Episode 108: Directing the Middle School Musical
Brian Borowka teaches a grade 8 musical theatre class which culminates in a production. He passes on his tips for directing a middle school musical, the challenges for casting an entire class and, his favourite/least favourite experience.
- Roshambo by Brian Borowka
Welcome to TFP – The Theatrefolk Podcast – the place to be for Drama teachers, Drama students, and theatre educators everywhere.
I’m Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk.
Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.
Welcome to Episode 108. You can find all the links at theatrefolk.com/episode108.
So, today, all theatre – middle school theatre – we’re talking the middle school musical and a super fun middle school play. Let’s do it!
Lindsay: All right. Hello everybody!
I am thrilled today to be talking to Brian Borowka.
Brian: Hi there,
Lindsay: So, Brian is one of our Theatrefolk playwrights. He has written a wonderful, delicious play called Roshambo and we’re going to get into Roshambo and what on earth Roshambo means because, when I first got the play, I had to look it up and it was one of those moments, Brian, because I’m a word freak and so, when I see a strange word and then it’s actually something that is related to something I already know, well, you just made my day. Little things amuse me, I think.
Brian: It’s a great word! I love the title. I’m glad that it means what it means.
Lindsay: Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally! All right
So, now that all of you are in suspense. We’re going to ignore that for a little while because what we want to start out with is, where are you in the world, Brian?
Brian: I am in Greenwich, Connecticut, USA.
Lindsay: And you have a very sort of unique story, I think, in that you have taught both middle school and high school. Is it middle school and high school in the same school?
Brian: Yeah, it’s in the same schoool.
Brian: It works out really well, you know. It’s actually the school itself goes all the way from elementary all the way up through high school, all on the same campus.
Lindsay: Do you like that? Do you like having all those grades in the same area?
Brian: Yeah, I think it’s great. I think it’s great especially because there are a lot of teachers like me that get to work across disciplines so I work with some of the high school kids, I work with some of the middle school kids, and a lot of other teachers do the same. So, the kids now that I’m teaching in high school, a lot of them I have directed since they were in fifth grade which is kind of nice.
Lindsay: And how is that? That must be really good for creating community and sort of relationships with students?
Brian: Yeah, absolutely, especially since the school – Greenwich Academy – it’s just a fantastic school. Everybody is very supportive. Everybody really works together well. It’s definitely a school that works and that happens a lot. I mean, you really get to develop strong bonds with the kids because you kind of work with them in so many different ways and we’re all kind of together on a relatively small campus so it has a really community feeling to it.
Lindsay: Why did you decide to go into teaching Drama?
Brian: Well, a lot of it is, you know, I did a lot of acting when I was a student. I did a lot of writing when I was a student and, in college, I studied playwriting and I studied theatre and sort of one of my first jobs after college was being an actor in a touring children’s theatre troop and I just loved kind of putting on shows for kids and seeing how excited kids got when you did shows for them and did anything theatrical for them so that kind of first got the bug in my mind about, well, maybe I can actually do something that’s a job that’s related to my love of theatre and playwriting without having to worry about being a working actor necessarily and kind of like use the energy that I got from working doing children’s theatre and then look into the possibility of being a teacher and so I sort of went down that road and it’s worked out very well for myself.
Lindsay: That’s good.
Brian: I’ve been very pleased.
Lindsay: Well, it’s always a good thing because, sometimes, people who strive for acting and being theatrical are not necessarily the best teachers.
Brian: Exactly – definitely true. And, I think, the experience that I’ve had working with young people kind of right out of college helped me a lot because I kind of got a sense of where they’re coming from early and I just really connected well, especially with the middle school and high school age groups, and, you know, it just kind of worked out and I’m really glad that I made that choice because I have a lot of friends who are struggling to be actors and it’s a lot more stressful to go down that road than to have the stability of being a teacher in a job where, like I said, I’m so supported by my administration.
Lindsay: Absolutely. So, let’s talk about, first of all, the middle school level. There’s lots of places out there that just don’t have Drama at the middle school level. Why is it important to start Drama so young with students?
Brian: Well, I think a lot of it is it gives them confidence. I mean, the kids that I work with in middle school are just so excited about sort of trying different things and they’re kind of open and they’re less cynical than some of the high school kids so you can really, like, kind of help them come out of their shell and be a little bit silly and be a little bit crazy and kind of give them the chance to be on-stage and to play different characters and to kind of help build that confidence that will serve them in anything that they do as high schoolers and beyond. I feel like that’s the number one thing.
The other thing is it’s good at kind of creating a sense of unity and kind of coherence. I mean, a lot of them are first being on sports teams for the first team and so they have that experience and this is kind of a less competitive environment where they get to work with kids that they might not normally know and – I don’t know – it feels like they’re open to things as middle schoolers that theatre really kind of serves that need.
Lindsay: And I think one of the really cool things you do, you actually teach a musical theatre class for your middle school students.
Brian: Right. Yeah. So, the eighth graders can kind of choose a bunch of different electives. That’s sort of the first year that they get to make those choices. So, one of the electives that they can choose is Musical Theatre which I co-teach with the Music teacher. So, she and I work together with the main focus being creating a musical featuring the students in that class.
Lindsay: Okay. So, is it a musical that they create or one that you choose?
Brian: Oh, yeah, directing a musical, I should say. It’s one that we choose – not an original piece.
Lindsay: Okay. So, let’s get into that. The whole process of putting on a musical with grade eight students. So, what kind of pieces are you looking for?
Brian: Well, I mean, it’s tough because the first place we go, you know, MTI Junior sort of publishes musicals – shortened versions of popular musicals that are specifically geared towards middle school performers – so that’s kind of like the first point of exploration in terms of shows. So, for example, they’ll do a lot of the Disney shows which are very popular. Like, we’ve done Mulan JR, we’ve done High School Musical JR. So, the good thing about using MTI Junior is they have plays that are specifically geared for this timeframe with this age group and they kind of give you all the materials – not to push another publishing company but they give you all the materials that you need.
Lindsay: Hey, man. You know, they’re the place to go for musicals. I’m like, you know, our listeners are teachers. I think it’s important to kind of put out there where you go. So, I’m cool with that.
Brian: Well, I mean, because a lot of the kids will know, the Disney shows have a built-in appeal. I mean, I will tell you, if I put it to a vote that the kids all want to do those kind of shows that they remember from their youth, you know, those Disney shows are very, very popular.
Lindsay: Do you have a challenge when you’re picking plays though? Because you have to use a class and I’m assuming you have to use everybody in your class.
Brian: Yeah, it’s really challenging. There’s a couple of challenges. I mean, there’s one, we ran into a little bit of difficulty where we did, like, Thoroughly Modern Millie JR where you have certain – and this is a challenge that’s interesting, it comes up a lot in high school, too – where you have certain roles that are written for specific ethnicities you might not have that, you know? So, you kind of run into problems where, do you want to cast someone who is the ethnicity that the role calls for or go outside of that box and try something different but then are you kind of muddling the message that the play’s trying to communicate? So, I mean, that’s one interesting challenge to take the group of kids that you have and find a play that suits them because, you know, we’re going into it kind of backwards. We already have the cast before we choose the musical.
Lindsay: Do you ever do auditions in your class or do you just choose parts for them?
Brian: No, we definitely hold auditions. We choose the play and then we’re kind of auditioning for who gets to be which role within the class.
Lindsay: So, what’s that like?
Brian: It’s horrible because, you know, you’re going to have kids, especially, you know, these kids are so young, they’re going to be very sad if they don’t get the parts that they want. You know, we’ll do High School Musical and everybody wants to be Gabriella and most of the kids are not going to be that part so it’s a really, really tough process, especially because we have to work with these kids. I mean, I think that’s one of the hardest things about being a middle school Drama teacher is kids can take it very personally when they don’t get lead roles and you have to maintain that kind of relationship that you talked about earlier with the students who you’re going to teach and work with for years to come and a lot of middle schoolers will get that impression, “Oh, this teacher hates me because this teacher doesn’t think I’m talented because I didn’t get the part that I wanted in a play.” I mean, it just has such a powerful impact for kids that age, especially, you know, having a lead role in a musical and middle schools is a pretty big deal.
Brian: And, when you have a bunch of kids competing for those one or two parts, it’s really tough. Casting is my least favorite part of my job because I know I’m breaking a lot of hearts in the process.
Lindsay: When you set up the audition, what do you ask students to prepare?
Brian: Usually, we’ll have them do a selection from a song and then an excerpt from the play. So, a semi-cold reading where I’ll kind of give it to them to look at and, from the acting side, I’ll give them a piece to look at a little bit in advance and then I’ll have them do it.
And then, the other key thing is to give them direction and see how they take the direction. So, I’ll have a pair of kids do a scene one time and then I’ll give each of the kids a couple of directing notes and kind of see how they respond, see if they do it differently the second time through.
Lindsay: Do you give them class time to prepare their auditions or is this a strictly out of class exercise?
Brian: Yeah, we make this like an in-class experience. So, like, early on in the semester, we’ll have our audition day. Usually, we’ll do it over two days. We’ll have one day be mostly the singing day and then one day be the acting day.
Lindsay: And I’m assuming that you assess. The audition is also an assessment exercise as well. How do you assess the audition process?
Brian: Well, a lot of it has to with, like, do they make strong choices? I mean, this is something I tell the kids all the time – just make a choice. It might not necessarily be the choice that ends up working for the part, but try something. Try to kind of bring something to what you’re doing in the audition. And then, if you get a direction that says, “Try something else,” be willing to go in a completely different direction that what you had thought of in the first place. So, that’s usually what I’m looking for as a director in terms of assessing their audition. You know, did they make a strong choice and are they able to take direction well?
Lindsay: So, how long do you rehearse the musical?
Brian: We rehearse the musical over seven weeks and we try to do the rehearsals during class time. This class is structured that we meet twice a week for an hour and a half each time. It’s like an afternoon arts elective block – different from their regular academic schedule. So, we do most of the rehearsals in class until we get to about the two weeks before show-time and then we’ll start doing some after-school rehearsals.
Lindsay: How do rehearsals go at the middle school level? Particularly when, you know, musicals are intense.
Lindsay: Are you literally rehearsing for all seven weeks? Do you take breaks? What is that rehearsal process like specific to these young performers?
Brian: Yeah. I mean, a lot of it is a lot of time into learning the songs, of course. So, we try to break it up between music time and acting time because, yeah, an hour and a half even is a long time for kids this age to be focused on one thing. So, they’ll learn the songs, they’ll sing the song, I’ll take a couple of kids out and they do the work on one scene together. We try to balance it out so that I can pull kids who are in one scene while my colleague works with kids on singing something else.
I mean, my big thing is to keep it fun. I feel like, a lot of times, kids in a play, the play itself becomes this horrible stressful experience – all the rehearsals and long hours.
Brian: So, one of the things that I try to pride myself on is making the rehearsal time just fun and light and easy. Like you said, you know, taking some breaks and not working them too hard to the point that they aren’t enjoying the process which would defeat the purpose of why we’re doing a play.
Lindsay: You include a lot of games in that respect? Do you have them do character development games or just mind break games? What kind of exercises are part of your rehearsal process?
Brian: Well, we have some fun kind of vocal warm-ups that are very popular. We kind of do some tongue twisters and do a little bit of physical, a little bit of vocal warm-up. It’s sort of like a regular thing for every rehearsal so that becomes a kind of fun way that we start and they shift gears from being in academic mode to being in theatre mode. And so, we do sort of a bunch of standard vocal and physical warm-ups and, you know, there’s not a ton of character work that you can do in these sort of forty-minute really short musicals. But, you know, again, I feel like a lot of this stuff happens, you know, we have this class all year round so we get to do sort of more acting techniques stuff in class whereas, when we’re rehearsing for the musical, we can focus on just kind of making the show itself work.
Lindsay: Why do you think this class is important for middle school students? What are they learning?
Brian: Well, I think a lot of is, number one, it’s a fun way for them to get all this energy out that they have during the day. I mean, they’re taking all these academic classes and then now they get to be up on their feet, they get to be creative, they get to have fun, they get to be funny. You know, they’re learning confidence.
One of the things that I get a lot from parents is that they appreciate how well the kids can speak and articulate after doing a show because that’s one of the things that we focus on so much because I feel like the number one complaint that I hear about middle school shows is, “Oh, we couldn’t hear the kids.” So, I go out of my way to make sure that’s not a problem in our shows and I feel like that goes a long way because these kids in classes now have to do so many of these presentations – get up in front of the school, get up in front of the class. So, I feel like, by doing a show, it really helps to kind of make that less scary because we do this show in front of the whole middle school at the end and so they’re going to have, like, an audience of not only just their peers but, like, the whole fifth through eighth grade watching and it’s such a great moment when they do a show for the kids and they get all the support and the kids are laughing and cheering and they kind of feel like rock stars, you know?
Lindsay: That’s not a bad feeling, right? Everyone wants to feel like a rock star.
Lindsay: And then, as you get to the end, you know, it’s a very long rehearsal process, there’s lots that these students have to take on their shoulders. So, how do you deal with student frustrations, student breakdowns which I’m sure are much more pronounced at twelve than they would be in high school?
Brian: Yeah, you definitely do get some of that, especially, as you said, as you go down to the wire. So, I think part of it is, you know, one-on-one conversation sometimes. I mean, the good thing is I’m kind of co-directing this with the Music teacher so we both can kind of have an eye on kids that seem like something might be going on with them. So, we’re able to maybe pull them out for a minute and kind of talk to them and see what’s up and see what they’re stressed about.
The good thing too is that I’m always in touch with the middle school director who can tell me, “Oh, this girl is having trouble in her classes so you should be on the lookout for her at rehearsal. She was very sad about a bad grade that she got in such and such a class.” So, I feel like that communication helps to prevent any big surprises so we kind of know what kids are going through – stresses and the rest of their academic and social life. So, we just try to be sensitive to that, you know, if we need to pull the kid out of rehearsal for a while. If they need to lie down for a little bit, that’s okay. Not to make kids feel like they can’t come to one of us if they’re having an issue. To kind of make it an environment where, if they’re stressed out, they can say if they’re stressed out and we can kind of deal with it and work around them.
Lindsay: Okay. So, as we wrap on this, do you have a favorite musical that you’ve done?
Brian: You know, there’s a show called Dear Edwina JR which we did last year which was really fun. It was like one of the few that wasn’t based on either a Disney show or a Broadway show that the kids knew and it was just so silly and light and the parts were very evenly spread out among everybody and everybody kind of got their little moment to shine. So, I think that, for that reason, it was a really fun show to do.
Lindsay: Yeah, sounds like a nice ensemble, not too many stars kind of show.
Lindsay: Okay. What’s the one musical that, if you never did again, you could live a happy man?
Brian: Well, the Millie experience was really… I mean, I liked it because it was so girl-focused – you know, you had a lead who was female. But, I mean, dealing with cultural sensitivities and characters who are kind of parodies of Asian stereotypes, it was just the kettle of fish that I don’t know was necessary to open that up on the middle school level.
Lindsay: Right. Right. And what advice would you give to a middle school teacher who is sort of maybe thinking about the musical experience at that level is kind of daunting?
Brian: Well, I think, if you go into it with a “we’re going to have a good time with this” attitude as opposed to “this needs to be a show that can be on Broadway” attitude, I feel like a long way, and I know you don’t want to sacrifice quality but I feel like some of my colleagues – other teachers that I’ve known – can find themselves just pulling their hair out and getting so stressed over, like, the minutia of the choreography or something with the set not going right and I feel like, if you take a step back. You know, it’s more about process than product.
Brian: Have a fun process and have the kids get something out of it. I mean, you always get the music man phenomenon where the parents love it no matter what happens so don’t worry so much if it’s not quite ready for Broadway.
Lindsay: Yeah, and what’s the educational aspect, right? The education aspect is always going to be in your process and not in your product.
All right. So, Brian, you have written a play for us called Roshambo. So, please, tell everybody what Roshambo is.
Brian: So, Roshambo is sort of the official name for Rock-Paper-Scissors.
Lindsay: I love that!
Brian: That everybody knows and loves and, amazingly, there actually do exist Roshambo tournaments around the world where people come and play Rock-Paper-Scissors and actually compete in these tournaments which just seem like the craziest thing I’d ever heard of when I encountered this.
Lindsay: Was finding that out, did that sort of spark the inspiration to write a play around it?
Brian: Well, I sort of merged that with noticing how serious folks are about sports even at the middle school level at school. And so, seeing these hardcore parents and coaches kind of really, really getting serious about sports with kids who are sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we kind of spoofed that through this Rock-Paper-Scissor idea where you have kids who are pressured to be the best Rock-Paper-Scissor player in the world?” and so the play kind of takes off from there.
Lindsay: It’s really fun and I think the characters are really fascinating. You’ve put this on at your school, yes?
Brian: Yes. Yeah, I wrote this actually specifically, I was doing a seventh grade play and I knew a lot of the kids and I felt like this would be the kind of show that would work with the kids that we have and so we put it on with our seventh graders.
Lindsay: And how did they respond to it?
Brian: They had so much fun with it. I mean, the Rock-Paper-Scissor tournament concept was just so silly to them too. They thought it was hilarious and they couldn’t believe also that it was a real thing and we actually, in the play itself, we have these showdowns where the kids are playing Rock-Paper-Scissor against each other and there’s a ref and there’s coaches.
Lindsay: And then, there’s parents who are so insane about their child being the number one Rock-Paper-Scissors competitor and the number two cheating. I think it’s great to take something so silly and put it into such a serious world.
Brian: Right. Thanks. Yeah, because the kids could recognize a lot of that because a lot of them are athletes who are being pushed maybe to the point where it gets a little crazy. So, I think they had fun making a little bit of a spoof of all of that nonsense.
Also, the good thing that I found with the play that I had written for them was that we could change stuff. Like, if they had an idea for a funny bit, I can throw it in and, “Okay. That sounds great. Let’s add a funny bit.” So, a lot of times, the kids would say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if we had her say this,” and we’re able to make changes and add things that came from them which you don’t always obviously get to do when you buy a script that’s already been licensed.
Lindsay: Well, when you’re working on something for the first time, that’s sort of the ideal experience, isn’t it? That you can not only have your play at the end, you have a play that you know works, which not all playwrights do.
Brian: Yeah, exactly, and the kids kind of call you out on stuff. They’re like, “Well, no kid would actually say this.”
Lindsay: Oh, that’s awesome!
Brian: They help me out with the lingo for what twelve-year-olds are talking about although, of course, that always changes within the year. I mean, I’ve gone through the phase where they’re all obsessed with One Direction to Justin Bieber to, you know, god-knows-what’s-coming-next.
Lindsay: Yeah. The two things I’ve learned never to put in a play are slang and technology.
Lindsay: I have a play that literally – because this is what we did, what I did in school, when you exchanged tapes with people.
Lindsay: You made a mixtape! And then, you know, now, I had to change it to CD and then I just left it in the world that it was because that doesn’t exist. The whole notion of exchanging tapes doesn’t exist anymore. It’s gone! And soon phones are going to be gone!
Brian: I know! Now it’s like a period piece when you have that stuff.
So, yeah, I feel like, when you get input from the kids, you know, you must have noticed middle school plays where the kids don’t know what the heck they’re saying and it feels so alien to them and so they’re not really owning the characters. What I thought was cool is that we can make sure that the kids in this particular play felt confident with who they were playing – that what they were saying was, that they had a role in shaping that.
Lindsay: I think that’s important. I think it’s important and that’s kind of where our thinking is that we need plays that are written specifically for the age group.
Lindsay: I get playwrights who try to counter that to me and say, “Oh, it’s important for students to play older characters,” and I’m like, “Okay. That’s fine. You can go somewhere else.” Here, I want and I think the best compliment and it’s certainly in Roshambo for sure is that the characters sound like the age that they’re playing.
Lindsay: The best compliment that I get – somebody has said to me – is like, “Oh, you must have taught middle school at some point,” you know, because it’s so clear and it’s like, that’s when I threw my little rocky fist in the air.
Awesome! Okay. So, that’s Brian Borowka and his wonderful play, Roshambo, which is literally the world of Rock-Paper-Scissor tournament play as serious as sports. I think that’s the tagline for this play. Wonderful characters, wonderful age-appropriate characters for middle school. So easy to stage and just basically a ton of fun. It is a ton of fun in thirty-five minutes or less, and I think that’s wonderful.
Lindsay: Thank you so much for talking to me, Brian!
Brian: Oh, absolutely.
Lindsay: It’s been great. Have you started back to school yet? You must be gearing up.
Brian: Gearing up. We haven’t started yet but I’m already getting all the emails and the paperwork so it’s coming soon.
Lindsay: All right. I would like to get back to it. Thank you so much.
Brian: Thank you. Thanks!
Thank you, Brian!
So, the links for this episode can be found at theatrefolk.com/episode108.
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
So, Brian talked about his play Roshambo. So, let’s hear from the play itself with “It’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play!”
Okay. So, Roshambo is all about the intensity that can go into an organized sport – in this case, it’s Rock-Paper-Scissors. This is scene two. We have Coach K. Coach K is the coach of Team Strike Force. And we have Amanda who is a very, let’s say, intense Rock-Paper-Scissors player – no. We have Lindsay who is a very intense Rock-Paper-Scissors – how can I forget that? Lindsay is a very intense Rock-Paper-Scissors player. Amanda, not so much.
Okay. So, scene two, Coach K enters.
COACH K: Team Strike Force. First positions. At ease. All right, all right. Good, ladies. Now, listen up. The national youth Roshambo rankings came out today.
AMANDA: Oh, how exciting!
COACH K: Amanda, you’re not on the list. Unranked. Just like last year.
LINDSAY: Whatever. Get to the point. Who is number one? As if I don’t know.
COACH K: Who is number one? Well, funny you should ask because the answer is not you.
LINDSAY: What? Give me that! This has got to be a mistake.
COACH K: It’s no mistake. It’s a disaster. You’ve dropped to number two. Second place. Shameful.
LINDSAY: There has to be a mix-up. Can’t you talk to someone?
COACH K: I don’t think so.
LINDSAY: Oh, come on, coach, please?
COACH K: Fine. I’ll talk to the Roshambo ranking committee. You two practice the scipper. One hundred scippers apiece. Now get to it.
AMANDA: Wait! Coach? What’s a scipper again?
COACH K: You tell her, Lindsay. I’m out of here.
LINDSAY: A scipper, Amanda. It’s a standard Roshambo play. You start to throw scissors but, when you see the other player throwing rock, you change it to paper at the last second. Like this.
AMANDA: Isn’t that cheating?
LINDSAY: Duh! Now let’s practice. You’re doing it wrong!
AMANDA: Sorry! Hey, so if you’re not number one, who is?
LINDSAY: Some girl named Taylor.
AMANDA: Taylor? I think I know that girl.
LINDSAY: Oh, really? Well, that gives me an idea. Walk with me.
Now, Lindsay – which is a very wonderful name but – I don’t think she’s going to do something very nice.
Anyway, it’s great humor, really great characters, really age-appropriate characters. This is written for middle school students. It was performed by middle school students and would be absolutely such great fun. It’s such a different type of fun that I think that a lot of middle school plays have for their students which, of course, is why it’s in our catalogue.
Okay. So, that’s Roshambo by Brian Borowka – that’s Borowka with an A. You can find a link to the play with free sample pages for you to read at the show notes – theatrefolk.com/episode108.
Finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every Wednesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on YouTube.com/Theatrefolk, and you can find us on the Stitcher app, and you can subscribe to TFP on iTunes. All you have to do is search on the word “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.