Reliving Past Glories, or The Joys of High School Theater Club

I spent a good deal of the last three days sweating over the latest improv audition.  It’s one of the few Hideout main stage shows that I actually felt strongly enough about to bother to try out for, since the competition for these shows is getting ridiculous.

The audition required a resume, so I’ve been reminiscing about my colorful (if rather rough-and-tumble) days in student theater groups, re-reading old scripts, and boring The Boy to tears with tales of creative casting and production disasters.

I walked into my junior year of high school at a new school with no theater experience more sophisticated than embarrassing elementary school choir musicals.  Granted, I played the starring role in the fifth grade production of “Holly and the Ivy League” (don’t ask – you’ll be glad you didn’t), but that wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to bring up as I walked into my first audition for our student-run drama club, in front of the wildly intimidating group of seniors running the show.

I was quite sure what, if anything, they saw in my audition (I’m pretty sure I was the only girl who attempted the accent called for), but they gave me a bit part – two, actually – in the big play that was staged on parents weekend.  There I was, wobbling around the stage, playing a drunk actress and a Russian duchess in ridiculous costumes and sporting an accent that went from barely passable to just plain awful as rehearsals progressed.  On opening night, my parents managed to score seats in the front row – only a few feet away from the spot where I stumbled out onto the stage in glorified lingerie and did a little drunken song and dance thing at the end of the first act.

That show was a smashing success, as was the next semester’s play.  I got to play three bit parts in that one.  Then I was selected to be one of the club officers my senior year, which meant I’d have the opportunity to direct.  Bit-parter to director in less than a year.  Hooray for tiny amateur theater.

I took the job very seriously.  Really, too seriously at first.  One of my best friends and I decided we wanted to do a musical, but couldn’t make that happen in the first semester, so we grabbed a random script from our library and did a nice, simple play as a sort of directorial dry-run.

It was, to put it mildly, a learning experience.

Hurdle One:
Planning Ahead
The decision to delay the musical happened about a day before auditions started.  When I say we grabbed a random script, I mean random.  I pulled something off the shelf, read a couple of paragraphs and said, “Hey!  This is funny!” and we ran with it.  I actually finished reading this script in between auditions.

Funny story.  Kids, Neil Simon plays sometimes use grown-up words.

This show was supposed to be one of the featured productions of parents weekend.  We started feverishly contemplating methods of softening the language in the show.  There was a running gag involving the mispronunciation of the word “fuck” by a Russian character.  The play was also about the evils of censorship.  Ultimately, we swapped dates with the other play that semester – a delightful little adaptation of Hansel and Gretel that was intended to be put on for a local children’s home.

Then there was the musical.  Years later, when telling the story to my aunt, who has been accompanying musicals for many years, she informed me that the show I’d selected was hands-down the hardest one she’d ever played.

I had this happy dream of doing a student-only musical production, and one of my friends who expressed an interest in doing the show also happened to be an excellent classical pianist, so I handed her the music early in the process.  Before we started cast rehearsals, she said she had to share the work load with someone else, so we brought in a second pianist.  Then she needed some relief, so we brought in a third, and when we were getting perilously close to our first show and no one was able to play the last song, a fourth pianist was brought in.

In the end, the music was passable, but not anything like I’d hoped for.  If I could go back and redo any one thing from my directing experience, it would be turning down the offer from my co-director’s mother to play the accompaniment.  But it was ultimately a victory, because the next year, the club staged another, even bigger musical, despite watching all my suffering.  Some clever geek found a way of computer-generating all the accompaniment, so it sounded great without all the stress of having live musicians.

Hurdle Two:  
Casting, as it turns out, is one of life’s greater tortures.  It sucks for the people auditioning, but it sucks at least as much, if not more, for the directors.  Multiply all the potential stress by ten when the entire casting pool lives in the same building – sometimes the same room – as the directors.

Our seniors set an excellent example for us, treating the audition process seriously, inviting everyone in on equal footing, regardless of their class or social group.  The cast of that first play was at least half juniors, including most of the leads.  Sure, some of the seniors in the play were the directors’ close friends, but they were also really outstanding actors.

When it was my turn to sit behind the table, I had to put on my best poker face and sit through hours of prepared monologues and repetitive readings of the same script samples.  It was long and tedious, but everyone was given as much time as they needed to shake out the butterflies and show us what they were made of.

We needed regional accents.  We needed gender and personality matching.  We needed people who could convincingly string together two lines of dialogue without sounding like they were reading off a page they’d never seen before – even though they were reading off a page they’d never seen before.  We needed people who could share space with other people.  For the musical, we needed people who could sing.

At the end of the first casting session, my co-director and I were sitting there with a large pile of really good actress applications and a woefully tiny pool of male applicants, for a play with only two female roles in a cast of eight.  We finally gave up and assigned two of the male roles to girls (one of whom, despite having a lovely feminine figure, has played a male in nearly every show she’s done since).  We finally whittled down the casting list until we had one character left – a guy based on Mel Brooks – and no one that really fit.

As it happened, the Hansel and Gretel auditions were the following day, and I sat in for a while, then wandered off for a while, then passed by the auditions on my way back into the dorm.  Everyone was just hanging out in the audition room, because they’d gone through everyone that wanted to try out.

Then this kid walks into the waiting area as I’m walking out, and asks nervously, “H-hey.  Can you listen to my audition piece for me?”  Sure.  I have nowhere to be.  Then he launches into a spot-on Woody Allen monologue.

Close enough.

I tell him to go ahead and audition for the other play, not so much as encouragement, but so I can go find my co-director.  Then I walk into the audition room and inform the other directors that they can’t have the kid, because he’s going to be in my play.

…not that Hansel and Gretel really calls for a neurotic New York Jew anyway.

The musical audition was real torture.  We had people who could sing but not act, and people who nailed the characters but weren’t strong singers.  Most of my best friends reeeeally wanted to be part of the show – hell, everyone who auditioned really wanted to be in the show – but there were only so many spots.  I’d made it clear from the beginning that I wanted one of the roles, and my co-directors were perfectly happy to give it to me – if I auditioned for it and earned it, just like everyone else.

To make the process even more difficult, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the other play being produced that semester, and the director had held auditions the night before.  He’d already called dibs on several of our top picks, and then decided to cast literally everyone else who auditioned.  The cast of this play that was written to be performed by less than a dozen actors was a whopping thirty.  So we were the mean directors that only cast six parts.  To mitigate the guilt (and shore up some of the weaker singing talent), I added two more characters, and wrote in new parts.  They sang all the large ensemble songs, and then made up their own, which we added to the show.

I knew the morning after the casting announcements each semester would be awkward, so I went to great pains to be friendly, but keep a completely neutral expression during every audition.  It sucks a little to perform for someone and get zero feedback, but it sucks more to get an inappropriate scowl or chuckle.

My co-directors started laughing during one of the singing auditions, and I very nearly clocked them both over the head when the singer left the room.  After a thorough scolding, they did not laugh again when anyone else was within earshot.

Hurdle Three:
The Technical Behind-the-Scenes Stuff
We were a completely student-run organization in a tiny math and science residential school.  Our stage was a slightly raised area in our dorm’s common room that had once been a cafeteria.  Sets were a handful of flats that had been pieced together over the years from a meager budget, and the cast wound up doing a lot of the construction and painting in our spare time.  The lights were decent stage lights, but they were controlled by plugging six cables into a glorified surge protector.  Our big purchase senior year was a real, honest-to-god switch board, with eight switches.  We could only afford it because one of the officers had tirelessly badgered the school administration for most of the year, instead of directing any shows himself.  Costumes were whatever we could scrounge from our own closets, our friends’ closets, and – only when strictly necessary – thrift stores.  There was no curtain.

We had to sort out blocking, light and sound cues, and set design.  The first play called for someone to punch a hole in the wall, so we pulled one panel off a flat, cut it into three pieces and replaced the middle panel with a tightly-stretched piece of paper, which we painted over and had to replace and repaint after each show.  The musical called for a doghouse big enough for one of the actors to fit into and sit on.  I failed to adequately explain the sizing requirements the first time around, and was presented with the cutest little realistically-sized doghouse you ever did see.  It nearly killed me to have to say, “No, that’s not right.”

We scrounged extra set pieces where we could find them.

Our dorm’s homecoming float had miniature buildings constructed from stacked cardboard boxes, which we reused as set background for the first play.  Unfortunately, on opening night, when one of the characters threw a pair of shoes out the window, he clobbered the boxes, and suddenly the set looked more like a Godzilla movie than a Neil Simon play.

A tree was cut down outside the dorm right before we put on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and for reasons still unknown, a group of guys decided it would be fun to cart the biggest piece of the trunk into the common room.  The school administrators said it could stay until it started to rot, and the director immediately decided the set needed a nice big log.

The doghouse (the correctly-sized one) was cannibalized to make a balcony in one of the next year’s productions. 

Hurdle Four:  
Having Fun
I was an awful director that first semester.  I went into a flying rage when people missed my rehearsals.  I literally kept count of every missed line, and had punishments lined up for the worst offenders at the end of each rehearsal.  One of the directors of the other play watched from the back of the room one day, then quietly informed me that she would have walked away from the show if she was one of my actors.  She was absolutely correct.

When the musical rolled around the next semester, my first priority was to make it a fun environment.  I opened every rehearsal with games.  I asked nicely for people not to skip out on rehearsals.  I did not ever count missed lines.  And you know what?  The cast came to rehearsals and memorized all their lines anyway.

There were more shows in college, but I’ve kept you long enough.

Long Story Short
In those two years, I learned so much from my time in a simple drama club.  My experiences guided my growth both as a performer and as a person in the following years, and I had a good time and made lasting friendships along the way.

I keep telling myself I’d like to find a community theater and do some more scripted work, but improv has been a pretty adequate substitute, and it’s a lot more accessible in Austin than the scripted theater scene, from what I’ve heard.  Maybe someday…


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