Playwriting Teaching Drama

Page to Stage: What can you learn in 48 hours?

Written by Lindsay Price

Episode 209: Page to Stage: What can you learn in 48 hours?

What can you learn when you put up a show from page to stage in 48 hours? Teacher and playwright Scott Giessler shares his experience. If you want your students to have an immediate lesson in problem solving this is the conversation for you!

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

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!

Here is the question of the episode:

“What can you learn when you put up a play in 48 hours?”

I’m just going to let that resonate with you. Play to stage in just two days – not two months, not a year – two days!

So, this 48-hour play project, that’s what our guest did today with his students, and he’s going to share his experience with this great project, this great problem-solving project. Aha! Everything is a learning experience.

Now, I have to warn you, the sound may be a little wonky. When we recorded it, there was bad weather on my end, bad weather on his end, so that’s what I’m blaming it on – weather! But what Scott has to say is so lovely. Oh, I really love this conversation, so hang in there. I’m going to hang in there. You do it, too. All right? Let’s do it.

LINDSAY: Hello everybody!

I am here, talking to Scott Giessler.

Hello, Scott!

SCOTT: Hello!

LINDSAY: So, tell everybody where in the world you are.

SCOTT: I am calling from very cold, Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.

LINDSAY: I hear you. I feel you. I’m hoping that, when this goes up, maybe it won’t be so cold, but you never know!

SCOTT: Yeah.

LINDSAY: Scott, you are a teacher and playwright, so let’s just start with the teacher first. How long have you been a drama teacher?

SCOTT: I’ve been doing it for 17 years, and it’s been a pretty steady job at that. I started in 2001 and I’ve been just working at it ever since.

LINDSAY: What made you want to get into the teaching aspect?

SCOTT: Okay. Well, I had another life before this where I was working in the commercial sector because I went to college and I wanted to be a screenwriter. After I left college, I went through several different jobs in the commercial sector, just in the entertainment biz – both in Boston. Then, I moved to LA and did a little work there.

There was just a point where I started to realize that there was kind of that big, empty hole in my life of, you know, these jobs are interesting on some level, but I couldn’t care any less about them. And then, it all came to a head when I’d gotten laid off at a job and I just couldn’t imagine applying for any other jobs that were available.

My wife and I sat down and sort of talked about it. We developed a plan to move back east to New Hampshire where I’d spent a lot of my summers. When I got here, as it turned out, the local high school was looking for a theatre teacher.

So, things really kind of magically came together for me, all in the summer of 2001, and they hired me on a wing and a prayer because I had no credentials at the time. Eventually, you know, it started off as just sort of a stipend job when I was a study hall monitor, and I think I taught a theatre class in middle school while I was getting my certification. Eventually, they hired me on full-time at the high school.

LINDSAY: And now, it’s 17 years later.

SCOTT: It is!

LINDSAY: Okay.

SCOTT: Unbelievably, yeah!

LINDSAY: It’s very frightening how time just sort of magically melts, isn’t it?

SCOTT: Lindsay, you ain’t kidding.

LINDSAY: And, the older I get, the faster it melts.

SCOTT: Yes.

LINDSAY: So, that’s how you got into it. 17 years later, why is this the job that stuck? Why are you still in it all this time later?

SCOTT: Man, well, you know, I’ll tell you, I’m not really certain. I will tell you that, having done the job for so long now, I meet a lot of teachers that do it for a couple of years, then they do something else. I think I’ve been sort of asking myself the same question. I don’t know if I’m the exception to the rule, but certainly around me that seems to be the case.

I think it’s just that it’s never stopped being exciting and challenging, and it’s probably as simple as that. It’s still meaningful to me. I don’t ever dread doing the work. I don’t ever feel like, “Okay, here comes another show.” I’m always excited to get started and create, so that’s probably the sign that just says, “You know, stick with it.” I still feel like one of my biggest fears is someone might come in and tell me, “Hey, Scott. We don’t want you to do this job anymore.” Whenever that wears off, it might be time for me to get out, but it hasn’t.

LINDSAY: That’s a lovely feeling – well, to love what you do, right?

SCOTT: Exactly.

Beyond that, I couldn’t tell you what it is that keeps me fresh on it, but I think, you know, part of it is that every show brings on a whole new set of challenges. No two shows are ever exactly alike, so you never feel like you’re doing the same job over and over again.

LINDSAY: Yes, new kids, new shows, and you can’t repeat yourself, can you? What you did for Group A is just not going to work for Group B.

SCOTT: Exactly. You know, that was brought into me in Sharper Leap because I’m – finally, for the first time in my entire career – I’m repeating a show. I, up until this point, had made a very strong point of not doing that. And then, the students came to me and said, “You know, we really want to do this show.” I thought, “Well, I haven’t repeated one yet, so that ought to be an interesting experiment,” and it is. It’s a whole new set of variables.

Yeah, there’s a lot of things I can call on to sort of say, “Oh, yeah, this worked, and this didn’t,” but, you know, it’s a lot of years later and, you know, so much has changed with students – student life, the building we work in, technology and all that. It is still a very fresh project.

LINDSAY: Awesome.

Before we get into our topic of today, I also want to make sure everyone knows that Scott is a playwright – and a Theatrefolk playwright! We have one of his plays already in our catalog called Finishing Sentences. That’ll be in the show notes. By the time this goes out, there will be a second play by Mr. Giessler in our – what’s it called? – catalog. It’s called Life, Off Book.

What was it like? I’m really excited about getting Life, Off Book out there because it’s an animal, right?

SCOTT: Yeah.

LINDSAY: Just with the story and the use of movement.

Did you direct the first production?

SCOTT: I did, yes.

LINDSAY: And what was that? Where did the idea come for Life, Off Book and what was it like bringing it to your students?

SCOTT: Well, this is kind of an interesting situation because there were components of it that I had been sort of chewing on for years. The show heavily relies – I wouldn’t say relies on but makes use of analogy.

You know, they use, first of all, it uses the elements of the three-act structure in and of itself meaning that the narrators point out how the three-act structure works and then guides you through the story, sort of making references back to it. That had been an idea that I had been chewing on for a lot of years because I teach scriptwriting to students and, when you find that you’re repeating concepts over and over again, they start to get jammed in your own head, sort of like a bad song.

But there was just this thought of “How can we use the three-act structure as its own narrative in the story?” but it started to branch out. And so, I started to explore. “How is love or other concepts like a symphony?” and so, we started looking at music as it relates to other elements of life. Then, we thought, “Okay, well, let’s go for the trifecta here,” and so we started to look at building analogy through dance.

The third one kind of was the analogy that I started looking at after the writing began. The students were really interested in working with some original material – again, something they could mold, they could shape. And so, I wrote a first draft, they read it, they gave me a lot of feedback. “We like this, we don’t like this.” I went back, wrote some more. We improvised some situations. Wrote some more until we finally got where we needed to be.

It ended up being a really great project because it was the first time I think that we had ever handled the subject of a gay romance in our program so deliberately. I think, maybe, you could make arguments that there were previous shows that may have done that, but this was the first one that was sort of deliberate, and it felt really right because it hit home with a lot of our actors.

And, at the same time, it didn’t bludgeon anybody over the head, and I think the thing that I’m most proud of with the script is that it treated the romance between the two boys like any other romance. You know, we didn’t want to get out there and say, “Hey! Let’s suddenly…” I mean, not that it’s not worth exploring, but we didn’t want to get too deep into the homophobia of things. Instead, we wanted to deal with the relationships of the people themselves and how they handled it.

LINDSAY: Well, they’re also human. Those guys, those characters are very human. They are so far stereotypes. Scott, I cannot tell you how many plays I read where the characters just come across and I’m like, “I don’t even want to talk about this because it’s just so, so blatantly… it’s just written so wrong.” It’s so wrong.

SCOTT: Yeah, it didn’t want to be preachy. We were trying to keep it from being preachy.

LINDSAY: Well, just like, humans going through problems, trying to figure them out. It doesn’t matter if they’re gay. It doesn’t matter if they’re Ophelia and she’s a little high-strung, let’s say. You know, they’re just characters going through things, and I think that high school students, particularly sometimes when they get wrapped up in how they’re supposed to act or not act because, you know, administrations.

I’m dealing with another situation right now where we can’t talk about sadness because, if we don’t talk about it, then the kids aren’t sad. There’s no depression. If we don’t talk about it, then they’re not depressed. There’s so much of that red tape sometimes. I think that’s what’s really lovely about this play – you know, the theatricality of it alone is wonderful. And then, you just get into it about here’s some characters talking about some things in a wonderfully human and open nature.

So, we’re here today. Our topic actually, our main topic is we’re talking about a 48-hour play project that, Scott, you did in your school. I think these kinds of projects are really exciting. Any time I hear about it, I think that it’s a good thing to share just as an alternative, as an option for doing something unique and different with your students.

So, Scott, let’s start with the idea.

When did you decide that this is something that was going to happen in your school?

SCOTT: About six years ago, we have a private school in town. I work at Kingswood. We – no kidding – are about a half a mile away from one another. They’re literally right down the road, and never do our two worlds ever meet as they’re a private boarding school, we’re a public school – different leagues, different everything.

Years ago, they might have had some sporting events. But, beyond that, no, we’ve had no contact with them. So, they hired on a young lady by the name of Guinevere Hilton who runs their theatre program down there, and we were doing a show together at the community theatre. I spoke to her and I said, “You know, we really ought to be doing some stuff together just because, literally, we’re a stone’s throw apart.” She said, “Absolutely!” We met, and we brainstormed ideas.

I pitched this idea because I had seen the 24-hour plays concept. I’d read a lot of the scripts that had come out of it, and I had decided, I pitched to her the idea of saying, “Okay, we’re not going to write it, but what we’ll do is we’ll find scripts that have vignettes in them and we’ll have students from Kingswood and students from Brewster. They’ll have one weekend to put the show. That was six years ago.

We tried it out. It worked wonderfully, and we’ve been basically doing it ever since. Last year, we brought in a third school – Gilford High School. Unfortunately, they couldn’t come back and visit us this year but, instead, Prospect Mountain – which is in Alton, New Hampshire which is about ten minutes away from us – joined us to produce the show.

Of course, as you know, we used Oddball.

LINDSAY: Yes, Oddball. That’s how I know about this because Oddball is one of my plays.

But one thing I want to comment on is, this is not just an in-school one-class production. This is a huge thing which has lots of moving parts with additional schools. What’s the organization element like for you?

SCOTT: First of all, what I tried to do is make sure that the project could be sustainable – meaning that we could do it year after year without exhausting ourselves, specifically most of the work is done within the weekend. We set the dates ahead of time, but the rule for both the teachers and the students is that we do all of the production work within the weekend.

So, things like the lighting cues, the sound cues, the costuming, the set building, all of those things begin that Saturday morning and we do our first read-aloud that Saturday morning. This way, we don’t feel like there’s a ton of prep work that we have to do ahead of time. So, we’ll meet at Saturday morning at 9:00 AM. We’ll do the read-aloud.

There will be students that’ll be in charge of costume. There will be students that’ll be in charge of set. There will be students that’ll be in charge of tech. And then, of course, you’ve got your cast members.

Our biggest expense on the weekend is probably feeding all of them. We’re very fortunate in the arts centre to have a full scene shop and a full costume room. So, it’s not as situation where you have to build it from scratch, if you will.

LINDSAY: Well, that’s good. I totally understand about the feeding aspect probably being the biggest expense.

How many students are involved?

SCOTT: We had 26 actors plus about six crew.

LINDSAY: How many adults in the three schools would you say?

SCOTT: Five. There was Guinevere from Brewster, and then we had Cathy as well as Megan and Brian from Prospect and then myself.

LINDSAY: And you felt that that was a good ratio? One adult to five kids, approximately?

SCOTT: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, one of the things we tell the students when we start the weekend is they’re going to be constructing their own scenes. What I mean by that is that the adults aren’t going to direct the scenes for them. What we will do is we will watch the scenes and give them feedback. Essentially, each group is given a workspace within the building – a classroom somewhere – and they will plan their own blocking. They visit the scene shop for props and set. They visit the costume room to look at choices on costume. And then, they will get some stage time, and that’s where the adults basically live. They sit in the audience and they look while they’re onstage.

LINDSAY: Do your students sign up? “I’m going to be an actor, I’m going to be a crew.” You already know going into the weekend who’s doing what jobs?

SCOTT: Yes, and what we will also do, normally, most times when we do this, we’ll make sure we will meet on that Saturday morning and we’ll have notes about the script. This is where your website was actually really helpful for this because you list out each character, how many lines each character has – the size of each role, if you will. That was actually really helpful because that allowed us to figure out which actors can handle which things.

We had to double up in some places. We had some actors that were fresh in their first show – like, they’d never acted before. There were some actors that had done acting for four years. With the breakout, we were able to quickly look at which actor from each school could handle which roles because we don’t audition. We just merely assign the roles to them.

LINDSAY: Ah, that was going to be my next question! What was the audition process like?

So, you don’t audition. You assign. That’s very good to know. Yes, and that’s good to know too about the breakdown on the website. That was a new thing for 2016 and 2017. One poor guy put in many, many, many man hours going through every play and counting every line. It’s good to hear it was of good use!

Okay. So, you get there, you do a read-through, and then they start working on their own. Where do you expect groups to be at the end of Saturday?

SCOTT: Our hope – and I want to emphasize that word – our hope is that they have been able to memorize their scene, that they are comfortable enough that we can move on to the tech rehearsals which will be happening on Sunday. That isn’t always the case, and the thing is that, when we first did this, the Saturday hours were much longer.

We actually started on Friday night, rehearsed all of Saturday until maybe about 9:00 and ended at 11:00. We trimmed it out because, essentially, there’s only so long you can ask a kid to be working on material before they just burn out.

The reality of it is that we’ll finish up probably around 6:30 or 7:00. We’ll eat again – as they do. And then, we send them home because what they can do is they go home. They’re in a new environment. They’re not off-book. They can just sort of spend the night at their house just drilling that, and they can come back the next day, fresh and ready to go.

But the idea is that they’re ready to tech the show the next day.

LINDSAY: So, day one is working on it and, hopefully, they’ve got their lines memorized by the end. I’m sure the time limit really forces them into action. I always say that, if you give students four months, then they’re going to be ready in four months. If you give them one day, they’ll be ready in one day, you know?

SCOTT: I know that, when we get to the end of the weekend, the fellow directors and I are always asking ourselves, “Why do we take eight weeks to put a show together?” but, obviously, there are reasons.

You know, it is one of those models that has worked so well over the years. I’m just so pleased with the experience that the students get in a short amount of time; that they are able to then reapply to the next project; that it’s one of those things that, I suppose, when I’m older and have more time in my life, I might do it two or three times a year in different forms just because of what it teaches you quickly.

LINDSAY: Well, what does it teach you quickly?

SCOTT: Well, it’s funny you should ask!

First of all, I think that it takes you through that cycle of understanding your character and you’re forced to sort of accelerate the process of understanding your character. But, beyond that, you know, it does show the students some things. I mean, we just kind of snarkily point out, “Look, if you can memorize your part in one day, why would you it take you normally four weeks?”

Beyond that, there is this experience that a lot of actors – including myself when I did community theatre – you get to the end of the show and you step offstage and then you’re driving home, and you realize, “Oh, wait a minute, I could have done this with my character,” but you hold on to that and you apply it to the next show. Basically, repetition is its own best teacher.

The students, for instance, the ones that are coming from Brewster and Prospect take a group of kids to a festival and they have to perform on somebody else’s stage. You’re learning how to perform outside your own environment.

I think the biggest thing that they get out of this is problem solving. First of all, they’re forced to block their own scenes. The adults aren’t going to do that for them. They’ve got to take any experience they may have had being in a show and now apply it because, quite often, a kid can do theatre for four years and, during those four years’ time, the blocking is constantly done for them by whatever teaching. In this environment, they’ve got to do that themselves.

In addition to that, they don’t have all the materials in the world to perform their scene. Things like props and costumes. We don’t have everything. We have actually probably very little that the script would demand. And so, in some places, they’ve got to cobble something together. In some cases, they’ve just got to say, “Well, how do we do this scene without actually having the item?” So, there’s big problem solving.

And then, there’s that communication. They’re working with people that are brand new to the situation, that they just met, that they haven’t worked with before, and that they have to get to know and learn how to work with very quickly.

One example of that might be that we had four or five students that come in with different skill levels at the same time. We have somebody who’s been working on shows for four years. And then, you have another kid that comes in that literally has never done a show before. They have to work with one another and they’ve got to know how to make that work in a way that isn’t going to get hostile or anything. I guess that would be the way that I would describe it. I wouldn’t say hostile because none of these kids ever get hostile, but they’ve got to learn how to work with one another and communicate with one another.

LINDSAY: I think that’s lovely. I think there’s nothing more important than learning how to problem-solve.

SCOTT: Yeah.

LINDSAY: Awesome. How long do they get with tech? How long do they get to that before you start running the shows?

SCOTT: Let me think. They get three hours’ worth of tech. The first time through, it is just a cue to cue, so our lights and sound people have some possible way of surviving the production. Then, from there, we’ll do a full run through. If it’s necessary to do it twice, we will.

This time around, things went so smoothly that we didn’t need to. They were so ready that we had one full run through, lights, sound, costume, set and – bam! – they were ready to go.

LINDSAY: Awesome. And then, what time is your show?

SCOTT: The show is at 6:00 on Sunday night.

LINDSAY: Do you give the audience an overview? Do you set the scene and say, “Hey! These guys walked in yesterday”? Do you let the performance speak for itself?

SCOTT: We do tell them because I think it’s a fascinating enough concept that it’s worth knowing before you start. You know, we won’t harp on it too much, but we do want to explain to them how it was put together. You know, obviously, it’s going to be a little bit more rough around the edges because of the fact that they’ve only had that 48 hours to put it together. But, you know, I’m always amazed at how sharp it looks when they do it. Their senses are heightened.

It’s that old adage of I’d rather have the show go on a little under-rehearsed than a little over-rehearsed.

LINDSAY: I hear you. When it’s under-rehearsed, everybody is then on their toes, right?

SCOTT: Right.

LINDSAY: Everyone is actually focused as opposed to bored.

SCOTT: Right! You can see it.

You know, we had the same phenomenon with our fall musical. It was one of those musicals at the beginning of the week when we were running rehearsals. I was thinking to myself, “Is this thing going to make it?” You know, we had probably, in the end, one of our most brilliant musicals ever because, you know, the adrenaline was still running. They were still exploring and discovering the day before we went onstage.

LINDSAY: Awesome. That’s wonderful.

As we wrap up, what two pieces of advice would you give to a teacher who is listening to this and saying, “Hey! This sounds like a good idea!” What would two pieces of advice be for that person?

SCOTT: The first one, I don’t know if it can count as the first one, but I would say, “Do it!”

It’s scary to think about before you do it for the first time but absolutely do it. You can come up with a thousand reasons why not to. You can get close and get cold feet and say, “You know what? I think I’m going to postpone it.” Don’t. Just get in there and realize exactly how easy it can be.

But, if I were to give more practical advice, I would absolutely tell them to find a script that demands reasonable goals. One of the keys to success on a project like this is a script with vignettes – short vignettes – ones that you can give to students about five minutes of scene time to work with that they can work with and then set them free and don’t be afraid to just say, “All right, go off and figure it out.”

You don’t have to micro-manage kids. They can work it through. They can do all of that on their own. Let them be free to work these problems out on their own because they will.

I guess those would be the two elements I would recommend.

LINDSAY: Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! Awesome! Thank you!

Of course, it was a great success, right?

SCOTT: Yeah. Oh, absolutely! This was one of the best years we had. Lindsay, I will tell you – without qualification – this was probably the best script we worked with. It was just the right mixture. The scenes were of the perfect length.

We’re talking about Oddball.

The subject matter was perfect. It was the right combination of comedy and drama. It was the perfect script to work with. It also required a lot of different roles because you’ve got so many schools coming together.

It’s hard to find a one-act that is vignette-oriented and that can take that many different people. So, this was the script to work with, if you will.

LINDSAY: Well, I’m so glad I played a very tiny part in your success!

Thank you so much for talking to me, Scott!

SCOTT: You’re welcome! Thank you!

LINDSAY: Thank you, Scott!

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

It’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play!

So, the play that Scott used with his 48-hour play project is called Oddball. I’ve put the link in the show notes and you can find it also at Theatrefolk.com where there are sample pages, so you can read before you buy.

You can also find two of Scott’s plays in the show notes and over at Theatrefolk.com – of course!

First, we have Finishing Sentences. I adore the main character in Finishing Sentences. This is a play that just forces you to look at the human side of people that we so often miss.

Speaking of human, you have got to go over to Theatrefolk.com and read the sample pages for Scott’s play – Life, Off Book. In the play, Ophelia is a phenomenal dancer and actress who is constantly afraid. Jeb is Ophelia’s mild-mannered fake boyfriend who is also a closeted gay man. What happens when they have to tear themselves away from the script and live life off book? So many opportunities here for character development and for discussion. What does life off book mean? And opportunities to showcase students with all kinds of different skill sets.

You can find the links in the show notes at Theatrefolk.com/episode209 or just head on over to Theatrefolk.com.

Finally, where can you find this podcast? Go to Theatrefolk.com/podcast and there you will see we are on iTunes, Android, Google Play, Stitcher, and more. That’s Theatrefolk.com/podcast.

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.

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Lindsay Price

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