contacted your administrators and team members, you should also let your students know that you won’t be there with as much advance notice as possible. Don’t surprise them at call time by letting someone else share the news. You don’t need to give them all the details, just a brief message with any notes, to-dos, and words of encouragement. That way, they’ll be able to deal with the stress ahead of time, so they can focus on the performance. Trust that they’ll continue to give their best efforts during the run of the show, even without you physically present.
During the rehearsal process, you might want to play the “What If” game to have students work on problem solving skills and see how they might react in a stressful situation.
While getting sick may have been inevitable, I know that pushing myself beyond my limits didn’t help. Engaging in self-care practices would have helped reduce my stress and may have helped me recover faster. Here are some resources from our blog: