We know that it is extremely important for us as directors/high school theatre educators/creators to think about what we put on stage, why we choose the show/season that we do and what implications it creates for our programs.
However, when you’re actually, technically not the director of your program, but rather the ‘guiding adult’ or sponsor of the club (but responsible for a whole heck of a lotta stuff besides directing the show) the decision making doesn’t happen by you This year has been a case where I had to completely lift any ideas I had of my own and let the kids steer the ship. Here’s how it went down:
At the end of the school year each year the Drama Club brainstorms a whole bunch of plays and musicals for the following year. I always drop a few ideas into the mix, but for the most part the kids really try and consider everything. Admittedly our group is always a bit less knowledgeable about plays as compared to their overwhelming excitement around musicals. They are always a bit unsure which plays would good for our 6th-12th grade age group, what works with our population and ability. We are always researching cast size and content and how it would be for our show and I try my best to pop some ideas into the mix that I believe would work best for us.
After the club brainstorms, the officers narrow it down to 3 plays and 3 musicals and let the Drama Club vote. We announce the shows at our end of year banquet and it’s a whole lot of fun and a surprise for everyone. This past year, the club had voted on “Peter and the Starcatcher” for the fall play, which is a very charming and imaginative prequel to Peter Pan that was on Broadway. Shortly after this was announced, a few students and myself came to the realization that this was probably not the best show for us to do, considering that there was only one role for a female (not that we couldn’t gender-bend) but posting parts that were all for boys could be discouraging for new female members. So we went to our second place play, which was “Anon (ymous),” an adaptation of Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ but from the perspective of a refugee child.
Initially, I felt that this was an exciting opportunity for us. While the play did not speak to a specific culture from which the refugee was coming from, it was going to ask of my students to be thoughtful and mindful about who should try out and who should represent these characters. Our school population is quite diverse, but our Drama Club population lacks said diversity. I always market the Drama Club in my classes, which are more representative of my school’s population, and I get who I can get. A barrier may be access after school, or even just committing the time we have to take for rehearsals, but I wanted to make a case for diversifying the club while doing this show. We are not perfect, we don’t perfectly reflect the community of our school, but this situation forced us to reckon with that.
I spent time over the summer thinking about how the play would extend into my classes, studying Homer’s “Odyssey,” and potentially inviting refugees or advocates for refugees into our club meetings to help us address some of the issues. But immediately into the first week back at school the students brought up their issues with representation in the play in our first officers meeting. I encouraged them to read the play and challenge their thinking about WHO is in our plays and HOW we get a more diverse group of students to audition. But after meeting as a group, they almost unanimously decided not to do it. They didn’t feel comfortable targeted students of color to audition, and they also didn’t feel comfortable if no one of color did turn out, and so consequently, the story would be cheapened, or white-washed. They agreed our Drama Club should do gutsy things and strive to diversify our makeup, but they didn’t feel that this was the right way or the right year.
I didn’t fight back, I didn’t challenge, but I was a bit confused as to when and how we were going to address these issues that seemed to be so important to them.
Was I proud of them? Yes for being brave, bold and bringing it up before things moved along too far with it to change things as we went along. But I was also a bit dismayed that there wasn’t an overwhelming push to be more open and creative to say that we could make this production authentic and meaningful.
We learn things from ourselves and from our students. I have learned an enormous amount from this group in my last five years at DCIS. I do, however, fear that they are comfortable and perhaps a bit unwilling to see what holes we need to fill. This is the hard part about not being in a directing position but rather in light- steering vantage point. I want to maintain their trust and the boundaries we have set up, while also teaching them, nurturing them, guiding them to make mistakes but still making an impact. I hope we can continue to learn and teach each other as we navigate the mission and vision of this student-directed Drama CLub.
Tomorrow are the auditions for the fall play; “Nosferatu: The Legend of Dracula.” Here’s to season six!