Last weekend I concluded two months of directing our school’s fall play, a Woody Allen comedy called "Don't Drink the Water". It's about an American family on vacation behind the Iron Curtain (it was written in 1967) which, being falsely accused of spying, ends up seeking asylum in an American embassy. We had only two performances but I still haven’t caught up on my sleep.
This marks my third production as a director and I learn more (about teenagers) with each passing year. Here is what I learned, or relearned, this year:
Lesson One. There seems to be no way to convince a teenager that lines should be memorized long before the final week. I set deadlines. I shame them when they use scripts in the latter practices. I threaten bodily harm. But the problem is that I have absolutely no leverage. What can I do: kick them off the cast two weeks before show time? When a live audience is just a week away and an actor is still saying to me, “Don’t worry, I’ll have my lines down by dress rehearsal”, it produces heart palpitations.
Lesson Two. My threats don’t work anyway; no teenager takes me seriously when I yell. Last year it was the cell phone use during rehearsals that put me over the edge. Time and again an actor would miss his or her cue while absorbed in texting a friend. This year it was absenteeism during practice. We had a large cast - about 15 students - and I didn't realistically expect everyone to be there for every practice, but the final week's practice times were on the calendar two months in advance.
That is why I blew up one evening with less than a week to go when one of my key actresses sent word she would be late. I pounded on a table. I started throwing costumes back into the storage box. And I threatened to call the newspaper to run an announcement about how the play was being canceled due to lack of commitment.
Within a few minutes practice started, my face returned to a normal color, my missing actress showed up just before her first cue, and the show went on. By the end of that evening, the students were mocking my temper tantrum, taking turns doing their best impressions of Angry Mr. Gross.
Lesson Three. Dress rehearsal always leaves me depressed and anxious. This year the cast started out strong but crashed and burned by the end of dress rehearsal. I believe the final scene’s dialogue was only 10% Woody Allen. One of our actresses ended a scene by yelling at the tech crew, "Black out, people, black out!” I lost count of how many times the actors froze and stared at each other, waiting for someone to dig the next line out of his or her memory. And nobody seemed to enter the stage on cue.
Lesson Four. Having an audience makes all the difference in the world. Only five people showed up as our dress rehearsal audience. They laughed out loud at maybe three or four lines in the play. Other than that, they smiled a lot. But the actors couldn't hear the smiling. So when the curtains parted opening night and the audience was laughing loudly and wholeheartedly within the first two minutes, some of the teens looked at me with wide eyes as we stood back stage and they said, "They are actually laughing!" And those teens nailed that performance like I had not seen in eight weeks.
Lesson Five. Organizing an extracurricular activity like a student play is worth the time and effort. It’s good for me as a teacher to spend time with students outside of the classroom. I need to be reminded that there is more to life than literary analysis and sentence structure. The final bow and drawing of the curtain leaves me conflicted and exhausted. On the up side, I will get to see my wife and kids more often now. On the down side, a unique group of incredible teens – a group which has grown close through laughs and stress for two months - is disbanded, never again to be reconstituted in quite the same way.
I am glad I didn’t miss it.
Maybe next month I can find a way to work in some information about us going to Haiti. My contact at "The Republic" said I could write about it, but I haven't found my entry point yet. The timing just hasn't been right.