One of the most challenging aspects of theatre for our casts and parents is that theatre is an art which requires constant direct critique. Each night, the director gives “notes” and shares with the cast, through email or in person, ways to improve the show and, sometimes, the personal ethics or social behavior of the group or individual.
For many people, this can be challenging. It’s similar to having the student receive a grade every rehearsal. Many people are not used to this direct critique. And because we are in the business of shaping the specific nature of a scene and behavior of a participant it can feel very personal.
We teach our actors that it’s the responsibility of a good cast member to hear critique and to make choices to shape the art differently. This is learned by active listening, applying new strategies, and curbing behavior. This can be challenging in its own right.
It becomes even more challenging when the critique gives feedback on the ethical behavior of the individual. We shape and model behavior that will make someone successful in a group environment. The ethics of our theatre model behavior that will make the participant successful in school, camp, and the workplace.
We apply gentle pressure relentlessly. We take into consideration the individual’s challenges and cycles of behavior. We have an extensive collection of tools to de-escalate and push through the most sensitive of challenges. These ethical challenges can be as standard as learning about respecting personal space to learning the right time to express romance and sexuality.
To make it even more challenging, these behaviors can overtly manifest during the perceived pressure of adding technical elements like costumes and microphones, moving into longer days at technical rehearsals, and the excitement of performing.
It is a statistical fact that we have the most behavior challenges during performances. We, as a staff, are prepared for this. We deploy ourselves and manage space and time to decrease the risk of “bad” decision making. We minimize the ability for groups to be unsupervised and pay extra attention to those who are processing the experience by pushing against our rules and standards. This means that if we have had behavior challenges with a participant during the process of rehearsal it becomes increasingly likely that the actor will express a choice that is in direct opposition to our ethics and standards. This leads to one of the greatest challenges we will face in our program...meeting with parents and participants about their actor making choices to rebel or resist the ethics and standards we have established as a group.
This conversation can be emotionally challenging for the participant. The thrill of a performance combined with the pressure of an audience filled with adoring family and friends makes it extremely hard for a parent to hear us say in person or in email:
“I need to talk to you about your daughter or son’s behavior today”
The near zen-like grace that a parent and participant must pull to transition to hearing that their child made a decision or exhibited a behavior that broke our rules is almost always a struggle to find.
This is when parents often exhibit extreme behavior to our staff. As the parent rallies to adjust to this critique we typically hear defense that is completely natural, but nearly always defensive and dismissive of our review.
It is extremely hard for parents to accept our opinions and critique as valid. We are often called out as ignorant, or unprofessional, and/or undereducated. This is putting it mildly. When the challenge is a heightened challenge such as inappropriate sexual expression or aggressive behavior the parental defense of that behavior or choice can become deeply acidic. For the sake of professionalism, I can’t publicly list the names we are called and the insults slung by parents in this situation.
It is incredibly natural to feel mixed feelings in this critique. You, as a parent, have just watched your child soar and here comes our director or staff to say that they made a choice backstage that could prevent them from coming back tomorrow to the show. You have a dozen relatives and work friends in the audience for that show and the staff is saying your child is making choices to the detriment of the group. It feels intensely personal. Here is the thing...it is.
We are in the act of shaping citizens. Not sheltering, but molding a person to excel in a group environment. This program isn’t really about theatre at all. We aren’t putting on a show, not really. We are creating an environment for constant reflection and personal growth to equip the participant to succeed in the greater community.
Our process has higher standards than most programs of its type. We do not excuse behavior that is detrimental. We use parent and staff guided strategies to work through these challenges, but there comes a point where we have met an impasse. Certain choices must change if the participant will have success in the show, and sometimes it means the participant may not be allowed to continue in the same vein.
The strategies can be as standard as a parental meeting to discuss options. Sometimes it can be more strident, such as:
-Requiring the parent to sit back stage with the participant to manage behavior
-Pulling the participant to sit with the parent for the duration of the performance
-Having the participant sit with the director or prompter for the show.
-Having the participant sit in the lobby with a staff member for the show.
-Asking the participant to take a night off from performing
-Giving that actor’s solos or lines to another actor for one performance or the rest of the show
-Not allowing the participant to attend the cast party
-And when we must, removing the participant from the production
We acknowledge the challenges this kind of response to behavior has on the family of the participant, but in that the primary function of our entire program is to make better citizens we will not falter in this. We will act with compassion and tact but we will absolutely hold the line.
As you consider your actor’s participation in our program you must ask yourself if you are prepared to receive this kind of feedback, especially during show week.
It is the greatest leap of faith we ask from our parents and participants. There will not be a more challenging situation in our entire process. This is also why it’s essential that your are forthright with behavior strategies that have helped your participant in the classroom or at home in the beginning of our process, so we can craft a strategy for success in our journey.
I encourage you to take that leap. To see that over a decade of experience and years of degrees and professional experience make up our staff and our process. That we are open to learning new strategies but the ability to take critique and make better choices is the true gift of our program. That if your child, and perhaps even you, can learn this skill it sets you up to live life more fully.
In the situations where we’ve had to part ways with an actor over choices that went against our standards, those actors, when they or their parents choose to let them return the following year, almost always enjoy greater success. That those who stick with it almost always find success on stage or in groups making them more employable, more readily able to thrive in group situations like, scouts, church, sports, classes, clubs, the workplace and finally, on stage
It will feel like a slight. It will feel like we are “giving up” on the participant. It’s actually the opposite. We see your young person in a different light than you do. It is the greatest strength and biggest challenge of the process. So when that time comes for that conversation during performance week, it’s not the absence of compassion and respect, but the action of building more compassion and respect in the participant.
Set aside some grace and patience with your participant, the staff, and yourself for this challenge. Prepare yourself to create a strategy with our team and be ready to move on that with dignity.