Sunday, December 31, 2017

A toast! To ensemble!

Allow me to rephrase an old saying:

Those who can, do.
Those who can't, often still do.
Those who teach - my god - it's doing, only multiplied by 1000.

I can, and I do. I can, and I also teach. Doing and teaching doing is... a lot. A lot, a lot.

I teach at a tiny private school in south Kansas City, Missouri.

Not this tiny.

(A quick geography lesson, for you non-natives: KCMO is the big Kansas City. The one in Kansas - colloquially referred to as "KCK" - is a quarter of the size of KCMO. Also, for added confusion, it's just across the state line from KCMO. The Greater Kansas City area encompasses both, sort of like an egg with two yolks, only one yolk is way bigger than the other. Many a famous rock musician has pissed off the entire area by playing a large KCMO venue, and yelling, "Hello, Kansas!" We burn effigies for infractions like that.)

Okay, so I teach at a tiny private school in south Kansas City, Missouri. It's called Kansas City Academy, and it means the world to me. Focus is on individual expression and responsible freedom, which is all I ever really wanted, since I believe that our job as educators is to help mold responsible, compassionate, and productive adults.

I'm the entire theater staff.

Since we're so small, I can't choose to do plays that require big casts, unlike most schools. No Little Shop of Horrors, no You Can't Take It with You, no Midsummer Night's Dream. So, this past semester, we did Over the River and Through the Woods. It has six characters. Four of them are Italian grandparents. Old people played by teens - now that's comedy!

Rehearsals are closed. This student wandered in, and I let him watch part of one rehearsal,
mostly so the cast would know that they were funny to people who weren't just me.

Actually, the entire cast did a great job, especially those who were exploring the physicality of elder characters. For one, it was the addition of a cane. For another, it was the shoes (ALWAYS the shoes!) and s-l-o-w-i-n-g down. For a third actor, it was the hat that did it, and another discovered the magic of the psychological gesture.

Nan, this is Nan. Gramps, meet Gramps.

That is my own personal hat. Actually, so are those glasses. I'm quite the fashion plate.

But it was how they all came together as an ensemble that was the very best part for me to watch.

In my classes, I probably work on team-building more than anything else. It's vital in the theater. You can't do it alone. Everyone needs each other. It's not about you, personally. It's about the common goal. Each person is a magnificent cog in a magical machine. Remove that cog, and the machine stops working.

Everyone relies on everyone else to do their job at best they can.

EVERYONE relies on EVERYONE else.
Look at all that relying going on!

For one of the cast members of Over the River, this was his first play. And he had a major role. Understandably, he was really nervous. Most of the rest of the cast had two and three previous shows under their belts, so they're old pros. ;-) This new-to-the-stage cast member, when given a note, defaulted to literally saying, "I'm dumb."

I, and his castmates, jumped on that, and tried everything to remind him that not knowing is different than being dumb, and he just didn't know these things yet.

But don't listen to them if they tell you that wearing paper on your head is all the rage.

But it wasn't until an older cast member said, "Listen. Every time you feel the urge to say, 'I'm dumb,' say 'I'm learning' instead." That was followed up quickly by the musings that that statement was equal parts cheesy and actually really good advice.

So he did it. Every time he felt he screwed up, he started saying, "I'm... learning." And the rest of the cast would congratulate him. Once, he corrected himself on the fly, and called himself a "learning-ass."

Did it make an actual difference in his feelings, his relationships in the show, his actor work, his performance? I have no idea. But the impact on everyone else was evident. The whole reason "I'm learning" even came about was because they were trying to make him feel comfortable, that mistakes happen. And in reminding him of this, they reminded everyone else. Including themselves.

That's ensemble.

I tell my students, "Be the person that you hope you have onstage with you when something goes wrong." Then I share the story of how I showed up to a performance, years ago, and was told that I was going on for a sick actor. I was not the understudy. I had less than 90 minutes to learn her part, including one of the best-known songs from the show (solo), get pinned into her costume, and also figure out which scenes I could portray my regular character, so as not to throw off any choreography timing. If it weren't for my dear, trustworthy castmates guiding me during that performance, it would not have gone well, at all. They were exactly who I needed them to be.

I learned that that is who I want to be for others, when I'm onstage. And that is what I try to emphasize to my students: Be the person you want to have onstage with you, to help you when you need it. Know the show so well, that when something goes wrong - and something always goes wrong, it's live theater - you can do your part to get the machine running smoothly again.

And then I got to watch it happen during a performance.

When I see audience members before curtain for a show I direct, they often ask me if I'm nervous. I'm not. As a director, my job is over by opening night. It's all them, the cast and backstage crew. If something goes wrong, there's very little I can do about it. They have to rely on each other.

In the tech booth, I flip to the next cue in my prompt book. But the student next to me, running sound, was following along in the script. When she looked at me in shock and informed me that two of the actors had actually traded lines onstage, I hadn't noticed. It was seamless.

She's smart and follows along in the script, so when I tell her "go," she makes the excellent decision to ignore me.

What had happened, they told me later, was this: Actor A was watching Actor B. Actor B was having difficulty with a prop, and was a split-second late with their line. So A jumped in with B's line. So B then completed it by saying A's line. And the scene went on.

I don't think they realize how beautiful that moment was. B needed help. A was there. B took the help, then followed it up to make everything make sense. Perfect.

Of course, it made this theater teacher's heart proud. But it also moves me on a human level.

A was watching out for others.
B needed help.
A saw the need, and was there.
B accepted the help, so everyone (not just A and B) was able to proceed.

If A hadn't been watching out for others... or didn't offer help... If B hadn't accepted the help... or hadn't kept the momentum going...

Extrapolate this, to a global scale.

My friends, this is why arts education is so vital.

To cranberry juice!

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