Why Am I Directing The School Production?

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………………

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16 Responses

  1. Drama Couture says:

    I stumbled upon this article as I was searching on how to motivate my middle schoolers to take what they were doing seriously. But then I had to remind myself, that our production is a middle school play, not Broadway theater. I took over the Drama Advisor position this year and had intended on doing this task alone, as the previous advisor had. A very meager stipend was provided.

    However, another teacher elected herself to do this task with me, ultimately splitting the stipend. I had already spent countless hours working on the beginning stages of the what we would be doing in drama. And she decided that I couldn’t handle the initial 60 kids that were just showing interest.

    She completely took over the production and has run my kids ragged. I have spent this entire time buffering between her and parents, and her very negative demeanor towards other staff. I have three weeks to salvage this performance, and at this point I can not go to the Administration and complaining because I would be looking like I am just trying to cover my own behind. Any suggestions?

    I have told her that I would not continue as a drama producer next year unless I did it alone. She is continuing to say that this job needs to be done by two people. It never was before.

    • On the positive side, it is great to get another person on board with the production. But not if they begin to take over, as you say. I’m convinced some people are never meant to work together in arts education, especially when producing theatre shows. This (long and often exhausting) process requires a certain chemistry and a deep level of respect between workmates that our colleagues teaching other subjects at school may never properly understand. If I were you, I’d get through the next few weeks until the show is over, remind yourself you are doing it for the children, and see Admin in a couple of months about working solo on the same project next time. If that is not possible, then draw up clear job descriptions as to who is doing what on the next show between yourself and your colleague so there is clear lines of responsibility and limitations to each other’s role (avoiding the takeover approach next time around).

  2. A. Rodriguez says:

    I once again feel the need to respond to this thread. My school’s big production debuts in less than a month, and I feel as if I barely have my head above water. I really did need to read Justin’s article. It landed on my lap at the most opportune time. I am already becoming one of those burnt out teachers at 25, and I have decided to step down from the drama program at my school next school year. I love the students and I love Drama, but I yearn to excel in a program under stronger leadership that understands the full complexity of what it is I do.

    I come from a school where barely any teacher’s efforts are acknowledged. Ultimately, I know we do this for the students, but what if we wish to evolve in our craft and grow as professionals, and people? If we have no one in power who is willing to see, let alone encourage our talents, then we become stagnant.

    More leaders need to encourage the arts in our schools, or (if they lack the preference) at least bolster the teachers who make the school stand out. I have interviewed at an art school near my home, and it is everything I wish my current school would be (in fact, it is what was promised to us). Hopefully, I will transition out of this place and be reinstated in a place where the teachers are valued just as much as the students they teach.

    • Ironic, that when you teach in a school, its all about education. Administrators in schools who do not value the arts (in this case, drama) need to be educated about the absolute need for the arts in education, the joy it brings to so many students’ faces, and the life skills arts subjects offer them. Drama teachers the world over are, as you put it in your comment last November, overworked and underpaid for what they do. Focusing on the overworked part of the equation, have you sat down and had a conversation with your school Principal directly about your situation? Because it sounds like your students will be very sad if you are not involved in the school’s drama program next year. At the end of the day, you have to look after yourself, too. There’s no sense being burnt out at 25 because you are passionate about teaching drama. If your school does not value you, I’d move on. I’ve done that before. I sat down with a Deputy Principal once and reminded him we were not on the same page about the school’s drama program and that I’d simply leave at the end of the year if things didn’t change. I said I’d move on to a school that values my passion and skills as a drama teacher. Three months later, I left after only one year in the position. Today that line looks out of place on my curriculum vitae, but at some point in your career one has to stand up for what you believe in and act upon it. Good luck with your decisions. I feel for you.

      • A. Rodriguez says:

        Hello Justin, thank you for commenting. I have already informed my administrator of my decision to step down, and it was received with much indifference. She made me feel as if I was easily replaceable and dispensable. Due to this response, I figured it was my time to move on, especially in my current setting. Luckily, I have secured a position in a performing arts magnet school nearer to my home where they value the type of work I do. I won’t be working as a Drama teacher, but I plan to work closely with the teacher there so I can learn some new skills that I may use in the future in case I decide to pursue Drama again. I will definitely say this; the past two years have been a great learning experience for me, and I now understand the value of my work, enough so that I will not settle for less than I know I deserve. These kids deserve to have a teacher that is energized and positive; but that is hard to maintain with limited support.

  3. A. Rodriguez` says:

    It is refreshing to read through this thread; I honestly thought I was alone. As Justin mentioned, I’m a rookie Drama/Language Arts teacher in a local Florida charter school who feels overworked and under-paid. Last year was my first year helming a production within a newly established school, and we were working with very limited resources. Unfortunately, my administrators are very hands-off when it comes to the performing arts, yet their expectations are exceedingly high. They don’t fully comprehend the amount of preplanning it takes to create a tangible and successful finished product. I guess producing a mediocre production has never felt like an option for me. I am surprised I didn’t step down after my first year.

    Currently, I have plans of producing a big-scale musical, and I find myself once again encountering a variety of setbacks and no support whatsoever from my administration. I am very idealistic and always have an elaborate vision for the school shows, which encourages my students to perform to the pinnacle of their powers, but this is oftentimes overlooked.

    I guess the biggest questions I want to pose on this thread are the following: Where is a good place to seek out resources if I lack them at my current school (sound equipment, inexpensive set-pieces, etc.)? What’s a great method of fundraising for the club? and how can create a competitive program that my administration and fellow faculty can take seriously?

  4. Liz Barclay says:

    Have just read all these comments as I did an Internet search for ‘Burnout and the Drama Teacher’ and ended up here. As a drama teacher of 20 years, I finally resigned last year as the stress and exhaustion was just all too much. Like many of you I valued the School production and the way it brought community together. But teaching HSC Drama, and being Head of Department and teaching primary and secondary drama and writing and directing the School Production just became too much. I wonder why? I am about to present a paper on ‘Crushing the Creative Spirit’, Managing the Stress of the Drama Teacher’ and would like any more feedback on how we can manage to do it all and not burn out. It is a topic that we all talk about at conferences but needs a platform to initiate a serious discussion. We love what we do and we love being in the class room …it is all the other pressures of marks, reports, parents, the emotional outbursts of our drama students and often the complete lack of understanding of our colleagues. I got sick of seeing myself as the whinging drama teacher and working all through my holidays….mostly for 20 years….and seeing other teachers actually going overseas and having a life. The challenge is that we want to do it all as we are multi-skilled, highly talented and often perfectionist beings. But this leads to our downfall. Would be interested in any dialogue or any papers on this subject.

  5. Michael says:

    Hello ‘the big q’. First of all let me say you are not alone in this situation. Many drama teachers are doing it alone all over the country, however I was hoping that it was less than 15 years ago. By Justin raising this issue to seems there are still many drama teachers doing it alone. I remember my school production producer (who inspired me to become a teacher) like you was also the director, set designer, stage manager, gaffa e.t.c. however over time the culture changed at my old school and now staff get time and in some cases money to do the show.
    There is no easy answer to your question about how to get people to help. It is all about the culture of the school. It is becoming harder and harder to get staff involved in co-curricular without some recognition. Particularly young staff who always want some sort of acknowledgement for their work. You are not going to change the way the other staff think overnight however below are some things that you may be able to do to help inspire other to assist.

    1. Speak to the Principal about rewarding staff who get involved. This could be a simple as no extras/covers for the term that the musical is on or reduced yard duties.

    2. Maybe the Principal would be willing to give you a reduced teaching load. If this is generous you could offer to take some classes of the other staff who help you out at the peak times. For example 1 month before the show you could offer to take a double period of your set designer so they can finish their work. Sometimes these small gestures help.

    3. I believe like us in Victoria, you are required to clock up Professional Development hours to be reaccredited to teach. Maybe you can work within these parameters. Last year I took my Production team to another school (who have a very good reputation of producing quality musicals) to do some PD. They were able to log these hours.

    4. Speak to Faculty Heads and see if the Technology teachers would be willing to make the sets as part of a project in class time.

    5. I understand that these gestures only go so far and you can then get staff helping just to get the superficial rewards. You need to convince them that it also benefits them professionally, particularly in the area of staff-student relationships. Below is a section of a PowerPoint that I presented to my staff on the benefits of getting involved in co-curricular.

    Builds stronger Staff-Student relationships.
    – Students see you in a different setting (they may even notice that you are human)
    – Can help with discipline back in the classroom

    Job Satisfaction
    – Helps break up the monotony of teaching
    – Working with students who want to be there

    Career Progress
    – Opens leadership pathways within the school
    – Opportunity to earn a higher salary (Through Positions of Leadership)
    – MAKES YOU MORE EMPLOYABLE

    I hope this is of some assistance and good luck!

    Michael

  6. The Big Q says:

    Can I start by saying I love running the school musical – and I hate running the school musical.

    I work in a public school in a less desirable part of the world west of Sydney – most students come from lower socio economic backgrounds and have had NO experience with theatre (or music) what so ever. Dealing with these students is as rewarding an experience as I have ever had. They grow as poeple, the school community becomes just that little bit tighter, and, almost without fail, that kid that nobody can stand in class seems to get his act together.

    However….

    I am in the only drama teacher in a school of 1200 students situation. I have had a long pre-teacher career working in the industry, which helps (admittedly, the budgets have shrunk!) and a supportive executive.

    Other teachers just do not understand the time it takes. This year I spent most of term 2 and the entire term 3 rehearsing the actors every lunchtime, 2-3 afternoons a week and spent every Saturday at the school. As the music and art teachers refuse to be involved (they are strick 9 to 3ers) I also run the band and make the sets (which is now expected, because of my background) – and that doesn’t include the months of pre-production.

    It would be easy enough to simply refuse to do it, but then I go back to the reason WHY I do it. I love seeing the kids transform through the process.

    The week before the performances I swear I’ll never do it again and I am exhausted at the end (but after closing night I start discussing what we will do next year…)

    These events are something that should pull a school together, but it seems to me (at least in my situation) that it can create tension between staff – who, on the whole, often seem a lot less mature than the 14 years olds on the stage.

    I know that the best way to do this is to have a great team – I have run multi million dollar productions before – so I suppose my question is, how do I get the rest of the school staff, who often have no more experience than the kids, to be as passionate as I am? Is the answer simply to say no help, no musical? How have others coped?

  7. Anty Horgan says:

    hello,
    i’m studying to be a drama teacher and will be so within about a year. I was wondering if anyone could help me with ideas on how to run rehearsals for school productions. Cheers

  8. Justin Cash says:

    Hi Nancy. Welcome to The Drama Teacher and thanks for your comment!

    I think you’re definitely on the right track in instituting ‘evenings on campus’ at your school to help kick along the Drama Dept.

    I have blogged frequently on The Drama Teacher about ‘culture’. I believe if, with your enthusiasm and expertise, you gradually build a culture in your Drama Dept where the students take everything you guys do in a serious manner, then the staff and student body will give you the credit you deserve in return.

    All across the world, Drama/Theatre teachers are struggling for their discipline to be taken seriously. It has to be seen as just as ‘academic’ as the next subject on the high school curriculum.

    When this is achieved, more students will choose Drama at different year levels and your numbers will rise, more classes will exist etc.

    Increase the profile of Drama through your evenings on campus, plays, musicals, drama nights of any description, articles in school newsletters, lunch time activities (ie theatresports), posters around the school, drama clubs etc. It will be hard work, but you can always get enthusiastic students to assist with some of these events and ideas.

    Over the years I have found getting a Drama Dept going is a combination of teacher expertise, teacher respect for Drama and the students undertaking it, student respect for the subject, marketing, extra curricular activities and events, and word of mouth. Drama has to be seen as the most exciting (and fun) subject at school and then you’ll find the students will do the talking for you!

    One of the best things I’ve done in the past seven years at my current school was send the Principal, Deputy Principals etc formal invitations to a senior Drama night at school. Now … the school administration come to all my Drama nights and the profile of Drama has increased enormously.

    All the best with it Nancy.

  9. Nancy from Calif. says:

    I have just started a drama program at my middle school in Calif. We have a tremedous music dept. and have a musical every year….why the administration waited so long to get going on drama, I haven’t a clue. What I would like is some suggestions on growing a department. Right now I am struggling to keep my meager classes alive and kicking. I have instituted “Evenings on Campus” a dessert/short play type of deal and will be doing a full-length play(Story Theatre) in Feb. Any other ideas?

  10. Without a shadow of a doubt, my fondest memories of high school were the school productions. In fact, all these years later, they are the most vivid in my mind. I’m sure this is the case for many other people, too. The truth is, without the school productions, I would have few positive memories of high school at all.

    I just see it as such a shame, when we are now on the other side of the fence as educators, we often have to juggle teaching the everyday curriculum with directing the school show. It sure makes me (albeit retrospectively) appreciate my high school Drama teacher/s more, now that I know what they must have been going through at the time!

    I’m a firm believer that there’s more to school than getting good grades (even in the senior years) and if a student’s best experience at high school is the school musical and not getting 100% on a Maths exam, then I think that’s fantastic, because I sure know where the life skills were learned.

    I agree, it appears more administrators today better appreciate the work that goes in to directing a school production and are prepared to compensate Drama teachers with some time or money in return. The more (positive) noise we make, the better the awareness, because at the end of the day it is an administrative decision based on available funds. it all comes down to the bottom line. If school administrators have a better understanding of the demands of directing a school production, then they may place more emphasis on the value of this activity.

    I wonder if it would be worthwhile for Drama teachers to occasionally log the hours they spend outside school time preparing and rehearsing the school production? I honestly believe some school administrators really don’t know how much goes into it and it is often about being properly informed.

    Running a school production is a bit like a city hosting the F1 Grand Prix … the benefits are many, but they come at a cost.

  11. Michael (micoke) says:

    I need to declare that I implemented school musicals 4 years ago after a 20 year absence from the school calendar. I did this because the school was producing a junior and senior straight play that included only about 30 students in total. With a school of 1800 we needed to get more students involved. I have also taught Year 12 Drama for the last three years.

    Justin, you make some great points. It is difficult when a school expects the drama teacher to do the school play or musical as well as teach the curriculum. I am lucky; we have 4 drama teachers, 2 dance teachers and a good music department so we can share the load. I also get time and money to produce the musical. However over the last couple of years I have notice something missing in my school life. That is the ability to make Year 12 Drama my number 1 priority and give them 100% of my time during the production period and although I do host a solo/ensemble showcase each year, we do not showcase enough of our curriculum performances because of a busy co-curricular schedule.

    I recommend:

    1. A good balance between curriculum and co-curricular

    2. If possible the VCE drama teacher is not involved in the school production

    3. If you are the only drama teacher, only offer what you can. WE DO NEED co-curricular drama however not at the expense of the teachers sanity.

    At the end of the day Musicals and school productions are the highlight of many students year but we do need to keep them in balance with the teaching of the drama curriculum.

  12. Kath says:

    I was rendered speechless last week when speaking to our (new) principal last week about this very issue. Her response was ‘would you like time or money?’. Then, after some thought she added ‘or both?’. I just love those ‘better than expected’ moments, but it did highlight the fact that financial or time allowance is such a shift from the norm. It made me hopeful that awareness is spreading of exactly what it takes to do a school production. I’ve spent hours of work on next years production already and it’s still in its fetal stages, and I know I’m not the only one.

  13. Borbs says:

    I think Schools should give appropriate allowances for teachers taking on a school production. Schools with multiple Drama teachers should alternate production responsibilities … good in theory 😉

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