Creating a successful long-term school theater program

By Spencer Lau

“How do I make my theater program a long-term successful one?”

In my travels doing workshops, presentations, and other professional activities related to theater in schools, this is a question I get from seasoned veterans, brand new teachers and teacher’s aides, and parent volunteers—anyone being handed a program to run.

There is no one right answer. You have to find your own path and what works for your school, your students, your administration and your community. But I have found these four considerations to be the pillars of success in a school theater program:

1.   Choosing a show and the direction of your program.

2.   Developing cross-curricular activities.

3.   Garnering administrative, internal and external interest, and community support.

4.   Securing and building funds.

I Hope I Get It—choosing a show

Spring 2019 Frozen Jr Performance

How you choose a show will set the tone each year. There are a lot of great companies to work with: Music Theatre International (MTI), The Musical Company (R&H Theatricals, Tams-Witmark and Samuel French), Theatrical Rights Worldwide (TRW), and Broadway Licensing are the big licensing companies. Three independent companies that are wonderful to work with are Theatre Folk, Beat by Beat Press and Bad Wolf Press (core curriculum based). Lots of other musical and play-based companies are out there also.  If you are using your budget to pay for licensing, you need to work with a company with a New Jersey Business Registration Certificate and a W-9.

To avoid problems, have answers to the questions below.

How will my administration react to this show?

If you bring your administration in from the beginning, you run fewer risks of issues later. There are shows for every level. You may need to do a brief presentation for administrators so that they understand your show and your vision. For example, “Legally Blonde Jr.” differs greatly from the popular Broadway show with a similar name. But if, before you explain that, your superintendent goes on YouTube and sees clips from “Legally Blonde,” you are going to get called down to their office.

Do I have the kids to do this show successfully?

We all want to believe we can take students of any age and turn our show into a Broadway-quality production, but let’s be honest with ourselves: don’t force your program. If you’re just starting out, choose an easier show and work your way up.

Check out the “Getting to Know” series from Rodgers & Hammerstein, MTI’s KIDS or Broadway Junior series, or TRW’s Young@Part and Younger@Part shows.

Choose shows based on the actors you have. If you have only two boys, don’t pick a show that is built for a dozen. If you want to plan for such a show in the future, start in lower grade levels with activities that will gain student interest in acting. But do not do shows like “A Chorus Line” unless you have the right personnel. If you choose to stage “Hairspray,” make sure you have a sufficient number students of color to fill your cast.

Licensing company representatives want to help schools extend the reach of the arts, so explain your circumstances in detail.

What will bring in an audience?

Look around your community and make sure you aren’t the fourth production of “Heathers” in your region. Some licensing websites tell you which of their titles are playing in your area. Knowing what your community enjoys helps establish your audience.

Once you have done that, then step out and expand your audience’s viewing tastes. There are some great shows with mature content, but if you are just starting a program or are in an area where “Ragtime” or “Fun Home” would be controversial, start with something simpler and develop trust and a following, then work your way up. If you are too ambitious early on, it could hurt your program in the long term. Properly prepare your students, their families and your community for the show too so they are not blindsided by your content. This may mean talkbacks, disclaimers, and prep show announcements.

Do I have a budget that can afford this show?

Most importantly, pay for the show licensing and royalties. You also don’t want to be the school that is sued or fined by a licensing company. That would devastate your program and your personal reputation and embarrass you and your school district. Production rights and licensing for schools are provided at a discount. Licensing company representatives want to help schools extend the reach of the arts, so explain your circumstances in detail.

I spoke to Jason Cocovinis from MTI and our discussion focused on reading and respecting the show as it is. Not all contracts are the same so read each of them and understand that changing or doing a show without licensing is plagiarism. Each of the licensing companies spend countless hours working with the authors, lawyers, companies like iTheatrics and others to make sure the shows that are made for schools respect and honor the intent of the composers and authors.

I also spoke to Jim Hoare of TRW. He wanted me to impress upon teachers to “contact us and let us know what your situation is. While sometimes the answer is ‘no’ on certain things, there are many things that we could make work for your production.”

Carefully consider how much you can afford for sets construction and costumes. Establish what you can and can’t do in fundraising, create a parents’ club, and keep administration in the loop.

Putting It Together—cross-curricular activities

Wynn Murray playing Sebastian 2015 Junior Theatre Festival Performance

Stephen Sondheim’s famously brilliant song has the lyrics “Bit by bit, putting it together…piece by piece, only way to make a work of art. Every moment makes a contribution, every little detail plays a part. Having just the vision’s no solution, everything depends on execution, putting it together, that’s what counts.”

Sondheim is a tremendous advocate for not only music education but education in general. He is regularly quoted for making connections between music and musical theater with all subject areas. In fact, The Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teachers Award, which is underwritten by Freddie and Myrna Gershon, awards teachers in any subject $10,000. (Visit education.kennedy-center.org/education/sondheim.)

Music connects to all subjects, and some licensing companies provide cross-curricular activities. Try to use them in your class or see if you can collaborate with colleagues to integrate some of those lessons into their classrooms. Here are just a few ideas on what you can do with some of the subjects.

Math

    Reading, singing, playing music is all based on math patterns, recognizing the symbols.

    Physical activities can involve geometry (degrees, angles, etc.)

    Blocking and set design could involve plotting, integers.

    Costume design can help with measurement in multiple forms.

    Scale modeling a stage and set design (cm=feet).

Science

    Lessons on vocal or instrumental production.

    Biology lessons on the physiology of the voice.

    Lighting and sound design are great lessons on color spectrum and decibels and frequency.

    Stage safety, set design, as well as weights (hanging curtains, fly systems).

English/language arts

    Reading fluency, vocabulary.

    Writing forms (poetry, persuasive writing, and creative writing).

    Literary analysis, form analysis, writing prompts.

    Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop.

Social studies

    A historical time period and its effect on the writing and characters.

    Contrasting time period and social norms with the present time.

    Musicals reflecting social progress and issues of its time.

    Analysis of sociology and psychology.

Specials subjects

    World languages: accents, historical perspectives.

    Physical education: dance, stage combat.

    Art: set, costume, makeup design, show cover design.

    Technology: social media projection background/scenery, cover graphic arts.

Involve colleagues by asking them for input on your lessons. Offering your fellow educators another way to relate to their students in a real-world, relatable context can contribute to your teacher evaluation domain scores. You’ll also draw in school staff who might not normally be involved in your program.

Now Is the Time to Seize the Day—garnering support

You have the kids, you have the staff, now it’s a matter of getting funding and developing support. I’m fortunate to teach in a school district that provides us every opportunity to expose our students to all forms of the arts. But it wasn’t always like that. It took a few years of building, bumps, and trial and error. Here are just some ways to develop your budget and gain broad support.

Brandi Hatcher playing “Ursula” from
The Little Mermaid Jr.

Be a team player

Put together a team that you trust—assistant director, musical director, set designer and every other role. They should have an equal say but understand that, as director, you have the final say. This team will help when you have to make casting and other major decisions, because they can analyze each situation with you. The most successful production teams have people who have different skill sets that all contribute to the whole in different ways. Make sure to keep your production team informed and discuss your thoughts openly and honestly with them.

Involve your program in your school community celebrations, such as Martin Luther King’s birthday, Read Across NJ, or Arbor Day, by performing appropriate Broadway songs or songs from your current show.

Treat your theater program like a sport. Hold your students to the same standards, be actively involved and mentor them, but make your schedule flexible. How often do you hear a student can’t make it to rehearsal because of conflicts? While I don’t encourage you to compromise your program, give a student the opportunity to show that they are committed and want to be a part of your program.

Get your colleagues, school support staff, supervisors, and administrators involved. While not all staff members would be willing to be directly involved in your show (or guest appear in one) you can always ask them to draw the raffles or do the announcements before the show. Invite them to your show and take the time to acknowledge them to your audiences.

Start a parent booster group that can help organize activities and take things off your hands. If it’s possible try to get it nonprofit status through your school district, PTO, or other school-related entity; that will open some fundraising doors for you. It is a key for your sanity and ability to run your group by having some reliable parents helping you with logistics for running fundraisers, chaperoning the backstage area, and corresponding with the community. You should be involved and consulted, but not doing everything. You should also have the final say because whatever your parents do, you will ultimately be responsible for it. Having parents who buy into the program and are invested will help you and develop your program quickly.

Treat your theater program like a sport. Hold your students to the same standards, be actively involved and mentor them, but make your
schedule flexible.

Be a presence in the community

Perform at anything your schedule allows. For Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Community Day, Opening Day for sports, whatever it is, get out there. It’s about the exposure and good will you build with your community just as much as what you do within your school.

Make community projects your mission for your program. If you do a holiday show, collect canned food for a discounted ticket or hold a coat drive for a winter show. Maybe there is a charity within the school that you could contribute to.

If you have a district newsletter or a local newspaper, make sure you publicize the wonderful things you are doing or what your program is offering the community.

Go beyond your community to perform in your region. Whether you compete in Music in the Parks, The New Jersey Theater Celebration, Teen Arts, NJ Thespians or Junior Thespians, make sure people know what you are involved with and any accolades for which your program or students are being recognized.

External/community group interest

The more active you are, the more the community will get to know you and support you. This is necessary if you plan on tackling a show that could have some controversy or perceived controversy in it. Make sure you take the time to talk to your administration, and then don’t be afraid to talk to community leaders. The town council, religious or business leaders all make up groups that could affect your school district and your show.

Develop contacts with your local sports clubs and social and religious organizations. When you are creating a schedule for your shows, it would be good for you to know their schedules as well as your own. While conflicts are inevitable, it’s also good to know when major events are happening. If you are doing your dress rehearsal on the same day as a soccer team’s opening game or on the same day that the local Catholic parish is celebrating the sacrament of confirmation, you may lose a significant portion of your cast.

I Wanna be a Producer—funding

Kevin Plummer and London Jones playing “Eric” and “Ariel”
from The Little Mermaid Jr.

Increasing expenses and reduced funding have caused many school districts to reduce or eliminate support for extracurricular activities, including school musicals. Sit down with your supervisor or administrator and explore making your theater program part of the school day as a class—but first check with your local association president for any contractual issues.

Parents and supporters can organize and execute fundraisers without your need to be hands-on. Some of my best fundraisers have come from the parents’ club, such as sponsoring a dance, hosting princess teas, and holding movie nights.

Seek out corporate and community sponsorships. Selling ads in your Playbills/programs are generally low-cost fundraisers. Write a letter that you can send out asking for sponsorship or donations but make sure you plug your program’s accolades and your program’s mission. Personalize the letters—even if it’s a brief note written on a form letter—so that people know you are looking to make connections. Offer things to potential sponsors, whether it’s social media acknowledgements or finding ways of recognizing them at your show.

Seek out educational grants. Farmers Insurance, for example, has a Thank America’s Teachers program. There are also many grants for Title I schools or after-school programs. Keep in mind that for other grants you may need a nonprofit status, so be sure to find out what you or your school qualify for. Some district or county education associations may have funds through NJEA Pride in Public Education or other grants mandated in their charters. Depending on your show’s theme, you may also be able to find funding through anti-bullying or community outreach programs.

Save money for costlier shows later by staging more economical shows now. Choose popular shows and a ticket price that you know people will be able to afford and minimize your need for costumes and set pieces. If you first do a couple of popular less expensive titles like “High School Musical,” “We Will Rock You,” or “Rock of Ages,” you can save funds so that later on you could stage “My Fair Lady,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Misérables,” or other shows at that production level.

Even on Broadway itself, with the costs of mounting a show reaching in the millions of dollars, you see a lot of “stripped down” productions. Two wonderful examples happened in the same theater. At New York’s Circle in the Square, a revival of “Once on This Island” and the current revival of “Oklahoma” feature new takes on the shows but at nowhere near their former production costs.

We all do this because we are passionate about theater and because our students can find their voices in theater. Have a great school year, see some great theater and continue to change the lives of your students.

Spencer Lau serves as the director of music for Woodruff Middle School. His program has piloted “Elf Jr.” for MTI, the new adaptation of “Aladdin Jr.” for Disney Theatrical Group, first performances of “Lion King Jr.” and “Frozen Jr.” and “Imaginary Young@Part” for Theatrical Rights Worldwide. Members of his program have worked with iTheatrics, performed at Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall, Broadway events, Off Broadway shows, multiple TV shows, and national print and commercial ads. Lau is a proud 2013 Freddie Gershon Fellowship Award winner, workshop presenter for EdTA, guest columnist and arts advocate for multiple outlets. He can be reached at laus@udts.org.

You Can’t Stop the Beat!

Programs and organizations

• iTheatrics (offers three-day summer teaching programs): itheatrics.com

• Broadway Teaching Group: broadwayteachinggroup.com

• Educational Theatre Association (EdTA): schooltheatre.org

• Speech and Theatre Association of NJ: stanj.org

• NJ Thespians/Junior Thespians: schooltheatre.org

• Theatrefolk: Theatrefolk.com

Supplemental texts

• The iTheatrics Method: The Quintessential Guide to Creating Quality Musical Theater Programs, by Timothy Allen McDonald, Cynthia A. Ripley and Marty Johnson.

• Acting the Song: Performance Skills for Musical Theatre, by Tracey Moore and Allison Bergman

• Backstage Guide to Stage Management: Traditional and New Methods for Running a Show from First Rehearsal to Last Performance, by Thomas A. Kelly

• Article: “Do’s and Don’ts of Licensing,” mtishows.com/dos-and-donts-of-licensing

 

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