Episode 187: How to build a drama program
When Sylvia Davenport-Veith started teaching drama she did everything by herself. Over the years she was able to build a program that supported three drama teachers. How did she do it? What was her vision for her classroom? What’s her advice? Listen in to learn how one teacher built a drama program.
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 187 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode187.
I’ve got a question for you. Actually, I’ve got a whole bunch of questions for you!
Are you a one-man band in your drama program? Do you feel a little bit like an island where you’re doing everything yourself? Do you dream about being surrounded by other drama teachers in a healthy, thriving, supported program?
Well, that’s what our guest today did and she got it. She went from being alone – a one-man band on an island – to building a program that supported three drama teachers. How did she do it? What was her vision for her classroom? Most importantly, what’s her advice to all of you listening?
Okay, okay, enough with the questions. Let’s get to it!
LINDSAY: Hello, everybody!
I am here, talking to Sylvia Davenport-Veith.
SYLVIA: Hello, hello!
LINDSAY: Tell everybody where in the world you are.
SYLVIA: I am Sylvia Davenport-Veith. That’s what I write under. I live in Oxford, Georgia. I was born in Florida, raised in Florida, earned a BFA in Theatre at University of Florida and an Med in English Education at the University of Florida, moved to the Atlanta area and taught public high school – English and Theatre – for twenty-five years. The last thirteen years, it was exclusively theatre.
LINDSAY: Awesome. That’s what we’re going to talk about.
The meat of this is going to be all about building a theatre program.
Sylvia, when you started, it was just you, right?
SYLVIA: Yes, it was just me and I had to take over a situation that I think maybe a lot of drama teachers might be able to relate to and that was that the department had no money. In addition to having no money, the previous situation was that a lot of money had been spent in the theatre department without ticket revenues replenishing that money and there was a $6,000 debt.
LINDSAY: Oh, my goodness!
All right. Let’s keep that. There’s your teaser, everybody. We will come back to this and we’re going to put a pin on this. So, there’s your little teaser for listening for the rest of this podcast.
Did Sylvia get out of $6,000 debt? Don’t tell us yet! Don’t tell us!
I also want to make sure I mention that we know Sylvia from her playwriting side. We have her play Prom Night in our catalogue – a lovely little play. I love Prom Night!
Let’s start with you. What was your experience with theatre when you were in school? How did you connect to it?
SYLVIA: I think that’s really, really important to bring up because, when I was in high school, I started doing community theatre plays when I was ten years old, outside of the school setting. And then, of course, I was always the geek that was president of the Drama Club and all of that.
When I hit high school, we had a drama teacher that really wasn’t very interested in us. And so, as students, we had to take on a lot of responsibility without her support – I mean, really, no support. She would have me drive to wherever she was, pick up the keys to the school. I would open the school, I would be in-charge of the rehearsal, I would lock up, I would drive the keys back to her, and then she would not even come to see our little plays.
LINDSAY: That’s awful!
SYLVIA: It was awful and that stuck with me when I decided to become a teacher. It was very, very important to me to give the students 1,000 percent support and I really believe every school has to have a place where each student feels at home – whether that’s on the football team or in the chorus or in the art department or in the theatre department – wherever it happens to be. Everybody has to have a little home – a little protective home – and that’s what I try to create in all the theatre departments in which I worked.
LINDSAY: You know what? That is one interesting origin story for you, Sylvia, because usually it’s the complete opposite where theatre in high school had such an amazing impact and that’s the thing that drove a teacher forward. But I think it’s really interesting to have the other side where it was like, despite your circumstance, you connected to theatre and connected to teaching and let that drive you.
SYLVIA: Right. It’s really true. I often thought back. “I’m not going to do what she did. I am not going to do that. I’m going to give my students plenty of responsibilities because I think that’s necessary but I’m also going to be there every second when they need me. I’m not going to just leave them.”
One time, she pulled me aside – this was in the late 60’s, probably 1969 – when pop festivals were popular – Woodstock, all that kind of stuff. I had been working on a variety show, just started a little drama club with the opening number being “Hey Big Spender” and little scenes from plays and so forth.
She pulls me aside and tells me that she signed us up for a mini pop festival on the football field. At some point, the rock band that’s playing at one end of the field is going to be told to stop and everybody is going to have to walk over to the other side of the field where we’re supposed to be set up with our little show on the football field doing “Hey Big Spender” and scenes from Guys and Dolls and a little bit of absurdist theatre.
I’m thinking to myself, “No!”
LINDSAY: I think I had a nightmare like that once.
SYLVIA: Yes! I will never forget all of our peers just rocking to the rock band and the band saying, “Oh, hey, man! Sorry we have to do this to you but the drama club has something to present at the other end of the field,” and all these hostile faces walking toward us and we’re in our little “Hey Big Spender” dresses. It was really, really not a good thing that she did to us.
LINDSAY: And still you persevered!
SYLVIA: There was a picture of it in the yearbook with all of our rolling our shoulders as best we can in the “Hey Big Spender” number. Oh, heavens, heavens, heavens!
LINDSAY: Let’s put that away because, oh, Sylvia! Oh, my goodness!
SYLVIA: It’s too awful to think of, I know.
LINDSAY: The silver lining is that wasn’t enough to deter you from either theatre or teaching!
SYLVIA: No, no, no, no!
LINDSAY: Oh, wow! That’s awesome. That’s a really awesome story.
All right, back on track.
So, high school is over and you’re pursuing this high school educator and you land in this position where it’s just you and things have not been awry from the start. I’m guessing you might have seen some of the same kind of hostile faces walking into that position.
SYLVIA: Oh, yeah, because what happened was it was a new principal and I got a phone call from the athletic director because the sports department paid off the $6,000 debt. In this particular school, in a lot of ways, we were fortunate we had a fully operational theatre. They allowed us to do production classes.
They allowed us to do after-school rehearsals up until the moment I got a phone call in the summer which was, “Yes, we know you’re taking it over, but we just don’t think doing plays is a feasible thing. It’s just not working out so we want you to teach plays – just have your students read plays. We don’t want anymore productions. We don’t want anymore stage craft. It’s just not working out.”
I was devastated because the students had auditioned in the spring and they were already cast in Westside Story. They were already cast in some children’s theatre productions. They were already cast in one-acts because we had production classes. But there was no money – there was no money for the Westside Story royalties or to get the book or to get the orchestrations.
So, I thought about it and I asked to meet with the new principal which I did. I asked him, “Please,” I said, “If we re-neg on these promises to these students, we’ll never have credibility as a theatre department again because they’ve been looking forward to this all summer. May I meet with the parents? May I make a deal with you that one-third of our box office will always be turned over to pay off the $6,000 debt, that we keep two-thirds to move on, that we impress upon the students that the days of being entitled and just thinking this money is going to be spent and your costumes are just going to appear, that we do need to form a booster club, that we do need to do a lot of fundraising, and that I will always share the budgets with the students and with the parents so they have a full understanding of what these shows cost. It could be a really important life lesson for whatever they go into later in life that you have to prepare, you have to find out what things cost, you have to set goals, you have to raise money.”
LINDSAY: Oh, man! Hey, there are so many life lessons in there. Oh, my goodness!
LINDSAY: Well, I think that is one of the number one – I’m not going to say it’s the number one – it is an “up there” problem that we face as a publisher. When we hear from students and teachers who do things and just have no clue how much it costs to put on a play and that means that their experience was that someone didn’t tell them and that, other than the fun of putting on a show, there is the business side of putting on a show.
Lindsay, I will tell you that, on Facebook, a lot of my former students are in touch with me and certainly they’re adults now with babies and children that they’re raising. I posed this question to them last week: “Do you remember those years and what stands out to you about those years?”
All of them were writing to me. “This was the first time I learned how to do a budget.” “This was the first time I became invested, passionately invested in doing the activities that might not be so much fun – like selling poinsettias or whatever it happened to be – but I did it passionately because I knew it was necessary because we needed our Westside Story costumes or we needed our Tartuffe costumes or whatever it happened to be. If we wanted to do a period piece, we needed lumber to create the sets. We needed to pay the royalties. We needed the orchestrations.”
I’ll tell you what really became our cash cow was the children’s theatre department that we formed and the elementary schools that surrounded us and the middle school previously had been going downtown to the alliance theatre, the professional theatre, once a year to see a children’s theatre production there.
Once we got them into our school – because another thing I said to the kids, “You can’t have anybody walk in here and not walk out impressed. You have to be professional. You have to give it your all. Nobody pays money to watch you fail your math test. People are paying money and they’re not going to want to watch a bunch of people stumbling around up there, not knowing what they’re doing. First of all, it makes them upset for you. They feel sorry for you. They feel uncomfortable. We don’t want them uncomfortable. We want them having the time of their lives. We want them drawn in. We want them relaxed. We want to take them to another place. We want the magic. And so, everything you do, you have to make people walk out saying, ‘Whoa! I’m coming back. I’m bringing friends.’”
Another thing I hit, we had some students – and I know every theatre department has them – they feel that they’re entitled to be just maybe a little bit edgy in class with their teachers.
LINDSAY: Oh, I don’t know…
SYLVIA: You don’t know. So, I said to them, “You know what? If you don’t have teachers coming in here to see the shows so that they can talk them up, that’s why the last couple of years you’ve had 20 people in the audience even though you’ve done fabulous things. 20 people is just not going to cut it. You need to make sure the teachers want to come in and see you because, if you’ve been rude and obnoxious, how can you ask them to see you again on their own time at night? They’re not going to come. But, if you’re lovely and sweet and kind and helpful and you do your homework, they are going to want to come and see you at night.”
Lo and behold, that was another thing that helped us – the teachers getting onboard. Of course, forming a booster club, getting the parents very knowledgeable, and what I did on every syllabus – we were on a semester system – every syllabus printed the budget for every single thing that we were doing. Of course, one-acts were less expensive. Children’s theatre, less expensive royalty-wise but, a lot of times, costuming would run up the budget a little. But, you know what? After you made those wonderful costumes and you dry-cleaned them, they lasted and lasted and lasted.
LINDSAY: Some of this stuff I think is really, really important for someone listening and thinking about they are in the same position that you were in, that one person may be walking into a situation where there are hostile eyes or a debt and I think that the number one thing that really hits home to me is the responsibility onstage and off.
LINDSAY: If you want to build a theatre program, I think teaching responsibility just seems to be so great. I like the idea of publishing the budget so that everybody – most importantly the students – know how much things cost and that they invest in the other activities that I know a lot of teachers have trouble getting their students to invest in.
I love the idea that “nobody wants to see you fail your maths… nobody pays money to see you fail your math test.” If you want people to pay money to see what you’re doing, you had better be good and you better be good in your classes and good onstage.
SYLVIA: Yes, absolutely.
I’m very proud, as the years progressed, these students – and that was another thing – you weren’t going to be just an actor. You can forget that. You’re going to have to learn how to stage manage. We had projects where they got involved in set design – always set construction, lighting design, being the light board operator, costume design, sewing – all of it. You’d be amazed at the adults you can find who love sewing or, from my theatre work around town, I was very fortunate to have theatre artists who did lighting design, sound design, set design, set construction, come and volunteer their time to spend with the kids and with me.
Overall, I was looking for a well-rounded student that would come out having used because you wind up using psychology, sociology, English, physics, math – all kinds of things. It’s across the curriculum activity when you’re involved in theatre – business. They learned how to do all of it. It wasn’t just the acting.
Everybody did some acting. Everybody did some set construction. Everybody did selling. Everybody did selling ads for programs. Everybody did typing programs. Everybody learned to sit at the sewing machine and do seams. Of course, everybody found their niche, you know.
LINDSAY: Well, it sounds like what you’re doing is you’re making all of the roles in theatre as important as what’s onstage.
There are no stars, no divas. I was always weeding the diva garden. Of course, you’re going to have some students that are phenomenally talented as actors. You’re going to have that but it was very important to me that they not get swelled heads because, out in the real world, there’s always going to be somebody that you’re competing with that’s as good as you or better. So, a little humility goes a long way.
LINDSAY: I just want to go back to this idea of looking for sort of a community to sort of help you out. You know, if you’re on your own, I think that trying to find parents who have those skills to help you out, going out into the community if you have a community theatre or another school or whatever just finding someone who might help with a lighting design, for example, building a community helps you not feel so alone, I imagine.
SYLVIA: That is exactly what happened – over time. I mean, Rome was not built in a day. But, over time, the theatre department, when I stepped into it, as great as the shows were – because I had seen them two years previously for two years as I was teaching some theatre and a whole lot of English and I was involved – they did beautiful plays. Their “Of Mice and Men” was to die for. But, for some reason, they couldn’t attract audience.
Over time, it took us a long time and we did keep turning over one-third of our box office. We did pay off the debt. It took us about four years. We did pay off that debt. And the fact that he allowed us to keep two-thirds and also parents were making donations so you print their names in the programs. You don’t say how much people are donating but you honor those parents and teachers and anyone else in the community that’s contributing to help these students and support them.
Over time, yeah, we had a big community effort. We found out that the school nurse was a fabulous seamstress and she loved to help with costumes. The special ed parapro took over as costume designer. I had no idea she had all these talents and she came to me one day and she said, “You need help!” Lo and behold – oh, my goodness! – all these beautiful costumes! She’s designing, she knew how to go to the fabric store, put them together with just the right fabrics – not too expensive, not too cheap. Just right – the kind that you dry-clean. You keep adding to your costume stock. She was able to get parents with their sewing machines for the bigger shows.
Over time, you know, we had beautiful things made from Müller plays. We raised the money to buy the wigs for the Müller plays. We were able to do shows like Hedda Gabler, Picnic – whatever period it was, probably three years into it, it got to where I could just give Carol some pictures and I would say, “I would like her picnic dress when she has that dance with him to look something like this in this color,” and there it would show up.
LINDSAY: That’s so awesome!
Okay, I want to come back to this notion that it really seems like you are hitting all different kinds of theatre but, first, before we get on to that, just in terms of working with parents – and you mentioned a booster club – how did you start and grow your booster club just talking about community and how did that help?
SYLVIA: I remember this so well. I had to face the students the first day of classes and give them the horrible news that we didn’t have the money for the orchestrations. We didn’t have the money for a music director. We didn’t have the money for a choreographer. They were cast in Westside Story and all of these things had been auditioned for the previous spring so they had gone the whole summer thinking all of this was just going to happen. But that’s how the debt was built in the first place. Things happened but no one raised the money to pay our part of it. The sports department had to do it.
So, I said to them, I gave them something to take home with the budget. I said, “I have a fabulous choreographer that will work for $500. I have a fabulous music director,” because our chorus was not involved with us. They had a whole separate thing that they were committed to. The chorus teacher did not have time. Same thing with the band department – they had their own thing. They did not have time.
As the theatre department, with musical theatre part of our curriculum, we had to pull it off. That was $1,000 right there plus I gave them how much money it was going to cost in royalties and to get the books and to get the orchestration, blah blah blah. Then, we have costumes, blah blah blah.
I announced a booster club meeting. I remember, at the time, I was doing “Can on a Hit Tin Roof” at night. I was playing Sister Woman. The night before this booster club meeting, our director was having us do these trust exercises and all that stuff that they make you do where you have to fall back or close your eyes and stumble around. All I could think of was, “What’s going to happen tomorrow? Are they going to just be so angry with me that this was promised to their children and now, all of a sudden, all of this has fallen on everybody?” I was really worried about it.
And, you know what? This mother got up and told her own story as a young girl that her parents were alcoholics, they never came to see her in anything when she was in high school. I had no idea this was coming. She said the only thing that kept her alive was her drama work in high school and that she was going to begin with a $1,000 check so we could have a music director and a choreographer. That’s how she started the meeting. She asked me to speak first. The next thing you know, check books were being opened up all over the place and that’s how we got started.
LINDSAY: Well, that tells you the power of theatre, doesn’t it?
SYLVIA: It does.
LINDSAY: So, when you continued working, just to give some folks an idea of how a booster club might work, was there a parent panel for your booster club? It’s not really the teacher who’s supposed to be in-charge of booster club, is it?
SYLVIA: Exactly, and that is something I have seen other teachers kind of get into a terrible situation where the booster club parents may start trying to dictate to you what shows you should be picking or they’re kind of pushing “I’ll be involved as long as my student gets a part.” You have got to stay far away from that. You have to make it very clear that you will be selecting the shows; you will be doing the casting. It doesn’t matter if someone’s booster parent is president of the club, you may or may not get the role that you want. You have to keep those two issues separate.
I was very, very fortunate with these parents. What our booster club did, they understood – and the school also explained to them – their role was to fundraise. Their role was to be supportive. For example, if you have a rehearsal that starts at 3:00 and it’s over at 6:00 or 6:30 and the kids are starving, we got to a point where the booster club said, “Hey! We’re going to bring dinner! They’re going to eat dinner while you give them notes and then they’ll be ready to go home by 7:15 but they have had dinner.”
That’s what they did for us. They provided dinner. They came up with yard sales to raise money. The big fundraiser they came up with every holiday season was to sell poinsettias so the students would go out and sell poinsettias and then there was a day all these poinsettias arrived at the school and the kids picked up the ones that they were going to be delivering to their customers. They came up with the idea of our selling ads for programs and assisted us with that.
They were just tremendous support. But they did not get involved because that was made clear to them by the school and by me. They weren’t involved in selecting the season. They weren’t involved in casting.
LINDSAY: Oh, I think having it come from the school was probably a great idea.
SYLVIA: It was.
LINDSAY: Makes it more official.
SYLVIA: Yes, very official.
LINDSAY: As we’re sort of wrapping up here, I just want to go back, it seemed really important that you were giving your students a wide variety of different types of theatre genres – you know, musical, children’s theatre. So, talk about why that was something that was important to you.
SYLVIA: It was really, really important to me because there’s so much to discover in the theatre. Like, one of my former students wrote to me on Facebook last week that he felt that some of our very best work was the minimalist work – the one-acts where we didn’t do the sets and all that kind of thing. It was bare stage. He felt that some of that was the most striking work that we did.
They were really remembering the more elaborate sets and lighting designs or costumes or the bigger musicals or the classics that we did or, of course, everyone remembers the children’s theatre program because it was much fun.
I’m going to talk about double-casting for a minute.
SYLVIA: We had some students when we were starting out that weren’t always the best behaved. The first time it happened to me, it was panic. We had an opening night on a Friday and, that Friday morning, one of the leads was suspended. Oh boy! What do you do? What do you do?
The rules in our school were, if you’re suspended – and they were pretty strict; a certain number of checking in late and you could get in-house suspension and, if you have in-house suspension – you cannot participate in an after-school event. So, I decided we’re not ever going to get into that situation again and I went to a system of double-casting. Yes, it’s a little bit more work. I had a cast one and a cast two.
The way it worked was I would block whatever we were going to block with cast one while the cast two students were sitting and watching. They weren’t walking it but they were taking it down. The next day, cast one is sitting and watching while cast two does what we did the day before. Over time, when the flu hits or someone doesn’t behave properly, it has a tremendous effect on the students. Also, someone’s not learning their lines but their counterpart is, “Oh, boy! I guess I better get these lines down because I am replaceable!”
The way it worked, Wednesday and Friday was for cast one; Thursday and Saturday nights were for cast two. If someone truly got the flu, that student did not have to try to drag themselves in when they were on death’s door. Their counterpart was going to handle it. It was going to be all right. They kept their grades up. If they didn’t have a certain GPA, if they weren’t passing, they weren’t allowed to participate in after-school or evening shows.
Again, it became a wonderful incentive to do what you’re supposed to do at school which is do as well as you possibly can in every class. So, yeah, it was an across the curriculum thing. It was a building character thing. It was a responsibility thing. Don’t check in late because you’re letting your whole team down if you’re not going to be there because you’ve had too many check-in lates and now you’re going to be in in-school suspension. You had to function as an individual and you had to function as a member of the team. That’s really what life is all about.
LINDSAY: Oh, absolutely! I think that it’s really interesting because, when we think about the phrase “building a theatre program,” you can say to a fellow teacher to help build their program, but it’s also about what are you instilling in students and your students can also be a big part of building your theatre program, you know?
SYLVIA: They are. Over time, you begin to attract those advanced placement students, those students that have come to plays and they see all the fabulous things that are happening onstage, behind-the-scenes. They want to be a part of it. Over time, we paid off the debt and then we had so many students signing up for classes. We needed to add a second teacher. More years passed, because I was there for 13 years, by the time I retired, there were three full-time theatre teachers handling the intro to theatre classes and the production classes and the stage craft classes.
LINDSAY: Well, that’s a lovely end to the story!
SYLVIA: Yes, I think so!
LINDSAY: That’s awesome! That’s wonderful, Sylvia!
I just think that there’s just a lot of really wonderful little bits of knowledge. I’m just trying to think of the right words. It’s not advice but it’s just like knowledge – wonderful nuggets of knowledge in terms of how long it takes to build a theatre program and the attitude of building a theatre program.
SYLVIA: And just take one step at a time.
Everybody has to realize, if you’re passionate about this and you’re putting in your after-school time, it does take away from other things in your life. So, striking a balance is important for the theatre teacher as well so she doesn’t get or he doesn’t get too burnt out. You know, that’s up to each individual. Try to pace yourself because it won’t be built in a day.
LINDSAY: Nothing ever is.
SYLVIA: No, it won’t be built in a year. You just continue to build on.
But do try to reach out to your community; do try to reach out to community theatre people who can take some of that load off of you. My weak spot was set designing and set construction. I was a little lost on all that. Even though I had a theatre degree, I was still a little lost on that. Boy, when those people showed up that could supervise the kids with drills and I’m right in there, learning too, so that when they weren’t around I could carry on. Do try to check out those resources. I think lots of theatre people working in your community theatres are going to be more than happy to volunteer some time.
Thank you so much for talking to me today. It’s been lovely!
SYLVIA: Thank you! Thank you so much!
I really appreciate you and I recommend Theatrefolk to everybody that might be listening. It’s a great, great, great publishing company and they’re so supportive and they care about the kids and they care about you.
LINDSAY: It’s almost like we paid you to say that.
SYLVIA: It’s true. It’s true.
LINDSAY: Thank you, Sylvia!
SYLVIA: Thank you! Have a great day!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Sylvia!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Not only is Sylvia a teacher, she’s a playwright and we have her play, Prom Night, in the Theatrefolk catalogue. It’s a small piece – a three-hander. Lovely characters. It’s romance. It’s a teen romance between an outcast and a football player. I am a sucker for plays that have characters who act against type. It might be my favorite kind to write.
This would be awesome for scene work for classroom scene work, for character development work, and also acting in a specific genre. You can read sample pages for Prom Night at Theatrefolk.com or you can catch the link in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode187.
If you are producing Prom Night or any one of our plays, we really want to hear from you. We want to see a picture, we want to maybe see some rehearsal footage – not long, 30 seconds – and we want to brag about you.
We’re doing production features that showcase your successes. Hey! If you’re even having a struggle, we want to share so that everybody can hear your story and see where you are coming from.
We want to hear from you! All you’ve got to do is send info to us at [email protected] If you’re doing one of our plays, if you’re doing a Theatrefolk play, we want to hear about your experience. We want to share your experience.
Finally, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe to The Drama Teacher Podcast on iTunes. Just search for the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.