Forget Dorothy, I show up for the Ozians.
A colleague of mine often ribs me about being so enamored with the ensemble. He thinks I place too much emphasis on the shadow characters, the living props, the background, the wallflowers. He is 100% correct.
Maybe it is because in my 25 years of theater so far I have spent a majority of my onstage time as one of the ensemble. Perhaps I have never grown past the little dark haired girl in Oklahoma! laughing with glee at a joke during the pie auction that no one ever heard.
But I think my true love for the ensemble has blossomed during my work as a high school theatre director.
Early in my career as a theatre educator I learned that students don’t try out for musicals solely because they love theatre. More often, students show up because they need a friend. Sometimes students show up because they have nowhere to go after school ends. Sometimes students show up because they are clearly not athletes, and that has left them wondering where they fit in. Sometimes students show up because they have heard that you often bring snacks to rehearsal, and they probably aren’t going to eat again until school sponsored breakfast the next morning.
More often than not, these students are not show stoppers. They have often had no training, no experience, no exposure to what theatre is all about. But it is important, to me, and to the program I have created, that these students be included and valued.
To me, as a theatre educator, the experience of putting on a production is much more valuable than the performance. Don’t get me wrong, there is not a moment that is more joyful than the hush of a crowd in a dark auditorium when the orchestra begins the overture on opening night. But the educational value comes from teaching students how to work together. Student engagement comes in finally achieving a goal that has consumed you for weeks. Students learn conflict resolution by powering through difficult situation with peers and coming out better on the other side. Empathy and compassion are gained from internalizing the stories we present so that the audience can feel our pain, our sorrow, our joy, and our triumph.
So yes, I’m guilty of forgoing a spotlight moment for a lead character by adding in a few extra vocalists. I’m guilty of placing more emphasis on the group numbers that the soloists. I spend more time making sure everyone feels included than I do making sure that my “star” has everything he or she needs to be happy. But I am not sorry.
I am not sorry because I’m striving to make every student feel included, loved, valued, and equally important to our theatre family. As educators, I feel our responsibility is not only to the leads, but also and especially to the wall flowers. Theatre is a place where all people should be welcomed and valued. High school theatre, especially, must rise to this challenge and be as inclusive as possible to every student that needs it. We place more value on the process than the product, because the real lessons for students are found rehearsals, not the performance.
I always start the standing ovation with the ensemble. The kids who have shown up, worked hard, and trusted the process. The spotlight isn’t for everyone, but the high school stage certainly should be