For the Brave New Middle School Director:
Some Thoughts, a Few Stories, and a Whole Lot of Advice
All in all, my drama students know me to be a very fun and flexible play director. But there are a few things I’m a real stickler about, and one of those is “stage voice.” This is the volume and enunciation needed on stage so that everyone can hear what is being said--including Grandpa Cletus in the back row with two hearing aids. There is no possible way a performance can be funny, suspenseful, or engaging if no one in the audience can hear or understand it. And at one time or another, haven’t we all been that frustrated audience member? You’re sitting there with a real hunch that the play is good, but you’re only understanding snippets of long speeches or hearing a word here and there? It’s enough to cause convulsions! I call stage voice the “teacher voice” that carries clearly across a room. Most crowds aren’t perfectly quiet and most theaters are larger than a living room, so stage voice is very important to the success of the show. When every member of the cast can pull off a good volume and clear enunciation of their lines, believe me, the audience will be impressed!
It makes sense that stage voice feels different for everyone. The wallflowers feel like they’re bellowing. The class clowns feel like they’re talking at a perfectly normal volume. With that in mind, one excellent way to practice stage voice is to have your entire cast stand in a line in the area furthest from the stage—the back row, essentially. Then, one by one, each cast member stands alone center stage and says a few of their lines. Anyone who can hear them clearly from the back row gives them a thumbs-up. If the thumbs-up vote is unanimous, they can exit the stage, and it’s the next cast member’s turn. If they don’t receive a unanimous thumbs-up, they need to repeat their lines louder until they do. This game works like a charm for the shy or naturally soft-spoken cast members, because they are forced to raise their volume in order to get off the hot seat. It’s also an opportunity for the confident kids to model good volume. I love this exercise, because in the end, everyone gains a very personal sense of how loud they need to be to have a successful stage voice.
I feel expression is everything when it comes to drama. Your cast could be moving expertly around the stage and be perfectly positioned, but if they’re delivering their lines with no expression, the audience is going to be bored to tears. Once they really know their lines, encourage your middle school actors and actresses to get into character as much as possible and have fun with their role. Let them experiment with different tones, accents, voices, and gestures in rehearsal. If they have ideas for how to make a line better, hear them out. Middle schoolers, in particular, tend to respond positively to this level of respect. And ultimately, you want your cast to own their characters and be as expressive as they can be. Frankly, a play is just words on a page until the cast brings it to life!
At the risk of sounding like an old schoolmarm, I’m a big believer in memorization. It’s the other element besides stage voice that I tend to be a real drill sergeant about. Experience has taught me it’s very, very important that cast members memorize their parts and do so as soon as possible. Take the time to talk to them about it, too. If you work with middle schoolers, you’ll know they, in particular, always respond more positively when they know the “why” of something. Emphasize the following points with them:
After memorization is when the fun begins!
The sooner everyone knows their lines, the sooner everything will feel much, much easier. Because once everyone has stopped wracking their brains to remember their next line, they’ll be able to concentrate on other things: stage voice, expression, posture, movement on stage, using props, etc. This is when the show begins to come alive! But until memorization of the lines has been mastered, there’s little else anyone is going to be able to focus on during rehearsal. Encourage your cast members to memorize their parts so you can get to the fun stuff!
Do it for the team.
It’s important to every member of the cast that everyone has their lines memorized because then everybody is getting their correct cue. Once that’s happened, there’s a feeling of security that will settle in. Your cast is essentially a team on stage, and it’s only fair to the team for everyone to know their part. When everybody knows their lines and is delivering them at the appropriate time, it will be a relief for all concerned.
Do it for themselves.
No one looks good when they’re scrambling to remember their line. It will save every cast member a lot of potential embarrassment and frustration in front of an audience if they take the time to memorize their lines. If you have middle schoolers who are motivated to look cool, then they need to know their part. It’s as simple as that.
It will lower their blood pressure.
Seriously. Everyone should know that memorizing their lines will reduce their stress level when it comes time for the final performance. Anyone who knows their lines cold will definitely feel more “armed and ready” and a certain level of anxiety will lift off. And while they’re bound to still be nervous for the final show, at least they’re nervous for the right reasons—not because they don’t know their lines.
I once wrote a script for a middle school drama director who spent most of her time struggling in rehearsal because the kids didn’t know their lines. Rather than giving them a hearty lecture on the importance of memorization, she chose to encourage them to ad lib instead. Whenever anyone forgot a line in rehearsal, she’d call out, “Somebody save it!” Unfortunately, I never, ever saw this technique work. One kid would forget their line, fail to give a correct cue to a fellow cast member, and in the awkward silence that followed, another cast member would jump in with something completely unscripted. Everything went downhill very quickly. Whole scenes were getting skipped over in some instances and there was nothing but confusion and frustration for everyone in rehearsals. By show time, the whole cast was exceptionally nervous. Some were even in tears from the stress of not knowing their lines and now facing an audience.
Don’t do this to yourself or your cast! Memorization is not a dirty word. Insist that your cast members memorize their lines. Choose a deadline together, so you have their buy-in. Have them share memorization techniques with each other. Reward them in some way once they’ve all managed to memorize their lines. And then any ad-libbing that happens, either out of fun or out of necessity, will not de-rail the performance. If everyone knows their lines, it’s much easier for a scene to keep rolling if a line or two gets dropped by accident. Everyone is secure enough in their own part and with each other to handle anything that may come up unexpectedly. Believe me, if everyone has memorized their lines successfully, everything will feel much easier and much more fun. And that’s ultimately what will make a great show!
Oftentimes, there will be moments in a script when one character must interrupt another. This is a difficult skill to master and takes practice. For the interruption to sound natural, the one doing the interrupting has to be immediately ready with their line, and the one being interrupted should not be left pausing, waiting to be interrupted. I always encourage the “interrupter” to be listening for their “cue word” (the last word said by the other character) and to launch into their line the moment they hear it. When done smoothly, an interruption brings a sense of authenticity to the dialogue. After all, in normal conversation, there isn’t constant, polite turn-taking. The reality is we tend to interrupt each other constantly in normal, everyday conversation…much to my Aunt Helga’s disapproval. Just kidding. I don’t have an Aunt Helga. But if I did, I’m sure she would frown upon interrupting—except when it’s done well on stage, of course.
Knowing how to stand and move on stage can be challenging because it’s so different than what we do in our everyday life. Usually, we’re turning our whole body toward the person we’re talking to. Typically, we’re not making a point to have a whole room full of people see our facial expressions and gestures. We may be moving around and talking without regard to anyone else in our immediate space. But none of this normal behavior works on stage! Whenever possible, every character should be faced directly open or at a slight angle to the audience. Not only does this make facial expressions and gestures of the actor more visible, but it also helps their voice carry to the back of the room. You always want to make sure the audience can see what is going on non-verbally in the dialogue—eye rolls, clenched fists, fluttering eyelashes, etc. And unless it’s a specific stage direction, no one on stage should ever turn their back to the audience, talk to the back curtain, or stand directly in front of or behind another character. There are exceptions, of course, like the mischievous villain hiding behind a hedge waiting to spring out and surprise everyone. But most of the time, everyone should be visible to the audience at all times.
I’m a fan of keeping movement on stage primarily to the characters who are talking. However, I also don’t want everyone who’s not talking to be standing stiffly in place. It’s a balance. I think the characters who are speaking should be the ones moving about, making grand gestures, etc., while the rest of the cast’s movements should stay more subtle and understated. For instance, if it’s a restaurant scene in which a customer is arguing with a waiter, then I would encourage these two characters to go for it. I would ask everyone else on stage to react with shocked facial expressions, peek out from behind their menus, silently mouth comments to one another, and make any other movement or gesture that adds to the scene but doesn’t distract the audience.
I’ve worked with a few scene-stealers in my time--kids who are terrific at staying in character but also love having the audience’s attention on them at all times, regardless of whether the moment is about them or not. With these enthusiastic thespians, I praise them for staying in character but ask them to move and react in such a way that doesn’t draw the audience’s focus away from where it needs to be. A great show is never about just one character stealing the spotlight—it’s about everyone helping everyone to look good!
One terrific way to practice everyone being visible to the audience is a common drama game I like to call “Say Cheese!” Have all the members of your cast stand on stage together and call out a theme like “Dance Party!” Your cast moves around on the stage freely, saying and doing anything appropriate to the theme. After thirty seconds or so, call out “3, 2, 1…say cheese!” On the word “cheese,” everyone on stage must freeze as if they’re about to have their picture taken. The only trick is they need to have frozen in such a way that everyone can be seen by you, the cameraman. Take a close look, have them reposition if necessary, pretend to snap a picture, and then call out a new theme. Play the game until the group gets a sense of how to freeze without being blocked or blocking anyone else from view. With enough practice, they’ll begin to do this for each other naturally on stage during a performance.
I have worked with a very small stage in a very small school, and space was always an issue when it came to where the actors and actresses would be off stage. For many of the holiday plays in which there were extra-large casts, we began the show with everyone behind the curtain back stage, and once characters had finished their particular scene, they moved into the first few rows of the audience. This way, most of the cast had a chance to see a large portion of the performance.
If they weren’t behind the back curtain, I split the cast between the two side stage areas so they were not crammed together uncomfortably on one side. I’ve tried to adhere to this idea in my stage directions for every playscript. For the final scene of every play, I typically have the entire cast step on stage from wherever they were to say a last line together and take a bow.
It’s always a bit challenging to practice anticipating the audience reactions when there is typically no audience during rehearsals, but it really is absolutely key to the final performance. When your middle school actors have the patience and timing to wait for the audience to finish laughing, groaning, or clapping before they say their next line, it’s a win for everyone. The audience doesn’t miss any of the dialogue, and your cast looks very, very professional.
During a dress rehearsal is the best time for you as the director to practice giving the laughs, cheers, groans, etc. of the audience. Before this, there’s quite enough to concentrate on. But to practice it at least once before the final show gives the cast a feel for what it’s like to pause in the middle of the script and feel comfortable doing so.
“Stay in character!” is a common mantra of mine as a play director. It’s just so darn easy for any cast member who doesn’t have a line or has finished all their lines in a scene to slip out of character and start gazing at the ceiling. However, it adds a lot to the performance when everyone on stage is engaged, speaking or not. When they’re not delivering a line, encourage your cast members on stage to always be reacting to what is being said with a facial expression and/or simply turning to the person who is talking. The extra benefit is that even those who have just a few lines won’t get bored if they are concentrated on “staying in character.” Emphasize that what their character is doing non-verbally is still important to the scene, and the audience will definitely notice any actor who is not paying attention.
I like to remind my cast members that a good actor knows how to be a good audience member. For the sake of their fellow actors and actresses, it’s important that everyone stays quiet while waiting side stage or behind the curtain. This is for the sake of the audience as well as the ones onstage trying to concentrate on their lines. Staying quiet on the set and giving each other that level of respect and attention is being a good team.
Matching Performers to Parts with Auditions
Take some time to read through the sample of any particular playscript. Select the one that best fits your group in terms of your cast—number, ratio of girls to boys, and personalities. Now it’s time to match kids to parts. If you intend to let your performers have some choice in who they would like to play onstage, then I would suggest you take some time to thoroughly introduce the play to your group. Explain the basic plot of the play, describe the individual characters, and perhaps even give it a read-through. When you feel they’re ready to make some decisions, write up the list of characters on a large white board for all to see and let the madness begin. Who’s interested in which part? You’re going to be writing up names, erasing them, switching them around, and writing them up again until everyone seems happy…for the moment. You may not want to wield too much influence at this point—some roles will fall into place naturally. Initially, there will probably be several kids interested in being a major character, but then the half-hearted ones will notice all the competition for the part and choose to go for a different role. Some kids will fear having to audition for a part and will choose a character no one else is interested in. Initially, you may have some holes, heavy competition for a particular part, etc. Allow a little time for things to settle out and schedule auditions for a later date. You may need a few days to talk a kid into trying out for a particular part or filling a part that’s completely open. Sometimes a kid will need a few days to realize that they really wanted a different part than what they originally signed up for. Sometimes kids end up making deals with one another, agreeing to drop off from auditioning for one particular role on the condition they get to be a shoe-in for another one. It will all work out in the end—you just may have to exercise some patience…and possibly give a nudge here and there.
I think holding auditions is a healthy part of play production. If a kid really wants a particular part, they’ll need to memorize some lines successfully, act their heart out, and win it fair and square. This is a good exercise for middle schoolers. I never felt the need to have anyone audition for a part in which they were the only one interested, but you may choose to have them audition if you suspect that it may not be a good fit. As director, I believe you should always have the final say as to who plays which role, but whenever possible, try to honor the desires of your cast members. When they are in a role they like, they’ll be more motivated and enthusiastic about the play, and you won’t find yourself doing an excessive amount of cheerleading as a result.
Matching Performers to Parts without Auditions
If you are forgoing auditions and simply choosing performers for particular roles, then I would suggest you use individual personalities as your guide. Match performers to parts based on what will come most natural to them. Place your sassy and confident ones in the roles that need someone to pour on the attitude or get big laughs from the audience. Fit your exceptionally shy and quiet ones to the roles that need someone to be passive and sweet or express just a few lines. You also might consider placing them in the middle of a group of characters that come on together and say their lines in order. This way, their cue is very obvious, and they can feed off the confidence of the others in the group. Keep in mind that good acting is a challenge for most kids. Don’t make things any more stressful than what’s necessary.
Choosing your Stars
It may sound obvious, but if you have someone that suffers from absenteeism, don’t choose them for a starring role. They could have the talent of Jack Nicholson, but if they don’t show up for rehearsal or (gasp!) the performance, you will be tearing your hair out in frustration. Try to place your most reliable actors and actresses in the biggest roles, even if they may need a bit more coaching.
Assuming you’re not working with a professional drama group ready for Broadway, please don’t expect everything at once from your actors and actresses. Devote your first several rehearsals to the simple task of everyone remembering their lines and coming in on cue. Then it’s time to focus on stage voice, expression, and gestures. And after that, they’re ripe to practice other aspects of the performance: entering and exiting the stage smoothly, working with the props, moving around on stage according to the action, etc. Add these skills on one at a time, and before the final performance, make sure to have a few dress rehearsals performed in costume. This always seems to work a certain magic in getting everyone into character. Just keep in mind that it never works to expect too much too soon. You will only end up frustrating yourself and everyone around you. Build up slowly and steadily to the final performance. Have patience, and know that every artistic piece tends to have an “ugly stage,” too. Hang in there and remember that even a Broadway play doesn’t come together all at once!
I highly recommend that when you hand copies of the script out to your cast members, that you have them put their name somewhere on the first page immediately. I’m embarrassed to say how many years I spent picking up forgotten scripts after rehearsal, never knowing how to get them back to their owner, before I came up with this ridiculously simple idea. It saves a lot of hassle and brings the added bonus of knowing just who to lecture about leaving their script lying about.
Also notice that within the playscripts, every scene begins on a new page and indicates what characters are in that particular scene. This way, if you don’t wish to copy the entire play for every character, you don’t have to. You can simply give each cast member a copy of their particular scene or scenes. This saves you time, not to mention money. Yet another trick I learned after years of standing at the copy machine.
Costumes and Props
I’ve included a grid at the end of every playscript which outlines your costume and prop needs for every character. Please scribble all over it! Write in who is in which part, make note of your own costume ideas, and copy it off for anyone who may be helping you with costumes and props. I wanted this to be a handy tool for you in staying organized. At the very least, it can be a quick guide to what you will need to gather for the show.
I can tell you that if you are on a tight budget, construction paper will become your best friend. It can be used to create all manner of hats, beards, food items, etc. I have been absolutely amazed at what can be made out of construction paper in the hands of someone with some creativity.
Large plastic tubs and grocery bags can be real life-savers when it comes to drama productions. Instead of having costumes and various props strewn across the stage at the end of every rehearsal, it’s always much easier to direct everyone to put their costume pieces and personal props in one bag with their character’s name on it and drop it in a tub. Not only does this encourage self-responsibility amongst your cast members, but it saves you, as the director, a lot of time frantically searching for someone’s missing hat or pair of reindeer horns at the last minute. Then, when all is said and done, those tubs can get labeled with the name of the play and set aside for another year.
I want to whole-heartedly encourage you to take some time to talk with your cast just before show time. You’ll find that many of your performers, even if they have been onstage before, will desperately need a pep talk before the curtain lifts.
Reassure everyone that feeling nervous is not only normal but advantageous—it means they are alert, ready to perform, and motivated to do well. It’s quite healthy to be nervous! You may also want to remind them that the audience does not have the script in their laps. No one but the cast is likely to know if a line gets skipped or changed or ad-libbed so long as the show keeps rolling. If someone forgets their line out of nervousness, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a moment to recall it because nine times out of ten, it will come right back.
When your cast is nervous, they’ll be tempted to do two things: to talk quietly and to talk fast. They must fight these two impulses! They’ll need to concentrate on slowing down and speaking up like never before. Emphasize this before they step on stage, and they won’t treat the play like a race to be won.
And finally, insist that everyone’s number one job is to HAVE FUN. Their biggest responsibility is to milk their role for all its worth, because that, above all, is what the audience wants to see. I’ve had a kid in a full banana costume with only three lines be the hit of a show because they played their part with complete gusto! And when they choose to go for it, they are encouraging their fellow cast members to go for it as well. Middle schoolers are mature enough to understand this “positive group energy” concept, so inspire them to make it happen on stage!
I once worked in a school that put on a dramatic production of a popular children’s book, written and directed by one of the teachers. I cringed every time I watched a rehearsal. The teacher/director spent a great deal of time getting mad and frustrated with the kids acting in the play. Her expectations were excruciatingly high when it came to the focus and timing of her young actors, and she spent a great deal of time barking out directions, stomping up and down stage, and throwing tantrums in front of her cast. By the time of the actual performance, no one was having any fun, and it showed.
It’s important to keep in mind that young performers are not professional actors, and to be on stage, wear a silly costume, and remember lines on cue in front of an audience is a very brave endeavor. Everyone needs to be feeling exceptionally self-confident and happy to pull it off successfully. Do your best to keep rehearsals more enjoyable than they are stressful. Encourage, cheerlead, praise, and catch every actor and actress doing something well. I guarantee that if your cast is having fun, they’ll work hard for you, too. And the final performance will be the better for it!