Sunday, March 31, 2013

The good kind of drama

Last month (good lord, have I really procrastinated writing this post for a whole month?) I took the Drama Club to the Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild High School Drama Festival. Once you’ve caught your breath from that mouthful of a name, please continue reading. This is an annual festival/competition that I participated in for three years in high school, so it was quite exciting and nerve-wracking for me to participate this year as an educator. I found myself getting nostalgic about my high school experiences with the festival, and it seems that my students also had a wonderful experience.

I went to a tiny, weird, awesome charter school for just about my whole life. We had these classes called “Projects” or “Workshops” which students could choose according to their interests—art, engineering, environment, etc. From 10th through 12th grade, I chose theater. This class met several afternoons a week, though we would frequently continue our rehearsals after school, turning it into a hybrid of class and club. In addition to our spring performance of a professional play, each year we also all wrote our own one-act plays, then chose one to perform at the Drama Festival.

Being a poor school, our budget was basically whatever we made at fundraisers and some donations from our parents who took pity on us. Our costumes were dug up from closets, attics, and the Salvation Army; sets were kept as simple as possible, and what we didn’t have lying around we had parents help us build or borrowed pieces from a kind school nearby; props were similarly scavenged for. Our teachers were not trained in theater, so mainly they were our supervisors and gophers, devoting many unpaid hours to us. I can only hope we thanked them enough. We students were given nearly limitless creative freedom—we were the directors, producers, stage managers, actors, and designers. This often put a lot of pressure on us, because if we wanted to make something happen, we had to figure out how to do it. And it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

My mother once asked me if I ever regretted going to that school, as it offered no AP or honors courses at the time, and had only a fledgling sports program. I told her that while I do wish I hadn’t missed out on those aspects of high school, what I gained instead was of much greater value. One of the many things it taught me, especially through the Theater Workshop, was self-sufficiency. We had to make something out of nothing, and work hard for anything we wanted. Nothing was handed to us on a silver platter, and that made us even prouder of the final product. At the Drama Festival, we went up against schools with established theater programs and actual budgets, and most used professional plays. And even though we never moved on to the next round, we always knew just how special our experience was, because it truly was OURS, every last detail. Moving on would have simply been icing on the cake.

At the school where I teach, I began getting involved with the Drama Club last year. This year, I am one of the co-advisors, and I knew that one of the things I wanted to do was participate in the Festival. I soon learned just how stressful being on the other side of it was…paperwork and scheduling and busses, oh my! I often felt that next to my credit as director it should also have said “child wrangler,” as getting all those students into one room together proved nearly impossible, and they were often not good about telling me when they could not be at rehearsal. I told them how lucky they were that they’re so darn funny. After all, it’s hard to stay too annoyed at a kid when they’re performing a scene for the 12th time and STILL finding ways to make you laugh.

In some ways, this felt like my high school experience. Granted, the Drama Club had some money for us to spend, but as the play was about people auditioning for a play, the stage consisted of a table, folding chair, and a ghost lamp that my dad constructed (thanks, Pops). Costumes were closet pulls that the students and I collaborated on. Plus, our school doesn’t have much of a drama program—we don’t have a real theater (just a little “backstage” theater and a big stage in the cafetorium), no light/sound board, and no professionals who really know what they’re doing (because lord knows I’m not trained in this stuff, unless a little acting/directing experience and watching a crapload of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and some of the great comedians and studying their timing and whatnot makes you qualified to direct a comedy….). And just like when I was in high school, many of the people in the cast had never acted before. I badgered several of these kids for weeks about auditioning because I’d seen them act in class and knew they’d be great. What was really fantastic was that a couple of the new actors are members of the football and wrestling teams, and these two worlds are usually kept quite separate at this school. Bridging that gap felt like a victory in itself.

The day of Festival had its heart-attack-inducing moments, which I won’t go into (other than to say that at the end of the night, there was about a twenty-minute period during which I thought I’d have to go to my principal on Monday morning and say, “Hey, sorry, we lost one….”). But mostly it was great. The show went well, and even when a couple of kids messed up, one of their castmates covered for them beautifully. I was a nervous wreck in my chair, schvitzing like I’d just gone for a run, but delighting in how confident they looked up on that stage and in all the laughter coming from the audience. The rest of the day was filled with watching other shows, which was a fantastic learning experience for my students that made them want to improve to those levels, socializing with kids from other schools (I tried not to get too grossed out when a few of the boys had already picked which girls they wanted to chase after within an hour of our arrival), and having a great time with each other. And it’s fun for us teachers to have a chance to talk to these students and connect with them in a different way than we would in the classroom.

The long day/night ended with four members of the cast receiving recognition awards for their excellent acting, and yes, I cheered and took pictures like a proud mama. We didn’t move on to the next round, but the victory came on the bus ride home when the kids all started asking me about next year. Those who had been most skeptical about this experience at the beginning admitted that I was right about this being fun (duh) and said, “We have to start working on next year’s play TOMORROW!” I wish I could just bottle up the enthusiasm they displayed that night and take it out whenever I need a lift to my spirits. Even though the road to the Drama Festival was bumpy (as it always seems to be), I managed to turn a whole bunch of kids into Festie enthusiasts. Don’t hate me for being clich├ęd and corny, but there really are things more valuable than winning. When the host school was announced to be moving on to the semifinals, the person that went up to the stage to receive the award was the teacher/director, rather than one of the kids like the other schools had done. I don’t ever want that to be me. I always want to remember that it’s about the kids, about them having a positive experience. Knowing that my students were proud of their work, had learned a lot, and wanted to keep getting better was one of the best feelings I’ve had so far as a teacher. And I’m so grateful for my high school experience for making that possible.