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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When you have more performers than roles

A new school year is here, and that means it’s time for school play directors across the country to begin casting the fall play. Take a look at this article I wrote about what you can do if you find more talent at auditions than you need. This article appeared in today’s newsletter for Pioneer Drama Service (publisher of my plays A Family Reunion to Die For and Murderous Night at the Museum). Don’t forget to subscribe to their newsletter for great articles about working with student performers.

The full text of the article is below:

Newsletter:  Creative Casting Ideas – When You Have More Performers Than Roles

By Mike Steele

September 1, 2015

You just sat through a long evening of school play auditions.  Forty-nine students came out for this year’s show.  You would be elated with the talent-filed turnout…  but the play you’re casting only has 22 roles, and you want to feature as many students as possible.  After all, a large cast translates into an excited student body and an increase in ticket sales!

But you don’t just want to flood the stage with a bunch of extras who do little more than move as a generic clump.  So what can you do?  How can you utilize as many students as possible while making each feel like a necessary part of the production?

Take a look at these ideas…

Double-Up!  Cast two students in each of the roles.  Divide the performance calendar between an “A Cast” and a “B Cast” (let actors in the smaller roles perform in both casts if you don’t have enough students to fill two complete casts).  Double casting provides double the students the opportunity to learn, shine, and experience the fun of being a part of a school show.  Be warned, though, that you’ll need to manage the rehearsal schedule carefully since you’ll be teaching each role twice.

Cast understudies.  We always see students at auditions who have great potential but aren’t quite ready for a leading role.  What a great learning experience it would be for these students to discover what it takes to handle a large role by rehearsing as a back-up performer.  Whether you decide to have only a handful of students understudy all the parts or you assign one unique understudy per character, these additional students will benefit from the opportunity to develop their skills.  You’ll be doing yourself a favor, as well.  Not only do understudies come in handy when main performers are absent from rehearsals, but you’ll be training up-and-coming talent that may become next year’s stars.  You can even add an additional understudy performance (a great idea as a matinee) to give these students the chance to showcase their hard work to family and friends.

Split one part into two or three or four.  Does the script offer a logical opportunity to divide the dialogue from one role amongst multiple performers?  Some plays have incidental characters such as “Man 1” and “Man 2” that each have a few non-specific lines which you could assign to several actors.  Some plays have settings that span several decades, so different actors could play younger and older versions of the same characters.  Some plays have non-human roles that, with some inventive direction, could be played by multiple performers.  (Can’t you imagine a caterpillar performed by a group of actors lined up to create a long body or an ogre played by several students working a large puppet?)  Pioneer Drama is extremely flexible about allowing you to alter the script to accommodate additional actors, but be careful.  Not all publishers allow you to make these, or any, changes.

Add background performers.  Is there an appropriate place in the script you can incorporate additional actors into the action onstage?  Think of the play’s various settings and whether background characters milling around could add to the atmosphere.  Maybe the play is set in a restaurant and background diners reacting to a food fight started by the main characters will add to the humor of the piece.  Maybe there’s a scene set in a park and background performers having picnics, flying kites, and relaxing on benches will help establish the setting.  Give your background performers unique characters to portray so they won’t be just a blob of extras, but rather they will be integral to establishing the mood of the show.  Get creative, but be careful that your background performers don’t distract from the main action.

Offer cut students first shot at stage crew.  Many students who audition simply want to be involved in the production in some capacity and will gladly accept a backstage position.  Offer these opportunities to students you won’t have room for in the cast, and place these students in positions that will utilize their individual strengths.  You’ll have artists who will be an asset when it comes to set painting, designing the logo for the production, and constructing props.  You’ll have highly organized students who will keep your production running smoothly as stage managers and student directors.  From technical design to moving set pieces to applying makeup to ushering, there’s a job for everyone.

Stage an additional play.  Who says this has to be the only performance opportunity for the students?  If you’re struggling to whittle down the cast for a one-act, choose a second one-act and stage a two-act event.  If the play is a full-length, produce a second play later in the school year.  If the thought of another large-scale production is too much for you to bear, host a talent show, an evening of short scenes, or an improv or sketch comedy show.  If students have an interest in one production, they will have an interest in another.

Add entertainment before the show or during intermission.  While it might not be the same as being in the main production, some students will jump at the chance to be onstage for some pre-show entertainment.  Duet scenes, TV commercial parodies, or other small comedy scenes are perfect for this type of venue.  Or maybe a group of students can perform an instrumental or vocal number in the lobby during intermission.  This will let more students be involved while giving you a chance to develop younger students’ stage presence.

These general ideas may not be right for the specific title you’re directing.  One of the perks of producing a Pioneer show is that you can talk to their customer service reps or email the author directly through the play’s page on their website.  He or she might be able to share some creative ways that past productions have dealt with your dilemma.  Maybe the playwright will suggest turning the role of an annoying little girl into two annoying twins who speak in unison.  Maybe the customer service agent will describe how other directors have utilized background performers.  Who knows what ideas will come up?

So get inventive and incorporate as many students as possible into your production.  The more students involved, the larger your audience.  Just remember, though, if you get so inventive that you want to make any changes to the script, you will need permission from the play’s publisher.

Pioneer Drama Service

Taking advantage of the dog days of summer

It’s the middle of summer, and that means it’s time to start preparing for the fall play, right…?  Check out an article I wrote about using summer downtime to wisely prep for the upcoming school year’s productions.  This article appeared in today’s newsletter for Pioneer Drama Service (publisher of my plays A Family Reunion to Die For and Murderous Night at the Museum). Be sure to subscribe to their newsletter for great articles about working with student performers.

The full text of the article is below:

Newsletter: Simplifying the Director’s Job – Taking Advantage of the Dog Days of Summer

By Mike Steele

July 28, 2015

Summer Break is in full swing across the country.  You’re loving sleeping in, taking a family vacation, and just enjoying your free time.

But don’t forget you’re directing next year’s fall show!  Why not spend a bit of your free time getting some pre-production tasks out of the way?  A little work over the summer can translate into a lot less stress during the school year.

Take a look at these summertime school play prep tips…

Choose the show.  Take some time to lounge on the beach…and kick back with a big stack of perusal scripts while you’re at it.  (Take advantage of Pioneer Drama’s Buy-Four-Get-One-More-Free discount on preview scripts to save money!)  Or download some E-views to read on your tablet on that long car trip.  Don’t wait until the school year begins to narrow down the plays that interest you.  Come September, you’ll be too busy figuring out how to seat 32 students at 28 desks to stress about the scripts you still have to comb through.  Since your teaching colleagues also have some spare reading time during these summer months, pass along copies of the scripts you enjoy to the other production staff members and get some feedback on what’s do-able.

Update your audition forms.  If you’re not using Pioneer’s forms from their Director’s Books, spend an afternoon changing the dates on all those files you saved from last year that you planned to reuse for the next show.  Type up the character breakdown, print an audition sign-up sheet, and organize the sides.  Sure, this is something you’re planning to do “one day during prep period,” but something always seems to come up, doesn’t it?  The more paperwork you get out of the way now, the less you’ll have to worry about while addressing the unforeseen headaches of a new school year.  And hey, the line for the faculty room copier is a lot shorter in the summer!

Start collecting costumes.  Summer is the perfect time to visit garage sales and outdoor flea markets.  You’ll have to wait until you’ve cast the show before you know exact clothing sizes, but you can still hunt for those one-size-fits-all pieces you’ll need.  Wigs, capes, gloves, and a bunch of other accessories don’t require exact measurements.  It’s also a good idea to spread the word about those hard-to-find pieces you’ll be looking for.  The more time you give yourself to look for the neon green astronaut costume with a sequined shawl that one of the characters requires, the better.  Don’t forget to talk to your costumer to discuss any way she or he can get a head start, as well.

Clean up last year’s mess.  Does your prop cabinet look like it was hit by a tornado?  What about the costume closet?  Were you so exhausted from last year’s production that the set is still half-deconstructed in the wings?  We all want a little break when a production ends, but somehow, our well-intentioned plans to get the backstage area organized are overshadowed by everything else that comes up before the end of the school year.  Don’t start the next show worrying about everything you forgot to straighten up from the last.  Get into the empty auditorium for a day or two and prepare the space for a new production.  Don’t be afraid to employ a little help, either.  I bet there are some students looking to volunteer service time for the drama program.  And your own kids keep claiming they’re bored, right?

Host a pre-production backyard barbecue meeting.  Invite your colleagues over for a potluck gala to get everyone on the same page so the entire staff can hit the ground running when the school year begins.  Gathering over the summer means you won’t have to compete with all the department conferences, grade-level meetings, and other academic conflicts that come up at the beginning of the school year.  Figuring out how to fundraise enough money to costume a cast of 45 is a lot less stressful when potato salad is involved.  And you’ve been looking for a reason to show off all the landscaping you’ve been doing this summer, anyway!

Begin advertising.  “What?!?” you’re thinking.  “That’s crazy!  I don’t have a cast, and I’m still begging the new woodshop teacher to sign on as set designer!” Very true.  But professional theaters advertise before securing a cast and staff, so follow their lead and generate interest in the production ASAP.  Once you’ve selected a show, get the word out there!  Spark some excitement!  Post the title and audition dates on the school’s or drama department’s Facebook page.  Announce the show on the school’s outdoor marquee.  As much as your students claim they’re not thinking about school over the summer, an exciting announcement from the drama teacher will be the topic of conversation at the next pool party.  You’ll begin to recruit auditioners, and all the summer buzz surrounding the production might even pique the interest of that new woodshop teacher.

September will be here before you know it, so take a little time to prepare for all the work that’s to come.  Better to be ahead of the game, because that fall play is going to take a lot of time and energy!  But be sure to spend a carefree day or two relaxing with an ice cold glass of iced tea, as well.  It is Summer Break, after all.

Pioneer Drama Service

Encouraging young performers to audition again and again

An article I wrote was published on Wednesday in the newsletter for Pioneer Drama Service (publisher of my plays A Family Reunion to Die For and Murderous Night at the Museum). This article is about encouraging young performers to continue auditioning, even if they have faced rejection in the past. Be sure to subscribe to Pioneer Drama Service’s newsletter for great articles about working with student performers.

The full text of the article is below:

Newsletter: Working with Young Actors – Encouraging Young Performers to Audition Again and Again

By Mike Steele

January 21, 2015

After a long weekend of auditions for a community theatre play I’m directing, I sat with the rest of the production staff staring at a scattering of young performers’ headshots for my least favorite part of the casting process:  choosing which auditioners we’d offer roles to and which would receive the dreaded, “No, thank you.”  We saw dozens of performers we’d be happy to feature, but with nearly 80 children vying for 12 roles, we had no choice but to disappoint the majority of the talent.

So often in my experiences as a school play and community theatre director, I hear young performers chatting about previous rejections.  They say things like, “She didn’t cast me in last year’s play; she thinks I have no talent,” “That production company won’t even give me a chance,” or “I don’t bother auditioning for him anymore because he thinks I’m awful!”

And yet as a director, I sit through so many auditions thinking things like, “She gave such a good read, but she’s too tall to play a six year old,” “Wow!  What a voice!  Too bad I’m looking for dancers,” and “He’s a tremendous classical baritone, but this is a contemporary musical.  I hope he auditions for me in the future.”

What young actors rarely realize is that talent is only one factor in the casting process.  So often it comes down to issues that are out of everyone’s control.  Sometimes a great performer gives a poor audition.  Sometimes seven redheads come out for a show and you want a more visually balanced ensemble.  Sometimes you need a boy who can juggle while riding a unicycle.  Sometimes an auditioner performs the tightest monologue you’ve ever seen, but is the wrong age, has the wrong hairstyle, has too many scheduling conflicts, or you simply need to cast the kid whose parent can help sew costumes.  None of these factors would prevent you from casting the auditioner in the future, though.

So what can we do as directors to let young performers know that even if they don’t have much luck the first time around, we hope this setback won’t prevent them from auditioning for us again?

Encourage young performers before the auditions.

It’s common for schools and some community theatres to hold information meetings for potential performers prior to auditions.  This is the perfect time to address your casting policies.  Be open and honest that a variety of factors in addition to talent go into casting decisions, and you will need to cut many castable performers.  Let auditioners know that if they are not cast, you highly encourage them to come out for future productions.  Provide examples of past success stories.  Maybe a few years ago there was a terribly shy freshman you weren’t able to cast after her barely audible audition…but she never gave up, gained confidence through each audition, and by her senior year, she had a supporting role that stole the show.  Don’t have a casting story with quite the same dramatic flair?  Well, this is theatre — make something up!

Encourage young performers during the auditions.

The standard goodbye at an audition is a simple, “Thank you,” from the director.  Consider adding a bit more to your closing:  “Thank you for auditioning for us.  We’re seeing enough great talent to cast this show three times, so if we find we’re unable to use you in this production, we hope you’ll check out our website for future casting notices.”  The extra five seconds can make all the difference to a young performer.

Encourage young performers after the auditions — even with rejection.

Though some directors choose only to notify the performers they’re looking to cast, it’s always nice to inform those you can’t use, as well.  An email or snail mail rejection takes only a few minutes to draft.  To your stock letter of, “We were unable to cast everyone who auditioned…” add a personalized compliment for each auditioner.  Even the worst audition has some redeeming qualities, so gather up your audition notes and let each performer know his or her strengths.  One sentence that says, “You have a beautiful lower register, and we hope you’ll let us hear it again at a future audition,” validates that the performer is, in fact, castable.

Auditioners you’ve cut may not know the exact reasoning behind your casting decisions, but they will remember if you’ve made them feel castable in future productions.  Just remember, your next leading lady might be the girl you cut from the chorus two years ago, and a little encouragement can go a long way.

Pioneer Drama Service

Advertising with social networking

An article I wrote was published today in the newsletter for Pioneer Drama Service (publisher of my plays A Family Reunion to Die For and Murderous Night at the Museum). This article provides some tips for using social networking to market your show. If you’re looking for more theatrical tips, subscribe to Pioneer Drama Service’s newsletter.

Pioneer Drama Service

The full text of the article is below:

Newsletter: Promoting your Production – Advertising with Social Networking

By Mike Steele

September 30, 2014

When I began directing school plays nearly a decade ago, the only way I could really utilize the internet to market our productions was to send an email to local newspapers and cross my fingers that one of them would be interested in running an article about the show.

Since then, Facebook has become available to high schoolers, YouTube has taken off, and the boom in social networking websites (Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Vimeo, Flickr, etc.)  has changed the way we interact on the internet.  It’s now much easier to personally reach a score of local theatergoers over the internet in ways that were not possible ten years ago.

But just because interacting via social networking has become a part of our daily lives, that doesn’t mean we’re all internet marketing experts.  Sure, we’ve all created Facebook events for our shows and posted a few status updates about how to buy tickets, but can’t we do more?

The answer is yes!  And it’s a lot easier than you’d think!

First, establish a professional social networking presence. You’re probably familiar with the various different social networking websites out there, and chances are, you have personal accounts.  If your school or community theatre troupe doesn’t have its own professional social networking accounts, create them.  Sure, you can promote the shows on your own personal accounts, but establishing a professional presence for the theatre troupe will allow people who might not know you personally to follow the happenings of the company, and you will reach a broader group of theatergoers.

(Have you seen Pioneer’s Facebook page?  It’s a great example of the variety of posts you can share to keep your community of supporters involved and interested in your activities.)

Show off your show with photos. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words, right?  Social networking users are drawn to visual content, so keep them intrigued by posting production photos on all your theatre troupe’s various social networking accounts.  Pictures from the actual performances will show followers what they can expect to see if they buy a ticket, but you can also give everyone a taste of what goes on “behind the scenes” by posting candid photos of rehearsals, backstage shenanigans and cast parties.  When your followers see how exciting your production looks, they will want in on some of the fun, and this will translate into fuller audiences.

Film a sneak peak trailer. We’re all familiar with enticing film trailers that draw us to what’s playing at movie theatres.  Pique the interests of potential theatergoers by creating a video featuring production photos, video clips, and information on how to buy tickets for your show.  It’s possible to film, edit, and upload a video entirely on your cell phone, allowing you to create a simple trailer in minutes.  If you want to create a more professional looking montage, chances are, someone involved in your production has a high quality camera and some video editing skills.  Upload your trailer to a free online video account (such as YouTube or Vimeo) and encourage your cast and production staff members to share the video on their personal social networking accounts.

(Here’s a fun movie-style trailer that a Pioneer customer made for the show they were doing, Dr. Evil and the Basket of Kittens.)

Brand your production with a hashtag. Hashtags are a popular way for social networking users to find content centered around a specific topic on websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.  Create and use a hashtag for your production so that theatergoers interested in the show can see what others are posting.  Keep your hashtag simple so it’s easily remembered by your cast and production staff members who want to promote the show on their personal social networking accounts.  Your hashtag might include the title of the production and the year (such as #PioneerPlay2014) or it might include your theatre troupe or school’s name (such as #NHSfallplay), but be sure to remain consistent with one hashtag so that anyone searching will see all of the content available.

Entertain followers with frequent and diverse content. We live in an age where we’re bombarded with information the moment we log onto the internet.  News becomes outdated or forgotten in a matter of minutes.  Make posts to your theatre troupe’s social networking accounts often so that your production will remain on the minds of your followers.  Post to the social networking accounts several times per week, and try to keep the content interesting.  Repeatedly posting the same message of, “Come see our show…”  can get stale, so think of a variety of content your followers would find interesting.  Maybe every Monday you will post a bio of a different cast member, every Wednesday an interesting fact about your show, every Friday you will run a contest to win a pair of tickets, and sporadic days in between you will upload photos.  Create a schedule of what to post on the different social networking accounts to keep yourself organized.

Designate a Social Networking Manager. Whether or not you’re a social networking whiz, chances are that if you already have a major commitment in some other aspect of the production, it will be difficult to keep up with your theatre troupe’s social networking accounts (especially as the production draws closer and you get busier and busier).  Create a Social Networking Manager position on your production staff, and assign this person the responsibility of handling all social networking so that the posts are organized and the wording is consistent.  This is a great job for a student or an intern.  It’s a good idea to choose someone who is personally active in social networking and will know what kind of content your target audience would like to see.  For example, if you’re working on a school play and want to attract students to come see the show, a student Social Networking Manager will probably know the types of things his or her peers are posting and viewing online and can generate some great ideas for content.  (In fact, it was one of my own school play students who came up with the idea several years ago to film a trailer for our production, and she was able to convince the principal to play the video in the cafeteria during school lunches as well as posting it on Facebook.)

Look to the pros. Not sure what type of pictures or posts will attract followers to your show?  Take a look at the content professional productions are posting on their social networking accounts.  Broadway shows, for example, outsource social networking to marketing companies who specialize in creating content that appeals to theatergoers.  Are the backstage photos on your favorite Broadway musical’s Facebook page garnering a lot of “likes?”  Then there’s a good chance your theatre troupe’s followers would like to see backstage photos, too.  You won’t be able to mimic all of the professional content you see on these professional social networking accounts, but keeping an eye on these pages will certainly give you some ideas.

To cut or not to cut?

Another article I wrote was just featured in the newsletter for Pioneer Drama Service (publisher of my plays A Family Reunion to Die For and Murderous Night at the Museum). This article focuses on the pros and cons of cutting students in the audition process. If you’re looking for more theatrical tips and tricks, subscribe to Pioneer Drama Service’s newsletter.

The full text of the article is below:

Newsletter: Working with Student Actors – To Cut or Not to Cut?

By Mike Steele

April 22, 2014

Recently, I attended a middle school production of a popular musical with one of the largest casts I’ve ever seen. When the show began, over 150 students flooded the small auditorium stage. The show was fantastic, but a quick chat afterwards with the director revealed that she had been particularly overwhelmed by the number of students in the show. She asked me whether or not I cast every student who auditions for my school plays as she was beginning to rethink her long-standing no-cut policy.

To cut or not to cut? It’s one of the hardest decisions we have to make as school play directors, especially at the middle school level.

On one hand, we don’t want to hurt our students’ feelings. After all, we know it takes courage to put yourself out there and audition. It’s never fun to face rejection, and we don’t want our students to be discouraged from auditioning for an upcoming production just because they weren’t cast last time around.

On the other hand, if we cast each student who auditions, are we setting low performance standards and a sense of entitlement? Professional actors are rejected at the majority of the auditions they attend, and adopting a no-cut policy will not provide our students with real-world expectations. Not to mention, the more students we have in the cast, the more difficult it will be to manage the group.

So, should you cast every student who auditions for your school plays? I encourage you to make the decision based on your own goals as a director and whether or not a no-cut policy will help you reach those goals.

Consider cutting students if your goal is…

…To provide an intimate learning experience for your students. There’s no doubt that one of the most effective ways to learn about the performing arts is to actively participate in a production. While you may want to provide this learning experience to as many students as possible, keep in mind that regardless of how large you expand your cast size, there is still only one director. The smaller the cast, the less you will need to focus on crowd control, and the more individual attention you can give to each performer.

…To showcase your performers who exhibit the top level of talent. As school play directors, we see a gamut of abilities at auditions – from the student we’re sure will give a Meryl Streep-like performance to the student who makes us internally cringe as he delivers all of his lines to the upstage curtain. Keep in mind that as much as you may want to cast everyone who has the guts to audition, mediocre actors will distract from those with impeccable stage presence. Students who are tripping over their feet as they dance will pull attention from the graceful ballerinas, and singers with poor pitch will make the entire ensemble sound flat.

…To keep performance costs to a minimum. School plays work on tight budgets, and sometimes it’s not financially feasible to feature a large group of students. Every performer is going to need at least one costume (if not multiple) as well as makeup, accessories and individual props. The cost of including unnecessary cast members in a production will add up. You may want to feature everyone who auditions, but there just might not be enough money for other areas of the production if you do so.

Consider not cutting students if your goal is…

…To provide a performance experience for as many students as possible. Some schools only put on one play every year with dozens of students eager to participate in these infrequent productions. As much as you may want to feature an elite set of talent, if there are few extra-curricular performing opportunities available to your students, consider giving every student who’s interested the chance to experience the thrill of being a part of the school play.

…To grow a larger performing arts program. If you find that student interest in your program is waning or if you’re simply looking to increase awareness throughout the school community, it’s a good idea to feature as many performers as possible in your productions. While it may be easier to manage a small cast, students will be less intimidated to audition if they know that their talents won’t lead to rejection. Be sure to spread the word about your no-cut policy well before the audition dates to encourage as many students as possible to attend.

…To raise money. The bulk of a school play audience is made up of families and friends of the cast. Keeping the cast small may be appealing in terms of quality, but a puny cast size translates into puny ticket sales and not much, if any, profit. The more students you feature, the more tickets you will sell. Think of all the extra mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, teachers and hairdressers who will attend the production if you don’t cut any students.

Do you have goals that aren’t listed? Jot them down, and then think about how cutting and not cutting students who audition will affect your ability to reach those goals.

Pioneer Drama Service

Costuming on a budget

I’ve written another article for Pioneer Drama Service, (publisher of my plays A Family Reunion to Die For and Murderous Night at the Museum.) My article in this week’s newsletter is about costuming a show on a tight budget. Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter for articles written by a variety of theatre professionals.

The full text of the article is below:

Newsletter: Creative Theatrical Ideas – Costuming on a Budget

By Mike Steele

March 4, 2014

You’ve just signed on as costumer for a play, and you can’t wait to wow audiences with your ideas. Each performer requires at least one — if not half a dozen — costumes, and you plan to ensure that every actor will look good. Making sure the costumes fit well would be easy if you could hire a team of tailors to create your intricate designs from scratch. But with school and community theatre budgets, that’s never an option. Instead, you fear you’ll spend the rehearsal process tearing out your hair as you attempt to keep the performers clothed, because even renting costumes from a theatrical costume supplier would break your small bank.

Well, fear not. Stretching costume dollars is easier than you think. Take a look at these tips and tricks you can use to costume a play on even the tiniest of budgets.

  • Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help. There may be only one costumer for your production, but that doesn’t mean only one person has to do all of the costume work. The more people you can find to shoulder the burden of preparing the costumes, the more time you will have to explore the various other inexpensive costuming options. Other cast and production staff members might have the skills to hem clothing. Parents will often volunteer to make alterations for their own children and for others if you simply ask. After all, they are eager for their children to look great up on that stage. You might even come across a real tailor or seamstress amongst the bunch who has a library of patterns and will help make costumes from scratch.
  • Hold a Costume Conference with the Cast. Take some time early in the rehearsal process and meet with your actors one-on-one to discuss each costume piece and accessory they will need. You’ll be surprised at how many actors will mention that they already own clothing that will work. Utilizing your actors’ own clothing will not only save money but also save time since pieces the actors already wear will likely fit, and therefore need fewer alterations.
  • Get Crafty. You don’t need to be Coco Chanel to construct clothing that’s fit for a short theatrical run. Brainstorm how you can use basic art supplies to take what you already have and transform it into what you need. A little fabric paint and a stencil can turn a plain t-shirt into a custom jersey. With some sequins and glue, you can make a simple dress mimic a designer gown. You can even tailor a suit with duct tape. The audience will never be close enough to the costumes to know you took a few shortcuts.
  • Utilize Your Theatre Network. Call up friends who are part of other school and community theatre troupes and let them know the pieces you’re looking for. Even if the troupes they belong to don’t own the costumes you need, they may know of others that do. Many theatre troupes rent out their costumes for minimal fees (or even for free) as long as the borrower promises to return the dry cleaned costumes in good condition. Offer your own troupe’s costumes to others and begin a give-and-take relationship with the local theatre community.
  • Send Periodic Email Blitzes. Create an email list of all of the actors, parents, production staff members and any other colleagues you know that might have an interest in your production. Shoot out an email at the start of your production stating what costumes you’re looking for, and keep everyone well informed with gentle reminders throughout the rehearsal process. You never know what people have in their closets.
  • November 1 is the New Black Friday. Halloween costume retail chains pop up every fall, and their merchandise is significantly discounted immediately after the holiday. Stop in the day after Halloween and grab any costumes you need for a fraction of their original prices. Even if your production is not in the fall, get ahead of the game and shop for a show that is several months down the road. Mark the date in your calendar and be quick with your shopping, though, because these stores are packed up and gone only a few days after Halloween.
  • Become an Extreme Couponer. Sign up for discount emails at every clothing store you can think of and scour the internet for printable coupons before you go shopping. You can save a ton of money just by utilizing discounts that you might not have even known were available. Don’t forget to join rewards clubs at these clothing stores, either. It won’t take long before you earn free store credit that you can use to shop for future productions.
  • Don’t Discount the Discount Stores. It’s a great idea to save money by shopping at thrift stores, but keep in mind that some clothing pieces are surprisingly less expensive when purchased brand new at big box discount stores than they are when purchased used. For example, a brand new generic shirt is likely to be less expensive at a discount store than its name-brand counterpart at a thrift store. You can find inexpensive clothing and accessories at dollar stores and damaged (but usable) clothing for next to nothing at off-price department stores.
  • Shop the World Wide Web. Conduct an internet search of the various costume pieces you need. You can shop around for the best prices without ever leaving your chair. The internet is especially effective if you’re in need of a difficult-to-find piece. If it exists, there’s a good chance you can locate it online. Check out different auction-style websites such as ebay.com and ioffer.com, and place an ad on craigslist.com if you’re really scrounging. Utilizing the web, you can score clothing at prices you’d never see in retail shops.

…And now that you’ve discovered some ways to save a few dollars costuming this play, don’t forget the most important trick to save money for the next…

  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It’s not just good for the environment, it’s also good for your costume budget. When a production ends, rather than throwing away or donating your costumes, store anything that’s in good enough condition to wear again. Even if a piece seems like something you’ll never need again, there’s a good chance it can be transformed into a useful costume in the future. The more costumes you already own, the fewer costumes you’ll need to spend money on next time around.

Pioneer Drama Service

Help students learn their lines

Yesterday, Pioneer Drama Service, (publisher of my plays A Family Reunion to Die For and Murderous Night at the Museum) featured an article I wrote in their newsletter. Subscribe to their newsletter for all sorts of great tips for working with young and amateur performers.  My article in this newsletter discusses ways to help student actors learn their lines.

The full text of the article is below:

Newsletter: Working with Student Actors – Help Students Learn their Lines

By Mike Steele

October 8, 2013

It’s the final week of rehearsals for the school play you’re directing.  You’re frazzled as you sit in the booth and organize lighting cues with the technical director, jot notes about last minute alterations you’d like your costumer to make, and frantically text message the set designer that the walls are a little too orange.  At least the cast is well rehearsed.  The scene onstage is running smoothly until…  SILENCE!  The students stand frozen, waiting for one young actor to speak, but he doesn’t seem to notice that he’s missed his line.

We’ve all been in this type of situation when working with student actors.  Memorizing dozens (if not hundreds) of lines and the order in which to say them can be challenging for any actor, but it seems like an especially daunting task for the young and novice.  I find myself repeating the same phrase year after year to my high school students:  “I can’t learn your lines for you.”

And it’s true.  As directors, we can’t learn the lines for our casts.  Are we resigned to simply sit back and watch our actors struggle through the line learning process, though?  Absolutely not.  We may not be able to learn the lines for these young thespians, but there are a few strategies we can employ to help make the transition off book as painless as possible for everyone involved.

  1. Record the read-through (not just the performance) and offer it to the cast.  Many actors find that they best memorize their lines by listening to the dialogue over and over.  Your more conscientious students might record themselves reading the script aloud, but others might not have the skills or know-how.  Why should each cast member have to go through the trouble of producing his own recording, anyway?  You can simplify the process by making an audio recording of the first read-through of the script.  Distribute CD or mp3 copies of the recording to the cast and encourage your students to listen to the recordings whenever they would normally listen to music:  as they get dressed, during car rides, while they’re working out, when they’re falling asleep, etc.  If you separate each scene as a different track on the recording, it will be easier for individual cast members to find the parts of the show that they need to memorize.
  2. Spread out the off book fun.  A full length script can contain 90 or more minutes of dialogue that a cast must collectively memorize.  Many directors require their actors to be off book for a whole act or even the entire play at once.  For an actor, it can seem like an impossible task to sit down and memorize such large chunks of text.  Consider adjusting the schedule so that you only ask the cast to memorize individual scenes or smaller portions of the script at one time.  While the final off book date might remain where it normally would be in the rehearsal process, these smaller and more manageable memorization challenges will be less overwhelming to your young actors.
  3. Extra credit might provide extra motivation.  Many actors find that they best memorize their lines by writing the dialogue over and over.  While this may seem tedious, it’s a tried and true technique practiced by many professionals.  This method may work for some and be a big bore for others, but encourage your students to give it a shot.  Offer extra credit to any actor who turns in a notebook with each of his lines handwritten ten times in a row.  And if your show isn’t for a class where extra credit applies, create some other incentive for actors willing to go the extra mile.  And whether for a class or not, you can require this assignment for your students who fail to memorize their lines by a certain date.
  4. Have students rehearse even when they’re not rehearsing.  Many actors find that they best memorize their lines by repeating the dialogue over and over.  You might not have the time to rehearse a scene as many times as it would take for an actor to learn his lines, but that doesn’t mean the actor can’t rehearse off the stage.  Most plays don’t require every actor to be onstage for the entire show, which means there’s a considerable amount of downtime for individual performers while you rehearse with others.  Students can utilize this valuable time to run lines with one another.  If one actor in particular is struggling to learn her lines, ask a production assistant or even a parent volunteer to sit and read the script aloud with the student.
  5. There really is an app for that.  Nearly every student has a smart phone these days.  I’m sure your actors are always texting and tweeting while you’re trying to rehearse.  Have your cast put their phones to good use and download one of the many apps specifically designed to help actors learn their lines, such as Scene Partner, Line Learner or Rehearsal.  Some of these apps even provide interactive games that take the line learning process to a new level.  Don’t forget to test out a few of these apps yourself so you’ll know which ones to recommend to your students.

You may not be able to learn the lines for your students, but following these tips will at least help you guide and encourage your students during the strenuous task of getting off book.  With a few of these tricks under your belt, your actors should be well prepared to memorize their lines, allowing you to focus your energies on other things —  like those walls that are still a little too orange.

Pioneer Drama Service