Surely you’ve heard the rumors: middle schoolers are evil, pubescent demons sent to push your buttons, question you at every turn and give you endless headaches!!
Nah, don’t worry. The hype is just hype. Middle schoolers are hilarious little sponges, who are constantly adapting and evolving in real time. They need people who believe in their humanity, their brains, their capacity and their goodness. So if it’s your first time directing middle school? Start there: decide they’re the best (they are) and that you love them (you will).
Every year teaching middle school, I learn something new about how to approach directing them. Some are big, broad “ah-ha!” moments. Some are little tiny tricks. Will they work for everyone? Who knows!! But they work for me. Hopefully, they might help you too!
Don’t underestimate them
You don’t need flimsy baby scripts with middle schoolers. They enjoy challenges, they enjoy being pushed. More than anything, they want to be believed in, taken seriously and treated as competent. Middle schoolers are capable of on-stage depth and vulnerability, and they’re interested in hard work. Drama! Shakespeare! Horror! Period pieces with Dramaturgy! Don’t shy away from real stuff–they get it.
Give them ownership
Let your crew design. Are they way off base from your vision? Guide them. Help them navigate the line between bringing their own ideas and respecting the director’s vision. Teach them how to edit. Teach them how to budget. Teach them about the text as a basis for their creation. If you can be clear in your expectations, you can expect a lot. Allow them to miss the mark, give them redirection, let them try again.
Find opportunities for mentorship
Have an awesome 8th grade technician? Have them start training a 6th grader now. (This helps your program year over year.) Are you in a middle/high school? Get some high school helpers to come in and run scenes on occasion. This allows older students the chance to think about theatre from a directing standpoint, and gives the younger students someone to impress. (Sometimes, impressing you won’t be enough. New faces help!)
Create a strict schedule
Middle schoolers thrive with a schedule. They need consistency, clarity and boundaries. It’s hard to call everyone to rehearsal every day and expect them to patiently wait in the house until it’s their scene’s turn. Organize in advance, schedule in a way that keeps students engaged and utilized while there. Once you hit the point where you need to do runs and all-calls, set expectations up front for behavior, and give them ways to engage when the moment isn’t all about them.
Allow them the freedom to play
Within that strict rehearsal schedule, there needs to be room for their ideas. Allow them space to try new things, make new choices. Be open to their interpretations being better than yours.
Some middle schoolers are total hams and will give you 120% constantly. Many others will be self-conscious about larger acting choices. My tip is to do some kind of group/ensemble work where I encourage everyone to make their characters bigger x10. The invitation to be ridiculous together will often get more actors to take risks, and very often their “x10” is actually exactly what the show calls for.
Tell them when it’s not working
Middle school students can absolutely take notes and hear feedback. Ensure that you’ve created an environment where they understand that your notes/changes are not a reflection of their talent or your feelings about them, but rather are there to serve that particular moment in this particular play. When they trust you and they feel valued, they can take critical notes.
OVERcommunicate to students and families
Don’t assume a 13 year old will relay messages about rehearsals home. Post a weekly schedule and/or send a weekly schedule. Send reminders. Color code them. Hold parent meetings. Put all details on an audition form that student and their adults have to sign.
I try to eliminate as many instances of “I didn’t know I had rehearsal” and “Oh actually I have a soccer game the day of the show” as I can.
Content or themes you’re concerned about?
Anything you’re concerned about? Put it on the audition form and obtain student and parent signatures. I often ask if students are comfortable playing any gender. Is there material you feel may have pushback? Themes that could be a problem for some families? Note it on the form, obtain the signature. It’s always a good move to give clarity upfront. This protects you!
Give an off-book date (fully expecting for it not to be met)
Make it early. When students are sloppy, meet them with understanding. This can be super high-stakes, high-pressure and nerve-wracking for many kids. You want to make sure that you leave them (and yourself) plenty of extra time to get it right. Make sure the date feels important, but give them grace when it arrives. You’re trying to avoid middle school panic attacks three days before the show.
Avoid stage kissing
Is it pivotal to the plot? Then how can you suggest, imply or simulate it? “But Blogger, you said that middle schoolers can handle challenging material!” Totally. But the theatre can already be a tricky enough place to navigate relationships, romance, staged intimacy, actor safety and consent with adults. When you’re dealing with tweens in Puberty World who are obviously less experienced in touch, less experienced as performers, less experienced in separating theatre from reality, less able to advocate for themselves? I’m personally just not willing to take that risk when it comes to the safety of my young actors. Talk with them about any physicality or implied physicality. Talk consent and boundaries. Their safety is always, always, always number one.
The Big Takeaway?
Do not fear. Middle schoolers have a reputation for being “the worst,” but if that’s your mindset, you’re doomed!
Middle schoolers are growing exponentially all the time. You get to watch incredible change and progress. You get to be a part of some serious foundational moments. Embrace the awkwardness, give them boundaries, consistency and care. Believe in them, and they’ll give you all they’ve got.