Episode 186: Production Case Study: Look Me In the Eye
Where do you start with a play? How do you come up with a vision that spans across character development, light, sound, set, costuming? How do you execute on that vision? In this episode we have another production case study for our play Look Me In The Eye. If you’re a director, want to be a director, or want your students to learn about directing, this is the podcast for you.
Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama Teacher Resource Company.
I’m Lindsay Price.
Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!
This is Episode 186 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode186. There we go! 186!
Today, we have another production case study and I really – oh, I really – enjoy recording these and I hope that they’re useful for you as well. That’s kind of the point. I hope they accomplish that point. I think it’s good to hear how directors choose a play, approach a play, make decisions, create a vision, and then execute on that vision.
Creating a vision and executing a vision – that’s such a big part of a director’s job and I think our guest today is a great example of creation and execution.
So, let’s get to it!
LINDSAY: So, I am here talking with Kelli Connors.
KELLI: Hello, Lindsay!
First off, can you tell everybody where in the world you are?
KELLI: I am located in North Berwick, Maine, which is one of the several places that I teach and run a theatre program.
LINDSAY: Yes, you wear many hats!
I know you and we’ve been in contact because you did a production of one of my plays – Look Me in The Eye – and that’s sort of what we’re talking about today just to do a case study on vision and the visualization of vision.
You don’t work in a traditional – not traditional sense but you work in a lot of different areas in drama and education.
KELLI: I do. I’m a freelance theatre artist and I work in a charter school that the model that they work on hires people from the working artist world to teach their visual arts programs, their performing arts programs, their music programs.
I also work in a gifted and talented program in the Maine school system. Every school in the state of Maine is supposed to have a gifted and talented program. The function that I have in that particular school is called the Theatre Excel Arts Program and I teach theatre grades six through twelve for a certain amount of weeks out of the year.
I’m also employed as an independent contractor at the high school as their theatre director – their artistic director of the theatre program.
LINDSAY: That is a lot! Do you enjoy the multifaceted-ness of that?
KELLI: You know, it’s interesting you should ask me that. I called a friend yesterday – or two days ago – in a meltdown state saying I’ve got twelve jobs and my worlds are all colliding and I’m not sure how to keep all of this straight and sometimes it’s overwhelming.
The upside of doing a lot of different work – and I work in the professional world as well, I’m in the process of costuming a show – the upside of that is I don’t have to go into an office and punch somebody’s timeclock. That is refreshing and wonderful to me and it allows my brain to continually gyrate in the creative areas which is what feeds my soul.
The downside of that is, as I said, sometimes, all of those schedules in my world collide and I just feel like I need to throw the whole thing up in the air and see where all the pieces land and hope to be able to put them in some semblance of order to continue with my schedule.
LINDSAY: You must be in six places at once. Go!
KELLI: Absolutely! My husband asks me things like, “Oh, do you still live here?” That’s kind of my world.
LINDSAY: When you do your own thing, that balance is tricky because you’re right – it’s the best thing to be able to sort of put your own process together about being creative and how you’re going to put that creativity out into the world. It’s like, “Boy, sometimes, I would really like to punch that clock.”
KELLI: Sometimes, I’d like to bag groceries, yeah, absolutely.
LINDSAY: I’ve been there! It’s like, “Oh, you mean, at five o’clock, you just go home? What is that?”
LINDSAY: So, what is it about teaching and the act of teaching theatre to you that strikes you? Why that?
KELLI: Well, they’re sponges. They want to learn. There’s nothing that actually frustrates me more than a student who signs up for a class and is there because they think they’re going to get an easy A.
I’m there to teach you. I’m there to help you grow. I’m there to open your eyes, to open your soul, to open your heart, to make you look at the world in a different way, to challenge you, to look at these wonderful scripts that we have available to us, and what that all means and that speaks volumes to the world through these plays. Let’s explore that together. If someone doesn’t want to explore and play, my inner frustration is tremendous.
LINDSAY: Oh, I know! I’m always amazed at the ability of some drama teachers who have classes filled with students who don’t want to be there and, in some schools, they don’t have a choice to be there and that they’re okay with that. They’re going to fight through that frustration. That was never my bag!
KELLI: No, me neither! It’s one of the reasons why working in the Theatre Excel – the gifted and talented program – those kids are only there because they’ve been identified. We identify five percent of the population and that’s what the state of Maine will pay for – that five percent.
Once they’re identified, they’re there because they want to be there. They’re missing class to be with me. They’re pulled out of the class – not the same class every week – but they’re pulled out of the class so they have a huge commitment to wanting to be there and those kids just soak it up like I’m putting candy in front of them. They’ll just eat it right up. They love it.
LINDSAY: Oh, that’s so awesome!
KELLI: It is awesome. I’m lucky.
LINDSAY: Do you remember when you first knew that teaching was an avenue that you wanted to pursue? Because you have a lot of hats but it just seems like there’s a big chunk of it that’s devoted to teaching.
KELLI: I think that when you direct a show with professionals – or with anybody – that there is a certain amount of teaching that happens for your actors and for yourself. One of the best things I did was begin to direct. It made me a better communicator and it made me a better actor and that was so exciting to me. It was like somebody suddenly opened a world of doors that I walked inside and there were so many doors, I couldn’t open them all because I was so excited.
I think that the passion for disseminating information for teaching, for sharing knowledge has always been with me, and I just sort of honed in on taking these groups of students that wanted to be better and I just sort of fell into that situation and it became a real passion.
LINDSAY: Let’s move to Look Me in The Eye.
Talking about directing and choosing of scripts, what was it about this script that spoke to you as a director?
KELLI: I looked at the script last year when I was taking a team to the one-act festival in New Hampshire. It was a Christian academy that I was teaching – well, not teaching; I was directing at the time. I looked at a bunch of different scripts and I loved, loved, loved this script but I didn’t feel like it was the right thing for this particular group of people. When I had a chance to direct a one-act play this year to take to festival in Maine, I didn’t even have to look for one. I knew this was what I was going to do.
I love plays that speak to students that are the same age as the characters because it gives them an automatic in. They have an automatic road to understanding that character’s journey because they’re at least the same age. They’re not trying to take on too much on their plate at one time of playing somebody who’s 30 years old with 30 years of experience that they have 16 years of life experience. I sort of gravitate towards plays for high schoolers that have that age range in common.
LINDSAY: That’s always been, well, as a playwright and as a company, that’s always been our MO and, sometimes, we get submissions and we say, “This is all adults. This isn’t our thing.” We get, more often than not, a snotty letter back that says, “Well, I believe that high school students can play any age.” I’m like, “Okay, well, there’s companies over there and over there that you can do that at.”
Our belief is find the challenge within the age. There’s lots of ways that you can challenge a high school student other than making them play sixty.
KELLI: Right! You know, when you break down a script and when you analyze a script and when you really understand what goes into building a character, there is so much there for a high school student. It’s overwhelming.
To add, “Hey, let’s add 30 years to your life experience now and ask you to understand that as well,” I just think it’s an uphill battle. I think I’m asking students to climb a mountain that’s insurmountable for them.
LINDSAY: Yeah, I agree. We’re on the same page on that one.
So, you’ve got your script. What was the theme or the vision that you wanted to communicate to your actors and to your audience?
KELLI: If I had to encapsulate – and I talk with the actors a lot about this – if we had to choose a word for the show and you only get one word – and we did this as a quick sort of lightning round. “Let’s read the play. Okay, one-word impression, one-word impression, one-word impression.” A lot of people came back with the word control and I agree with that because there’s lots of control in the show – self-control, government control – there’s just lots of control in the show.
There was something about that dystopian society that just really appealed to me. I loved 1984 by George Orwell when I was growing up so maybe it’s a little bit of that left over. But there was something tremendously appealing about that and we all deal with this sense of lack of control in our lives.
I don’t know how many times during the day I say to myself, “Okay, that’s in my circle of concern, but it’s out of my circle of control.”
LINDSAY: I love that! It’s the Venn diagram, right? Circle of concern.
KELLI: Exactly! Circle of concern, circle of control.
I felt like that literally just two days ago, trying to make out the FAFSA for my daughter. I wanted to cry. You know, there’s lots of things in everybody’s lives. I felt like my students could relate to that very deeply. So, we went with that and we were very excited about going with that. The kids loved the script from the word go.
I was very lucky that we used this model at school this year. We created a black box. We put a black box on our stage. Put the audience on our stage as well. Drew them in rag and performed with the actors facing stage right and the audience facing stage left. We had this wonderful little black box that we set up and our model for it was three one-act plays. I knew that one of the plays would be the one that I would direct and it would be the one going to the one-act festival.
I chose this play and I was lucky enough that, when we sat down at the casting table, I said, “You know what? I’m the play that’s going to festival. These are the actors I want.” So, I was able to handpick my actors and they were exceedingly strong. That made my job easier and meant that we were going to open up – I was going to open up a great dialogue with these people about, “Hey, what is this show? What are we doing? What do we want to say? Where do we want to go?”
We were very process-oriented and it was something that they had never been able to do before. When we’d do a huge musical at the school, there’s only so much time in ten weeks. Let’s face it. With choreography and music and scene work, there’s only so much time. So, I got to really dig deep with these actors and that was exciting for all of us, actually.
LINDSAY: Well, of course! Just to have an opportunity to take on the process of thematic development and character development beyond “this is where you’re going to stand.”
LINDSAY: I just want to hone in on this, too. Just because I think visual – because we’re going to get into your visuals in a second but – visualization is so important, particularly for high school students these days. I really like that exercise of choose one word so that, instead of being overwhelmed by what’s happening in the text, what’s the one word that this play means to you? Because then you can always come back to that one word. It’s like, “How do you visualize control? What does your character think of control? What does that character think of control?”
KELLI: Exactly, and it’s what I used, actually, to build the set and the costumes on – that idea of control.
LINDSAY: Fantastic! Well, let’s get right into that. Nice segue!
There’s going to be pictures. There’s pictures of the set in the show notes for everyone listening so that you can look as we discuss. The thing that struck me first of all was the very much futuristic aspect, the futuristic choice. Most of the times, when I see this play done, it is in the future that’s just a little bit ahead or a little bit to the left of centre so that the teens are very much in costumes that are very recognizable. You chose to kind of take it further and, also, make it very thematic. It’s very clear that there’s this notion of control.
Let’s start with the costumes since I was talking about them.
LINDSAY: Talk about your decision process with the costumes.
KELLI: I don’t know if you remember that we wrote you early on and you talked about how it was important to include color for each character and you talked about, if the offence officers were in color, that it needed to be gray. So, we took that and kind of ran with it. We talked about what are the overwriting characteristics of each of these people and how does that translate into color. Color was what we started with. Then, we started to talk about status and control and who was closer to the system than other people which is how we – I’m going to veer off for just a second – which is how we developed those boxes to stand on and how many stripes each box had and what that meant for status.
LINDSAY: I’m just going to interject also and say it because we haven’t said this. Look Me in The Eye is a futuristic play that asks the “what if” questions. What if students had to, for one week or for a period of time, observe executions? It was something that was put in by the society at large to encourage obedience and what happens when you are obedient and what happens when you start to question the system and so on and so forth.
KELLI: Right So, once we talked about color, then we talked about silhouette and shape. We started with sort of a military look which is what rule is designed on – that look of up there, supporting the system at all costs. We decided that everybody would have a little bit of a military look in their clothing so that meant that we weren’t dealing with things that were flowy. We were dealing with fabrics that had some body and stiffness to them. Fi, being fearful, we decided – and we got permission from you to make her a female – we decided at the bottom of her dress that it would come out a little bit – that flirty kind of a bottom which would give us more of a youthful feeling for her because we decided that she was the youngest character in the piece and, obviously, overridden with fear.
LINDSAY: I also liked that she was in yellow and that her hair is with the buns on the top. It was all very youthful. Also, it’s very clear in Vio too that she’s got a very military-esque shape.
LINDSAY: Shapes, lines, and colors. I think that is something to highlight when you’re moving from your vision in terms of visualization. That’s where you start, right? Shapes, lines, and colors.
KELLI: We decided that diagonal – strong diagonals – were part of what the society was looking at as their symbols for control. As you see, there’s lots of strong diagonals in the set and they’re mirrored in the costumes. Rul has very strong diagonals in her costume. Tor has diagonals that meet in the middle which is an interesting play on the diagonal. Vio, as you already said, has this strong military kind of a look and he’s got a diagonal on his jacket as well.
We decided that Fi, being fearful, did not have diagonal lines. Her lines are very straight. She’s got a princess A-line dress with lots of straight lines in it. Her dress and her leggings are the same color. Again, you’re looking at that linear straight down, straight lines. She’s got a bar pin on her chest, on her breast, that gives us that military kind of look also but only a tiny touch of that.
Rea was really kind of fun and interesting because she was somebody that we decided would be in green and we had to redefine what sweatpants are in the future because it’s got a line in the text about her being in sweatpants and looking like she just rolled out of bed. Going with that military theme, we had a two-piece. The pants were actually a Jodhpurs pattern so they kind of come out at the sides in that circular. We tried to use lines for her as well that were intersected by these bulbous kinds of shapes which gave her this conflict of straight lines, following the system, and these circular shapes that just sort of blossomed out of these straight lines because she was so unsure. She was questioning. She was jumbled. She has both lines going on in her costume.
LINDSAY: It’s just amazing how you can take something and you can turn it into a story. Everything that’s going on here is you are visualizing the story.
LINDSAY: And it’s not hard to see and guess characters without hearing them. Wait. Is that right? Yes. It’s easy to see what the characters are like even in pictures – even if we don’t hear them speak.
KELLI: Right. I wonder, because we have their names on the front of the boxes as having a place to play and to stand at the window and when you first look through the pictures, I thought to myself, “I wonder if we didn’t have those names on the boxes, if she would have been able to identify which character.”
LINDSAY: Well, I’ll tell you this, Vio is dead easy as is Rea. Actually, you know what, I think I could because I think that Rea is very much just in terms of her physicality as well and Rul is dead on that military look and I would have guessed that the yellow was Fea because yellow is sort of very fearful but what a great exercise to play. It’s like, “Look, here’s five characters, tell me who’s who and what their personality is.”
LINDSAY: And it’s one of the things when I adjudicate that I talk about. It’s like, “I should be able to guess your character’s personality the instant you walk in the room.”
KELLI: Before you open your mouth.
LINDSAY: So, tell me about the set. Again, there’s lots of diagonal lines and there’s also some interesting splatters. Tell me about the splatters.
KELLI: I knew I wanted to do the set in black and I knew that I wanted metal in the set and that’s actually not metal. It’s just paint. I have a funny story about the little metal rivets. They’re googly eyes.
KELLI: They’re googly eyes that I hot-glued onto the pieces. There’s at least 350 googly eyes on there. And then, I just painted them with a metallic paint.
LINDSAY: You just painted them! Oh, my god!
KELLI: Aren’t they wonderful? I absolutely love them.
LINDSAY: Okay! Set 101, guys! If you want rivet – really easy, cheap rivets!
KELLI: There you go! Cheap rivets! I knew I wanted the set black because we had so much color from the characters that I wanted them to be against a black background. I didn’t know what else I wanted on the set other than the metal.
At first, I had this vision of the black and the metal and I thought, “It’s just not working for me. I don’t know what it is.” I didn’t know and I looked and I looked and I racked my brain and we asked. I opened it up to the students. I just didn’t know. We were trying to deal with elements with the absence of earth in the set because I thought that was important – to have the absence of earth.
And then, when we were doing costumes, Vio, we were just going to put him in red pants. Then, I was online looking for something else and I came across these pants with the black splatters then I went, “Oh, my goodness! Have to have those!” And then, as soon as I got the pants in my hand and held them in my hand when they came, I said, “This is what the set is, right here, white splatters, white blood splatters.” That’s how I came upon that.
LINDSAY: Because there’s layers. You look at it and it could just be splatters. But, if you are of the mind and you’re thinking about it, it certainly looks like blood.
KELLI: Right. I did them laying down so they would not drip. I keep going back and forth about the drip. Should they drip? Should they not drip?
What I don’t want it to look like – and this is my fear if I put any more on it – I don’t want it to look like I stood in front of it and took a paintbrush with paint and water and threw the paint on it. That’s what I don’t want it to look like because that’s not purposeful. I mean, I was very purposeful about having it laying down and where I put these splatters and the trajectory of the way they were going across the piece because that’s what would happen. If somebody got shot, things would spread and spray. That was the feeling I wanted from it rather than the goriness of the dripping.
But I keep going back and forth. Do they look enough like blood splatters or is it okay that they don’t? So, I don’t know.
LINDSAY: I’m literally sitting here, staring at the picture, going, “Hmm…”
KELLI: I always tell my students, “Theatre is not a finished product. It’s not ever a finished product. There is always more. There is always more layering that we can do.” So, maybe it’s okay that I don’t know.
LINDSAY: Yeah, absolutely, and the audience is going to tell you. Sometimes, you can throw something up there and think that it is crystal clear what you’re theming and your vision and people come back and it’s all based on their experiences – what they project onto the stage.
We’ve got one more thing to talk about. There are two characters who are sort of officers. Just based on the pictures, I’m seeing that they are not characters. They are voices and a screen, right?
KELLI: Yes, that’s correct. I actually had two actors that I wasn’t wild about at the beginning and both of them were unable to do the show. I breathed a sigh of relief because I wasn’t tremendously happy with either person I had in terms of their ability when laid against the ability of the other five people in the show. It obviously was supposed to be that way for me because, when they both dropped out – literally within two days of one another – I breathed a sigh of relief and I said, “Okay. Now, I have to reinvent, recreate, or recast.” I brought it back to the team and I said, “Hey, guys! We’ve lost these people. What do you think?” Someone said, “Well, it’s a futuristic show. Could we do something else with them?” I started going in the direction of maybe there’s a robotic force onstage. We explored that avenue a little bit and that didn’t seem quite right. And then, I thought about, “Well, maybe it’s kind of like the voice of god coming from above – this control coming from above,” and that’s what we landed on. I got two actors from the school that were quite good that were unable to do the show and I said, “Hey, will you do these recordings for me?” That’s what we did.
LINDSAY: I think what’s really great to hit on here is this notion that the director doesn’t always have all the answers in the process.
KELLI: Isn’t that the truth?
LINDSAY: Yeah! Well, that this is a community, particularly at the school level and particularly in high school. Your students have a voice and they have opinions and to listen to them sometimes.
KELLI: Right! You know, learning doesn’t happen if we don’t open up that dialogue. That’s not to say that, at the end of the day, I’m the director and we’re going to go in the direction that I think is best for the overall piece. But we are going to have collaboration. That’s important to me when I deal with students.
Thank you very much for talking today! I love first vision. I think that vision is the thing that every teacher out there who doesn’t have a lot of experience directing, I talk to them all the time, maybe it’s their first play and they’re thrown into this experience and that’s the thing that every play should start with. “What do you want to communicate? Not only to your actors but to an audience.”
And so, what was the response like? What was the response from your audience?
KELLI: We’ve had three performances. The audience has tremendous things to say about the piece and how interesting it is and frightening it is and thought-provoking. We get lots and lots of compliments on the performances as well as the visual – the set and the costumes – and the film that Kylan created at the beginning of the piece which I did put in the program, by the way, that it was not part of the published work. So, thank you!
KELLI: Yes, I absolutely did.
LINDSAY: Thank you.
KELLI: And I will tell you that I did change Tor’s pants. They are now purple and they match the color of her purple top and – I’ll tell you – she came out onstage that third performance because I bought them between the second and the third performance. She came out that third night and I went, “Oh, my goodness! That makes all the difference in the world!”
LINDSAY: Isn’t that funny? Kelli and I had a conversation because I’ve seen the pictures and she asked if I had any input. I said, “You know, the pants on Tor just look so similar to the color scheme of Rul and that the purple didn’t stand out as much as it could.” So, I love that! I’m glad to hear that purple all the way.
KELLI: Oh, yeah, she’s very purple now. It looks great.
So, thank you so much, Kelli! I think it’s great to have conversations about why do we choose a play, what do we want to communicate with it, and then how do we visualize that – I think that’s the key thing to bring these thoughts and make them visual. So, thank you so much for sharing your insight!
KELLI: Thank you so much and thank you for the wonderful play!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Kelli!
Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.
Of course, I want to mention Look Me in The Eye – a play by me, Lindsay Price, which you can find at Theatrefolk.com or in the show notes for this episode which you can find at Theatrefolk.com/episode186.
Check it out! There are sample pages you can read. I like it!
Oh, there’s a selling point for you. “I like this play!”
Because we’re talking about directing and vision, I really wanted to mention a professional development course in our Drama Teacher Academy. The DTA is just for drama teachers. We have professional development courses, curriculum resources, and community through our professional learning community events and vibrant – that’s right, I said vibrant – Facebook community group.
One of the great PD courses we have is called Big Picture Blocking and it focuses how you can take textual analysis tools, create a vision, and apply it to all your stage pictures.
Can you imagine, as a director, having the most amazing stage pictures? Theatre is a visual medium. We need to see a story unfold – not be told a story.
You can check it out at DramaTeacherAcademy.com. Check out Drama Teacher Academy for more.
Listen! Listen, are you doing one of our plays? Are you doing a Theatrefolk play? Are you doing Look Me in The Eye? Well, we want to see a picture! We want to hear about your experience.
If you have rehearsal videos, 30 seconds – not too long, it’s all good! Show us what’s going on in the rehearsal, in your classroom.
We want to brag about you. We want to put together a production feature about you. We want to share your experience – not only to let everyone know what an amazing job you are doing but also how you approach a play, right? Creating a vision, executing a vision. It gives a lot of value to others to see how something is done.
All you need to do is send that info to us at [email protected]
Finally, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can also subscribe to The Drama Teacher Podcast on iTunes.
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.