Tuesday, March 24, 2015
The Choosing of My Directorial Debut
In 1979, I was hired right out of the University of Northern Colorado to teach English, direct the school play, do one, speech meet, and was eventually appointed as the assistant basketball coach at South Park High School. I had a degree in English, a minor in theatre, had only done speeches for classes, and I could identify a basketball at least four out of five times.
So, I had a lot to learn. I mean....I-HAD-A-LOT-TO-LEARN.
Besides the fact that I was an actual contracted, certified teacher, I was excited that I would get to direct a play. I had directed a scene in college directing class. I'd even "directed" a skit in my high school. I had seen some really great directors and some really bad ones as well. I felt competent to the task. Little did I know how much I didn't know.
All that said, I still believed I could do something to build the struggling theater program at South Park High School. The training, I'd received in college gave me some understanding of staging.
Like many small high schools, South Park had done what many small high schools had done by appointing some teacher, usually the English teacher, to direct a class play. It would sometimes be a Senior Play or if the class was small the Junior/Senior Play. My first act was to ask permission to open auditions to any South Park High student, freshmen through senior. Permission was granted.
Next, I looked at the scripts from previous plays. To say the plays the school had done were some of the poorest dreck ever to be printed would be an understatement. The script file consisted of I called "high school" (and not in a good way) plays and mediocre melodramas. What they all had in common was they were bad to begin with and cheap to do and required virtually no skill to perform. So I decided we needed to do something else. Something of a little more classic nature.
There was one other problem: money. I think I was given a total budget of about $50. This sum dictated that the play had to be minimal royalty to no royalty or public domain. We had to make do with whatever costumes the actors could come up with and we would have to survive on my small makeup supply. We also had no scenery of any kind. Public domain, then it was. I refused to pick another of the cheap "high school" (and not in a good way) play. I also wanted real scripts for the actors. I chose a favorite of mine, The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde. (As a side note, I discovered a short time later that Wilde had actually come to the South Park and Leadville area as a guest of Horace Tabor.)
Scripts were, I think, about $1.75 each so I bought the exact number of scripts for the actors plus one for me. I'd never actually built a director's script. I simply wrote all movement into my script as we rehearsed. So having spent $17.50 plus shipping. I had about $30 to build a set for a multiset show. I purchased enough lumber to build two door frames, a large window frame, and a fake fireplace. I also bought some chicken wire in order to make a hedge from tissue paper and some fishing line and a few eyelets and hooks. The idea was a simple one. We could place the window and door frames anywhere on stage. All we had to do was put up the fishing line and hooks from the curtain pipes where we wanted to hang entry doors and windows. Any needed furniture would be borrowed. Oh, did I mention the stage sat at one end of an old elementary gym? The stage at Edith Teeter Elementary was 12 feet deep and 24 feet wide at the proscenium. There was no wing storage and acoustics were slightly better than a cavern in Carlsbad.
I cast my first play. I think every person that auditioned ended up with a part or technical position. Turn out was not huge. I was disorganized, and it would be several more plays and a Masters Degree in Theater with a directing emphasis from an amazing theatre professor before I actually knew what I was doing, but I was fortunate. I had actors who were willing to help and work with me. Together we learned, and we did a real play. We did two shows: a matinee for the entire school, elementary through high school, and an evening performance.
It was a sad turn out for the evening show. There were perhaps 18 or 20 people in the house. The cast and running crew were almost as many. The dearth of "high school" (and not in a good way) plays had taken its toll. I would also discover that because that I wasn't choosing simple, slap schtick plays, elementary and younger students were going home and announcing that the plays were boring because they didn't understand the play. Killing the all school matinee a couple of years later also increased attendance.
It would be a couple of years before we would get a bigger attendance to the evening shows. I was, however, thrilled with my small cast who put on this classic and challenging play. They would become my first core group of performers from which we would build the program over the next ten years. It was this group of nine or so actors and a few stagehands, that would give me my start in educational theater. I cherish this time. We did real shows (and in a good way). Thank you goes out to those early actors and technicians who struggled with my learning curb but shared with me a moment in the arts.