Recently, I was speaking with a fellow director about the theatrical work she was seeing from young people lately. She noted that while she’d seen some truly incredible shows, she felt that there’s “something missing”. Some intangible, unknown X factor that seems to have been thrown off in the pandemic. The work isn’t bad, she said…but something’s off.
I just finished a show that was generally successful. A lot of excellent performances and complicated tech. The show played well for an audience and received several accolades in competition. And yet…I spent a lot of time holding my breath, wondering what would go wrong each day. What set piece would be off-spike, what actor would fluff a line, what sound cue would play at the wrong moment. Would everyone even enter at the right time?
Now me, I’m a perfectionist…and a middle school theatre director. I know, it’s an impossible combination. I see every missed moment, every note left untaken, every line that isn’t landing. This year, I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of unknowns. Nothing seemed to be working quite like it used to. The drills that worked in the past, the high school mentors that came to assist, the extended rehearsal period – it all helped, sure. But I never quite reached the level of precision and cleanliness I’d come to expect from my productions in the past.
Nor did students seem to have the same level of dedication. Many did, of course. But the full-cast, die-hard, eat/sleep/breathe drama vibe of the past? It wasn’t quite there.
So what happened?
Well, I’ve just assumed it’s all pandemic. It’s the two years of extra flexibility I’ve given. It’s the two years of lowered expectations and higher empathy. It’s the two years of giving kids more breaks and more allowances. It’s the two years of deciding that our play can’t be number one in all of their lives, in my life, at all times.
I think it’s clear that we just can’t care about everything we used to care about with the intensity we used to care about it. Some kids have backed off on academics, some took a semester off sports. Some became detached, some overly attached. The disruption of regularity and the ease of expectations in most aspects of their lives? Well, it’s left young people who aren’t sure where to direct their energies. They’re healing, they’re learning and they need wiggle-room.
So when we came back to a sense of quasi-normalcy in theatre this year, and I tried bringing back my old rules and regulations – I was bringing them to students who (mostly) never knew them in the first place.
And now I’m left with a choice: do I strive to pull my program back to more of the rigidity I had before: an uphill battle that yielded a cleanliness to my productions that I don’t currently see…or do I try to lean in to a system that allows us all a little mess and a little grace? Will I allow myself a little mess and a little grace? I’m ambivalent.
If you’re ready to prioritize student dedication, I recommend a contract/form signed by both students and their adults, that details the rehearsal schedule and expectations. You could put a number of allotted absences, but that can be sticky when taking into account student home life, mental health, and still navigating the wake of COVID.
If you do multiple shows each year, you can let each student know that their availability and consistency in the first show will play into the casting/leadership roles of the second show. But again, might you be creating difficulty in regard to the accessibility of your program? We can make demands, I used to make a lot of them, but I’m just not sure how much it’s serving my students or me anymore.
I think at this point, I’m more comfortable living in the grey area than I used to be. I still get frustrated by lack of commitment, by poor communication, by absences…but somehow, even with all the mess this year, everything still came together…mostly.
Will I demand more next year? I’m not sure. Let me sleep on it.