Bring something fresh to the rehearsal process

Rehearsals becoming mundane? Check out this article I wrote for Pioneer Drama Service’s (publisher of several of my playsnewsletter. Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter for articles about working with student performers.

The full text of the article is below:

Newsletter: Working with Actors – Bring Something Fresh to the Rehearsal Process

By Mike Steele

February 9, 2016

Several years ago, my brother Matt, a professional playwright and actor, happened to be in town during tech week of a high school play I was directing.  I decided to put his artistic talents to work throughout the week, and in the midst of performing any odd job I needed him to do, he was able to watch a few of the rehearsals.  One evening, I asked him to take some notes to give to the cast.  At the end of the rehearsal, I gave my own notes to my students, and then I announced that my brother would give his…  and an incredible thing happened.  The students leaned forward with their eyes wide and attentive, eagerly awaiting what he had to say.  When he finished giving his notes, the students applauded.

I joked with my students and asked why they hadn’t applauded my notes, realizing that it wasn’t what my brother had to say that had intrigued the cast, but the fact that my brother provided a new voice for feedback from someone they respected.  My students had been listening to me and my criticisms for six weeks by this point.  My brother and his unexpected notes had broken the monotony of the rehearsal and gotten the cast excited and re-energized for the performances to come that weekend.

In the years since, I’ve tried many things to keep the rehearsal process from getting stale.  I’m happy to share a few of my favorite activities here.

Invite a guest theatre artist to a rehearsal.  Do you know a community theatre choreographer?  An acting teacher?  The director at a neighboring school?  If you direct school plays, chances are you know a ton of other theatre artists who can offer professional advice to student performers.  Ask someone whose opinion you trust to attend one of your rehearsals and provide feedback to the cast.  You focus on specific artistic elements of the production, but another theatre artist will focus on additional elements you may have never discussed with your students.  It’s not easy for a director to relinquish control to an outsider for even one rehearsal, but there are ways to incorporate feedback that won’t make you entirely uncomfortable.  Maybe you can schedule a few minutes before the note session for the guest artist to quickly run his or her feedback by you.  Maybe you can ask your guest artist to provide only positive feedback to the students.  A note as simple as “Your delivery was really funny when you said the line…” means a lot coming from someone who knows theatre yet is not affiliated with your production.  Your students will respond differently to a guest artist than they will to you, and they can learn quite a bit in their eagerness to please a stranger.  A fresh set of eyes can certainly help you find aspects of the production that need tightening, as well.

Skip rehearsal for an acting workshop.  Set aside a day midway through the rehearsal process to host an acting workshop for your students.  What better way to break up the monotony of rehearsals than with an evening of improv games and acting exercises?  An acting workshop will provide an opportunity for your cast to gather in a relaxed environment where they don’t have to worry about lines and blocking.  You can run the workshop yourself or invite a guest theatre artist to handle the event so your students will have the chance to learn from a new teacher.  If you choose to go with a guest artist, you have the added bonus of gaining some free rehearsal time to work on other aspects of production like meeting with the costumer or organizing ticket sales.

Take a field trip to the theatre.  Your students do a ton of acting at rehearsals, but do they often have the opportunity to see professional stage performers in action?  Spend a rehearsal at a nearby theatre so your students can witness live performance firsthand, and with an analytical eye.  Pose some questions to your students before the performance and ask them to make a mental note of the answers.  How does the acting onstage differ from acting in a film?  What do performers do with their hands and arms while speaking?  What types of actions prompt a response from the audience?  Gather after the performance or at the following rehearsal and discuss the questions and answers.  No nearby theatre?  No problem!  There are tons of plays and musicals that have been professionally filmed that you can view in the comfort of your classroom.

Tailor these ideas to meet your own budget and schedule or come up with some activities of your own.  You’ll notice a big difference in your students’ enthusiasm and attentiveness when you find a way to bring a freshness to the often tedious rehearsal process.  You will more than make up for the lost rehearsal time with their renewed energy and focus.

Pioneer Drama Service

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It’s time for the Broadway community to start respecting Vanessa Hudgens

On the morning of January 31, 2016, Vanessa Hudgens arrived on the set of FOX’s Grease: Live! ready to star as Rizzo in a live telecast of the classic musical comedy. She was at work rehearsing when media outlets began announcing that her father had passed away the prior evening after a several-month battle with stage 4 cancer.

That night, Ms. Hudgens performed for a television audience of 12.2 million viewers, and it’s safe to say her rendition of There Are Worse Things I Could Do was a highlight of the event.

Flashback to September 2014, when producers announced Ms. Hudgens would star in an upcoming Broadway revival of the musical Gigi. Broadway fans quickly took to social media, denouncing Ms. Hudgens’ anticipated performance with comments that ranged from, “Could we please find talented people instead of these temporary ex teenage Disney types?” to, “That whore.” As this was to be Ms. Hudgens’ Broadway debut, these remarks were coming from people who had never even seen what she could do onstage.

Gigi opened to mixed reviews, and despite some critics complimenting Ms. Hudgens’ “rousing performance,” Broadway fans were still on social media writing things like, “I’m looking forward to this. And by looking forward to this I mean watching all the people give her s*** about her performance.”

The message from Broadway fans was clear: this teeny bopper hack was not welcome on the Great White Way. But why? Because her breakout role happened to be in a Disney Channel TV movie? Because she was a young Hollywood celeb with a non-Broadway fanbase? What valid reason did the Broadway community have to be so brutal to an actress who was displaying nothing but enthusiasm for her upcoming Broadway debut?

Gigi closed on Broadway less than three months after opening as a result of low ticket sales. Members of the Broadway community who were gleefully tearing Ms. Hudgens apart weren’t even attending the show to witness the performance first-hand.

Before Gigi, I admittedly knew little of Ms. Hudgens’ work outside of the High School Musical franchise (in which I thought she was delightful), but I was impressed by both her onstage energy and her eagerness to embrace a community that was so forcefully pushing her away.

I met Ms. Hudgens after a performance of Gigi. The stage door was one of the most crowded I have ever seen with hordes of young girls eager to meet their idol. Ms. Hudgens greeted every fan. She signed every autograph. She posed for every picture. Not wanting to be trampled by a tween (or her mother), I waited until the crowd had dispersed to ask for a photo. Ms. Hudgens was walking towards her car when I approached, and even though she’d been signing autographs in the cold long after the other performers had gone home, she turned to me with a warm smile and posed for a selfie.

I’m told Ms. Hudgens had the same smile while rehearsing for Grease: Live! despite her father’s terminal illness. (My brother was in the ensemble of the telecast and noted that most cast members did not even know Ms. Hudgens’ father was sick until he passed away.) This young actress was dealing with an incredibly sad circumstance while displaying a constant professionalism on the job.

So I say to my fellow Broadway fans, here we have an actress who has been criticized and mocked by a community that knew nothing of her skillset other than what she displayed in her Disney Channel past. She was not greeted like a professional during her Broadway run.

But the day after her father passed away, Vanessa Hudgens showed up to work with a “the show must go on” attitude. She did what most Broadway stars don’t do if they have a slight cold.

The next time half a dozen understudy slips fall out of your Playbill, think of Vanessa Hudgens. She doesn’t have to be your favorite performer, but she deserves respect.

With Vanessa Hudgens after a performance of Gigi

With Vanessa Hudgens after a performance of Gigi

Showtime shoutout

Break a leg this month to the Shadow Mountain Community Players as they present my play, A Family Reunion to Die For! Performances run February 5 to 20 at the at the New Hope Fellowship in Pahrump, NV.

A Family Reunion to Die For - Shadow Mountain Community Players

A Family Reunion to Die For – Shadow Mountain Community Players

A Family Reunion to Die For - Shadow Mountain Community Players

A Family Reunion to Die For – Shadow Mountain Community Players