Program Building: A Practical Guide for High
School Speech & Drama Teachers
by Toby Heathcotte, c. 2003 Mardel Books
If a potential Debra Winger and George C. Scott show up at auditions for your first high school production...and they might, your show will be a lot better. But, the goal of the after-school production is not to create such acting giants. Teaching love of the theatre and personal responsibility...those are worthwhile goals you can accomplish...and for which your students will be grateful. Your effort to help them perform the best show they are capable of performing is your gift to your students.
Your Role: Director, Producer, Technical Director
If you are working in a large high school performing arts program, you may be a director, producer or technical director for your first high school show. In that case, you probably will have more seasoned teachers to share with and get guidance from. However, many new teachers find themselves in small drama programs or are in fact hired to create them.
If that’s your situation, it’s important for you to define your role for yourself. You are first and foremost the director. If you have a talent for or experience in the other two areas, find two staff members who are looking for an extra-curricular assignment to be your producer and tech director. Your leadership based on your own background should get the job done reasonably well. If you can’t locate such faculty members, entrust the jobs to two senior drama students. That will require more leadership and guidance from you, but it is necessary to take such a focus. You need to be the director to keep all of the responsibilities in tact, though you may feel that you are doing far more than was usually expected of directors in the college you attended.
The critical thing is for you to establish yourself in the leadership role, with primary responsibility for directing and secondary responsibility for producing and tech directing. Students will expect and accept you in that role. Be prepared to spend much time in all areas of production....to take costumes home and sew them or to come in on the Saturday before the show to paint sets.
Having everything work when the curtain goes up is, finally, your responsibility. Whatever it takes to get there is what you have to do. Later you’ll have time to reflect on which students were contributors, what jobs you can slight, and what jobs require your full attention. If you get a little flaky toward the end of the rehearsal schedule, just say so in plain words like, "I’m sorry I yelled at you. I’m just worried that the show won’t be good," or "I guess I’ve got a little stage fright too." Your actors will appreciate your honesty and feel that they are a part of something with you.
One of the greatest values of after-school productions is the closeness and team spirit that develop when you and the students are working together for a common goal. In fact, this is where the relationships are forged that will allow you to have positive impact on your students’ lives and enrich your own. Those warm fuzzies are worth working for, and there is definitely a lot of work to it. So, here goes.
Producing a show in high school involves some costs: royalties and scripts, set and costume rental or purchase, props, makeup, tickets, programs, perhaps some publicity. Shows vary in cost from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars.
It’s important that you know whether or not you will receive a budget from the school to pay for your productions, whether box office sales are expected to finance them, or whether you will have to sell candy and do car washes to make ends meet.
Don’t leave yourself open to any surprises in this area. Find out where the money is going to come from. Ask the person who hired you, your department chair, or the administrator in charge of activities.
Selecting a Play
There’s no "right" script for your first production. A great many will do nicely. Here are some ideas to consider.
What type of community are you working in? What shows have been produced there in the past? Were they well received? Talk to some older teachers and/or some seniors to find out. You might want to check through your school’s yearbooks to become familiar with the kind of shows your faculty and student body have been exposed to. It’s possible you might want to change that, but in any case it’s good to know. It’s also very smart to get to know the yearbook sponsor because a lot of the ongoing publicity for your program appears in the pages of the school yearbook.
Choose a cast size smaller than the number of students you think might tryout. If you honestly don’t know whether there will be 10 or 80, choose 2 shows, one with a big cast and one with a small one. Tell the students you will make a decision on which show to produce after the audition.
Pick a show you like, perhaps one you worked on in high school or college. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel on the first show. Once you’re feeling comfortable as a high school director, your creativity will blossom quickly.
Pick a show with good dramatic values, so you will feel confident that your vehicle will help your students get a quality theatrical experience. Trust that whatever choice you make will probably work out okay if you’ve followed even some of these guidelines...and avoided profanity and sex. Some things never change!
Advertise your auditions through whatever means are most common in your school: the P. A. system, the school newspaper, fliers, posters....any or all. Make sure the word gets out for at least a week ahead of time. If you feel a callback day will be needed, include that in the opening announcements. If you don’t know whether callbacks will be necessary, make the decision at the audition. Be sure to state the kind of audition you’re doing. If you use a prepared one, make multiple copies in advance so that students may come by and pick them up before the audition.
In advance, prepare some kind of audition sheet. Many drama texts have samples. Make sure you have slots on the audition sheet for home phone numbers, the daily class schedule, and space for notes. Once auditions are underway, you may have some difficulty remembering which student goes with which name. If you have an audition sheet, you can make notes for your own use, such as "tall blonde in green blouse." That will make casting easier later.
There is no right kind of audition, prepared or cold, scripted or improvised. In an ongoing drama program, a variety of auditions is the best experience you can give your students. For the first show, simply do the kind of audition you feel most comfortable with. You’ll have time to cycle through the others later.
Creating a Rehearsal Schedule
A rehearsal schedule can be as complicated or as simple as you would like to make it. If you have worked with a rehearsal schedule in the past that you liked, use it because that will give you one familiar piece of the production puzzle.
For a full-length show, I reserved 8 weeks with 4 rehearsals per week for 2 to 2 1/2 hours after school. Here is a format that worked for me.
Week 1: Cast and crew meeting, read through, block Act 1
Week 2: Crew meetings, run Act 1, block Act 2
Week 3: Run Acts 1 and 2, reblock as necessary
Week 4: Off book on Act 1, run Act 2
Week 5: Off book on Act 2, run both acts
Week 6: Start props, see costumes, polish acting, publicity begins
Week 7: Start sound effects, sets, lights, polish acting
Week 8: Full technical and dress rehearsals
Think though all of the technical aspects of the show and add deadlines for your tech people into the rehearsal schedule. That way all of your cast and crew will have a common time frame for production.
Don’t be afraid to vary the schedule if you need to; however, if you are going to cancel a rehearsal, it’s good to let parents know. Kids have a way of getting in trouble when the drama coach thinks they’ve gone home and the parents think they’re at rehearsal. If you get very far behind, on the other hand, you may have to add some evenings or Saturdays, especially to finish up tech. Oftentimes turnout for such extra events is poor. It’s more productive to schedule more rehearsal and tech time than you think you’ll need and spend the time polishing.
Permissions and Royalties
Whenever you keep students after school, you usually need some kind of parent permission slip. Check with your activities principal to find out what is standard at your school. It’s a good practice to send the form home with a letter to the parents which includes the rehearsal schedule. If they sign the permission slip and send it back, you can be pretty certain they’ve seen the rehearsal schedule. That should cut down on a lot of confusion later.
Royalties for any published play must be paid in advance of the performance. The amounts for a first performance are generally a few dollars higher than the second or third performances. When you order a set of acting scripts from a play catalog, the publisher will send you a form for performance royalties.
Don’t neglect to pay these royalties. Some companies do check to see if high schools and community colleges are fudging on their royalties. Also, you’ll probably want to teach your students integrity in doing the business of theatre, which includes paying royalties.
For the first show, elaborate sets and lighting designs may be too ambitious. It’s more important for the students and you to have a good experience than it is to do a technical masterpiece.
No matter how simple the show is, there are going to be important technical aspects to consider. Seek out help in departments on your campus that have expertise. For example, if there is a sewing class, the teacher may be happy to have some unusual projects for the sewing students, such as making costumes. Call the woodshop teacher for help in getting wood cut or building needed items, such as platforms.
Parents are also a good source of help on technical work. Ask in rehearsal if there are parents who can sew, build, or bring props. Certainly having parents involved enhances and builds a sense of community around your program. It’s also good for the show, good for the parents, and good for the students....a can’t-miss situation.
Start and end rehearsal on time as much as possible. As with so many other aspects of high school teaching, students will respond to your expectations. If you start rehearsal late, they’ll arrive late. If you remind them to be on time and start promptly, they’ll develop the habit of being on time.
Discipline at rehearsals is not the same as in the regular classroom. The rules might be relaxed to good advantage. For example, in the classroom you might expect students to ask permission to go to the bathroom or to talk with someone. Those permissions are not necessary at rehearsal, as long as the actor makes his or her cue.
Major infractions must be treated as they would be during the school day. For example, if a student arrives at rehearsal inebriated, the same disciplinary actions should be taken, whatever those are for your school. If that involves writing a referral, then do so. You might also consider dropping the student from the show altogether, for the good of the whole cast.
You also should address the matter of actors who fail to attend rehearsal. Whatever rules you set or enforce will depend in part on your personality. One technique I have used is to say each actor has 1 ditch but all other absences have to be excused. Another method is to allow 3 absences for whatever reasons. Or, you might require all absences to be excused. Then again, you may not allow any absences.
There’s no best way. Attendance patterns in your school will impact the situation. The number of students you find willing to be understudies will also impact the situation. Understudies tend to put pressure on the talent to have good attendance, especially if they believe you will replace them.
Whatever standards you choose for attendance at rehearsal, remember that leniency is an option for you. If you feel that an actor has a valid reason for not being at rehearsal or a problem that is overwhelming him or her, which often happens to teenagers, then by all means be lenient. But, remember that your primary responsibility is to the whole cast and to the show. Don’t put them in jeopardy. As much as you might hate to do it, you may find that you have to replace your most talented performer for the good of the whole.
On the other hand, don’t allow the students to rule you in this arena. A few may from time to time develop the belief that they are critical to the show. That’s a dangerous belief for a high school student to have. Even though you might feel panicky about kicking a kid out of a show in the last week or two before a performance, you may find you have to do it. The important idea for you to remember is that you are their drama teacher. Your job is to teach them theatre and self-responsibility.
House Management and Publicity
Ultimate responsibility for publicity, tickets, and programs all are a part of your role as director of the high school show. Here again, if you can involve another faculty member or a responsible senior, your burden can be considerably lightened. Whoever does the tasks, here they are:
Publicize your show in your school, school district, and community. Think of the media available in each of those areas and use the ones that are free.
School: Intercom, fliers, posters, assembly teasers, newspaper
District: Newsletters, fliers, complimentary tickets to other drama department
Community: Press releases to newspapers, fliers in stores and parking lots, teasers in the local supermarkets, hospitals, or community centers
Tickets must be ordered, printed, and distributed for sale.
Program information must be collected, typed, and printed.
Plan for ushers and intermission refreshments, if you have any.
Arrange with your school’s bookstore to have a cashbox and change available for performance nights. Also, an hour before showtime you need a trustworthy person in the ticket book, preferably another faculty member, a trusted senior, or even your significant other, but it can’t be you. You have to be backstage until the curtain goes up. Then it would be great for you to be in the audience to take some pride in your accomplishments.
The shows you direct and produce after school are the soul of your program. Mutual respect and warm friendships often develop in this atmosphere. You will find students beginning to trust you at a personal level more than they ever do in the regular classroom.
The relationships you develop with students in the after-school program will have more of the flavor of actor/director relationships. The beginnings of professionalism are nurtured here. Young actors learn not only to come to rehearsal on time but also to revere the creative spirit within them. They will learn to respect the teacher’s creativity as well and depend on it to give their talent its outlet.
The shows you do after school take the most time and effort. But, make no mistake: There will be students in your cast and crew who would have dropped out of school if you had not put out an audition call. It is here that you will feel that you’re making a difference in the lives of your students, and you will be.
The care and nurturing of young actors and theatre technicians is a worthy goal and productive for society. Additionally, you have the privilege of sharing your students’ problems and concerns in an atmosphere that inspires confidence and trust...something all human beings need in their lives, not just young people. I hope someday you can say as I have said that I am blessed by God to be a drama teacher.
My book Program Building: A Practical Guide for High School Speech and Drama Teachers also includes chapters on starting a speech team, running an auditorium, hosting a tournament, tips for handling day-to-day problems, and many resource lists such as play catalogs, scene books, theatrical vendors, and much more.
To order Program Building, contact:
Mardel Books, 6145 W. Echo Lane, Glendale, AZ, 8530
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