Monday, March 16, 2015

Confessions of a High School Musical Director

Remind Me Why I Do This

Beginning last night and continuing through this entire week, my universe consists of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as performed in the auditorium of East Stroudsburg (PA) High School South. Yes, folks, it’s “tech week” – or as most of us call it, “hell week.”

This is my thirtieth year enduring the final stages of putting together a high school production. With only three exceptions, I’ve been “the buck stops here” person. With a high school show, unless in some alternate universe this isn’t the case, the director also serves as producer of the school musical, so “little” things such as the printed program (ours is a booklet, with photos and ads), marketing, seeing that the bills are paid and that rented materials and equipment are returned in good shape are also in my job description.

My main job is, of course, educational. Take a group of teens, some of whom have never set foot on a stage, and turn them into an acting ensemble. Teach them as much as you can about what the job of an actor is: to create an alternate reality for the audience. Not an easy task, either for the teacher or the pupils, especially when there are many levels of competence and talent in the cast. And varying degrees of commitment and dedication. Sometimes we have to find ways to help them care about the quality of the production they’ll be appearing in.

As always, I start the rehearsal process with a show in my head that I then spend eight or nine weeks moving to the stage. Last night began the final stages of the realization of my vision: adding lighting to the production. Fortunately, I have worked for the past several years with a talented young man, an alumnus of the high school, who has done professional work and “gets” what I’m trying to do. It still isn’t an easy task. Tom Sawyer has a few scenes which offer wonderful opportunities – and challenges ─ for the lighting designer: a thunderstorm in a graveyard, a split scene which goes back and forth between a cave where two young people are lost (Tom and his girlfriend Becky Thatcher) and the hill above, where most of the townspeople are praying for the two lost “angels” in a well-constructed and highly effective musical number. My favorite moment in the show, and what a great opportunity for everyone to shine.

Tom Sawyer is an excellent adaptation of Twain’s great novel, and consequently has one of the best scripts in all of musical theater, in my opinion. Young actors with limited or no experience  tend to rush lines, not really thinking about what they are saying. It’s not easy to get a high school senior to really think of himself as Tom. And even more challenging to help a sophomore, appearing in her first stage production, to see herself as Aunt Polly.

We’re getting there. High school students – at least at South – have a way of taking a giant step on opening night. The final dress rehearsal always looks good; the cast knows all the mechanics of the show, they know their lines, they look nice in the beautiful costumes a caring woman has created for them. The kids at South sing exceptionally well, and a fine musical director has given them expert guidance. The musical numbers are great. We all think, well, it will be a good show.

Then on opening night, something magical often happens. They make me believe they are who the program says they are. They create a genuine reality. I forget their real names and accept that they are living in another time and another place. They make even me suspend my disbelief.

Yep, that’s the end result of a lengthy rehearsal period and a week of no sleep and agonizing over the final details. An experience for these youngsters that they will never forget. One more group of kids who have achieved something that seemed out of their reach – yet they will have made it happen.

Yes, that’s why I do this. I remember now.