Episode 179: The Production Classroom
Have you considered putting on a play with an advanced class, during class time? Have you ever tried an in-class production and struggled with the process? In this podcast Karen Loftus highlights the steps she went through to create and implement The Production Classroom.
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 179 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode179.
Today, we are talking about a great, great long-term project that you can do with an advanced class. This can take up a whole semester or even a whole year – depending on how long you have your students.
The ultimate goal, I think, with a drama class is to have them move through the entire process of putting on a play – right from audition to performance. I know that this is something many teachers struggle with, right?
How do you encourage accountability? What if students don’t listen to their peers? What do the tech students do during rehearsals?
We are talking about the production classroom and all of these questions – and more – are answered in today’s conversation.
So, let’s get to it.
LINDSAY: I am speaking with Karen Loftus.
KAREN: Hello there!
LINDSAY: Karen is a long-time friend to Theatrefolk. I was trying to remember when we first met. I know it was Florida and I know it was a conference and I think it was Jacksonville. Does that right a bell?
KAREN: Yeah, I think it was, too. I do.
LINDSAY: I think so, and I know that you had just done Circus in Olympus and I think that was, was that the first Theatrefolk play you did?
KAREN: No, first Theatrefolk play for us is we did a really great night where we did Emotional Baggage and Tick Tock in the same night. We called it “A Night with Few Words” and it went on really, really well.
LINDSAY: Oh, that’s awesome. I’m not sure I knew that story. I knew that you had done those plays.
Karen, you have had – I’m going to call it amazing – an amazing journey because, when we first met, you were a high school teacher in Florida and, now, you’re in New York and you’ve had a variety of jobs but your job now – well, from the outside, it kind of sounds a little exciting, right?
KAREN: It is! I’m an education production manager for Roundabout Theatre Company now in New York. I actually am managing a program where we’re training technical – we’re training students 18 to 24 in technical theatre. It’s exciting because we’re partnering with IATSE – International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union of theatre technicians – and they’re working with us to help train these students. And so, it is, it’s really exciting.
LINDSAY: Yeah, I love that. I think, to be able to train them but also, like, actually in a theatre, they’re able to – I’m assuming – actually apply the things that they’re learning directly in production.
KAREN: Yeah, they are. We normally will go to downtown spaces because there are union houses so there’s situations there, but nothing beats hands-on. Nothing beats just getting right into it, you know?
LINDSAY: Which is an amazing segue which was not planned but, as you were talking, I’m like, “Hey! Segue time!” to what we’re going to talk about today.
What we’re going to talk about is the production classroom and the ability for you to actually – you, the listening you, I know who you are; I’ve met you, I know who you are – for you to be able to plan and implement and execute doing shows in your classroom – both onstage and off.
Karen, how many of these did you put together in your time?
KAREN: Wow! Well, we would do, I’m a fan of the one-act model in the production classroom, personally. It allowed us to utilize more students that way. But I want to say at least about four or five years of doing a fall version and a spring version with my Drama 2, 3, and 4 class.
LINDSAY: The whole point of it was to turn everything over to your students, right?
LINDSAY: Did you direct or did the students direct?
KAREN: In the fall, I would direct. In the spring, it would be original work, also directed by the students.
LINDSAY: We’re talking that students are directing, stage managing, doing the costume, doing the props, acting, marketing – all of the departments of a theatre company – that’s what was happening in your classroom, wasn’t it? They basically put together a theatre company.
KAREN: Yeah, they did, and it was nice because it was kind of a microcosm of the way we had structured our drama department in general where most theatre drama clubs or theatre programs have a president or a vice-president. We had originally broken those roles down into things that mimic to theatre company.
We just took that concept and transitioned it into the classroom to produce a show within a class period.
LINDSAY: I know that a lot of people listening would love to do this and all they can see are pitfalls.
KAREN: Yeah, it’s scary because you want to work to engage all your students. When you’re in a rehearsal situation, you can keep many of the actors engaged and things like that, but what are you doing? What’s going on with your production team? What are they working on? How do you know they’re working on it? How do you gauge how they’re doing? That’s really where structure, procedures, and student leaders or department heads come into play.
We all know that, when we give students ownership of a project, they get a little bit more excited about it because they’re invested in the outcome of it. So, having that strong student that you have be your production manager is a way to acknowledge their ability and also have them help you so that it isn’t you having to do everything all the time.
LINDSAY: Awesome. Let’s talk about those three things and we’ll start with student leaders – structure, procedure, and student leaders.
In your particular production classroom, you had a mixed class, right? We had Drama 2, 3, and 4 all in the same class.
KAREN: Yeah, that’s correct.
LINDSAY: So, when you were looking for student leaders and your student leaders were, as you say, they were the production manager, the stage manager – like, the high-ranking positions in a theatre company – how did you go about deciding who was going to be in those roles?
KAREN: You know, I knew the students a little bit – not all of them. Some were transfer students or students I didn’t know quite as well. But I would get to know them in the beginning of the year. I would kind of gauge it on their past work but I would also ask the students who were leaders. Who did they think could lead them? Who would they listen to? Who would they trust? So, that kind of student skill survey, finding out what the students themselves were interested in doing, asking them what they thought they were good at doing, and then asking them who they thought were the class leaders and getting their input on it helped with the decision-making as well.
LINDSAY: That’s a really interesting thing to have at the beginning of your production classroom – find out from the students what they think their skills are.
KAREN: Yeah, and some want to do certain things but may not have those skills yet. So, it’s important to not only ask them but perhaps add some questions into that survey that lets you see their drawing ability or lets you see if they understand how to understand the concept of scale right off the bat and things like that. You gauge by asking them for their opinion and I think, a lot of times, students are really quite honest, to be honest with you, in these surveys. They’ll tell you what they think they’re good at. They’ll tell you what they think their friends are good at as well. By having that buy-in, if enough students are saying, “We think this person would be a great production manager,” you then have kind of their consent and their agreement and they’re going to listen to that person.
LINDSAY: Yeah, it’s like they’re doing the work for you instead of picking someone just because you think that they’re good, they would be suitable for the role. But, by getting student feedback, I love that word, that whole notion of buy-in, it must be just so important in that situation.
KAREN: Yeah, definitely. You know, you understand that, with students, there are issues – personality issues, cliques and things like that – and you try to work through those but you know that you have multiple leadership positions. It isn’t like you’re handing this over to one person. So, I always like to make the strongest person in the situation the production manager because that’s one of the more challenging jobs. But the position of stage manager is obviously very challenging as well as is assistant director. Those three positions provide an opportunity for multiple kids. That way, if you’re getting feedback that multiple students would be great leaders you at least have other positions to place them in as well.
LINDSAY: When you are putting together your departments – you’ve got your costume department and I guess there’s props and scenic and marketing – do you deal with that as well? Is there one person in there? Or are you dealing with leadership within a department as well?
KAREN: Yeah, there is also going to be leadership within a department as well. In the past, we defined that leadership more along the lines of who the designer is but what’s interesting is, even, for example, the costume shop, the costume department itself, while the costume designer is, in essence, the leader, the other people in the department, there are also supporting leadership positions like the costume shop manager and the wardrobe supervisor. So, while the costume designer may begin as the department head, it is again shared between three people – the costume shop manager for the creation or collection of the costumes, and then the wardrobe supervisor who kind of takes over during tech and performance.
LINDSAY: So, I really like that everybody has a job title. It’s not just “this is the costume department” but “you are the designer” “you are the wardrobe supervisor” – do you find that that really helps? Not only are you dividing your production work up into the different departments but that you’re also dividing up roles and giving roles specific names, does that help a student?
KAREN: It does. It does and it gives them that sense of pride – that sense of ownership – but it also teaches them how an actual theatre company functions. We discuss the fact that certain theatre companies may use different terms for their roles. But they then know what their responsibilities are. While I ask the departments to function as a department which means they all must achieve the goals together, in the end, each person has their own set of goals that they’re ultimately responsible for. Others may help them with it but, when all is said and done, and if it isn’t finished, you know, I would be looking to that person – like, “Why wasn’t that completed?” kind of thing.
LINDSAY: So, let’s stick with that for just a second because this kind of sounds like the question that everybody has when they’re talking about putting a production in your class and we’ve just talked about it. How do we keep everybody engaged? Not only is everyone divided in departments and everyone has a role, it sounds like everybody has group tasks and individual tasks to accomplish.
KAREN: Yeah, definitely. It tends to fall into about three tasks per person – that they’re ultimately responsible for and that they are helping each other with everything so there’s always something for someone to do because that is the thing we kind of live in fear in – that kid that’s like, “I’m finished!” So, there’s always something to do, someone to help.
For example, the costume designer, they’re responsible for reading the script and coming up with the design or coming up with the costume requirements. They’re also the one that’s going to create some type of display or vision board or a design analysis where the wardrobe supervisor is going to focus more on the quick changes, creating a quick-change sheet or organizing how they’re going to organize the dressing rooms, how they’re going to check costumes out and back in again. They each have a unique thing to do. They have paperwork or some type of presentation they may have to put together.
And then, I think the key is to make sure that you take time for the students to share the work that they’re doing with the rest of the class. It does two things – it will allow them to share and take pride in what they’re doing but it’ll also keep them on task because they’re like, “Oh, I have to show something tomorrow.” By having those check-ins and those sharing moments brings the company together but it also gives everybody specific deadlines so not everyone’s rushing at the end to try to get everything done.
LINDSAY: Ah! So, like, “This is so smart!” This is part of the procedure and part of the procedure is that, on X rehearsal day, the costume department has to present where they are to everybody.
KAREN: Exactly. They’re going to present to the company where they are in their process, what they have completed so far, and that’s important that they can show what they’ve been working on. Each department is going to have to do that multiple times throughout the process.
I think it also is helpful because it gives those who’ve been cast an appreciation for the production side of things as well. It gives the departments a deadline. It allows them to take pride when they share. And then, it allows the actors to see the amount of work that’s been put in on the production side.
LINDSAY: Let me just reiterate a couple of things.
With the production classroom, you want to talk to your students and kind of assess, get from them their feedback and what they think they might be good at and what they might do, find out from them who they think they would follow as a student leader and put those students into theatre company positions where people are going to have to listen to them – like, stage manager and assistant director and production manager.
When you divide up your class into the different production departments, make sure everybody has not only a role title but that they have specific tasks that they have to perform as a group but also individually and that, throughout the rehearsal process, they should be sharing where they are with the entire class so that there’s a responsibility to getting tasks done but also sharing and showing everybody the work that is involved on both sides of the table.
Let’s go back to the whole structure of what a production classroom might look like, you know, from the beginning. What’s a first step that you would suggest teachers take and putting together a production classroom?
KAREN: I think the first step would be taking – I use a silly term – “production situation analysis.”
LINDSAY: Oh, that’s not silly! Those are big words!
KAREN: It sounds so very – I don’t know. But the idea is that you’re just basically taking stock of your resources and your situation so that you can choose the best show for your classroom and so that you’re aware of what you can do. A lot of times, we tend to bite off more than we can chew. It’s the idea that you’re asking yourself, “How much time do I have? How can I configure my space in the best way possible for this project? Where are the students going to work within the space? How am I going to cast?”
There’s different ways. You can do one show where you divide your class up where there are actors and there are production people. You could do two one-act plays where the cast of one show serves as the crew of another. You have to figure out what’s best for your students and for the amount of time that you have. So, really, I think taking stock of the resources and understanding time and space that I have for the production is really the first step.
LINDSAY: I think the notion of time and space is something that is really easy to forget, right? Because, every classroom, you go, “Oh, I have an hour and fifteen.” But do you really have an hour and fifteen? How long does it take students to come in and sit down? What’s happening at the end? Are there announcements during your class period? How in terms of setting up the class? Because determining time and space is really going to help structure how your class goes.
KAREN: Yeah, definitely. Also, the kids, they eventually are comforted by the procedures as well. They know what they’re supposed to do when they enter the classroom. They know where they’re supposed to go and check the rehearsal report and take their notes, get in with their group and immediately start working.
It’s great when the class starts itself. You’re basically just ending the class and the class starts itself because you have a series of procedures in place and the students know what they’re supposed to be doing.
LINDSAY: What would a typical class look like? If you have a rehearsal going in a production classroom, what might a typical day look like?
KAREN: Sure. Well, the bell would ring and, as we know, different students get to class at different times based on where they’re coming from campus. First thing the students would do is either one person from their department or multiple people would go to a place where the rehearsal report from the previous rehearsal would be posted. They have an area in your room where that rehearsal report is posted so that everybody can see any notes that were given during the previous rehearsal. They’re going to copy those notes down and then return to their group and share those notes with their group and discuss if any of those notes apply to them. Are there any changes in their area that they need to be aware of?
And then, the class will start with an announcement from the production manager and then they will also ask for a group to share. They’ll ask for one department to share what they’ve been working on that day. Once that sharing is over, then it’s time for rehearsal and it’s time for each production department to be working together. That’s when I normally have the production manager go from group to group and check in with them and make sure that they have everything that they need, that they’re staying on task, answering any questions for them – that kind of thing.
And then, it’s basically work for the remainder of the class period until about five minutes at the end of class. It’s a chance for a department to ask a question of the director to make any end of the day announcements, end of the rehearsal announcements. It’s a time for the stage manager to announce what they’re going to be working on the next day. And then, the director will release the class after the bell rings. So, there’s kind of a meeting at the beginning and a meeting at the end that each have specific purpose and then work time in-between those two meetings.
LINDSAY: It sounds (a) very professional and (b) ordered and I think very structured and with very set – you know, the class begins the same way as a drama class should – whether you’re starting with a warm-up or you’re starting with a journal – here, it’s just like, “We start by reading the rehearsal report.” “We start with the meeting” – a company meeting, I guess.
“We end with another meeting.”
It’s an introduction to the real world where all you’re doing is going to meetings.
KAREN: Yes! No, it’s great because it is that chance because you, as the teacher, are going to be asking yourself, “What are they doing?” because you’ve got to focus on directing. You know, eventually, once my students were strong enough and they were directing their own work, it was great because then I had a different role in the production classroom where I could walk around with the production manager as well.
But, in those initial production classrooms where I’m directing, it allowed me to focus and it allowed me to focus on directing itself and I knew that my production team, they were back there – and I say back there because they’re normally behind me in my classroom – they’re back there working and getting some stuff done.
LINDSAY: I think that that is the thing to really hit home – if you want to do this, the procedures are going to be your friend. It can’t be chaos because, if the production side, if they don’t know what they’re doing, if they don’t know what their task is, if they’re being loud, then that rehearsal can’t happen the way it’s supposed to happen.
KAREN: Exactly, yeah, definitely.
If you feel that your class might not be ready for this, this could be a spring project. It could be something that you introduce to them slowly in the first semester where you teach them about what the costume department does. You know, review if it’s something they’ve already had. Teach them a little bit about each of the departments and go through it with them as part of your curriculum and then go ahead and incorporate it in a spring production classroom.
I had a luxury where I trained my Drama 1 students and they had exposure to all these different areas and learned what these roles were. Then, when they moved into Drama 2, 3, and 4, I wasn’t having to take time to teach them exactly what a wardrobe supervisor does. They had some ideas and some notions, and they’re going to have to meet you halfway and maybe do a little bit of their own research as well into what a wardrobe supervisor typically does. But, by giving them specific tasks, they at least know what they’re responsible for.
LINDSAY: Yeah, and I think that is the bottom-line here.
Running a theatre company is a responsibility. It is something that is serious. It is something that really is work.
KAREN: Yeah, it is.
Another great way to share it is through the marketing department. The marketing department in the production classroom can be promoting your show but it could also be promoting the work that your class is doing as well. That’s a great way to bring everybody together as well as to share with the parents what their students have been doing in class. The marketing department can help kind of present the company as a whole as well as come see the show – different ways to display the work that’s being done in the production classroom.
LINDSAY: Yeah. I guess they can put together a marketing plan. What’s a good example of a task that a marketing department could do to showcase what’s going on?
KAREN: One of the things that is really fun for the students to do because they’re all into making videos is to make kind of a short documentary about the process and that’s another way to kind of keep your production departments on track because they know they’re going to have to present something for this video. The marketing department would be in-charge of interviewing the different departments about what they’re working on for the show; shooting some footage, if possible, of rehearsal; and then, putting together editing a documentary that can be either shared or displayed in the lobby but that sort of tells the story of how the whole production department came together.
LINDSAY: I think that’s awesome! What a great idea!
Okay. So, as we are wrapping up here, when you’ve done this, what was your biggest challenge? What was your biggest pitfall that you had to deal with?
KAREN: I want to say there’s kind of a pitfall in each area. Some years, your leaders may not be as strong as you need them to be. That just requires a little bit more outside of time class with you and the leader and also really mentoring them a little more so than you may have to other students.
Also, making sure that you give your students techniques to help solve their own disputes, practice active listening, giving them kind of a procedure to sort of have a grievance. If there’s a problem going on, have a way for the students to discuss it and share their concerns and then solve the problem on their own.
LINDSAY: What’s active listening?
KAREN: I like to think of it as we tend very much to listen to respond. We don’t necessarily listen to hear, especially if we’re affected emotionally by what’s going on at the time.
Active listening is just a technique where you sit down with another person and you listen to them and then you respond back to them with what you heard and you say something along the lines of “what I heard was this is how you’re thinking, feeling,” and then that person will either confirm that that’s what they meant or they’re clarify what they meant. It goes back and forth from partner to partner so that you have to be able to summarize what you just heard.
Sometimes, a lot of conflict arises purely because we truly aren’t listening to each other. By the end, you start to become more empathetic with the person you’re listening to and the two of you are able to start to come up with a plan to hopefully solve the dilemma.
LINDSAY: I bet it really diffuses anger, too, because that’s a lot of work to instead of waiting to just lash out at someone, you have listen and then reiterate and then there’s a lot of steps in-between before you get to say what you want to say.
KAREN: Yeah, it’s true. You know, it can be frustrating but it does help to calm them down and it does help when you know that someone is actually listening to a point where they can summarize what you said. You feel appreciated that someone’s listening to you.
LINDSAY: I think we’re going to add that as another layer of what’s going to make the production classroom successful and that is communication.
LINDSAY: Listening and communication with structure and procedures and student leaders. I think those seem to be the highlights of the production classroom. Are there any that I’m missing?
KAREN: No, I think communication is key and we work very hard as theatre teachers to create a sense of ensemble and that ensemble can reach beyond the cast. That ensemble can include the entire company.
LINDSAY: Awesome! Absolutely!
I’m so glad that we were able to kind of just give a little taste into what can happen in a production classroom.
Thanks for talking to me today!
KAREN: Oh, sure! No problem! My pleasure!
LINDSAY: Thank you, Karen!
Karen has been a long-time friend to Theatrefolk – definitely an early adopter and it is always great to talk to her.
She has also put together a number of great courses for our Drama Teacher Academy, one of which being is The Production Classroom and you can learn more at DramaTeacherAcademy.com or click the link in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode179.
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!
It’s a new play and you are going to want to snap it up quick.
I’m talking about The Perils of Modern Education by Matt Webster.
Oh, the perils of modern education are so many! You know what I’m talking about! Standardized theatre tests that call for the exact number of steps in a scene; trying to eat green in the cafeteria; dealing with caffeine withdrawal; giving Shakespeare advice on his college application essay – that’s right, Shakespeare!
Spoiler alert: Willy is not college material.
This play is an awesome vignette play. It has really poignant and vibrant scenes, gender-flexible casting, lots of doubling up possibilities, easy staging. It is drop dead funny. Go to Theatrefolk.com. Get your copy today. You can also find the link in the show notes. This is the most number of times I’ve mentioned links to the show notes! Theatrefolk.com/episode179.
Are you doing one of our plays? Take a picture! Send it to us!
Working on a monologue? You know what I want to say. Take a picture, send it to us!
Send us video, 30 seconds. Show us what you’re doing in rehearsal, in the classroom.
We want to showcase you! We want to brag about what you do!
Send it to us: [email protected]
And, finally, where, oh, 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 subscribe to The Drama Teacher Podcast on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”
And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.