Well, actually, I’m not directing the school production … and that’s sort of the point of this post.
OK, so I’m in this fortunate position. I don’t direct the school musical and I replaced the biennial senior play with VCE Drama nights three years ago.
If you teach in a large Drama/Theatre department, this may also be your situation. Perhaps you assist one of your colleagues with one aspect of the school production, but not actively direct an entire full-scale production yourself. Alternatively, you may have no involvement at all.
But chances are, if you’re in small Drama department or are running solo as the only Drama teacher in your school or on your campus, then you’ll no doubt be expected to direct a major play or musical.
I’ve often wondered just why, as Drama teachers, we are expected to direct plays or musicals as part of our teaching load? I’m coming from a high school perspective here, where Drama teachers the world over direct entire two act plays, three hour musicals and five act Shakespeare productions every year.
I understand the many benefits of directing a production at high school. I’ve been there myself over the years and if the truth be known I sort of miss it in a way because directing was my true love in my uni days and I believe it is one of my strongest skills as a Drama teacher.
There are numerous positives in directing productions … from skills to collegiality … for both students and staff. But if we would only stop and take stock for a moment to remind ourselves most of these shows were written to be directed, choreographed, acted, sung and danced by professionals on Broadway and the West End … not students in Year 10 … for a reason.
I honestly believe the school production, while often a wonderful and rewarding experience for our students, is unnecessarily stressful for the Drama teacher who directs or coordinates it. On top of a full teaching load and rehearsals for any number of other activities at the same time, why are we expected to direct a full-scale show as well?
Perhaps we should question more often whether the benefits of directing a school play or musical outweigh the disadvantages that come with the same package?
I remember back in 2004 shocking my Deputy Principal by openly admitting to her I wouldn’t be planning a single lesson in the week of the senior play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I just said it as it was … I’ll be ‘winging’ every lesson that week off the top of my head, using the 6 Step Approach To Teaching … planning my lessons in the last six steps as I enter the classroom.
Such is the nature of the beast. If only more of our colleagues understood how it all works. We can’t of course, necessarily expect them to know the finer details of a Drama teacher’s job, so perhaps it is our duty to politely inform people what it’s like from time to time.
Drama teachers preparing school productions don’t just have lesson planning problems, but sleepless nights, endless hours (sometimes in the dark) up at school building sets, constructing costumes, rehearsing with students, printing programmes, rigging stage lights … the list goes on. We become unnecessarily stressed and anxious, so much so we sometimes find it THE most difficult time of the year in all aspects of our life, be it personal or professional.
There are of course side issues to directing the school production. Am I receiving an appropriate time allowance from my employer? Will I be getting remuneration? Or perhaps, why am I receiving neither money nor time?!? There is also the issue of whether the school production should be ‘expected’ of the Drama teacher, or simply be voluntary?
But the central issue in my eyes is why are we doing it in the first place?
Today I have other extra curricular activities to fill my plate, from VCE showcases to creative arts festivals. But these are spread in numerous timelines over nearly the entire academic year with no single activity requiring the all-consuming commitment and pressure that directing a school production does.
I recall back in the early 80s, a wonderful young American tennis player Andrea Jaeger, who officially retired from tennis with a shoulder injury at the tender age of just 19, after being ranked as high as No.2 in the world. It was clear she was simply burnt out because she started her tennis career at such an early age. These days, the Womens Tennis Association protect young girls from similar circumstances by not allowing them to participate in professional tournaments until they reach 14.
Just like Jaeger, young Drama teachers today are suffering burnout on a regular basis because they are directing school productions as early as their first year of teaching. Where is their protection? We should be looking after our young Drama teachers and nurturing them, not assisting their early burnout. Perhaps this is yet another reason why so many young educators are disillusioned with teaching, leaving our profession a few years into their new career.
After three years of not directing the high school production with my current employer, I have come to realise that for the first time in my career, I can focus almost exclusively on the quality of teaching and learning in the Drama classroom. Granted, I look back on the challenges of yesteryear where I practised the craft of directing with musicals and plays, but today these skills still occur in smaller chunks in any standard Drama class.
Directing the school show is such a mammoth task for Drama teachers. Many of us reach dizzying heights of success with slickly polished shows and talented students of all ages on stage. Meantime, our colleagues down the street are quietly struggling with a job so demanding and difficult, they begin to question its worth.
In reality, it really doesn’t matter too much about the quality of the show produced. At the end of the day, if our motives are genuine, we are directing school productions for the students, not our egos. But after all that hard effort by students and staff, we can’t ignore the fact that it’s nice to see a top quality product at the end of the road, if we can. After all, we are rightly proud of our efforts.
So now we delve into the dangerous territory where regardless of the quantity of work for all involved in a high school show, should we just be leaving them to the realms of professional theatre? Are many musicals and plays simply too difficult for some Drama teachers, particularly the inexperienced (though of course one can argue it is the number of not-so-brilliant productions in a row that make us better directors in the long run … hopefully).
Is directing the school production a natural extension of our face-to-face Drama teaching load i.e. performance? Are they the single, most time-consuming activity on the academic calendar, yet an add-on we are not even getting paid for? Are plays and musicals of the Broadway variety too difficult for high schools and should we be producing sub-standard shows? Are they a major distraction from our primary function as Drama teachers … to teach Drama/Theatre in the classroom?
Or is directing the school play or musical simply the best activity there is for both ourselves and our Drama students and well worth all the time and effort that goes into it?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not bagging or dissing the school production.
I’m not even calling for change.
But I am calling for a discussion………………