11 tips for high school play directors

This week marks the start of an extended break for many teachers. Even though this post would have made a lot of sense in September, I know that many plays take place in the spring time, and this break is when school play directors start thinking about their shows. Here are some tidbits of advice that I’ve picked up and want to share. As usual, feel free to contact me with any questions. I’m happy to help – ’tis the season, after all.

1) Choose a play that offers parts that take kids out of their comfort zones. A cast of eclectic characters means that more kids will be able to do this.

2) A play requiring a small cast doesn’t allow enough kids to get the experience, but a cast that is too large (30+) can dilute it.

3) Choosing a play specifically designed for high school kids may be a good idea if the kids are new to acting and theater as a whole; it gives them a good introduction to the whole process. If the kids are experienced, stray away from plays designed for high school kids, especially if the characters are high school kids. Give them a chance to play characters that are very much unlike them. Let them live in a different world, and explore emotions that they don’t get to experience every day in a safe, imaginative environment.

4) Provide context for the play that you choose. This experience should be educational. Give them the historical context of the play. Allow them to discover and research the historical background of the action or the characters.

5) Let them know about the playwright, and discuss possible reasons for the play’s creation. They should come away from this experience with a new appreciation for the writer.

6) If the play has a traceable production history, provide it. Let them know about any famous or established actors that played those parts, which theater it appeared in, how many performances it ran, and the dates. It can also open up conversations about how the play was received at the time, and how your production compares. IBDB.com is a good source for this information.

7) Don’t forget about the kids who aren’t acting. Choose a play with a great set or a variety of props or special costumes. Let them in on the creative process. Part of your job as a school play director is to let the kids fall in love with theater on their own. You hold the reins, of course, but let them decide on a certain color, or ask for their suggestions for the way a piece of the set looks, or if a prop is appropriate. They’ll feel like they made an actual contribution to the production – and not just as hired help.

8) Push the subject matter of the play as far as your school and community will allow. Check with your superiors, of course. But high school kids are smarter, more mature, and more resilient than we give them credit for. Find a play with some meat to sink their teeth into. They may learn something about themselves, or about life, in the process (isn’t that the point?).

9) Emphasize, from day 1, the importance of teamwork. One of my most repeated sayings is “there is no drama in my drama”. Don’t allow the egos of the kids with the lead parts to run amok. Actors are not superior to crew. Lead parts are not superior to supporting roles or ensemble. Everyone works together or the whole things falls apart. High school dramas tend to have a lot of, well, drama. Squash it immediately, or risk ruining everything. This is not an exaggeration. A successful show is a finely oiled machine.

10) Tell them that if they’re on stage, they’re in character. Having zero lines doesn’t mean that a character is characterless. If a scene with 5 people is happening, and 4 of them are committing, but one decides to drop character, where do the eyes of the audience go? Not to the great work of the 4, but the poor work of the one. It’s much easier to spot a bad performance than it is to spot a good one. And it happens much quicker.

11) Call time should be about 2 hours before curtain. Kids tend to get very excited before a show. It’s extremely important that you tell them to save their energy for the stage. If they use it all before the show, they’ll have none left for the end of the show. Give them instructions on how to conserve energy – relax before the show, stay hydrated and well fed, but not full, and get into character. Running around, screaming, and being loud is not a way to conserve energy.

(Photo credit: freedigitalphotos.net, Salvatore Vuono)