Episode 167: Drama Teachers: Solving problems within play production
Two drama teachers and co-directors talk about the process of putting on a play, the choices that have to be made and the problems that often have to be solved. Instead of saying “we can’t do this play” because of the issues, these teachers went to the mat to figure out how keep the integrity of the play intact while using what was at their disposal. An excellent directing discussion.
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!
This is Episode 167.
You can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode167.
So, today, we are talking process – production process – the process of putting on a play and, more specifically, solving the problems that often come up during that process.
How many times have you looked at a play, you read it, you loved it, and the first thing that comes to your mind is, “Oh, we can’t do this play,” right?
We’re going to talk to two teacher and co-directors, Dee Sutter and Traci Duffin. They put on my play, The Gift, last year. Based on some really awesome pictures I saw from the production knew I wanted to have them on the podcast. They came up with so many unique solutions and, instead of saying, “We can’t do this play,” these co-directors went to the mat. This is a great, great discussion on problem-solving, creative problem-solving, and directing.
Let’s get to it!
LINDSAY: All right, I am speaking with Dee Sutter.
LINDSAY: And Traci Duffin.
LINDSAY: All right. So, both of these folks are directors. What school are you at?
DEE: We are at Custer County District High School in Miles City, Montana.
LINDSAY: Awesome! Teachers and directors and they co-directed a play of mine called The Gift. They sent such amazing pictures and just talked about to me some of the different choices that they made that I thought this would be a really good conversation about, you know, what is this process that they went through and I know that so many of you go through.
Guys, let’s start from the very beginning. What are you thinking about? What are you looking at when it comes to choosing a play for your school and for your students?
DEE: I suppose, like most high school theatre programs, we are always long on girls, short on men. We run our program as an extracurricular. We have a theatre class but we also do the play as an extracurricular so we run it as we take all comers. We announce an audition. From the amount of people, the numbers that we get auditioning, we try to pick a play that we can handle.
LINDSAY: Oh, so you guys audition first and then figure out your pool and then pick a play?
DEE: It requires a lot of footwork in advance because you have to have read quite a few and have quite a catalogue of plays that you can go to.
LINDSAY: Do you come to your season with like a short list?
DEE: Usually, yes, and we try to mix it up with comedy and drama. And then, something someone’s heard of so, if they wanted to go off and do something with acting, they can say, “I played a certain character. I was in Taming of the Shrew.”
LINDSAY: Yeah, cool. That really says to me that you are student-centered; it’s really about showcasing your students.
DEE: Absolutely, yeah.
LINDSAY: Do you guys always co-direct or is this something that just happened this time?
TRACI: We’ve actually done twenty plays together.
LINDSAY: Oh, my god! Awesome!
TRACI: We have quite a collection of posters upstairs of all of the plays that we’ve done. But I’m retiring this year so Dee is a little confused as to what’s going to happen next year.
LINDSAY: It’s all going on your shoulders, Dee. You’re going to be the one.
DEE: Yeah, something like that.
LINDSAY: So, once you have your students audition and you’ve chosen the play based on your talent tool, what’s the next step for you guys?
DEE: Then, obviously, we put our actors in our slots. Now, your play was quite a bit larger than we could handle, but I loved it so much. I love a good dramedy and I just loved the O. Henry aspect to it as something classic that the kids would be able to hang on to. So, I took the script home in my bag and kept looking at it and looking at it until I could shoehorn it into the cast that we had. That’s why we made some of the very weird, odd choices that we did with this play.
I called Traci over the weekend and I said, “I think I’ve got it figured out. We can do this play!”
LINDSAY: Actually, you made some really ingenious choices, I would say.
This play is a very sort of abstract. There’s mentions of Gift of the Magi and there’s also mentions of what does it mean to be a selfish person and what does it mean to be a selfless person. Just in terms of having all of these characters in this play, there’s two characters who are – depending on how you cast them – brother-sister or they’re brother-brother or sister-sister or however it works. You guys took the two characters and made one of them talk to a puppet. So, one of them was real and one f them was a puppet.
DEE: The puppet voice. He voiced the puppet differently. Honestly, we were amazed at how well it worked with making that choice because one of the halves of that character was very sarcastic and kind of naughty. And so, that one became the monkey.
LINDSAY: A monkey puppet.
TRACI: It worked because we kind of played it so that the Taylor character was a nice guy but he wanted to say mean stuff so he made the puppet say all the mean stuff.
LINDSAY: Awesome. I get calls all the time, it’s like, “Look, can we cut these characters? Can we do this?” and it’s sort of like, “Well, what’s the intention of the script here and how can we maintain that?” and I think that this is an example of “Okay, we can’t have these two characters. We can only have one. How do we maintain the intention of the characters and the intention of the script with only one person?” and I think that’s a great choice.
DEE: It fed into the whole idea. You have the popular crowd and you have the unpopular crowd. What makes you more unlikeable in high school than having a psychotic break right there? And yet, you know, some of those other characters were such nice genuine characters. They still talk to him. They still put up with him.
Some of the other sarcastic comments and some of his lines are wonderful. The one that strikes me, “My goal is to not talk at all.” Well, obviously, you’re a puppet. You shouldn’t be talking!
LINDSAY: You know, it’s funny because I’ve just been in so many schools where I’m not sure I’ve met a kid who talked to a puppet but I’ve met lots of kids who were on that edge and I have seen people around them just treat them as human beings. Also, we have so many stories about people like that who are not treated like human beings.
And so, it’s a lovely choice and just showing some creativity right off the bat where, instead of saying, “Well, we can’t do this play,” you know, why not put your thinking caps on?
What other choices did you make?
TRACI: The other choice that we made, you had originally written the script and we understand why – because it was a colossal part – you had your lead character as two different…
LINDSAY: Versions of herself.
TRACI: Right. And, in a small school, to find two girls that have enough bodily similarities, to run that in the middle…
DEE: That are great actors.
TRACI: That are good actors and then to run that as an abstract scene in the middle of the other scenes, we thought, “Oh, my goodness, that’s going to be really difficult.”
So, we made the choice of running all the flashback scenes as film and we built a giant screen and it shows up as this weird white square in the back of the theatre space and we had a projector hidden onstage and my co-director was hidden.
DEE: Me! Behind stage.
TRACI: Behind a set piece and she would load up and project all these little scenes.
We had a very competent filmatographer here, cinematographer, and he edited and filmed all those pieces on location in several locations around town and then we showed them as film clips throughout the play.
LINDSAY: Again, it’s a great, great choice.
You know, when you’re in a situation where it’s just not going to be possible to bring something to life, again, how do you maintain the integrity of something and yet use the resources that you have at your disposal? I think that the whole notion of bringing in a different form like that – bringing in film – I think is perfect. I’m sure that your film guy loved it.
DEE: Yeah, it was a great opportunity for him. He wanted to kind of get into more of that. He works out of the community college and he wants to do a film class and I think it was a good opportunity for him to get to know some kids and figure out how they work.
It was great for our actors, too, to see the difference between stage acting and film acting.
LINDSAY: Oh, sure!
DEE: The Kim-Kymberdee character, we had played by the same actress and she did much better onstage than she did in film because she’s almost too avert for film. She’s used to being a stage actress so she’s just too big for film sometimes. Her facial expressions were too much.
We had a couple of actors that were way better at film and were very good at the subtleties so I thought that was a nice experience for some of our veteran actors as well.
LINDSAY: What an interesting experience for them to be able to, like, in the moment, actually realize that it’s a different rhythm, right? To act onstage than to act on screen.
DEE: Yes. As you said, we’re pretty student-centered. We had two actors that were not going to be available the weekend of our performance so we cast them as actors that were only in the film scenes. They didn’t ever appear onstage. So, we were able to accommodate that schedule for them and make it so Bob and Laura were only in film, unfortunately. They didn’t get to ever come and take the bow but they were still with us.
LINDSAY: But they got to take part and those are two very important characters.
DEE: They were very good actors – both of them – and we would have been sorry to not include them.
LINDSAY: Well, what a nice way to be able to do it. I think it works really well and I think it’s a great… You know, a lot of times, I hear from – I’m forgetting directors, mostly – that they want to do it exactly as it appears on the page and they have trouble visualizing any other way.
I just think that that’s another reason that I wanted to talk to you guys – because, in these two wonderful examples of just visualizing how you use what you’ve got at your disposal and still being able to do the play – I think that’s great.
DEE: Excellent! I’m glad you agree!
LINDSAY: We all agree! We’re all on the same boat here.
So, how is it for you as directors? If you’re not picking the play until you’re in motion, you know, what is your process like in terms of thinking about the play and the vision and the theme and all of those directorial things? Do you work on the fly? Do you not worry about it and see what the students bring? What’s your director’s process as you move forward?
TRACI: Well, you know, obviously, when we picked the play and said, “Okay, we’re going to do this,” then you make all of those decisions. I mean, I made the decision to do the filming right at the beginning. We talked about it. I counted it out. I said, “There’s a quarter of this, 25 pages are done as film. Can we pull that off?” It was in small enough pieces that the texture of it worked. The longer clips weren’t until you were so invested in watching the play, it wouldn’t have become annoying as audience. I mean, I think that helped.
I went through your script and I had gotten the electronic copy so I just kind of highlighted, put a big stripe down, and looked back and said, “Okay, where are these film clips going to happen?” and “Is that going to work visually?”
From there, came up with the idea to try to make the set as easy as possible. First of all, your teacher character was kind of flighty.
LINDSAY: I have never ever met a drama teacher like her at all – never ever.
TRACI: Thankfully, we cast a young lady who is a dancer.
LINDSAY: Oh, cool!
TRACI: She was perfectly comfortable sitting there in extended child pose. It was hysterically and she was just so funny and she was wearing yoga pants and flowy clothes and was just very, very fun. It was a fun thing.
It’s funny that Dee is talking about, “Okay, well, all these creative decisions were getting made.” Okay, Dee’s an art teacher and I’m a government teacher. So, she’s like, “Oh, it’s going to be fine!” and then I go and make a spreadsheet of the page numbers and which is film and where it’s going to be set. The Kim and Kymberdee character needed sixteen costume changes.
LINDSAY: Holy cow!
TRACI: Thank you very much. That was insane.
LINDSAY: Yeah. See, I would just throw everybody in one costume and go, “Okay, you’re wearing this for the whole thing.”
TRACI: We decided early on that we wanted them to be in like the same color so it was obvious who was who. So, we put Kim in pink and so we were just surveying the entire cast of women, “Okay, who has pink stuff?” We had enough costumes for Kim but it was something else.
She’s like all these creative things and I’m trying to figure out how the heck are we going to do that.
DEE: This is why we’re a great team. She handles all the checklists.
LINDSAY: I was just about to say.
TRACI: Yeah, she makes sure the poster is out and up so that we can get some people in the seats.
DEE: Make sure the bills get paid.
LINDSAY: I think that’s a perfect teamwork when it comes to directing something – to have somebody to make sure all the trains run on time and to have somebody who’s like, “I think the train should be sparkles and we should have a film projector on the train.” It just means that everything is getting taken care of.
DEE: Part of this is, obviously, we’ve been doing this for a really long time and part of this play was also a nod to everything we’ve ever done. We had play posters from a lot of the plays that we’ve produced. We had set pieces that we had built for other plays that we brought out and put on those shelves and wigs and costumes.
TRACI: I put every script on Ms. G’s desk.
LINDSAY: I’m going to put some pictures in the show notes but the play takes place – the majority of it – in a drama classroom. It’s just beautiful. I just love that there’s a chaos to the set. I love how you’ve hung chairs from the ceiling. It’s a very tactile and it’s a vertical set.
DEE: Yes, we wanted it to look like the play closet but people can actually walk there.
LINDSAY: Yeah, with lockers. It’s a very accessible set in terms of it’s very creative but it’s not complicated, does that make sense? That it’s very vivid.
DEE: I always have felt that, when the curtain opens, the audience should have just like this visual treat and they should know exactly where you are before anyone says a word.
LINDSAY: It is Ms. G’s mind, a little bit.
LINDSAY: But I think that’s amazing, too. I mean, I’m a real believer in, if you really wanted to, you could throw two cubes onstage and, if you had to, you could take one cube away – you know, just in terms of we work with a lot of schools and a lot of teachers who don’t have stages and it’s the cafeteria floor and need that flexibility. But there is something to be said for a visual thesis and a visual, absolutely, we take things in visually. Theatre is a visual medium.
DEE: Well, and, also, we put that stuff out early enough so that the kids can then feed off it as well. Some of the best moments were when kids went back and they picked up something that we hung on the wall and then used it.
TRACI: The sword fight, they put on some hats – things kids do when they’ve got toys to play with.
LINDSAY: Totally, and then it becomes they’re in an environment – they’re not in a set.
DEE: Now, I don’t know if I sent you the picture of the characters in the Marge Simpson wig.
LINDSAY: I do not have that one.
DEE: It says that they’re supposed to be lovers from an ancient time – the characters were boyfriend and girlfriend – so we made them Homer and Marge Simpson.
TRACI: It’s the pair that never got to present their thesis. I said, “Okay, whatever costume you’re in, you have that time break,” where they have obviously presented while the audience was watching the film piece and they’re done but I said, “You have to have something on so that the audience goes, ‘What direction did they go?’” So, they were Marge and Homer.
LINDSAY: Oh, my god.
DEE: It worked out.
TRACI: She’s talking about all the creative stuff and I’m thinking, “Boy, it was so really helpful to not have to put anything away.” The ladder was onstage. The duct tape was onstage. You know, we were able to use all the stuff that you would have on your stage and usually have to clean up. We just left it there.
LINDSAY: Again, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a really neat drama classroom. It’s sort of an explosion of everything.
TRACI: Definitely. Ms. G. is way neater than, well, than ours.
LINDSAY: So, what are your rehearsals like?
DEE: We usually go right after school for about an hour and a half. We go Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. So, yeah, Wednesday night is church night. And so, we practice four days a week. And then, when we get right down to the end, we might throw in a Saturday to build set or a Saturday to practice.
One of the other unusual things that we’ve worked out over the years, the week of the production, we usually like to do a free show – sometimes, for a classroom. And then, we also do our cast party before we actually have the production so that we get our bang for our buck with the bonding of the cast before we’re done because we find that, you know, this is such a huge commitment in a high school kid’s life that, when it’s over, they want to run for the hills and get caught up on their Geometry. So, we clean up and clear the stage the night after the last play and then they’re off to whatever their next commitment is – be it tennis or track or whatever it is.
LINDSAY: I’ve never heard that and, I think, what a fantastic idea! Get the bonding, get the excitement, get everyone worked up in terms of togetherness.
DEE: They don’t really like each other and it’s fun to sit down and eat a meal and we usually try to show a film or something like that that kind of goes with the theme of the play.
LINDSAY: What did you show?
DEE: We showed an 80’s film called Some Kind of Wonderful.
LINDSAY: Yes, of course!
DEE: They loved it. I always try to find something that they’ve never seen.
LINDSAY: Did you tell them it’s the same as Pretty in Pink – only different people?
That’s awesome. Okay, let’s talk about challenges. What were some challenges for you working on this play – aside from the sixteen costume changes?
TRACI: Oh, well, just scheduling. Scheduling all those film scenes because that was done outside of all those rehearsals. It was difficult because, obviously, we had a couple of kids that had limited scheduling anyway, that’s why they were in that part, and then scheduling to film and all those different takes and different places, too. Our local community college has a nursing program and so they had a faux hospital room setup so that’s where we did our filming of Laura in the hospital room.
LINDSAY: That’s awesome!
TRACI: We went to a couple of different homes near the school to do some of those scenes that were done in the home. You know, threw flour all over the kitchen.
DEE: Yeah, that was my daughter’s house that was really popular.
TRACI: That was crazy.
LINDSAY: All you film people, always coming in and making a mess. That’s cool.
What do you feel was your biggest success?
DEE: I think the final product was very seamless. I asked somebody that watched the play, I said, “What did you think of the video thing?” She said, “Well, I was put off at first, but then I couldn’t wait to see what happened.” Because one of the things that’s difficult about your play is that the timeline is by no means continuous.
LINDSAY: I am good that way.
DEE: You end with the scene of her getting ready to leave.
TRACI: To make the apology.
DEE: To make the apology that you start with in the middle of Act One. Do you know what I mean? So, I think it took people a little while to wrap their brains around what was going on. But, you know, I think that’s true of any complex plot – that it takes people a while to pick it up.
LINDSAY: I think you hit it right on the head. If someone in the audience was like, “Oh, I didn’t like it at first,” and then was drawn in, just having the little bits and then getting more and more into the story…
DEE: That’s why Miss Organized next to me was so important in this play. Not only did she have these checklists and we’re going to film this here and we’re going to film this there and these are the twelve things that we need to take with us, we need to take the wig, we need to have the hat, we need to have the jacket, you know, whatever it was, also a big piece in getting that to work on film was having those costumes in the right places because that scene where she is leaving for school, she has to be dressed in the same stuff as when she’s at school making that apology. We had to figure out on our little sheet, our little thing which day was which so we could know what costume she was in so that, as people watched, they would get that timeline correct, if that makes sense.
LINDSAY: Yeah, no, it’s an ever-moving tapestry this thing.
DEE: Yes. I mean, if we had done it the way you intended it, it wouldn’t have been nearly as complicated. However, we can never settle for easy!
LINDSAY: Well, why not? Why not stretch yourself to as far as you can go?
DEE: To the point of uncomfortable.
LINDSAY: Why not? How did your students feel about that in terms of this process?
DEE: Well, the actor that played Kim is by far our best actor. She might go on actually to an acting career is her first choice. So, it was a great opportunity for her – not only to have the weight of that character playing both roles on her shoulders but to stretch herself into film and I hope she’ll try it again someday, but she didn’t like it that much. I hope she tries again. But, yes, I think it was a stretch and it’s nice to take your best actor and push them to the edge of their talent.
LINDSAY: Absolutely. Totally.
As we wrap things up here, what’s one thing that each of you would say when, you know, some people who are listening and they’ve looked up a play and they’re like, “Oh, I couldn’t do that, I don’t have the cast for that, we’d have to change this,” you know, the whole notion of thinking outside the box the way you guys have done so well, how would you encourage somebody to do that?
DEE: For me, I fell in love with the script and I just wasn’t going to let go. I wasn’t going to let go until I figured out this problem and I think you have to have that kind of commitment to what you’re doing before those ideas come to you, you know?
You’ve got to have – I don’t know – the heart and the soul. “I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do this with these kids because I can see this character as that character and she’s going to do so well.”
Also, I mean, we read a lot of scripts. We constantly have ten to fifteen to twenty sitting out there in the wings that we know are pretty good and we just haven’t met the kids yet to perform them.
TRACI: Yeah, we do have a pile and go, “Oh, yeah, this play will work with these guys,” which is nice and Dee’s stick-to-it-iveness definitely is something that I’ve come to trust.
When we did a play not too long ago called The American Car – which I just love – she said, “We’ve got a very small stage. We’ll need three cars onstage.” I looked at her like she had grown extra heads. We had a half a Volkswagen with functioning headlights, about a third of a mini-van with the door opening, and a rusty model T that she painted the other side of on a turntable. I mean, it was insane, but she just says we’re going to work it out.
DEE: I’m not afraid to make things happen. Let’s put it that way.
TRACI: So, that’s my advice. Find someone who says, “We can do this!” and trust them.
LINDSAY: That’s lovely! I love that! Three cars and a turntable.
Awesome! Thank you so much for talking to me today, Dee and Traci! It’s been a treat! Thank you so much!
DEE: Awesome! Thank you!
TRACI: Yeah, bye!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Dee and Traci!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Since we did all this talking about The Gift, I wanted to tell you more about The Gift.
This is a full-length play. It’s mine. I wrote it. I’m very, very pleased with it.
To me, these characters in this play are very lifelike. I want to believe that these characters exist really in the world somewhere instead of just onstage, but that’s neither here nor there, and the play is inspired by the O. Henry short story, The Gift of the Magi – you know, this Christmas tale, a husband and wife, they’re very poor, they love each other. He’s got a watch, she’s got beautiful hair, and they both go to great extremes to buy a gift for the other. She cuts off her hair to get a watch chain and he sells his watch to give her combs for her hair. And so, of course, they exchange these gifts and it’s all about love and selflessness and thinking about other people and what is the difference between being a selfish person and a selfless person and that is the core of The Gift.
We’ll be having The Gift as a main character and her name – she goes through a couple of names – a name transformation among other things. Her name is Kymberdee and her family has been turned upside down. Because of that, she has had to come to grips with a lot of things and she makes this transformation between selfish and selfless and what that means – what that means to her relationships with the people in her class and her family and what her family is going through and her relationships with people who remain selfish in this world that she lives in.
A great big cast. A lot of the action takes place in a drama class where the students are tasked with coming up with a creative interpretation of The Gift of the Magi. That’s in there. Because of that, there’s tons of characters, interesting characters, and with a lovely message to boot.
That is The Gift – based on The Gift of the Magi.
You can read sample pages at Theatrefolk.com or you can click the link in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode167.
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