THE TRIALS, TRIBULATIONS AND TRIUMPHS OF BEING A DIRECTOR

Directing a play is a long drawn-out process. The first step is to decide what play or musical will be performed and this may depend on the talents possessed by the students. You cannot, for example, put on a musical with a large male cast if you do not have enough young men who are musical. The decision also depends on the age group; a GCSE group of 15 to 16 year olds can take on almost any adult play while the choice for younger students is more limited.

Once the decision is made, auditions are held. The dilemma here is that most of the students want a ‘main’ part and there will inevitably be some disappointments. The director should, however, always make sure that there are at least two people holding the auditions in order to avoid any suspected favouritism.

You now have a play, or musical, a cast and a script or score and it is time to draw up a rehearsal timetable. Initially, rehearsals are held twice a week after school for one or two hours but as the date of the production draws nearer, rehearsals will take place three times a week after school, during the weekends and at any other available times.

The cast and director usually have a simple read through of the script before starting the actual rehearsal process. The read-through can be very nerve-wracking because, despite the fact that it is supposed to be a cold reading, everyone is on the alert for possible casting or script problems.
The first Rehearsal brings everything into reality. Up until this point it has just been the script. Now there’s a sea of young faces, staring, waiting, wondering – is this going to be a great experience, a great play, or memorable for all the wrong reasons?

The first few rehearsals are taken up with ‘blocking’, which is when the director determines an actor’s movements and positions on stage. At this point, everyone works with scripts in hand. In some plays the stage directions have been very clearly indicated by the playwright, in others there are fewer instructions and in some, none at all. This is an extremely important part of the rehearsal process and the director must be dynamically inventive. All of the blocking must come from the director (and whatever the actors are able and encouraged to contribute). There’s nothing worse than watching a play where you can see the actor thinking, “I’m moving this way because I was told to. I don’t know why I’m moving this way but here I go!” Blocking that seems to come from nowhere, and has no grounding in the action or the characters, takes the audience out of the world of the play and must be avoided that at all cost – we want to plunge the audience into the play and never let them go! During the initial rehearsal period, the cast should be learning their lines although they do, quite naturally, learn some of them as they go along during the rehearsals. Some students have learnt all their lines by the third or fourth rehearsals, some take a little longer, while others are still struggling days before the performance.

Some rehearsals run beautifully smoothly while others, for a number of reasons, are frustratingly awful. Students may arrive late, some may not turn up at all, and mounting tension can give way to quarrels, grievances and jealousy.
However, rehearsals are now nicely in progress and it is time to think of the costumes, scenery and props. If you are lucky, you may have a costume-maker who will immediately relate to you and your requirements. Hopefully you have someone in the art department who understands the play and your ideas and also has a deal of creativity of their own. You may find a stage manager, although this can be a thankless task, and he or she will have put together a team armed with a list of props to be bought, borrowed or made. Or, if you are really unlucky, you will have to do everything yourself!

You are approaching the date of the performance and start to move from the drama studio to the theatre stage and begin to work with the scenery and props in place. It is now also time to work with the light and sound designer, engineer and technicians. If you do not have a light and sound specialist, this task will fall to you.

However, it is still looking nothing like the finished product and there are only three weeks to go. In spite of directing a large number of performances, the usual pre-performance panic is setting in.

One week to go and at last the play or musical is taking shape – a story is emerging. The costumes are hanging expectantly in the costume wardrobe, the scenery has not yet collapsed and most of the props can be found – beware of those who might take a fancy to some of your hard-found props, especially period ones.
The next big step is the technical (or ‘tech’) rehearsal. The director, actors and sound and light people ensure that the lights will go on and off, fade in and fade out at the correct time and that any sound effects will be heard at the right time. You do not want a telephone being picked up by a cast member before it has rung, nor do you want bells chiming after the door has been opened.

All is going more or less well and the day of the dress rehearsals has arrived. There is no stopping and starting; the whole performance must run straight through, come what may. This is when you hope that anything that could go wrong will happen today.

Finally – the first night. By now everyone is exhausted but the adrenalin takes over. The make-up is on, despite the reluctance of the male performers to wear it. Costumes are donned and the actors are waiting in the dressing rooms suffering from stage fright before they even get on stage. There is a five-minute call and the actors who are in the first act rush to the wings, where they stand shaking in fear, worried about forgetting their lines, falling over, missing their cue and so on.

Someone gives a welcoming speech. The house lights are dimmed; the stage lights fade in as the curtain opens. The magic begins!

DIRECTING MUSICALS

While in position as Head of Drama, I produced and directed a wide variety musicals – too many to name. However, I have my favourites:

In 1995 the then musical director and I produced Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat, which was particularly challenging for me as it was my first theatre production; I also included a number of dances that are not in the original version. The following year we produced a Christmas operetta, Amahl & the Night Visitors, composed by Gian Carlo Menotti.

In 1996, I produced and directed an all-time favourite – Grease, the musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey. This was particularly exciting as not only did I direct it but I was able to choreograph all the dances as well. Our biggest problem with this was to find a suitable car in which Sandy and Danny watch their drive-in movie. There are some wonderful musical numbers such as We Go Together, Greased Lightenin’, Summer Nights and Mooning, with which everyone is familiar.

Guys and Dolls, a musical with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, concerning gangsters, gamblers, and other characters of the New York underworld, was another challenging undertaking. We had enormous fun emulating the New York dialect and some of the students were so talented that one could easily imagine that they were born and bred in that city.
In 1999, alongside a very experienced musical director, I directed Stephen Sondheim’s award winning musical Into the Woods. This is a particularly complicated musical to stage as it combines four favourite fairy tales to make one classical epic: Cinderella, Jack & The Beanstalk, Little Red Riding-Hood, and Rapunzel. A fifth story is, of course, needed to bind them together, which is the story of a poor baker and his wife who wish for a child, and to get one, strike a bargain with a witch. The characters learn the hard way that the ‘Happily Ever After’ they seek isn’t necessarily so happy after all.

In February, 2000, we found our perfect Annie, and put together the musical of that name. Annie is based on Harold Gray’s comic strip Little Orphan Annie, with the music by Charles Strouse, and the lyrics by Martin Charnin. One of the most amusing memories of this performance is when, on the first night, Annie’s dog Sandy slipped his leash and wandered off into the audience. As I always encouraged the students to improvise in the case of mishaps, the young girl playing Annie stepped off the stage into the audience and nonchalantly asked if anyone had seen her dog, clicked her fingers at him, caught him, took him back on stage and continued as if it had all been planned.
Piers Chater Robinson’s Peter Pan Musical adapted from the play by J.M. Barrie was our 2002 venture, and one that was not without misfortunes. We decided that our Peter Pan would be one of the older boys, who had a marvellous singing voice. However, he was also quite big for his age and we needed to find a way for him to fly across the stage while singing the song I’m flying. One of the parents, an engineer, set up some wonderful machinery and after several trials our Peter Pan successfully flew across the stage. However, all did not go well! On the night of the first performance, the harness slipped and he crashed into the scenery while on the second night he flew half way across the stage and the machinery stuck, he could neither go forwards nor backwards. He never lost his cool – he continued to sing I’m flying, regardless. On the third night he successfully flew back and forth. This was a particularly nail-biting experience for the director who spends most of his or her time rushing from the audience to backstage.

No school can miss the opportunity of putting on the classic musical Oliver, the Dickens novel adapted for stage by Lionel Bart, and I could certainly not resist it. There is such a wonderful array of unforgettable characters and this zestful show is enriched with songs from Fagin’s playfully sinister You’ve got to pick-a-pocket or two and the opening’s Food Glorious Food to the heart-breaking Boy for Sale and Where is Love. This was indeed a great experience and a wonderful family evening out.

DIRECTING DANCE PERFORMANCES

As a teacher and director of dance, I have choreographed and directed a number of dance performances for children, and although there are too many to list, the following were my favourites:

In 1992, after having given a number of ballet recitals, I decided to take on the challenge of adapting the ballet The Sleeping Beauty for children. This was no mean feat; hours were spent recording the music from cassette to cassette, cutting down some of the more lengthy pieces of music, cutting out others and fading in and fading out to avoid sudden breaks in the music. Much time was also spent watching videos of the ballet and notating my adaptation of the choreography.

Fortunately I had many talented students who were ready to take on the challenge. Princess Aurora was danced by a wonderful student who was half Japanese, half Egyptian and, at the age of twelve, not only was she a lovely dancer, but she was also particularly expressive. Equally talented were the girls who danced Prince Florimund, the Lilac Fairy and Carabosse (the wicked fairy). A number of smaller but nevertheless important parts were danced by other talented girls. The corps de ballet consisted of a group of eight-year olds who had to be disciplined like little soldiers. There were no boys in the ballet classes and gentle persuasion had to be used to encourage some of the girls to act as male dancers.

The costumes were beautifully crafted and my little ballerinas danced their way through the whole ballet looking like mini professionals.
By 1994, I had eighty students from a variety of nationalities and decided to give a recital called The World of Dance. Fortunately, I had time, when vacationing in England, to buy all the necessary music and, as I had a number of classes doing between Grades 1 to 5, was able to use all my students. The Grade 1 dancers performed a Scottish Highland Fling, Grade 2 a Czardas – a Hungarian dance – and the grade 3 students were taught a Greek Syrtakis. The grade 4 students executed a Spanish Flamenco dance and group of modern dancers performed a contemporary dance. A number of solo dances were choreographed for the Grade 5 students, including an Armenian Keghany, an Egyptian Reda dance, a Kuchuk Imine Tanz from Turkey, and a number of folk dances including, Russian, South American, Asian and Finish.

This performance truly reflected the internationality of the school at which I was working.

In 1996, I directed and choreographed another adaptation of a well-known ballet – The Nutcracker. I went through the same previous process of adapting the music and the choreography. By now several of my students were on pointe shoes and the part of Clara was danced by a gifted Finnish girl on her toes. Again, persuasion was used for some of the girls to dance a number of male parts, some of which were important roles, while the younger students formed the corps de ballet. By then, some of my ballerinas had become quite tall and I decided to dance the part of Drosselmeyer who is Clara and her brother’s godfather. I created my own role for this and became, instead, their godmother.
Part of the enchantment of The Nutcracker Ballet comes from the many characters that appear on stage during the performance. The diversity of the cast allows dancers of all ages the opportunity to participate in the ballet. There are some wonderful character roles such as the nutcracker, mechanical dolls, toy soldiers, mice, and of course the obligatory Prince.

DIRECTING SENIOR SCHOOL PLAYS

I can no longer recall all of the plays that I produced and directed in my twenty three years as a Drama teacher and Director, but some of them were particularly memorable.

In 1995, the English department and I created a comedy version of Macbeth. In this loose adaptation of Shakepeare’s Scottish play, an amateur company is putting on a performance of Macbeth during which everything goes wrong. The curtain opens revealing Macbeth and the three witches on stage. The witches realise that they have come on stage too early, that the scenery is back-to-front and that they are also being watched by an audience. The cast are waiting for the woman who is supposed to play Lady Macbeth but she has got lost on her way to the theatre, she is therefore played by one of the male stage-hands who doesn’t know the lines. A few things also go wrong on stage: the ‘actor’ playing the part of the first witch comes on stage in the wrong costume, the dagger swings from side to side, one of the actors comes on stage with a sandwich, thinking that it is the interval and so on. We had as much fun creating this as the audience had watching it.

Perhaps one of my most enjoyable experiences was, in 2000, the adaptation for stage, with a group of fourteen year olds, of seven lesser-known tales originally found in the Brothers Grimm collection, which we called Tales Untold. Many of the students had been studying Drama with me since the age of five and were now very experience thespians, with knowledge of many theatre techniques and genres. The group used movement, mime, masks, symbolism and sometimes spoke in chorus to retell such tales as The Six Servants, Clever Else and The Shoes That Were Danced Through.
In 2002, I discovered a script written by the Egyptian playwright, Mohamed Salmawy who scored his first stage success with it in 1984. This short play Next in Line won him the acclaim of both the public and the critics, placing him almost overnight among the ranks of Egypt’s most prominent playwrights. Although it is an Egyptian story, it is written in English and, and with the permission of Mohamed, I decided that it would be particularly fitting for a group of mainly Egyptian students. We were able to create a particularly authentic set of a Cairo street scene and many of the props were provided by the students. We had enormous fun bringing a variety of Egyptian characters to life, with all their gestures, modes of speech and habits. Next in Line is an allegorical play in which a number of characters are waiting in line in the street, but do not know what they are waiting for. People come and people go, some guard places for each other, one woman is constantly searching for her husband and one man dies. A certain Dr. Hamid enters, who is an Abdel Nasser-like character, and who insists that some sort of plan must be made and that the people must be organised, while carrying out such a plan, he cunningly jumps to the front of the queue. The people carry on waiting and another, similar character arrives and the whole process is repeated.

We were particularly honoured by the presence of the playwright on our opening night.
In 2006, a group of students expressed a wish to perform some of the stories from Alf Layla w Layla”or 1001 Nights. Unfortunately, we could not find a decent script, so together we chose six of the stories that interested us and the students begged me to write the script. This was my first experience at script-writing and was a pleasing, if somewhat challenging, experience. We weaved these stories around the original plot and the audience was taken on a roller-coaster of emotions from pity, to laughter and anger. The actors were both narrators and actors and had to ensure a smooth transition from narrating to their audience and getting back into character for a particular scene. Both the actors and the audience thoroughly enjoyed such beloved stories as Ali Baba & the Forty Thieves and Sindebad as well as lesser-known stories like The Little Beggar and The Wife Who Wouldn’t Eat.

In 2007, I was faced with a similar situation, and a request to write a script for Alice in Wonderland. Although I had purchased several scripts, they were either too long, or too complicated to stage. Many hours were spent re-reading both Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass until I finally managed to weave the two into one plot, making sure to include the most popular characters such as The Mad Hatter, The White Rabbit, The Queen of Hearts and many, many more.

DIRECTING GCSE PLAYS

Perhaps the most challenging productions of my career as a Director were the performances for the British General Certificate of Education Drama (GCSE) examinations.

In 2004, my first GCSE Drama group performed Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary. There were three candidates, two of whom gained 100% for their exam while the third gained 98%. The play is a three-hander that probes into the delicate relationship of three singular women: the eccentric grandmother, Dorothea, her daughter brilliant daughter, Artie (Artemis) and Artie’s exceptionally intellectual daughter, Echo, who Artie has abandoned to be brought up by her grandmother. We staged it with the utmost simplicity, using platforms and very few props, and pools of light only on the characters.

By the following year, 2005, the GCSE numbers had grown, and I was able to boast seven candidates, many of whom had taken dance with me when younger, and we opted for Stepping Out by Richard Harris. The original play concerns eight individuals from disparate backgrounds and with differing motivations who attend the same weekly tap dancing class, taught by Mavis, accompanied on the piano by Mrs. Fraser. Despite the students at first treating the classes as social occasions, and showing little co-ordination, they later develop a level of skill. The dance routines are the background for the focus of the play, which is the relationship and interaction of different people. However, we had to adapt the play by cutting out the piano player and one of the characters and combining two others. Ours was not a tap-dancing class but a jazz class. We had a great deal of fun with the script, the rehearsals and the performance.
In 2006, I finally had two male candidates as well as the usual bevy of females. This time, we managed to find a script that fitted our numbers, which was John Patrick’s The Reluctant Rogue. The main character, Reed Dolan is a young, attractive professor of drama in an American college. His speciality is to invite some of the good-looking female students to his apartment to discuss their term papers. However, his amorous exploits are too successful and when several of the students descend on him in succession, he struggles hilariously to keep each from discovering the presence of the others. We constructed a set to represent the interior of the professor’s apartment and included a very comfortable red leather sofa for the purposes of seduction.

Again, in 2007, with seven students, we found a script that seemed to be tailored for the group. Pat Cook’s The Long Red Herring tells the story of several students who are given the task of solving a “murder” as their final exam. When the students begin searching their professor’s house, the clues look all too real and they begin to wonder if it is just an assignment or has a real murder taken place? This is a comedy thriller and we had the audience alternately gripping their seats and erupting with laughter. We built a set to represent the interior of a house with stairs backstage left going up to the ‘bedrooms’. Unfortunately, I had not thought of having the stairs descend to backstage and the actors who were offstage in the ‘bedrooms’ had to stand waiting for their next entrance squashed together on a tiny platform, hidden by the side wings. We renamed the play The Perfect Murder as we were worried that the audience might think that the play was about fish!
The following year’s group consisted of four young men and five young women all from different cultures, and after unsuccessfully going through our large collections of plays and searching on line, we realised that we would have to devise our own script for the examination. The students began by choosing a character from a troubled country who, for a variety of reasons, had fled to the U.K. The students were then given the task for writing a monologue for their chosen character. The difficulty was that we could not initially find a way of tying the monologues together and, after much brainstorming, decided that these characters were taking part in a talk show and a script began to take shape. We eventually broke the monologues into parts and while they were being recited some of the group, wearing black cloaks and white masks, used movement to symbolise the words in the monologue. It was fascinating to participate in the evolvement of this devised performance.
The GCSE examination board only allows for up to nine students in any one performance, so in 2009 with ten candidates, we realised that we would have to create two plays and would need, once again to devise our own. We had no problem with coming up with an idea as the group had previously explored the relationship between creative genius and bipolar disorder and were determined to create a story about this issue. The group eventually split into two and each chose an actor to play the protagonist, Patricia, an artist suffering from bi-polar disorder. The first act takes place in London’s sixties where the artist is sharing a flat with three other young women. This is a productive phase in Patricia’s life as she is full of manic energy; however, her flatmates begin to realise that all is not well with her. Act II takes place twenty five years later and, after marriage and three children, Patricia is now living in the countryside; she is deeply depressed and although she spends long periods of her time in her studio, she has lost much of her creativity. The final scene was electric and so highly charged that when Patricia finally commits suicide, a great hush descended in the theatre before the audience finally erupted with applause.
The 2010 GCSE group considered themselves extremely lucky as they consisted of the exact number of students to match the nine characters in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever. This play is best described as a cross between high farce and a comedy of manners. It is set in an English country house in the 1920s, and deals with the four eccentric members of the Bliss family and their outlandish behaviour when they each invite a guest to spend the weekend. The self-centred behaviour of the hosts finally drives their guests to flee while the Blisses are so engaged in a family row that they do not notice their guests’ furtive departure. An elaborate set is required for this play and, with the art department and the school engineer, we created the sitting room of a period country house, with a sofa and chairs, stairs to the ‘first floor’, wall paper, windows and a number of props. We researched the 1920s costumes, designed them and had them made. The greatest challenge was for the students to adopt an upper-class English accent and, after much trial and error, sounded perfect on the night of the performance.
By 2011, the GCSE examining board had changed their syllabus and that year’s group were faced with a theme – ‘Change’. We were not entirely happy as, although the theme could cover a multitude of topics, we felt restricted. This group consisted of seven girls and five boys and after much discussion we decided to devise three short one-act plays. A lot of brainstorming took place and we eventually arrived at a story for each group, which they set about scripting. The first play Out of Touch begins with a flashback showing four close friends, giggly teenagers, who are meeting together before going their separate ways to different universities. We see them again, some years later, and it is obvious that their lives have changed so much that they have lost their original camaraderie. The second play The Awakening takes place in a psychiatrist’s waiting room. The troubled young women perform monologues alternately, while the other two symbolise the words with movement. As the characters begin to change and realise that their problems are not as serious as they originally thought, they finally communicate with each other. The third play The House of the Revolution performed by the five boys was particularly powerful as it was concerned with the changes brought about by the Egyptian revolution.

The scenery for all three plays was minimal and consisted of a number of blocks fitted together to create height and was easily adaptable for each play. However, scenes of the revolution were projected on a screen at the back of the stage for the last play, giving a very realistic effect to the story.