I Can Fly, I Can Fly, I Can—Oh I Can’t Be At Rehearsal Tomorrow:
Balancing Educational Goals and the Pressure of Production with Youth Theater
“Hey…so…Mr. Darling won’t be here tonight,” says Molly Kurtz, the Arts and Theatre Coordinator and my boss at the Homestead Playhouse at DC Ranch in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I directed Disney’s Peter Pan Jr. last November.
“What?!” It is Tuesday night. This production of Peter Pan Jr. has been in rehearsal since August and features the talents of 42 young people. Oh and it opens on Thursday. As in two days away.
“He has a family issue, apparently.”
She continued: “But everyone is okay.”
I was incredulous. Two days before opening, Mr. Darling, an integral part of any production of Peter Pan, isn’t going to be at rehearsal? I walked away. I fumed. I created Plan B in my head (Mrs. Darling would learn the lines, naturally). I created Plan C in my head (I would learn the lines myself, naturally). And then Wednesday came and he was back and never missed another rehearsal or show. I didn’t say anything (everything was okay with his family, too) and the entire thing was put aside, though not forgotten.
I started thinking about what I actually would, no, what I could have said to him. “You’ll never work in this town again!”?! How preposterous. What would happen if I treated this thirteen-year-old actor, participating in Peter Pan Jr. mostly for the sheer fun of the experience, like I would treat an adult professional actor who missed a mandatory dress rehearsal? At thirteen, he was too young for a driver’s license and was at the will of his parents who had decided this family issue was more important than dress rehearsal. Could I really fault or even punish the actor?
While directing Peter Pan Jr., I constantly searched for the precise balance between conducting my rehearsals like that of a professional company versus like an educational one. Many of my cast members hoped to perform with their schools or professional Arizona theatre companies, so I enforced punctuality and saying ‘thank you’ after receiving notes, but as a primary teaching artist, I also hoped to create a space to foster their educational and personal growth.
At the Homestead Playhouse the quality of the production and design are highly valued among the adult and children community members, and during the performance weekend, a red carpet is proudly rolled out for cast members to greet their audience after the shows. Support from the community is extremely high, which was wonderful because the budget seemed limitless and many parents volunteered their time to make their child’s show impeccable.
As the director, however, I felt pressure to deliver a slick and fully polished product, which was a fairly new experience for me. Often, working as a teaching artist, production quality isn’t highest on the list (how many ways can we arrange the acting blocks to create new locations?) but rather the child’s educational and personal growth. This is not to say those things weren’t important to the parents of Peter Pan Jr. cast members, because they certainly were, but the priority to see a finished and professional show was also very present.
As we reached tech week and costumes and lights were added, I felt concerned that the pressures of a ‘good product’ were overtaking the educational environment, leading me to wonder: how does one maintain that balance? How can one balance the educational goals of the training of young actors with the production demands and community expectations of the show?
Striving for that balance, I did the following:
- Warm Up: Before every single rehearsal and performance, I lead the cast in a warm up game or activity. These ranged in theme and duration and changed depending on which group I was working with or how many cast members were present. I devoted time during rehearsals earlier in the process to character exploration and asked the Fairies to create a Machine or invited Pirates to create their own character name and life history to share with the rest of the ensemble. When the entire 42-person cast was present, activities ranged from group Human Knots for ensemble building to Freeze Dance for energy to Group Juggling for focus. Since many of the actors were coming to rehearsal straight from school, our warm up made the transition to rehearsal smoother and ultimately, more productive.
- Make a CHOICE: I look back on my own time as a young actor in community theatre and I remember wanting to be ‘good’. I just wanted to do the right thing and as a result, didn’t play around with my character or try new things. I encouraged my cast to be brave and make different choices every rehearsal, even if it was weird.
- Feedback is Love: The child playing Smee had a particularly hard time receiving notes, always taking them to heart and assuming I was giving corrections because he wasn’t doing something right. As a director and teaching artist, I firmly believe feedback is love and consistently reminded my cast of that as I gave notes after every tech and dress rehearsal.
- Let It Go: Ultimately, I had to accept the fact that I couldn’t control things like parents deciding their child was too sick for rehearsal or family issues that popped up unexpectedly. I could only emphasize professional behavior and lead by example. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t say anything to Mr. Darling about the missed dress rehearsal. My hypothetical harsh words to teach him a lesson about what it’s really like in the professional theatre, certainly could have turned off a young person from a life of love for the theatre.