5 Things Schools Should Consider Before Cutting Theatre Programs

5 Things Schools Should Consider Before Cutting Theatre Programs

It happens every year. With budget constrictions and rising costs, schools all over the country will be forced to value how much a theatre program is worth to their students. Sadly, more often than not, these programs aren't valued enough and are eliminated. 

However, during my time working in higher education, I've had the chance to speak with countless school administrators, teachers and students. What has surprised me the most, is how quick many of these schools cut their programs without looking at a plethora of options beforehand. 

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7 Plays I Wish More Schools Would Perform

7 Plays I Wish More Schools Would Perform

I have said in another column that I would like to see school productions being more adventurous, tackling more adult themes as and when the director of drama of said school considers it appropriate. But I wanted to elaborate a bit on that. Firstly, I will always endorse the attitude that with something as ambiguous and subjective as theatre, there cannot be a universal or even a national governing body that decides anything to do with what gets put on and where. The way I see it, the theatre has always been one of the least didactic aspects of life- as a more rebellious or enthusiastic personality might say "they can't tell us what to do", and though it seems too simplistic: here, it is apt. I would rather allow schools (and by extension anyone) to produce any play they like and 'offend' a few people, than put repression of any kind upon the cultural niche I call home. You don't have to agree with me, but I thought I'd clarify that for context to this column, as when I now come to write about productions I'd like to see in schools, I shall mean versions that are unchanged, uncensored and unabridged. What's more, I would have no age restrictions on said productions. So without further ado, here are 7 plays of which I want to see an unabridged, all-accessible, school production. 

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How Can We Improve Musical Theater Education in Schools? : Part 3

How Can We Improve Musical Theater Education in Schools? : Part 3

So in my last Blog I discussed how there are some major obstacles that school theater programs are facing on a large scale. You were probably left with a lot of questions. What can be done to help remedy the situation? How can I help? What can larger organizations do to help? What can directors do to help improve their programs? I’ve compiled some easy fix answers and thought up some crazy out of the box thoughts that may help improve musical theater education in schools.

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How Can We Improve Musical Theater Education in Schools? : Part 2

How Can We Improve Musical Theater Education in Schools? : Part 2

Community sponsorship of school is one of the primary ways most of these programs survive. Many have their students required to sell ads or having to pay a fee. Other programs will have it done on a volunteer basis in order to meet a quota. In any event, many of the mom and pop restaurants, realtors, and other stores will support their programs however they can. They are the economic backbone of our musical theater programs and we cannot thank or applaud them enough for what they do and continue to do.

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How Can We Improve Musical Theater Education in Schools? : Part 1

How Can We Improve Musical Theater Education in Schools? : Part 1

So in my last Blog I discussed how there are some major obstacles that school theater programs are facing on a large scale. You were probably left with a lot of questions. What can be done to help remedy the situation? How can I help? What can larger organizations do to help? What can directors do to help improve their programs? I’ve compiled some easy fix answers and thought up some crazy out of the box thoughts that may help improve musical theater education in schools.

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Tolerated Bullying, A Teacher Forced to Resign and LGBT Students Looking for Answers

Tolerated Bullying, A Teacher Forced to Resign and LGBT Students Looking for Answers

Late-July is usually the time of year when teachers start to put together their lesson plans, order supplies and decorate classrooms. But Martha Pfeiffer won't be doing anything of that. Because after 29 years of teaching, Ms. Pfeiffer is out of a job. While news of an unemployed teacher is, sadly, not rare these days, what makes Ms. Pfeiffer's situation unique is the events that led to her resignation. What follows is a story about tolerated bullying at a high school, the loss of a beloved teacher and LGBT students facing the reality that they no longer have a much-needed advocate. 

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10 Ways to Cope With Theatre Withdrawal

10 Ways to Cope With Theatre Withdrawal

We’ve all been there before.

It may be for different reasons for different people. For some, finding the right role or gig might just be too hard, leaving us with a large gap of time in-between our creative projects. For others, work or family life may be taking up too much time. If you’re like me, it might be because you’re still in the middle of a major transition phase in your life that’s left you too busy to take up any huge new projects, at this point in time.

But at one point or another, I’m sure we’ve all known – to varying lengths or degrees – the unpleasant experience that is theatre withdrawal.

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The Theatre Industry Needs to Start Awarding Free Theatre Licensing to Low Income Schools

The Theatre Industry Needs to Start Awarding Free Theatre Licensing to Low Income Schools

What has become a disturbing trend among high schools, is finding ways to take the cost of theatre productions out of school budgets and pass them on to students and their families. 

Whether it's "pay-to-play" policies or just eliminating it from the budget altogether, schools are constantly looking to make theatre productions cheaper or not do them at all. 

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Moving from the Stage to the Classroom: A New Theatre Teacher's Journey

Darin Keesing

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What happens when you have been pursuing a career in academia for nearly twenty years and finally get it? What opportunities (and pitfalls) accompany a move from freelance designing to full-time teaching? I’m about to find out.

My name is Darin Keesing, and I have been designing lighting and scenery professionally for two decades. Sometimes it has been a full-time job, sometimes I’ve had to put it on the back burner, but all told I’ve designed around 150 shows across five states. But since earning my MFA in Stage Design from Northwestern in 2000, I have wanted to teach. Wanting and doing are two separate things, of course, and the opportunities to teach design have been scarce. More than once I have resigned myself to the idea that an academic career may not happen for me. 

My design career started after graduating The Theatre School at DePaul University In 1996. I had no immediate plans to attend grad school (“a few years off and we’ll see what happens”), but I struggled to establish myself in Chicago’s professional theatre scene. Aside from a few low-paying gigs at upstart theatre companies, my main source of income came from assistant designing some shows at the Goodman Theatre. While working on a show in the old Goodman Studio, I met Linda Roethke, who was the show’s costume designer. She was (and still is) the Professor of Costume Design at Northwestern, and we chatted about the program. She encouraged me to apply, and though I knew the school only took two lighting designers per year, I gave it a shot.

I was their number three choice, but good fortune found me as one of their top two chose another school, so after a just one year off, I found myself back at school. It was at Northwestern that I caught the teaching bug; part of our requirements to earn our stipend included being a teaching assistant for a class in our second year, and then teaching that class in our third year. I learned two things teaching that Intro to Lighting Design course: teaching is really hard, but it was something I wanted to do. 

Thanks to some connections I made while at Northwestern, my design career really took off. From 2001-2003 I was working on 10-12 shows per year, and though the money wasn’t great, I was feeling established as a Chicago designer. 

During a light hang at Steppenwolf Theatre sometime in 2002, I met a young woman who had just graduated from Illinois-Wesleyan University. As we chatted, she revealed that the school was looking for an adjunct professor to teaching lighting design, and that she could give me a good word with her former professors. I secured an interview, and next thing I knew, I was on board to teach one class and design the main stage shows for the 2002-03 school year.

There were some complications from the start. First, the school is located in Bloomington, IL, which is about a two and a half hour drive from Chicago. I was a busy designer, and the school was very accommodating, changing the class from Tuesday/Thursday to a three-hour class on Monday (dark day in Chicago). My class was small, comprised of one design focused student, one technical theatre, one stage manager, and one actor. While my relationship with the students was good, I was basically regurgitating the class I taught at Northwestern, with a few tweaks. I was also off campus six days a week (except during tech weeks of the university productions), so office hours were limited, and keeping tabs on the students was challenging.

At the end of the year, I was told that my contract would not be renewed for the next school year. This wasn’t surprising. I wasn’t interested in moving to Bloomington to teach one class per year, and the school wanted someone local for a variety of good reasons. “No problem,” I thought, “there will be plenty of other teaching opportunities down the road.” I applied for a pile of teaching jobs that I found in ArtSearch, but usually didn’t get so much as a “thanks for your application” rejection letter.

Over the next fifteen years, my design career took many twists and turns, but teaching never reentered the equation. I continued in Chicago until 2005, when my wife’s job relocated us to Pennsylvania. She was consulting, which meant a lot of travel, and by this time we had a two year old and a newborn, so I became a stay-at-home dad. It was good for the family, and there weren’t many design opportunities where we lived. When an old movie theater in town was renovated as a live performance venue, I was hired as the Lighting Director, which meant mostly lighting live music and a few dance concerts. I only designed one theatrical show in three years, a production of “Little Shop of Horrors”. I kept my eye on teaching opportunities, but there weren’t many colleges or universities within commuting distance.

Another job relocation in 2008 landed us in Columbus, OH, where I’ve lived for close to ten years. Through a chance connection I had in Chicago I found design work here, and have been freelancing ever since, but always with an eye out for teaching jobs. There are many great schools in this area: Ohio State, Otterbein, Capital University, Ohio-Wesleyan, Columbus College of Art and Design, and many more within an hour drive. But here’s something I’ve learned: once people get a good teaching job, THEY NEVER LEAVE. In the decade I’ve lived here, I can count exactly one position that opened up, and I only learned about it after it was filled (and the person who was hired is terrific and deserves the job). 

In 2015 I turned forty years old and started to resign myself to thinking this wasn’t going to happen for me. I considered working at a high school, but even those opportunities didn’t surface. So when a posting for full-time teaching position appeared in a Facebook group in early March, I felt like this might be my last chance.

TO BE CONTINUED

Photo: University of Arizona

'Sweeney Todd' Needs to be Safer for Non-Professional Productions

Chris Peterson

  • OnStage Founder & Editor-in-Chief

Last year, during a performance of Sweeney Todd at a New Zealand College, two actors were accidentally cut in the neck by the prop razors for the show. 

What made this horrendous story even more preposterous was the news that rather than using fake razors, the production used REAL razors that had been dulled and apparently deemed "safe" by faculty involved in the production. 

According to a damning report from WorkSafe, an investigative body, this was clearly not the case and they found a ton of other issues that led to this accident. Including the fact that the actors were only allowed to work with the razors, just days before opening night. The school board was also not notified that real razors were actually being used either. So there were failings on every level in this situation which lead to terrible injuries and could even have led to the death of two college actors. 

While shocking, this isn't the first time something like this has happened with amateur performances of Sweeney Todd and even other professional productions as well. We all remember the gruesome accident in Vienna where an actor accidentally slit his own throat using a real knife he thought was a prop. 

First rule of thumb, check your props.

However, the concern I have, is that given that Sweeney Todd's licensing is available for high schools and colleges, can the rights holders take steps to prevent this from happening and make it safer to perform?

Yes it can and it has Little Shop of Horrors to thank for that.

While I trust and love the work that prop designers do, in some situations, when left to their own devices and lack of training, things can slip through the cracks. So the solution? Make prop razors become a rent-able option for amateur companies and required for school productions. 

Much like what companies do with Little Shop of Horrors by renting Audrey II and even with Avenue Q with their puppets/sets, making professionally constructed razors available not only cuts(no pun intended) down on cost for the theatre company or high school, it can ensure that that the actors can safely perform these scenes. 

With some of these prop razors, any nick or effect of wear and tear could lead to disaster. So why not have props available that would remove any chance of that happening? Or at least remove liability on the school or company? Safe usage of props, sets and costumes has to always be at 100%, anything less is an obvious problem. 

Looking at Music Theatre International's website,(Sweeney Todd's licensing house) it doesn't appear that prop razors are available. If I were them, I would seriously look into this because it could go a long way to prevent accidents like what happened in New Zealand from happening again. 

Photo: Lynn Lane