We have professional standards for our Shakes kids. After all, we can’t have a professional-quality show if our kids are acting like amateurs.
Here’s how we get our professional results:
1) Expect professional results. This seems simple, but a lot of adults lower their expectations just because kids are kids. That doesn’t fly with us. We expect results, so we get them. Kids will rise to your expectations if you give them the chance and the tools to do so. Here are some things our kids do simply because it’s expected: Wear their costumes without complaining (unless something hurts). Use their rehearsal props. Hang up their costumes when they’re finished. Don’t touch other people’s props. Help set up/put away the rehearsal set. Look at their line notes and then look over their line notes. Follow the director’s direction onstage and the stage manager’s direction offstage. Respect the facility (both the rehearsal and performance spaces), respect the authority, respect each other, and respect themselves (the four rules of all Urban Impact programs).
2) Use rewards more than punishments. We use food rewards a lot. I don’t necessarily agree with using food rewards for everything (see above- they get no rewards for those things except a hearty “Well done! Thank you!”) but they sure are helpful for big milestones, like line memorization and a habit of being on time. Example One: We expect lines to be memorized weeks before the show, and we hold them to it. We usually offer ice cream to the kids who are off-book on time. On their off-book date, we test them when they’re not rehearsing. If they have their lines memorized enough to drop the script, we take them out for ice cream. We’ve also had a big, half-hour-long sundae party when the whole cast was off-book once. If they’re not memorized, they get to see their friends have ice cream. Example two: We want to teach our kids to be on time. If a kid is on time for every rehearsal for a week, we order take-out for their last meal of the week. Sometimes it’s subs, sometimes calzones, sometimes deli sandwiches, sometimes pizza… Everybody gets lunch, but only kids who are on time every day get Special Lunch. Everyone else gets regular, boring ol’ cafeteria-style lunch. As for punishments… the worst I can think of is hiding their shoes and/or costume if they forget to put it away. Oh! And we charge them five dollars for a new script if they lose theirs.
3) Show yourselves to be trustworthy. Kids will not give you their best work unless they trust you. That means listening to their ideas, fears, and insecurities, and taking them under consideration. On every audition form, we ask questions about comfort level when it comes to kissing, killing, singing, playing instruments- We don’t want to make kids do something that makes them really uncomfortable. We also as for their input when it comes to blocking, choreography, and music. We don’t laugh at them. We don’t make fun of them. We don’t let anybody else laugh at them or make fun of them. We workshop major scenes, taking their ideas into consideration, instead of giving them prescribed blocking. We only make promises we can keep. We are open and honest when things are going well and when they’re not going well (like when our venue backed out on us three weeks before the show). We show up. Every day. We go to their school plays. We answer the phone when they call.
4) Cast a vision and make the kids part of it. Kids will not know professional theatre if they’ve never seen it before. Take them to see it. Tell them, “We’re going to be like that.” Show them movies. Tell them, “We’re going to act like that.” Play them music and say, “We’re going to sound like that.” Show them pictures and say, “You’re going to look like that.” Put their faces on the poster. They’ll want to show everybody. They’ll want to put the poster up. They’ll feel famous. If they see all those things and believe you (because you’re trustworthy, remember?), then they will work hard to achieve what you told them.
5) Provide professional-quality trimmings. I know this is the hardest one for most people reading this, but keep an ear to the ground and make some good connections with your local colleges. Our posters get a lot of attention because we use professional photographers and a real graphic designer. We have a professional set designer and lighting designer. Our props master (mistress) is detailed beyond belief. Our director is innovative and creative. We (meaning me) use fashionable friends to help with costume design. And, by the grace of God and through the generosity of volunteers, it’s all within budget. Like I said, this is the one area where we can’t give you a cut-and-dry “how-to” because our professionals are all blessings we could have never gotten on our own. But here’s the thing: If you have the other four things, this last one is less important. Our Romeo and Juliet had very little professional anything, and it was still impressive because we followed the first four guidelines.
Which of these suggestions can you follow today? Right now? What are your expectations for your students? What kind of rewards can you use? How can you instill trust? What vision will you cast? And how can you start putting feelers out for those hidden professionals?
Leave your answers in the comments!