Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Marvels of Opening Night

It wasn't exactly opening night.  We really call it our "Dress for the Press" Preview Night in hopes that my vision of the Daily Reporter, the Indy Star, USA Today, Entertainment Tonight, the Indiana Business Journal, Joan Rivers, and NUVO all showing up to cover and review the show.  As it is, it has evolved into a preview night for the kids' teachers (our best word-of-mouth), a few select guests and of course, our beloved World Class Laugher--Wendy Carson.  It's a great evening of finally getting the show in front of an audience that will enjoy and applaud--to remind us what's funny and to teach us the important performance skill of 'waiting for the laughs'.

This one was a tad shaky going in.  Had a real 'come to Jesus' meeting (as we used to say in IPS) with the kids on Thursday last week.  Reminded then what they were here for; reminded them that all 14 of them were chosen from the 50 who auditioned to carry on the KidsPlay legacy of excellence and quality; reminded them that their audition for the next show began with the read-through for THIS show....  Apparently, it worked.

We survived Long Sunday.  Starting at 8 a.m. dismantling the KidsPlay set in the Dungeon, moving it to the theatre and reassembling it there.  Tape, paint and trim out the set.  Decorating the lobby.  Costumes in the dressing room.  Everything in place.  That was followed by a tech rehearsal at 1:30, a start-and-stop notes rehearsal at 2 p.m., and finally a full run.  It's a stressful day and I always feel the pressure of parents, crew who are ready (sometimes before *I* am) to call it a day and take their kids home.  Amazingly, there was none of that.  I'm very tuned in to it, and I sensed...nothing.  Just parents/crew/kids all committed to the end goal--a tight, well-orchestrated production.  As it was, we left the theatre at about 5 p.m.  Yes, tired, but ready for Monday, another rehearsal, followed by Tuesday--our Dress for the Press.

The kids took the stage last night in front of their teachers, some family and the playwright, Scott Haan.  Under pressure?  Yes, Queen, thank you.

Now, I am NOT a believe in 'it'll all come together in the end'.  In fact, I literally grit my teeth when someone says that (inevitably it's a parent who drops their kid off and leaves with NO IDEA of what it takes to do what we do, but that's another story).  Yes, it WILL all come together in the end, but not just by crossing our fingers and wishing and hoping.  It is NOT just luck.  It IS hard work, and planning, and details, and focus.  It is all of those things. 

Mmmm, yeah.  All those things, so that when you put a show up on the stage that was built on the strong foundation of hard work, details, planning, effort, focus, and rehearsal-rehearsal-rehearsal--on the stage in front of a live audience, you simply can't deny, you can't, that there's, mmm, a little magic in the mix.  There really is.

The performance was absolutely mesmerizing.  I've been trying all morning to put my finger on just what it was.  The brilliant timing of the opening dialogue between Pig and Cow?  The looks exchanged by Lion and Lamb?  Dawg dealing with his parasite problem on stage working like it NEVER worked in rehearsal (in fact, I'd told him to cut it in favor of just scratching fleas)?  Cat was in 'bring in on' mode.  Mouse adorable and totally understandable with her squeaky mouse voice.  Queen and Prince's deadpan and conversational tossing off of song lyrics in the dialogue.  Peter's ba-da-bing lines delivered in the set-'em-up-and-knock-'em down way that only he could do?  Everything, everything worked together--the show was firing on all cylinders and our small appreciative audience loved it.  LOVED it.

There are always challenges to be met and lessons to be learned in theatre--by the cast, the crew, the director.  Some new, some simply reinforced.  This show was no different.  We explored how costumes help the audience understand the character (to the point of restyling Piggy's outfit YESTERDAY to coincide with the character she so brilliantly created).  This show could have been someone's master's thesis in blocking and provided lesson after lesson in stage and spacial awareness for the kids.  We were challenged again and again by the personification of animals--very difficult (and yeah, I think we'll take a break from it for awhile...).  The choreography of crowd scenes, of chaos, of fighting, and chasing.  The timing of puns and one-liners--all challenges that would probably be considered over the heads of 3rd-8th graders.  Hard work, rehearsal, commitment, talent...and yeah, the magic thing, too.  It all comes together--and it's good.  It's all good.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Perception of Children's Theatre

When I first started KidsPlay.  I remember feeling nervous that I was, well, a directorial micro-manager.  Through the weeks of rehearsal, I played every part for them:  constantly modeling voices, how to walk, how to talk, timing, gestures, and all the components of creating a character.  I often worried that I was 'overdirecting' them, that I didn't give the children enough freedom to create their own character, that I didn't let them develop their style.  I don't worry about that anymore.

I mean, I see what WE do; and I see what others do.  Our shows, our little kid-shows, are...may I say it--good. Better than most, really.  I push my actors as far as I think they can be pushed and then some.  And the outcome is good.  I've come to believe that an issue with most children's theatre is that the directors simply don't realize what the children are capable of achieving.  KidsPlayers ACHIEVE.  Oh, believe me, they DO.

In the early years, I would encourage people to come and see our shows, people that were not associated with the show, didn't know anyone in it, and basically, would have no reason to attend except for entertainment.  I would start talking about it, and I would see their eyes glaze over.  I understood why.  I mean, look at your average children's theatre production.  Most are attended out of obligation to a child, and most are near-death experiences (as in, 'just kill me now, please').  And I understood that to change that glazed look, that people would have to SEE us to believe what I was telling them.

I remember gathering the KidsPlayers and their parents to see a production of another group of young performers.  It was an uncomfortable experience, to say the least, and it infuriated my KidsPlay parents.  One of them stormed out, angrily saying, "It's stuff like THAT that gives children's theatre a bad name!"  

We, my family and another, saw another abysmally bad production just last night.  We went with high hopes to see a show that we were considering as a future KidsPlay production.  I'm eternally optimistic.  I always go into another children's theatre production expecting to be impressed, to be blown away even, by a high degree of talent, production values, performance and professionalism.  I expect to have a new bar set for what KidsPlay can become in the future.  More often than not, I'm dismayed and disappointed.  Repeatedly.  And disappointed, we were.  In fact, we left at intermission, having turned over $15 of KidsPlay's money for actor tickets, $15 of my own money, and $10 from the other family--money that will support more such theatrical endeavors in the future.   [Ack!]  I have seen an ocean of bad theatre in my lifetime, but I can count on one hand the number of times I have actually left before it was over.  Two minutes into the show, my adult son was glaring at me from his seat.  Fifteen minutes in, my younger son, a row in front of me turned around and whispered through clenched teeth, "Mom, I WANT to LEAVE NOW."  At intermission, I woke my husband up, looked around at the rest of the party--the daughter of my friend was staring at me, head slumped to one side, reduced to a near-non-verbal state--and as a group we shuffled to the lobby, and then left one and two at a time.  We immediately went to a local restaurant and talked of what we'd seen:  fast-talking actors raced through their lines in an effort to finish before they ran out of air, bizarre costuming choices that didn't in any way help us to discover their characters; actors who couldn't have possibly been told--EVER--to face the audience.  Bad accents, lighting by--who?  Someone pulled in off the street?  A sad little makeshift set...  And we laughed when we realized that the one time we were all riveted to the action on stage, was when one girl forgot her lines.  We hung on that moment with bated breath, waiting for her to recover, for someone to prompt her--which someone finally did--and the show went on.

Yes, we are an unfair audience, I agree.  We know way too much about the mechanics of performance to ever really get lost in show.  And we who are involved in KidsPlay are spoiled, yes, we are--by amazingly talented kids, a dedicated technical team, and a hard-working parent group who combine to create truly fabulous productions.  We are used to this level of quality and, sadly, we're often shocked when we venture into the rest of the theatre world.

So these are the battle lines for KidsPlay:  1) the perception of children's theatre as mind-numbingly bad theatre to be suffered through rather than enjoyed; 2) the idea that any English teacher, any parent volunteer, anyone who's ever seen "Cats" has the skills required to direct a play; 3) we promote the idea that theatre is more than just a free-time filler, that is a worthy extra-curricular activity, a fulfilling avocation deserving of dedication and commitment; 4) we believe that the magic is in the details; 5) and we fight to be REAL entertainment not just for parents and grandparents, but for the community at large.

This is what we stand for.  This is our mission.  We are KidsPlay.