I’ve taught theatre for over 16 years now: in the public school setting, at both academic and traditional summer camps, and at one awesome studio in Mt. Horeb. So I’ve had many chances to refine my class expectations, those guiding principles that all students follow without fail (ha).
I remember that my first set of expectations (I called them “rules” back then) was filled with redundancies – and they were pretty epic in size and scope. As the years passed, I whittled that list to a more manageable set of seven expectations that would serve as a guide for me and my students as we embarked on our amazing and often bizarre trip through the world of theatre. Notice that I said me and my students, not just my students. If I expect them to honor these expectations, then I should be expected to do the same. This way, the students know that we’re all in this together. And yes, I did just sing a certain song in my head when I typed that last sentence.
Below are the seven expectations that I use to set the tone for all of the theatre classes (and most other classes) that I teach.
Each day, you will be expected to . . .
1. Know that this class is all about you.
I assume that most students, when they read this, think “Well, of course it is.” But for those who don’t, this is important to state. It lets the students know that they are seen as individuals and will be taught and treated as such. That my teaching will be geared toward making their strengths stronger and helping them work to improve the areas in which they’re not as strong. Another reason this expectation is here is to set up number 2.
2. Know that this class is not about you.
Some students seem to be raised to believe that, despite scientific proof to the contrary, the world revolves around them. This is where I inform them that this is, in fact, not the case. The class is about more than them as individuals. It’s about the subject, it’s about the lessons, it’s about the learning, the projects, the characters, the performances, and most importantly . . . about everyone who’s in the class. Hearing the phase “It’s not about you” can be one of the hardest things a person can hear, but sometimes it’s also the best thing they can hear. Students, and adults, need to realize that they’re part of something bigger then themselves.
3. Do the right thing.
My friend and mentor Harvey Craft set this as the only expectation in his class. His view was that instead of having a lot of behavior-based rules, he would reduce it to one that covered everything. Throughout the year, he spent time talking with his students about what the “right thing” was, and most of the time, they knew in any given situation what choice they should make. When they didn’t, it was a great opportunity for a teachable moment.
4. Leave any issues that you have at the door.
To be able to get the most out of class, the students must be able to fully focus on what we’re doing. Everyone has issues they’re dealing with, and students feel those issues even more deeply than the rest of us. Dwelling on friends, family, school, or just being a teenager can make your students completely incapable of doing their best work, or any work. So before they enter, I ask them to simply leave their issues at the door. (I do let them know that they can pick their issues up when they leave, if they choose to.)
Naturally, some students find this difficult at first. Once it becomes a habit and an expectation, they’re often able as a group to help one another leave their issues at the door, where many of them remain unpicked-up after class.
Quick note: I do realize that there some issues you can’t just “leave at the door.” Those are handled as they come up, in whatever way the student needs.
5. Seek progress over perfection.
On a daily basis, I stress to my students that it’s not about being perfect; it’s about being better. At something. Every day. And when you do the best that you can do every day, you’ll make progress in some aspect of the class. I also stress to students the importance of looking back and recognizing the progress that they’ve made. Seeing how far they’ve come is vital for encouraging their continued growth.
6. Know that we succeed – or fail – together. Everyone is vital.
Here, I want everyone to understand that there is not a single person in the class who’s not vital. Everyone must do their part, play their role, to the best of their ability in order for us to succeed as a group. Success in theatre depends on everyone. Sure, there are bigger roles, but just like in a complicated machine, if the smallest part doesn’t come through, the entire machine can break down. That’s why I think it’s critical to develop a strong sense of community early in the year, to learn to operate as one instead of as a bunch of individuals.
7. Have fun.
At no point should you or your students ever forget that at the heart of theatre is the word “play.” People play because it’s fun. And when you’re having fun, you’re unshackled from the reality that you know in the rest of your life, and you have the freedom to create and truly experience the pretend, the magic. The fun.
That’s it! The magnificent seven. Feel free to use some, or all, if you find them useful.
As students head back to school, auditions for fall plays are right around the corner. I ran three auditions over the summer and have another six coming up shortly, so with auditions on the brain, I thought I’d share some tips for students who are about to embark on that stressful, yet fun, challenge.
These tips are assembled from my experience as an actor going through audition after audition, as a director running audition after audition, from students who told me about their own audition experiences, and from various directors who have shared their audition processes with me.
Feel free to pick and choose the ones that you think will be helpful when you audition. If you can apply some of these tips, you’ll be more likely to have a strong audition that you can feel good about, and to have a chance at getting a part. (Notice that I didn’t say you will get a part. Because you don’t control casting. All you control is your audition.)
Let’s take a look at some audition tips!
1. Auditions begin the moment you walk in the door. And they never stop – even when you’re off the stage.
Most directors are observing you at various times from the minute you arrive, even when you’re not onstage. They’re taking note of your personality, how you interact with others, how professional you are, and how seriously you’re taking the audition. This is one opportunity that a lot of actors (young and not-young) don’t take advantage of. I’ve gotten a lot of ideas for casting just by watching the students who are waiting to go onstage. So make sure the actor you’re showing to the director is the one who will help the show – not hurt it.
2. It doesn’t really matter what part you want.
This one is pretty simple: Directors don’t, or shouldn’t, cast a show based on which parts their actors want to play. They cast based on what’s best for the characters and the play, nothing more. As an actor, if there’s a part that you think you’re a great fit for, do your best to show the director that you connect with that character (remember: both on and off the stage). Now, sometimes the part you like the most and the part that fits you best are the same thing. But more than likely, they’re not – and that’s okay. Because remember, casting is not about you. It’s about the show.
3. Auditions are not a time to be timid. Bold choices are required.
When it’s your time to take the stage, your objective is not to blend in. Those that blend in get forgotten. (And usually not cast.) So take risks. Be bold. Move around and interact with the other actors onstage, even if you’re the only one doing it. Be willing to be wrong, to make mistakes. Don’t leave the stage thinking “I wish I had done this cool thing. . . ” because it does you no good. Do it while you’re there. What do you have to lose?
4. Pay attention to what the other actors are doing.
If you’re in an audition where you get to observe everyone who’s auditioning, put down your phone, stop talking to your friends, and don’t zone out. Pay attention to everyone’s audition. Find the choices they make that don’t work, and don’t repeat them. Find the choices that do work, and steal them for when it’s your turn. Steal them, you say? That’s right. Because in auditions . . .
5. Stealing from others is okay.
Your objective in an audition is to give yourself the best chance to get cast. One way to do this is by observing what the other actors are doing that works well when they audition. If they do something that makes you think “That’s amazing,” it makes sense for you to incorporate what they did, make it your own, and make it better. But what if you can’t make it better? Do it anyway. You never know what’s going to happen.
6. Treat every time that you get to “read” as your last chance.
You may get to read several times during an audition. But the truth is, casting decisions are being made throughout the process. Now, they may change (and probably will), but don’t think that way. Treat every time you “read” as the only chance you’ll get to show what you can do. Because it may be. Does that put pressure on you? Sure, but the pressure’s already there anyway. It is an audition, after all.
7. You are not competing with the other actors, no matter what anyone else has ever told you.
I know it feels like you versus the other actors, but it’s not. You can’t control how talented the other actors are, or their experience, or their looks, or what they do or don’t do onstage. You can only control yourself, what you bring into the audition, and how you use what you do have. The goal is not to beat everyone else: It’s simply to do your best, with the skills you have, when you get the chance.
8. You are never just auditioning for the part you’re reading for.
You’ve been asked to read for a role that you have no interest in. It’s a small part, and you’re scared that if you do an awesome job, you’ll be stuck with it. So you’re thinking of holding back a little – or completely tanking. Don’t. For two reasons: One, that’s not professional and could keep you from being cast at all. Two, you might be (no – you are) getting looked at for other parts at the same time.
9. Of course everyone doesn’t have an equal shot at every part.
This is the reality of casting a show. No matter how fair a director strives to make it, everyone doesn’t have the same shot at all parts. If everyone was exactly the same, in every way, then sure: everybody would have an equal shot. But it’s not true because everyone’s different. Different looks, different genders, different ages, different experience and skill levels. Not to mention that the play, and the characters, play a huge role in casting as well. And that’s okay. So don’t get caught up on something you have no control over. Focus on only what you do.
10. If you do nothing else, at least project.
Sometimes, casting a role comes down to the student who can project, or fill the theatre with their voice. That’s it. If a student can already project, that’s huge because one of the biggest problems students have is talking to “deaf Mrs. McGillicuddy” in the back row of the theatre. So if you do nothing else during auditions, at least project.
In the end, remember that you are auditioning for a play. There’s a reason it’s called a play. The ability to just let go and “play” whatever role you’re reading for isn’t as difficult as you think. You were free to do that when you were 4 years old. You could play any character you wanted, loudly and believably.
Why? Because it was called pretend back then. Now it’s called acting. The secret is: they’re the same thing.
So find your inner four-year-old, remember and use the tips above, and be big, bold and have fun playing whatever character you’re reading for. In the end, you might get cast, you might not. But in the end, you’ll know you did everything you could. Your best.
A guardian squirrel?
Sure, why not?
My ideas for plays or scenes come from everywhere, and I suspect it’s the same for lots of writers. A random thought that pops into my head, something someone says, a childhood memory long forgotten that decides to make an appearance for some odd reason, and thousands of other sources.
But where would the idea of a guardian squirrel (who’s British, by the way) come from? It had its genesis in a chance encounter with a squirrel. I was outside in my front yard when a squirrel jumped from one of our trees, missed a branch, and landed near me. He was fine but didn’t run off. He stared at me, and I stared at him. He was daring me to laugh. I didn’t. I was admiring his coolness. And that’s when it hit me: Having a guardian squirrel would be awesome – but how could I build a scene around it?
I tossed ideas around, and then one day, I came across a picture of myself in middle school: the definition of awkward. I remembered how weird I was around the girls I liked. I tried to be cool but was so nervous that everything I said came out really dumb. If only I’d had a guardian. A guardian squirrel. Who was British.
And thus, Mumford E. Squirrel in “How to Ask a Girl Out” was born. It basically wrote itself, and as mentioned in last week’s post, it became my wife’s favorite thing I’ve written. And now it is part of a scene collection, Tied Up, available here at Big Dog Publishing.
The snippet below occurs at a park, after Kyle, our protagonist, has met Mumford, his guardian squirrel, and learned that he wants to help Kyle talk to Sally, a task at which Kyle has thus far proven inept. Kyle, however, is not too keen on this and wants to pass.
KYLE Hey, is there an opt-out for this guardian squirrel thing because I think I can do this on my own - - (Sally enters.)
MUMFORD: I guess we’ll find out because here she comes. (Kyle turns and sees Sally, looking uncomfortable.) I’ll be here when you need me.
SALLY: Hello, Kyle. (Kyle starts to panic and stares at her.)
KYLE: Um . . . um . . . um.
SALLY: Is something wrong?
KYLE: Uh . . . um . . . (Turns to Mumford.) Fine, tell me what to say.
MUMFORD Just hello, Kyle.
KYLE: (Turns to Sally. Loudly.) Just hello, Kyle. (Realizes what he said.) I mean Sally. Hello. Sally. (Sally laughs uncomfortably as Kyle looks at her nervously.)
SALLY: So . . . you wanted to talk to me.
MUMFORD: I did, in fact. (Silence. Mumford clears his throat.)
KYLE: (Still loud.) I did, in fact.
MUMFORD: You don’t have to talk so loud.
KYLE: You don’t have to talk so loud.
SALLY: (Hurt.) I’m sorry. I have a really loud voice. I’ll try to speak more . . . quietly. (Kyle looks at her. She whispers.) What did you want to talk to me about?
MUMFORD: My mum once told me . . .
KYLE: My . . . my mum once told me . . . (Sally looks at him oddly.)
MUMFORD: That if you really like someone you should tell them.
KYLE: That if you really like someone you should tell them.
SALLY: Are you saying you like me?
KYLE: (Starts to nod.) No. I mean . . . am I?
MUMFORD: Say yes.
SALLY: I know this sounds weird, but despite how odd you sometimes are around me and my in-depth knowledge of your bathroom habits, I kind of like you too. (Kyle smiles and then doesn’t know what to say.)
MUMFORD: Say . . . that’s great to hear.
KYLE: That’s great to hear.
SALLY: I’ve actually liked you for a while. (Kyle smile grows even bigger, but so does his nervousness.)
MUMFORD: You have her. Now say . . . I want you to be my one and only squirrel squeeze.
KYLE: I want you to be my one and only squirrel squeeze.
SALLY: Say what now?
KYLE: Um . . .
MUMFORD: I want to make a nest in your hair.
KYLE: I want to make a nest in your hair.
MUMFORD: Sorry, that’s what I want to do. Make a nest in her hair. It’s quite lovely.
KYLE: We need to hurry this up.
SALLY: (Hurt) I’m sorry if I’m taking you away from something more important. I thought you liked me.
MUMFORD: Quickly. Tell her that this winter you would like to hibernate with her after spending many afternoons collecting acorns and hopping on power lines. Tell her.
SALLY: You don’t like me?
MUMFORD: Just tell her.
KYLE: No, you’re being dumb.
SALLY: I’m being dumb. Me? I’m not the one who wants to make a nest in your hair!
KYLE: I wasn’t talking to you.
SALLY: You want to make a nest in someone else’s hair?
Does Kyle want to make a nest in someone else’s hair? If so, will Sally be able to look past that and this entire interaction to find true love with Kyle? Will Mumford somehow save the day?
Well, like last week with Tied Up, you’ll have to read the script to find out the rest.
I’ve never been a fan of curtain calls. I used to say that that it was because I wanted to “maintain the truth of the world we created onstage,” which sounded sort of cool in my head. But then I realized that I really just didn’t want to go back out there because I thought my smile would be weird.
Another thing that troubled me about curtain calls (besides my potentially weird smile) was that no matter how the performance went, we would always get applause. Sometimes we’d even get a standing ovation, whether or not the performance actually deserved one.
Now I include a talk about curtain calls early on in all my acting classes. I tell my actors that no matter how good or bad the performance is, their audience (usually parents, relatives, or friends) will applaud for them. But then I tell them not to be satisfied with something they’re guaranteed to get. I want them to know that they deserve the curtain call. So after that talk, my job becomes putting them in a position to “deserve the applause” – while at the same time, taking the focus off the applause.
So how do we accomplish this apparent contradiction? By stressing certain key points that I believe are vital for young actors. Or really, for any actors. Here’s a partial list, in no particular order.
4. Come through. Your fellow actors must be able to trust you, to know that you will do everything you can to come through for them, for yourself, and for the play. That means doing the work before rehearsals, doing the work while at rehearsals, and doing the work after rehearsals. It doesn’t mean never making a mistake. It means setting up yourself and your other actors to have the best chance of success. That’s the only way that you can truly take an audience on a journey through the world and events of your play. What people sometimes don’t realize at first is that the majority of that trust is developed offstage, even (especially) when you’re not at rehearsal. In class, in the hall, wherever you see each other, you are always creating either a community of trust or one of distrust. And only one of those creates success.
5. When you’re onstage, don’t act. It’s one of the worst things you can do. When I first tell my actors this, they often stare at me with confused looks and then one will say “But aren’t we actors?” Then I explain that sure, you’re actors. Off the stage. When you’re doing the work, learning the basic tools that will allow you to interact with the audience during the show. That’s the performance aspect. And if you develop those skills, they should be an afterthought during the show, because you will just automatically do those things – they should become as automatic as locking the door without actually remembering doing it.
But onstage, you are your character and you must respond as such. You listen. You respond. You work for your character’s goals and wants. You forget what’s going to happen, because this is the first time any of this has happened. You can’t plan how you’re going to say something or how you’re going to respond or listen only for your cues, because the moment you do any of that, it becomes a performance and the truth of the moment, the show, evaporates. Maybe not for your audience, but for you and your character.
Those are just a few of the things that my actors and I discuss. Are they difficult to accomplish? Absolutely. But my goal isn’t for them to actually accomplish them. If they do, awesome. But really, it’s all about being aware of them, working to accomplish them, and getting better at them each time. To me, it’s not about the end result. Or even the performance. It’s about the process. And if you focus on the process and work hard, the performance will always take care itself.
And the actors will know that they deserve that curtain call.
My 10 minute melodramatic comedy, 'Tis Not Me She Loves (3F, 4M, 1E), available here at Heuer Publishing, deals with the feud between the Hatplains and the McCroys that has been in a slump for some time now. Both families agree that there's one way to reignite the feud that gives them purpose: a forbidden love between Romero McCroy and Julia Hatplain. The only catch is, Julia’s not in love with Romero and Romero’s not in love with Julia. Below we see Romero try to help his best friend Julia figure out how to talk to her true love, Merc.
SETTING Eastern Kentucky, near the big Sandy River.
AT RISE Romero and Julia are standing together but Julia is faced away. She turns suddenly.
JULIA: Romero, I just don’t know if I can talk to him today at the waterin’ hole. Or anywhere. He’s so dreamy. Like one of my pigs.
ROMERO: I wouldn’t tell ‘im that, Julia. He probably wouldn’t find that flatterin’. (Julia takes his hands.)
JULIA: Then can you help me? Help me talk to Merc. So he’ll know my feelings and stuff.
JULIA: Maybe yous could faller me and tell me what to say.
ROMERO: Nah, I’m not good on the spot. The only one that I know that could pull that off is ole Cyrano, and he said he wouldn’t do it no more after well . . . you know. (Julia nods and then turns away dramatically.)
JULIA: Well, I don’t know what to do. I ain’t good at talkin’ to humans. Besides you.
ROMERO: I know, maybe you could shock ‘im. Be bold or somethin’. The way your pigs are when they go after that mud. (Gets an idea.) Hey, maybe we could role play.
JULIA: Role play?
ROMERO: Yeah. You know, like when we was little kids. (Julia runs up to him and hugs him.)
JULIA: That’s a wonderful idea. I’ll be Merc and you be me.
ROMERO: I think it should be the other way around. I mean, when it really happens, you’re gonna be Julia, not Merc.
JULIA: Right. I see what you mean. Now, what do we do?
ROMERO: Well, I’ll walk off and you wait right here. And then I’ll come back, but I’ll be Merc and then we’ll start talkin’. Okay? (Julia nods and Romero walks off. Julia starts pacing a little. She then starts doing pig snorts. Romero peeks his head back out.) Wait, what are you doing?
JULIA: Pig snorts. That’s what I do when I’m waiting. (Romero stares at her.)
ROMERO: Maybe not this time.
JULIA: But pig snorts relax me.
ROMERO: Right but . . . no. Just stand there. Looking pretty.
JULIA: You think I look pretty?
ROMERO: Oh, of course and if we weren’t such best friends then--
JULIA: Thank ya for that. I think I can do this now. (Romero smiles and walks off. Julia waits, looking pretty. Romero, now as Merc, reenters.)
ROMERO: Hi, Julia. (Julia turns and smiles.)
JULIA: Hi, Merc.
ROMERO: So, you wanted to see me?
JULIA: I did. I have something very important to tell you. (At this point, Ty enters and seeing Romero and Julia talking, stops and hides. Julia stares at Romero but is unable to speak.)
ROMERO: You can do it. (Julia smiles.)
JULIA: I . . . I . . . (She grabs him and “kisses” him. Romero and Julia fall to the ground. Julia then pulls back.) I like you. I really like you.
JULIA: Was that good?
JULIA: You think--
JULIA: Good. So four o’clock at the waterin’ hole?
ROMERO: Yep. (Julia smiles, touches Romero on the nose and then leaves. Romero stands up.) Wow. (Romero slowly walks off. Ty enters.)
TY: It finally happened. The forbidden love. This is just what we needed to get the feud goin’ again. Once I tell Cap Hatplain that Julia is in love with that rascal McCroy, it’ll be on again. And maybe they’ll stop making me sleep in the outhouse. I got to go tell ‘em. (Ty leaves as the lights fade.)
Here it is. Steven's blog, where his thoughts about things are revealed. Good luck.