Thursday, October 16, 2014

Lessons Learned Behind the Curtain

Lessons Learned Behind the Curtain
By Jill Jenkins
            From all of my years directing plays, I learned some lessons that could apply to school administration and leadership because in both stage productions and schools, a group of people with different talents all work together on one creation. If everyone does not work together, expect disasters.  It is from our mistakes, that we learn the art. Regardless, the show must go on. There are three major lessons that apply to both the stage and the school.  First, delegate authority to others, but be careful what you delegate and to whom you delegate it.  Second, work as a team, because one never knows when the worst will happen.  Third, pay attention to the smallest details.  In both venues the play must go on despite whatever complications arise. 

            In both schools and theater, the principal and the director cannot accomplish everything alone.  Both jobs are massive so some jobs must be delegated.  I recall a production of The Wizard of Oz where I delegated the wrong job to the wrong person.  The play required flash pots for the entrance of the Wicked Witch strategically placed in front of a paper mache tree.  Since the actors were my responsibility I had practiced with them for two months.  Everything was going perfectly.  The sound and light crew were the responsibility of a shop teacher who worked in a different building.  His idea of training his staff was to hand them the keys to the auditorium.  They practiced with us for one week.  During that time, I discovered that the young man who was to raise and lower the curtain was a student with special needs.  In those days, there was no electronic button to raise the curtain. The curtain had to be raised and lowered manually with  pulleys. Since this particular student had difficulty with A.D.H.D., he often lost his concentration and wandered away from his job.  He would frequently stop in the middle of raising and lowering the curtain and run off chasing others through the catwalks endangering himself and other students. Since he wasn't my student, I couldn’t just replace him because he was the responsibility of the shop teacher. I didn’t want to fire him because I was worried about his self-esteem, but he couldn’t make a single cue. To solve the problem, I decided that during the play, I would climb into the catwalks with this young man and supervise him so that he wouldn’t lose his concentration.  I delegated the job of filling the flash pot to another stage crew member. Maybe I should have given that responsibility to my stage manager and only give her the amount of powder needed instead of the entire container.  We rehearsed exactly how much power to put into the pot during the scene change and he handled it flawlessly.  The leader of the sound and light crew was going to be working the lights, and he and I were going to be wearing a headset and so was the student stage manager.  I felt everything would work perfectly because the three main players were connected; we had communication with both the light booth and stage. I was wrong. When the time for the flash happened, I checked with the stage manager and the student in the light booth asking them to verify with the young man  that he had put the proper amount of flash in the flash pot, but instead of just checking, they each went to the stage and dumped more explosive material into the flash pot.  When the scene began, the Wicked Witch made her entrance, not with the expected flash, but with something like the blast of an atomic bomb that shook the stage, filled the auditorium with smoke and started the paper tree ablaze.  The Cowardly Lion bravely ran over and put out the flames with his paws, and Dorothy’s eye lashes were singed.  I couldn’t see across the stage because of the smoke. The audience coughed for ten minutes. I climbed higher into the catwalks to verify that the other curtains were not ablaze. They weren't.   I should have chosen to handle the flash pot myself and assigned a student to monitor the incompetent curtain puller. As a principal, if you have a job that could create an explosion, monitor that one yourself and assign a department chair to care for the incompetent teachers.  A principal can’t be everywhere at once, so choose what you delegate carefully. 

            Working as a team is another important lesson from the stage.  On opening night of You Can’t Take It With You the backstage was all rumbling with activities: checking the lights and the sound system, making sure all the props were carefully set out on the stage or on the prop table, greeting the guests, making sure the programs were in place, monitoring the ticket takers and ticket sales and putting on the make-up and costumes of the cast members.  I was running in a hundred directions at once.  Five minutes before we opened, my stage manager approached me looking gloomy.  There was a problem.  The student playing Reba was dressed in her costume and her make-up was complete, but she had been in the bathroom throwing up for thirty minutes. The cast hadn’t told me hoping she would magically recover. She didn’t.  I had to think fast.  Our stage manager had sat through every  rehearsal.  She knew the play and was just about the right size.  I directed her to put on Reba’s costume.  I would feed her the lines and stuff her on stage for each of Reba’s entrances.  The show must go on.  Then, I got on a microphone and asked the parents of the original Reba to come to the back of the stage.  They were mortified when they heard that their daughter was ill, but quietly took her home while we went on with the show. 
      At a school where I used to teach, one of my colleagues had a heart attack during our opening meetings.  The other math teachers took over, setting up his room, writing lesson plans for his substitute and even arranged his substitute so he could concentrate on getting better.  When my husband had a heart attack, my department had collaborated so well, that I was able to call Karen, one of my colleagues, and she took over writing my lesson plans and arranging my substitute.  The truth is on the stage or in the school, the show must go on, so it is important that when something goes wrong (and it will) the school can pick up the pieces and move on.

                        Paying attention to the smallest detail can save you whether you’re directing a play or running a school.  The first play I directed at West High School was Fiddler on the Roof. I didn’t have a background in musical theater, but it was a collaborative effort with the orchestra teacher, the choir teacher, the art teacher, the sewing teacher, the dance teacher and the drama teacher (me).  Everyone worked well together except the dance teacher who refused to participate.  Still, it wasn’t a huge problem because all those years my mother had sent me to dance lessons hoping she would make me less clumsy finally paid off.  The small detail that we had overlooked had to do with wireless microphones.  The school had purchased four of them and no one had any experience with them.  We knew that with only four microphones the students with major roles had to share them.  The woods teacher who taught in a different building was still in charge of the sound and light crew did not give us access to them until opening night. We were not allowed to rehearse with them.  Opening night, the shop teacher arrived and set up the receivers and handed me the microphones.  They had a small clip on microphone wired to box containing batteries.  The cast was in their costumes, so we hooked the microphone to their necklines and ran the batteries down their costumes sticking the battery box into their loose-fitting pants or skirts.  It looked great and the stage manager and I helped them exchange them when they came off stage. The first problem occurred when a doctor in the audience received a page. He was on the same frequency as the microphones and his page was broadcast across the auditorium.   The next problem occurred during the student paying Perchik began to perform his solo.  When he reached a particularly high note, the battery box slipped down his leg.  He grabbed for it, but to the audience, it looked like he was grabbing his. . . (well, you know). The audience roared with laughter. There was no way to communicate to him and if we had he would have been mortified.  This is a detail we should have worked out earlier.  After that, we built little pockets inside of costumes to hold the battery packs.

                         If you are a principal and you are trying a new activity, talk about everything that could go wrong.  For example in my last school, we decided to try a program where students could spend 20 minutes twice a week either catching up on lessons, or going to an enrichment activity.  The first day, the administration told the students to pick any activity they wished.  I was teaching an improvisation theater class. I probably had 50 students in a class designed for 35.  Next door was a ukulele class with 10 students.  About 200 students decided to leave campus and visit the local mini-market for a coke.  It was pandemonium.   Make sure to think of all of the details and brainstorm methods to solve potential problems before trying the activity.
                        Over my years of teaching there have been many disasters that principals’ have had to deal with.  One year, a cluster student took all of his clothing off and held up in the boys’ rest room.  The principal and one of the counselors had to persuade him to put his clothing on and leave the rest room without alarming the other students.  Another time I recall a young man who wanted to destroy another student during a lunch break.  While the principal and the vice principal distracted the angry, young man, I slipped from the teacher’s workroom and removed the subject of his hostility.  With no one to fight, the angry young man attacked the vice principal, but with the principal and the vice principal working together they were able to move him into an office before the other students left the cafeteria.  In another incident, a young lady entered my classroom during a pep-rally so intoxicated that I was afraid to get her down the three flights of steps alone, so I called the vice principal and we got on both sides of her and navigated her down to safety.  Schools and theaters are a lot alike.  There is no telling what is going to happen, but if administrators and teachers work together, something magical happens.