Directing

Directing: Visualizing the Big Idea

Written by Lindsay Price

Episode 92: Directing: Visualizing the Big Idea

 

Teacher Christine Thornton works in a tiny rural school but that doesn’t stop her from having big ideas for her shows. How does she work with students to visualize a production?

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Welcome to TFP, The Theatrefolk Podcast. I am Lindsay Price, resident playwright for Theatrefolk. Hello, I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening.

This is Episode 92 and you can catch the links for this episode at theatrefolk.com/episode92.

I had a great conversation with high school director, Christine Thornton, and there is so much in this episode. The big thing is that it’s all about the “big idea” and how do we visualize the big idea. There is also a wonderful tangent on stage management interns.

All right. Let’s get to it.

Lindsay: Hello! I am here on the podcast today, on a lovely spring day, and I am thrilled to be talking with Christine Thornton.

Hello, Christine!

Christine: Hi!

Lindsay: How are you?

Christine: I am well. Thank you.

Lindsay: Awesome!

So, the first thing that I always do is I sort of ask people where they are in the world to give people a bit of context. So, where are you?

Christine: I am in the southeast of Saskatchewan, about twenty minutes from the US border to North Dakota.

Lindsay: Awesome. That’s a good place marker – we like that. And how long have you been a teacher?

Christine: I’ve been teaching for seventeen years now.

Lindsay: When I went and looked at your school, your school is very small, isn’t it?

Christine: Yeah, it is.

Lindsay: And it’s a K to 12 school, right?

Christine: That’s right.

Lindsay: Ah. What is it like? So, what do you do? What is your specific field?

Christine: Well, I have a BFA in Theatre and Design and Direction Performance, and then I have an Education degree in Arts Education, and I teach pretty much English from Grade 7 to 10, and then I am lucky enough to teach all the fine arts, including a theatre program which is quite unusual in a small rural school, but we’ve had a very active theatre program here. Well, actually, this is our tenth anniversary this year.

Lindsay: I think that’s awesome and I think that’s something that’s sort of we’ve got lots of folks who are sort of one-man bands in rural areas, you know. It’s kind of good to be able to say, “Look, it can be done,” right?

Christine: Yeah, absolutely, and I know when I first started, the first teaching job I had was actually on a reservation school here, not far from where I am now, and it was extremely isolated. And, at that time, I started something called the Drama Teachers’ Resource Room Online when the Internet was all brand new and it was like an e-group, and that group now, I think, is the biggest group in the world of drama educators and, mostly, it is people who fit that exact description that you just did – they’re one-man shows, they’re in a small school, the only one sometimes in their district – and that has been a really great resource, not only just for me to be able to provide it but also the collective resource that comes from that number of people. I think there’s over 700 drama teachers on that.

Lindsay: Christine, say the name of the site again.

Christine: It’s called the Drama Teachers’ Resource Room.

Lindsay: Awesome.

Christine: Yeah, and, actually, I think it’s called Drama Teachers – I’d have to check it for sure, but I think it’s just called Drama Teachers. It’s something that I just kind of started. I was very active on and then kind of got busy and had kids and kind of didn’t manage it anymore and it just kind of grew and I was running behind the train.

Lindsay: Amazing thing is that it still exists. The thing that I have found in talking with teachers is they want to talk to others. They want to ask questions of others. They want to share with others because, as you say, more often than not, sometimes they’re the only person not only in their school but in their district.

So, talk a little bit about how do you handle being someone who has to kind of do it all without getting overwhelmed with the arts?

Christine: Well, I’m really, really bossy so that helps. I’m really bad at delegating so I think that it’s kind of intrinsic to the success of the program that sort of – I guess for a lack of better way of saying it – “pig-headedness” that I can do all of it and I will just do it.

So, over the years, it’s grown and I’d have a lot of assistance, particularly from another teacher who likes to build stuff, so my parent group grew, and I think, once you kind of establish that you’re going to do it and you’re going to go the distance, people come toward to and you find help where you need it.

Lindsay: Do you use your students a lot? Do you give them a lot of responsibility?

Christine: Yeah, absolutely. It’s very much a cooperative and a collective thing in our school. I often, you know, I might come up with an idea first, but I always will clear it and there’s the testament to that, I found this last drama festival where, you know, the adjudicators came in and they asked the kids all the tough design questions and I was going, “Gee, I hope they can answer it,” but, of course, they could because we made the decisions together. I think I’m more proud of that than anything else now.

Lindsay: Well, it means that you’ve built a community.

Christine: Yeah, and they understand more than it’s just putting on a play. Like, there’s a responsibility with what you’re creating and what people are going to now never be able to unsee, you know?

Lindsay: Yeah. I think it’s also important to point out here, too, that there is a stigma, I think, that to be successful with an arts program, you have be at a big school with a flashy, in an urban center with a lot of all the bells and whistles. And, your school, on more than one occasion, has gone to provincials in your area, have you not?

Christine: Yeah, we have. Actually, this’ll be our fourth time to provincials, I think, in ten years.

Lindsay: And I think that, you know, you can’t put a label on how an arts program is going to succeed except by the people.

Christine: Yeah. I mean, if you’re doing it for altruistic reasons – and, really, we are – success comes to that, I think – not always. I mean, we’ve had our dogs, for sure. But, for the most part, it does.

Lindsay: What made you decide to become a drama teacher or an arts teacher?

Christine: Well, you know what? People have asked me that before and, like, this sounds so cliché but it just picked me, I think. Like, I can’t remember not wanting to do this; I really don’t. I always did art – visual art – and I did theatre. I can remember catching the bus and my parents not even knowing I was to go on audition for a musical in my hometown – I grew up in Victoria, British Columbia.

And I say to my kids who are at Grade 12 going, “Should I go into theatre?” and I say, “You know what? You’ve never going to be able to separate yourself from theatre. It doesn’t matter. It’s either in you or it’s not,” you know?

Lindsay: So, why specifically teaching as opposed to a professional career?

Christine: I did actually work in the profession for a number of years in Vancouver, in film, and I worked at the Vancouver Playhouse and for Vancouver Opera – that was at the Banff Centre.

But, first and foremost, I worked in recreation. I started doing theatre programs and visual art – like, cartooning classes and stuff for kids – and I liked teenagers. And, when I was apart from them, film was fun and it was exciting and it was, you know, cool to live in Vancouver but I missed the kids and I realized that this was the other half to the arts that I needed. And so, I went back to school, got my teaching degree in Arts Ed.

Lindsay: Why do you think drama is so important for teenagers?

Christine: Number one thing is perspective. It gives them perspective more than any other thing can ever do. I talk about that a lot in my English classes, but you really walk in the shoes as the old, I think it’s a Chipewyan saying, someone else’s moccasins, and you have to do it and you have to consider people’s motivations and the reasons why they do things. And perspective is an awesome teacher and I think it develops a deep-seated kernel of wisdom that kids grow from if they’re introduced to it – earlier the better.

Lindsay: Absolutely. I just think that, you know, we’re always preaching to the choir, I think, quite a bit about just how important we think of the role of drama in a teenager’s life and the great things that it can give a teenager.

And the reason that we’re talking is that you produced one of my plays, Hairball. It’s a vignette play and you started sending me the most awesome wig pictures.

Christine: Yeah.

Lindsay: And not only was it really awesome to see them being built and then seeing them on the kids, but just the concept that you went visual.

First of all, where do you start when you’re visualizing a play?

Christine: Well, the script’s really important. I think this year – we did two shows this year, the Moustache and the Hairball – and I think I read over 200 plays this year to find the two that we wanted. It’s a long process in my class to pick the plays.

And it’s based on script – that’s the number one thing – on the dialogue and how we view the dialogue. From there, the next thing we do is we come up with the big idea. What is the big idea that the author is trying to get across? So, the theme, basically. For Hairball, what we did was we came up with we can become obsessed by the smallest of vanities so that’s kind of what we thought the play was about – regardless of if it was hair, regardless of what it was.

And so, from there, we thought, “Okay. Obsessed. Okay. So, what does that mean? Okay. So, it becomes exaggerated.” The first idea we had for Hairball was bobbleheads. And so, we were going to create giant bobbleheads and I’ve done something like this – well, not a bobblehead per se, but we produced a show that was called The Amazing Adventures of Furdo and Fluff.

So, we had built, at one point, an owl. The challenge there was that the owl’s head had to turn 360 degrees on stage. And so, we built this giant paper mache head that we mounted on a bicycle helmet with just a basic screw and washers and the actor was able to revolve the head 360 degrees. And so, because we had already done that, we knew that we could build the bobbleheads for Hairball and so we were going to go in complete black and we were going to do all the characters as bobbleheads.

And then, that became daunting because, as you know, there are plenty of characters in Hairball and it also became cost-prohibitive. So, then we went, “Okay. If it’s an exaggeration, the next step was, okay, we have to cut some of these bobbleheads. What are we going to do? Okay. Well, let’s go to wigs. And then, from wigs, they have to be exaggerated, we have to choose one or two wigs from each vignette.”

So, we read the play over and over and over, and everybody nominated – well, I mean, it wasn’t that hard because it’s written well – which one. Which character is it? So, I think almost every vignette, the maximum we had was two. In some cases, you know, the girls with the bangs that were, well, I call them the Bang Girls but the ones that are catty and they’re pricking out everybody so we had to go with two for those guys.

So, once we did that, we kind of narrowed it down and we knew that we were on to something because the idea was that, if you can’t show the audience the germ of the play then you’re not doing it right, in my opinion. Like, theatre’s supposed to be seen. I mean, it’s good to be heard, too, but it’s a visual thing and playwrights would write a novel instead of writing a play if they wanted you to just read it. And so, my feeling is that you need to be able to see the through line and the theme of the play almost the whole way through.

And so, we knew we were on to something then when we had the wigs because we were guiding the audience to look, “Okay. This is what you have to look at. This is the important thing to watch,” because a vignettes, as you know, go by really, really quick and, you know, we’re pretty quick at our scene changes.

We punctuated it a lot with sound and you want to make sure the audience, well, after the first couple of times, they went, “Oh, I get it now. I’m supposed to be looking at the big head person. Okay. I get it.” So, it really helped with the through line of the play.

So, we went to the bicycle helmet idea because we had success with that before, but they were heavy. And so, actually, what we built the wigs out of were pipe insulation and it’s just long pieces of pipe insulation which are quite light. The kids actually came up with this; they just taped them all onto the bicycle helmets. We scoured everywhere. Every person in the school brought old bicycle helmets. And then, from there, we used two-part spray foam and we spray foamed everything. We did do paper mache but that added a lot of weight and so we ended up ripping all the paper mache up and it was a long process but, once we kind of got it, we started building wigs in January and we finished the last wigs – oh, gosh – it would have been third week of March.

Lindsay: Which I think is really important and really important for people to hear and listen to is that, first of all, there has to be a vision.

Christine: Yeah.

Lindsay: And people can vision in all kinds of different ways and your take is the visual so that we see what’s going on. And, also, I like how you’re always talking “we” so that it’s a collaborative effort between you and your students. Is that the whole process is a collaboration?

Christine: Yeah. I mean, like, I will come up with some ideas and be a little bit dictatorial about it or I’ll have to explain it, but that’s the nature of teaching. They’re learning by watching my process and I used to do that by myself. When I was first teaching, I would go home and I would do all the designs because I had come from professional theatre and design in particular, I would go home and do all the drawings and do the renderings, and then I would just kind of present them like I would do at a production meeting if I was working in a theatre.

And then, I realized that I was missing a huge section of how the kids learn by modeling of how to create stuff and so, like, when we built the wigs for your show, I actually stood at the white board and it was like being a police forensic artist. I said, “Okay. What do you think this looks like?” and I draw and they go, “No, that’s too high. It has to be wider. Can you make the bangs more flipped?” and then we did that and I actually took a picture of it with my camera, with my phone, and that’s what they based all the wigs on, and that’s how we do it now all the time. Like, I’ll just stand at the front and they’ll just yell stuff out and then we go.

Lindsay: Also, what they’re learning too is that a learning process is trial and error, you know? Like, you have to, there’s nothing that comes out perfect which is kind of, I think, what the impression is given if you do everything at home and then you just come in and present it, you know, it’s like it’s all perfect and pretty when you just put it out in front.

Christine: Yeah, it’s that secret kind of entitlement of the creative, right? Which I hate; I hate that.

Lindsay: Yeah, and I think that is what’s really important for theatre educators, particularly those who do plays, that the secret entitlement of the creator, you’ve got to put it away. As a playwright, one of the best lessons I think that I learned, like, I could be precious about the gender of a character but some teacher comes to me and says, “I have all girls. Can we change this? We really want to do this play,” you know? So, I’m going to let a school not have an experience because I’m being precious? It’s an important thing to learn.

Christine: I totally agree, you know, and I’ve been incredibly lucky with the playwrights that I’ve worked with, and many of whom are now good friends, you know, because we went on that, like you’re saying, we went on that journey together and they said, “Okay. Let’s see what you’re going to make out of this show and hope for the best,” you know? See where we end up. I mean, we do everything with genuine endeavor to try to uncover a new way to do it that is a combination of what works for us because I too struggle with that of having a lot of girls.

You know, my lead actress right now, Sam Paxman – well, and she’s called Sam which really bamboozles adjudicators because then she gets backstage and she has this long flowing brown hair and they’re like, “What?” She’s won many awards for playing boys and, like, she played Bradley with the afro scene in Hairball and no one had any clue that she was a woman, right?

And so, yeah, you run into that problem and I don’t think I’ve ever had a playwright say to me, “No, you can’t switch the gender.” You know, I’ve been real lucky that way.

But you’re right; you have to be able to be able to be flexible because, I mean, that’s why Shakespeare keeps living its life, eh? Because it’s reinvented each time everybody does it and a good script can do that.

If you can’t adapt a script any other way, well, it’s a stand-alone unit? Yeah, no, not interested.

Lindsay: Well, Shakespeare’s a good example because, you know, you don’t change the dialogue. You layer something on to the dialogue and every interpretation of Romeo and Juliet still has that same core story – you know, a boy and a girl fell in love when they weren’t supposed to – that never changes.

Christine: And that’s why I’m such a keener on what’s the big idea. Like, let’s look at the big idea. I jotted down a couple of things before we were going to talk and I’m looking at old plays I’ve done – some classic ones.

I did Sganarelle which is Mullier, The Imaginary Cuckold. I looked at that one, I go, “Well, what’s the big idea there? Okay. Well, the big idea was that things are not always as they seem because Sganarelle always thinks his wife’s having an affair. Like, every single thing he sees, it’s perspective again, right? He looks at the perspective and goes, “I believe my wife’s having an affair so I’m going to see it in every single thing she does.”

And so, from there, the design came from everything on the stage should be something that it was not originally purposed for and we built everything in the show out of recycled goods – everything. And so, every character, we analyze the character into its motivation, the character’s motivation and what they were like – adjectives describing them – and, you know, the servant, for example, there was a lot of lines Mullier had about the servant wanting food all the time and it was to add to the comedy but we built everything out of chip wrappers and, you know, we were scavenging in garbage cans but it worked. You know, it worked because the idea was strong and the parallel that we drew from the text was right or what could be right, you know, and that’s not the only answer.

Lindsay: It’s the whole notion of what is the vision? What’s the idea? Okay. Now, how do I visualize it?

Christine: Yeah.

Lindsay: That has to be the connection between what’s going on on stage and the audience.

Christine: And the show that we won with this year, Moustache, I mean, it was a tough choice. That show, that’s a dark show. You know, it’s about the spiraling of a good guy by his Machiavellian moustache and he ends up destroying, annihilating the entire world. And we drew – which didn’t happen till about a month in and we realized, “Holy cow! This is Putin and the Sochi Olympics!”

This is what we ended up with because what we decided to do with the play was that we knew that color is always important in our shows – whether it is on the set or lighting or within the costumes – but what we did was we knew that there was a narrator and the narrator lived outside of the world of the play and so the narrator was going to be white and then we knew that Phil, the main character who was going to eventually blow the world up, had to go from something to black.

So, what we decided to do, because it’s a cautionary tale and, in a high school, especially when we’re down to Grade 7, we’re just, like, indiscriminately killing stuff on stage, like, for no other reason than personal ego gain and this is a bad message, we knew, in a rural high school. So, how are we going to do this? And it still was a bad message to some people – we’ll talk about that in a minute – but, what we did was we picked the three primary colors and the three secondary colors and we decided to set it as if, “Hey, kids. Let’s put on a show.” So, we stripped the show and, I mean, that would be one major thing I would say to people who are looking to uncover the design aspects that they could amplify.

Strip the show down to the very barest that you can strip the show down to. And then, from there, everything that you add has to have a purpose. And that’s what I did with that. Like, I do it all the time. But, in particular with this show, we took everything out of the show, including the props. Everything was mimed.

There was nothing that was real because we really wanted it to be, like I say, “Hey, kids. Let’s put on a show,” so that it was very unassuming and very non-threatening when we opened the show. We started with very happy piano music that was actually a kid playing a really bad, you know, music festival piece and that’s just single piano. We started with that. The narrator was in white. Characters, the citizens were in jeans with primary secondary colors. Phil had a black shirt on with giant primary color shapes that matched the citizens.

Over the course of the play, Phil’s shapes got smaller. They moved to the periphery of the shirt – the outer edges – until, finally, at the last scene, Phil was completely black as were the citizens as they got sucked into the world of this. And so, the color became extremely important in that show. And, also, the set changes – not the set but the costume – that it was difficult to get Sam – who had a wig on because she was a girl playing a guy – and get her to get those shirts off fast enough. But it was so effective and we knew it was the right thing to do once we saw it on the stage.

The other challenge was blood. You know, they killed things constantly. And how were we going to do that without causing kids to lose their minds, you know? So, what we did was we used paper shirt, you know, like, just like squares of paper and we shot but one of the guards for Phil had a drum and every time he shot, he gave a shot – a rim shot on the drum – and then, the characters themselves threw the blood in the air. That’s how we did it. And it wasn’t any less alarming. I mean, it was less threatening because the reaction was sometimes quite severe in the audience which is what we wanted because you got sucked in and you didn’t think it was going to happen and that, to me, is theatre. I still watch that show when I go, I forget the moment where I forgot, do you know what I mean by that?

Lindsay: I do, actually, yeah.

Christine: And so did the audience and then you’re just like, “Holy smoke!” at the end. “What just happened?”

Lindsay: See, I hear that and, see, I’m sucked in. I’m like, first of all, I want to go read this play. But, second of all, I can see it. Like, I can see the theme and I think that is such an important point to bring home, too, is that, when you’ve got something difficult – like, maybe Shakespeare, a difficult theme – basically, you need to tell your story with your design, don’t you?

Christine: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s one thing, especially in a high school audience, and also for theatres audiences who are less experienced with something that’s got maybe a brisker content to it because, a lot of times, when I first came here, there was a lot of community theatre style work – there still is and I love…

Lindsay: A lot of Norm Foster.

Christine: Yes, a lot of Norm Foster. That’s the first thing I did for the community, the first thing I directed for community theatre! So, there’s a lot of that here and we have a playwright that lives in town and we’ve done three of her plays and we did a show called Tiff a long time ago – probably about, well, eight years ago – about cyber-bullying and we got a letter from someone in the community saying how dare we, is this what we were teaching our students?

Lindsay: Oh, my goodness.

Christine: And I remember saying to my kids, “You know what? This is how you judge when you did it – when you’ve arrived – because you made someone so upset in the audience which meant that they believed you.” Like, “It’s theatre, you guys; it’s not real.”

Lindsay: Do you have any administration support?

Christine: Yeah, I do.

Lindsay: That’s good, yeah.

Christine: It’s been at varying degrees over the course of my career because I’ve been here longer than any of the administrators have been here. But, yeah, I do, actually.

They’ve just actually featured our school. We have a very, very large school division which encompasses most of the southern part of Saskatchewan and one of their mandates was to create high-achieving students – whatever definition you want to use for that – and they featured our drama program. So, that’s been good.

And, like I said, we’ve had students move on and you know Brad Hayward. He’s from our region. I mean, this is a testament to what you can do from a small town. I mean, who comes from a small town like this and makes their living writing plays? It’s great!

Lindsay: It’s not the town. It’s not the money. It’s the vision. It’s the people, you know?

Christine: Yeah.

Lindsay: A couple of questions I have are about the actual, because it’s very clear, everything is collaborative. Everybody’s not only, like, being in the play but also constructing it, I’m guessing, the actors also…

Christine: They build it, yeah.

Lindsay: I’m going to put myself right in this category. What do you do with students who feel they’re all thumbs and feel that an art project is not something they’re capable of to quality?

Christine: Well, I have kids that start out that way, but there’s always something that they can do. For this show, we had to find posters of radiation – like, a warning sign – so somebody was doing that with their computer skills. Somebody had to make the posters. That’s all computer work. So, we always seem to find a niche.

But, you know, we’ve got guys that are our transportation crew. This is a funny story because here they were, working, one day. I happen to walk into the library – they’re in Grade 11 – and this gentleman says to another one, “Hey! Have you got the wigs that are on stage left for Hairball? I need the wig list because I have to decide which order I’m packing the trailer,” and the other kid stood up and went, “This is so weird. I’ve never heard you, like, talk about anything that involved work.”

Lindsay: And did you, like, throw your hands up in the air and just do a little victory march around?

Christine: I probably rolled my eyes and made a “pfft!” sound or something. But these things happen frequently in our world here at LHS, but she was right though and he just gave her a, you know, a raspberry or something, too.

But, yeah, he can’t do any kind of artwork by his definition, but I don’t have time to do stuff like that, and for us to move very slickly – because we had two shows, we were early morning, we had to drive – we knew that we had to pack the trailer in a certain order so that the wigs went off in a certain order so that we could maximize the amount of time we had in tech.

I have a good crew. I have people on my stage management team varying from Grade 9 all the way up to Grade 12. We have an internship program on our school, you know. Like, we have 120 kids in our high school.

Lindsay: Wow! And so, how many of them are involved with drama.

Christine: Well, this year would be just under half. We had 40 kids involved in the shows this year. Well, I guess, yeah – under half – pretty good though. A third?

Lindsay: I think that’s amazing. Do you think your older students, because there is no division, it’s all, you know, you have your younger students and your younger students, they’re all together, do your older students do any kind of mentoring or is it just instinctual?

Christine: They totally do and they’re pretty serious about it. We call them seniors and juniors even though we don’t really do a senior and a junior play. It’s just something that the seniors like so we call them the seniors and juniors. But, this year, I’m losing five tech people. We’re an incredibly strong tech school. Like, our program, we’ve had a top stage manager for I don’t know how, like, Deanna Palmer, she’s graduated last year. She’s a phenomenal stage manager. Also, our SRC President. That seems to kind of go hand-in-hand because our SRC President this year is also my stage manager, my senior stage manager. But they know they have to train and so this year, or last year, probably was the first year they came and said, “Okay, I have an idea. I have a couple of people that I should intern,” and so, then, yeah, they’ll intern them.

And then, we have, like, assistant backstage managers and the kids will say to them, like, if they’re talking backstage, the seniors will go, “You can’t talk back here.” Like, “No.” And so, this year, my assistant stage manager had a shut-up list. I said, “What is that?” She goes, “It’s a shut-up list. If you’re on the shut-up list and you’re on that shut-up list more than one time, you have to clean up all the worst smelly clothes that are back here.” I’m like, “Okay,” I’m walking away from backstage.

Lindsay: That is so awesome that that is student-driven though, you know.

Christine: They have ownership of that program, for sure.

Lindsay: What do your seniors do to intern? Like, what is their process for interning a younger student?

Christine: Well, we had all three areas we interned this year and so my lighting designer, Dustin, he will be there from the beginning of the show – like, he’ll sit in all the rehearsals that he can come to and he watches it so he knows the show very well and he had his intern come and sit in the show, like, totally boring, especially if you’re not a theatre person because some of them come to it cold – they have no idea what they’re getting into.

And so, he’ll explain. He’ll talk to me as we’re doing the show and go, “Well, should we put this person to spot? I was thinking about putting them in a follow spot, thinking of doing that,” and then, eventually, they’ll pull out the lighting board. We save the light; we save the lights probably till about when the kids are really getting long in the tooth rehearsals then we inject lighting so that it kind of reenergizes them and then we’ll inject costume. We slowly bring in design elements just to prop them back up, so Dustin will do that. And so, what happens is it’s absorbed just by being in the room and the same with our sound people. Like, we constantly are talking about, “Okay, what sound will punctuate this best?”

Sound was really, really important with Hairball because what we did was we found a song that was anchored to the core of each vignette and it took a long time and it’s funny because, when actors aren’t acting, they’ll be sitting with us in the house, right? Watching, and I’m in a gym, by the way, just so that people know, like,

I actually have to battle for volleyball and badminton to get the gym space. I have a good rig, like, I have a good grid system because, luckily, I had really good administration one year that just let me go ahead and design the grid and the lighting grid myself – we have a beautiful $25,000 strand lighting board so, I mean, we understand that we have more than the average school, but we are still in a gym.

So, we’re sitting in the gym and we’ll go, “Oh, what song are we going to use for Bradley who’s going bald?” and they’ll all be Googling. Everybody just sits there and Googles and then somebody goes, “Okay, here’s one. Okay, play this,” and so we’ll play it and then the kids will go, “No,” or they go, “Yeah, that’s a nomination.”

So, the sound person who’s interning is going to be listening to that and they get the cooperativeness of that, you know, and it’s just something, I think, over the course of rehearsals for us would be three months. They just develop an understanding.

Stage management, same thing – stage management will be sitting and Alicia, who is my head stage manager, she will sit there and she will say, “Okay. This is what you do. This is what I keep track of.” Her stage management binder is the same as what I would see in professional theatre because my students don’t know that they shouldn’t be doing professional quality work because why would you tell them that? Like, they are exceptional at that and kids will rise to whatever you expect them – so will adults but, in my experience, it has been very rarely that they haven’t.

Lindsay: I totally agree. They react the way you set them up to.

Christine: Yeah, and you have to just be respectful.

One thing that I do do by myself most of the time is the rehearsal schedule and the rehearsal schedule is long and arduous and I remember this time, because I was doing two large shows because, typically, what we’ll do is involve every actor and every technician in both shows in case one wins so that we can take everybody with us to provincials. I mean, I’d take them anyway, but I’d like to take them as active participants.

And so, sometimes, it becomes crazy as to where, you know, you’ve got too many people backstage and that’s a testament to the backstage crew, too, because they had too many people backstage this year yet they ran like a well-oiled machine. We could have done it with less. We probably could have done it easier with less but they don’t because that’s how many people want to do the show.

But I’ll get up, like, you know 4:00 in the morning and it’ll take me three hours to do a rehearsal schedule because I had 37 people’s individual schedules for curling, everything else, plus the gym time, and you have to do the schedule. And what I really try to do when I do rehearsal schedules is not call people if I don’t need them.

And so, you know, you’re rehearsing out of sequence, of course, but there comes a point where you can’t rehearse out of sequence anymore and then, you know, you have to wait. But the kids are okay with that and they’re okay with that because, up to that point, they know, like, “Okay, you’re called from 3:15 to 3:45 and I’m going to be done with you and you get to go home.” No one’s sitting there waiting for hours and hours without being used and that’s been long and it’s been hard and it’s been 100 percent worth it.

Lindsay: Awesome.

Christine: And I would definitely say, like, that is the first thing you have to do because the kids will give respect where they get it and they value their time like we all do.

Lindsay: Yeah. No, absolutely.

As we end our time here, I just want to bring this one more question around to visuals and how do you deal with budget? And how do you deal with creating this design-focused production and still stay within a budget because, as you talked about, you had to change your vision because it became cost-prohibitive, so how do you do things on a budget?

Christine: Well, I carry over money every year from shows so we have a good audience-ship and we do a musical every other year and the musical provides us with a pretty good base to start every year with. And so, I try to strip it down again to the least amount of purchases if I can. We have a big costume storage and we’re now at a happy spot where we call stuff now to get rid of it but we get stuff donated – parents will donate things to us if we can.

Lindsay: Do you actively, like, sort of for your shows? And are you out there just saying, “Hey, we need this, we need this”?

Christine: Yeah, I do sometimes. Well, you would have seen it – people don’t know – like, we were happy to have you on our Facebook page and I’ll put on there, “I need three black turtleneck shirts. Has anybody got one?” and, “I need some more spray foam. Anybody who has some in their basement who wouldn’t mind donating it?” and then, the next day, it’s there.

So, we do that because it’s amazing what people have and, if you don’t ask and, you know, it’s been sitting there forever, they always invariably tell you later, “Oh, I had it in my garage. You should have just asked me.” So, we do that.

I use blockposters.com. If people don’t know what blockposters.com is, it’s an awesome thing to make big, we did the 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee last year and we had to make huge spelling banners and all these things, and to go to a sign shop to get them printed was hard. And so, what you do is you just take a JPEG and it’s blockposters.com and it splits it into eleven sheets and then you just glue it together and you run it, for us, we usually run it through the laminator but then sometimes you get a reflection on stage and so, what we’ve been doing now is putting MACtac on the back and then that will solidify it.

We did posters. We won last year with a show called Boy Meets Girl by Sam Wilson which is a great little two-hander and we added an element to that because I needed to get a bunch of kids in so we made giant black and white pictures that the kids marched around on the stage and, when we did it for regionals, we did it through blockposters.com but then, we went to provincials, we actually went to a sign company and got then made into giant posters.

But, I mean, like, yeah, you have the seams a little bit, but it’s high school, you know? It works great and so that saved me a ton of money – of printing money – so that’s one way that we save. And we try to be creative, you know. What can we make this? How can we make this out of nothing?

Lindsay: That’s the only way to do it, right? Like, you start from nothing and you know you have nothing and then I think it’s always amazing where you can take that and what you can come up with.

Christine: Oh, yeah. And, if you reduce the elements like I said before, like, you take it down to the bare minimum, I mean, the best investment we ever made in our theatre was 16 black blocks because we can build everything out of black blocks and almost all of our shows feature the black blocks which I now see is a tongue twister.

Lindsay: Say that five times, fast.

Christine: Yeah. So, that was a really good purchase, or a build. And, you know, we put holes in them and put steering wheels on a column and that’s it – that’s our steering wheel. And we really bring it down to what’s the big idea of the show? How can we make the audience see it and not only hear it? And the less confusion on the stage.

I mean, obviously, you have shows once in a while that are about sets. We did Little Shop of Horrors, we did Steel Magnolias – these are shows about sets, you know, and dripping with stuff and then the puppets, of course, for Little Shop. But, for Steel Magnolias, we took the show and we actually, because the people are wearing their insides on their outsides in Steel Magnolias – those women. We took the outside of the house and put it on the inside.

So, it still is a lot of work but we make it out of garbage. We just go and find whatever we find lying around. And, on farms, you know, we have a lot of stuff lying around.

Lindsay: Hey! On that note, just one last question, how does your rural community react to theatre?

Christine: They’re very supportive. It wasn’t always that way. We struggled in the beginning to get people to come out. They were used to community theatre. We started with community theatre type shows. Now, we have a very strong parent group and they are super supportive and we have a semi-professional theatre company not far in the city center that’s nearest us, about 45 minutes away, and we’ve got that, too.

And, probably the last couple of years, this one has definitely been the most challenging piece of theatre that we brought up. That definitely was a cautionary tale. It wasn’t entertainment so much and they were rolling with the punches so it’s been good. And we’ve had good administrative support from our division, you know. I’ve had good support as a teacher. It’s been good.

Lindsay: Yeah, I think it’s really important to hear that and to say that because I think a lot of people just sort of, you know, shrug it off and say, “No, my community will never accept this. My school will never accept this,” or, “I can’t do this kind of play.” It’s like, “Well, maybe not at first, but you have to work at it to make it happen.”

Christine: Yeah, and it’s long. I mean, I would be lying if I said that, in the first couple of years, I didn’t say, “Ugh! Why am I doing this?” and it’s something that I love, you know? And I have had times where I have said, you know, I have to watch that I don’t start to un-love something that’s so much a part of me because of outside influence, right?

But, again, it comes back to, like, I can’t imagine not doing it. Every year, at some point, I go, “Okay, that’s it. I’m not doing another show. We’re done, you guys. I’m done,” and, like, yeah, I do it again.

Lindsay: Awesome. Thank you so much! I think I could talk on this stuff forever but it’s been a real treat and I really appreciate you taking your time out to chat with me.

Christine: Yeah, thanks. And, just on that note of thanks, I also want to say thanks to you and Craig and Theatrefolk. I just think it’s incredibly wonderful what you guys have been able to do out of Crystal Beach, Ontario. Like, it really is! And, as I’m reading more – of course, I notice it more as I do more Theatrefolk pieces and I see how much influence and how much resource you have provided to people not only just in Canada but in North America. I appreciate that as a drama teacher. Like, the podcast, everything. I’m just like, “Wow! You must never sleep!” You must never sleep. I don’t so you do more than me, like, you must never sleep! And I think that is wonderful and just carry on because we really appreciate it if you don’t hear it enough. Thank you so much!

Lindsay: You’re the sweetest! Thank you so much!

You know what? You said it fully, you know, you’ve got to love what you do and the instant you un-love it, it becomes work.

Christine: I can see it from looking at your face when I look at the profile pictures and I can definitely hear it talking to you. I’m very happy that I’m able to meet you even if it’s just online. I hope someday that we can meet face to face because, you know, I had been very lucky in my life to come into the sphere of people who can add and amplify what I believe in theatre and I really recognize that in Theatrefolk and what you guys do there. And so, I hope we meet live one day.

Lindsay: Awesome. Thank you so much!

Thank you, Christine!

I could have talked to her all day. There’s so much good stuff in this podcast!

So, there will be pictures of the wigs that Christine and her students built for my play, Hairball, in the show notes for this episode which you can find at theatrefolk.com/episode92.

So, before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.

Have you checked out the Monologue Everything program yet? If you teach monologues, if you want to teach monologues but you don’t know where to start, if you’re looking for fresh ideas for your classroom, pick this up. It is designed to make your life easy.

The lesson plans are clearly laid out. Any handout mentioned in the lesson plan is there for you to photocopy and use. The monologue assignments come with rubrics, checklists, and peer editor sheets. It’s all-encompassing. You are going to use it for years and it comes as a downloadable PDF so, when you order it, it comes right to your inbox – no waiting.

Go to theatrefolk.com/monologueeverything so that you too can monologue everything.

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. 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.

Music credit: ”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

About the author

Lindsay Price