Sunday, May 17, 2009

Writing for Kids

I have taught drama for approximately 15 years for different theatre companies. And one thing that I have run up again and again is the poor quality of the scripts that are available for children. They are usually two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. While they are generally insulting to the intelligence levels of kids, they are also boring for the kids to act out. There is nothing so despondent as a group of kids being handed something that has been written by someone without the slightest clue about what kids are like and what they can accomplish. Sanitized, lifeless pieces of paper, that cause the kids to stoop down, not stand up and reach. I have read hundreds of kids scripts and the vast majority of them produce very bad theatre. If you write for children, remember that they are highly-intelligent creatures, some of them are geniuses. Obviously some kids struggle with reading, but theatre provides a voice for these kids. I think of theatre as great literature. It has to be, it only has the words to recommend it. But it is literature from the inside, looking out. Theatre takes actors and changes them into the characters that inhabit the page. As an actor, you are looking out from the pages of the play. When you read a novel, all the characters become part of your world, and you learn to know them well. To an audience, while watching a play, the actors create a three-dimensional world, where the actors are like pop-up characters that come to life. An actor gets to be one of these living characters, and painlessly, they find themselves speaking the words of the great authors, and bringing an imaginary character, a construct of words to life. Usually it helps not to be taught about these great authors in school. There is nothing like dwelling on the rules of literature to kill any interest in a subject. Children can speak Shakespeare without much problem, as long as they have not been inhibited by the fear that it is supposed to be great literature. Once kids learn that they feel inadequate to the task. My latest Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is eleven years old and brilliant. Kids bring a passion, a poetry, a sense of play, and a willingness to learn, and when scripts deny them those things, it demeans them. It dries them up creatively. Shakespeare, Moliere and Checkov, wrote plays for the actors in their casts, and I realized that I would have to write plays for the kids in my casts. The kids come up with ideas, improv some possible scenes and then you have it, inspiration for a play for children. Out of chaos comes creativity. The process of creativity can be chaotic, and you don’t need to control the kids to create good scripts. You only need to harness their energy and creativity with the written word. A succession of written words form the order that is the play. You need characters, conflict and resolution with a good dose of the kids humour thrown in for good measure. Another thing that is important is to teach them, bring what’s inside out. They have potential, bring it out, instead of trying to control it. Let them participate in the creation of their own play. And while you are teaching them about facing out, and stage left and stage right, and to stop upstaging each other, and to open their mouths while they are talking, and to stop pulling Sally’s hair, you can also stretch their vocabulary by giving them words and concepts that they have to reach for, words and concepts that are the foundation of any play. The eleven-year old girl who is playing Puck for me, at eight years old was playing a mouse with a huge vocabulary. She only knew the meaning and the pronunciation of half the words. By performance time, she knew them all and had stretched as a performer. Playing Puck is one more step in her development.. So, instead of looking for scripts online, write your own script, and write a script that the kids can help create. Just remember to have a beginning, a middle and an end, characters and conflict. In the end a resolution. Write them something that teaches and enriches. Write them something that allows them to grow as actors and as people. Children need to be creative. Help them create.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Community: What Actors Really Need

Actors are a rare breed of people. They are shy but bold, introverted yet welcoming, open and closed at the same time. To say that actors are emotionally conflicted is an understatement.

On stage, actors are bold, confident, self-assured. They come across a huge gulf and reach out to strangers in order to communicate an idea, a character, an emotion. Actors long to take you with them on their adventure. Yet, to know an actor is to know someone who is painfully shy, who is certain that no one remembers them, and who, themselves, never forget a face.

We train actors to project their voices and their character's personalities. We teach them how to turn so that the audience can see them. We teach them how to interact with other characters on stage, how to get themselves and their castmates out of trouble, how to be on time... all of those things. And actors can accomplish this inside the structure of the production and inside the structure of the theatre, but rarely do they do this in their day to day lives. It does not come naturally to them.

Actors are not accustomed to being accepted by the mainstream, and it shows. The successful, genial actor will develop a 'public character' (as we all do, to a certain extent) in order to get by in life. The difference between actors and the rest of us is that actors are usually aware of the role they play in real life and the rest of us are not.

Actors are the sensitive kids who either stand out or feel as though they stand out from their peers... and not in a good way. They are unaccepted, easily hurt, reluctant to join in. Girls are often painfully shy, and very bright over-acheivers. Boys are often in trouble for speaking out, being the class clown, and known to be hard to handle. Normally, there are only one or two per class like this, usually only one boy.

These kids try soccer, hockey, Scouts, Girl Guides, and a myriad of other organised sports or clubs, to no avail. Their natural tendancies toward shyness and an imaginary world, or toward boldness and attention-seeking don't often meld well with those sorts of things. The child is again an outcast, or in the case of girls, has cast herself out.

So what do actors need?

They need the same thing that everyone else needs. They need what hockey-players and Girl Guides and the Church Women's League needs.

Actors need community.

Amateur productions usually rehearse from four to six weeks in advance of opening night, some more, some less. Profesional productions normally rehearse for two intense weeks. During that time, but especially during the run of the show, the cast can form close bonds, become friends, and share a common goal. They form a community. They become a team.

For someone who is not used to being a welcome addition to most teams, this is a very gratifying and emotional experience, although it is short-lived. When the show is finished, they experience a huge sense of loss; loss of friends, loss of work, and loss of self. Actors are aware that their community may only last for six or eight weeks, and many will only be cast in one show per year. It can be heartbreaking for them to realise that their sense of belonging is so fleeting.

It is important for actors to take charge of their own happiness. They really can build community around them, even if they are not working on a production. The inspiration behind this article is Tony Babcock, who is an absolute go-getter. When he is not being paid for acting, he is calling his contacts and making arrangements to get together to do scene work, to tweak some technique, to run a monologue past them.

Tony understands that he needs community, not just to keep himself working, but to keep himself happy.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Theatre Superstitions

This is an informative (if incomplete) list of superstitions associated with theatre. Until you are told about the do's and dont's of theatre, you run the risk of jinxing yourself or an entire production.

1)Don't say the name of this play. It rhymes with MacDeath. *coughAllisoncough*

The most serious superstition is that you are not allowed to say the name of the play that Shakespeare wrote that involved all those Scots and the fighting. You know, it's the one that gave us the phrase 'Lead on, MacDuff'.
From now on, you will only refer to it as 'The Scottish Play', or 'the Bard's play'.

The repurcussions of uttering this name inside a theatre are huge, and come in threes. The curse on this name is so strong that real theatre people won't say it under any circumstances, except during the performance of the play, while saying their lines. Not anywhere. Not anyhow.

If you have done the unthinkable and spake that name in a theatre, you must immediately go outside, spit, swear, turn around three times, and beg permission to be allowed back inside.

Some sources say that this play is unlucky because it was traditionally used as a last-ditch effort to sell seats to patrons. If a theatre company was having a bad year, they would perform this show, thinking that it was a 'sure thing'. So the performance of the play became associated with a theatre company in financial crisis.

2) Never wish a theatre person 'Good Luck'.

Many superstitions go toward the tendancy of people to want to feel comfortable and prepared. Part of what makes actors good is a feeling of not-quite-being-ready. So if they are comfortable and believe that now it's up to fate (luck) their performance will suffer.

Wishing them 'break a leg' is a way not to jinx the performer because it reminds them in a backhanded way that something bad can always happen, and it's also a term used for bending a knee in a bow. So they have to earn the right to break a leg. Convoluted, innit?

Also, theatre folk are aware of spirits, both good and bad, and sprites in particular are oppositional, so if they hear you wishing for something, they are likely to try to deliver the opposite.

3) Whistling inside a theatre is bad luck.

Back when sandbags were used to counterbalance heavy curtains, and flys, a whistle from below would indicate the 'all clear' and be the stage manager's signal for the crew in the catwalks to let the bags or scenery drop.That can get you killed.

4) Mirrors, and real jewelry on stage are bad luck.

Stage lighting is intense, and a mirror or shiny jewels can reflect light in ways that the lighting designer did not intend - like into the eyes of an oncoming or outgoing actor, causing them to fall... you get the picture!

Also, mirrors can break, and broken mirrors are seven year's bad luck, and theft is a real problem in theatre, where all eyes are on stage. There is opportunity for unscrupulous people to nick a necklace!

5) Peacock feathers in a theatre and on stage are bad luck.

For theatre-folk, those peacock feathers represent the evil eye.

In greek mythology, Argus had a hundred eyes, and was given the task to watch over Hera's priestess, Io, when she had been transformed. Argus was slain by Hermes, but his eyes were transferred to the tail of a peacock. Bad luck to be slain. Bad bad luck.

6) A light should always be left burning downstage centre.

This 'ghost light' is important to keep ghosts from inhabiting the place. It also allows people who are the last out and the first in to see if there is anything on stage that could cause them injury. Sets, props, costumes... you can't see them in the dark!

7) A bad dress rehearsal is a good omen for opening night.

The idea is that if the dress rehearsal is bad, then the next performance (opening night!) will be good. All of the bad vibes will have been used up, and the actors and crew will be on high alert because they will not want a repeat of the previous night's show.

8) Cats are lucky... but sometimes not, depending on what you believe.

Cats are considered to be magical creatures in many traditions, not the least of which, in theatre, where they serve as useful members of the crew. Cats keep down vermin which ruin costumes and props and they are attuned to 'otherworldly' happenings.

Cats crossing a lit stage, on the other hand, foreshadowed bad luck. as they were more comfortable being in the semi-darkness offstage.

There is an opposite reading for that as well, that being that cats on stage are always lucky, because if they are present and content then all is well in the supernatural world.

9) The colour blue is unlucky.

Many superstitions of theatre are connected to finances. Blue used to be a very expensive colour to reproduce, so any theatre company who used blue fabrics or paints was spending a lot of money that it needn't spend. Never in history have theatre people been terribly well-off, so it was (and is) very important to be conservative in costuming and decorating a set. Blue things meant that the company was spending a lot, (usually in an attemtpt to show off, therefore gambling that the audience would show up) and would likely go bankrupt.

However, if silver is added to the blue (like a silver threading or silver ornament) the bad luck is lifted, as this meant that there was a wealthy backer who could afford to pay for the show.

10) Flowers presented before a performance are bad luck, but after a performance are fine.

Again, you don't want to incur the wrath of the sprites, who want to turn everything on its ear. Presenting flowers to an actor before the show is a little too cocky for those sprites, and they will see to it that bad things happen during the performance.

Wait until the curtain falls, then send the bouquet backstage, that way, you are not jinxing the performance.

11) Candles should never come in threes.

Paint, costumes, poor lighting, busy people, and OPEN FLAME are not usually a good combination. Before the electric light, candles were de rigeur for lighting a room. HOwever, a combination of three candles was considered bad. The person nearest to the shortest candle was either going to be the next to die, or the next to marry. OUCH!

12) The last line of a play should never be spoken until opening night.

Theatre is not complete without an audience, so to prevent disaster, the last line is not uttered until an audience is in the house.

13) The first audience member to enter the house must have a paid ticket.

Like any business, theatre is about making money. It is a bad omen to start off a show with an 'empty' cashbox. Many house managers will ask comp ticket holders to please wait to be seated, until a paying customer has entered the house.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Hey! We rank!

I think Charles must have submitted our blog! Cool.

Bottle Tree Productions at Blogged

We rate a solid... 'B' I think.