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Conversations from the Classroom: A Teacher’s Guide to Directing Musicals

#269

Studentds dancing as part of the SBDance Workshop at the Music Center Annex.

Spring has arrived, and with it, the season of the spring musical. At this very moment, school auditoriums all over the country are filled with students who are singing, dancing, and acting their hearts out.

The Ahmanson Theatre is hosting a spring musical of its own this season, 2014 Tony Award® winner A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (onstage through May 1). Center Theatre Group created the educational materials for this national tour, in which the show is described as “a celebration of theatricality. It is funny, silly, and smart! Through the tour de force performances, beautiful singing, and spectacular sets, it taps into the joy of witnessing virtuosity.”

Schools don’t have the same kind of resources as Broadway-level productions, but it’s still possible to get tour de force performances from students. We reached out to some Southern California directors who have a rich history of working with teens to get their tips on staging the best musical possible—and making it a learning experience.

Below is advice from B.J. Dodge, chair of the California State Summer School for the Arts theatre department and director of acting and movement at the Community Arts Partnership Theater Program at CalArts Community Partnership/Plaza de la Raza; Helen Papadopoulos, who teaches theatre at Suzanne Middle School in Walnut, California; Corky Dominguez, a theatre director, artist, and educator; and Marion Tompkins, who has directed productions at South Pasadena High School in South Pasadena, California for almost 20 years.

Storytelling

  • See the music as an extension of action. When a character morphs from speaking to singing, remember that their voice is always an engine of the ongoing story, whether their song is a monologue or piece of dialogue. (B.J.

  • Talk about the impact the music has on the story. Make sure everyone understands the written story. Talk about the characters: who they are, what they like, how they feel, and how they would move. Discuss the connections the characters have with each other and what impact that has on the story. Look at the lyrics and discuss how each song contributes to pushing the story forward. (Helen)

  • Trust your instincts with regard to what you would like to see and hear. Even if you have absolutely no idea about musicals, or don’t even really like them, you could still be the perfect person to reimagine a musical! For you, Oklahoma! could be the story of how the frontier is going to disappear, and every character is going to have to figure out how to survive in the new world coming. (B.J.)

Singing

  • If your actors are very nervous—even panic-stricken—about singing, let them sing freely in all sorts of ways, and in many different genres: sing a whole scene as a country western opera or as a hip hop poetry jam. (B.J.)

  • Song interpretation: Actors should know internally (emotions, thoughts, intentions, etc.) what’s going on the moment before they start singing, during musical transitions or interludes, and after the final lyric of the song. Take us on your journey! (Corky)

  • Ask your actors to sing all the time, and to get used to using their extended, melodic voices to express every little response to their world, and to each other. Like Shakespeare, musical theatre is heightened. The music should flow out of a need to go beyond ordinary speech, and move to another level of communication and action. The same holds with movement and the playing of instruments; they are the best possible way to get the objective accomplished. (B.J.)

Collaboration

  • Work side-by-side with the choreographer and musical director, and look at the whole picture together. Choreographers are often relieved to see that you, as the director, have ideas about how movement can accomplish storytelling instead of, and in support of, the text. Likewise, musical directors are more open than one might imagine to input about how something is being sung—in what key and in what manner. (B.J.)

  • Understand the importance of the combination of the written word and music. It makes an impact not only on the audience but the performers and everyone associated with the show. (Helen)

  • At the very beginning of the process, let everybody know how much you want to work together to solve the problems inherent in the script. If you are working with something that has already been done, try exploding what you have seen in the past. I just worked with a director whose vision of Godspell involved using masks for the cast when they were in the chorus. She saw them as an amorphous force in resistance. The mask work made the actors use their bodies in novel ways. They “spoke” to us as a chorus of individuals, and it made the work newly compelling for me. (B.J.)

Time Management and Organization

  • The most important part of the musical is to have a director who is very organized. The director should have all their different jobs—sets, costumes, sound, and so on—in place. If you don't have a good working machine, there will be no show. (Marion)

  • Plan seven to eight weeks max of rehearsals. Kids get bored if they go on for too long, as do the directors. Set your deadlines early. Set your rules at the start...and stand by them. (Marion)

  • When scheduling rehearsals, really consider how long it will take to learn the songs, learn the choreography and delve into the acting/character work. And think about how the acting/character work applies while the actors sing and dance—not just while they are speaking in the scenes. (Corky)

If you’d like to dive deeper into what it takes to put on a production, keep an eye out for the next edition of Center Theatre Group’s Theatre Crash Course for Educators. Our November 2015 “The Art of Teaching Theatre” post chronicles this event and offers tips from the workshop on acting, directing, and design elements such as lighting, set, and costumes.

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