Wednesday, September 18, 2019

VOICES OF COURAGE ....The Journey Begins

Over forty Talon Theatre students are courageously diving in to the devising process for the fall production VOICES OF COURAGE.
The journey thus far has been creatively stimulating, thought provoking, and logistically challenging.  We began with a non-traditional “audition” process of collaborative exercises requiring students to develop short performance pieces based on images, news stories, and narratives.  For the first several rehearsals, the cast and design team were introduced to a variety of devised theatre and composing methods, styles, and processes equipping them with tools to create original material. The cast and crew have examined and discussed different types of courage and heard a presentation on courageous figures throughout history.
The whole ensemble was then divided into five individual ensembles lead by story weavers who are serving as the directors of the project.  The make-up of the ensembles was based on the topics, interests, skills and passions of the individual members.  Set, light, costume, prop, sound,  projection, makeup and hair designers have been assigned to each ensemble. 

The first production meeting produced some incredibly creative ideas.
Some of the logistical issues we will face include site -specific technical needs and how to implement the design concepts.

The five ensembles will be developing ten minute performance pieces in different styles dealing with specific topics related to the theme of courage.  These five pieces will be woven together into one dramatic, musical, and movement collage.
Some of the topics being explored include immigration, the environment,  body image, mental health, discrimination, and equality. 

The marketing and publicity team is developing the graphic design and logo for the piece and visual artists are creating a series of murals capturing the overall theme.
The commitment and energy of these students is inspiring!  There is something utterly thrilling about devising original theatre with students.  This truly is theatre on purpose!

Friday, August 16, 2019

Voices of Courage

The feeling is familiar. I can only describe it as a surge of energy pulsing through my veins accompanied by a quickening that can only be compared to expectancy. Equal doses of fear and anxiety - a mixture that is more exciting than scary.  On the precipice -  it is the beginning.  It is the unknown and it is certain - both.
Absolute. Driven. Determined. Important.
At this stage of my career in educational theatre, it is the only thing that matters to me.
Urgent. Necessary. It feels like the only thing I can do and must do because I can.
Theatre on Purpose.
For the next few months, I will be collaborating with students on devising an original piece of theatre focused on the theme of courage.  Why? Because I believe theatre can make a difference. I believe theatre can change the world. I believe theatre can inspire. I believe theatre is essential. I want my students to know that. I want them to have a voice. I want them to be empowered.
Our world needs to hear what they have to say.
They are coming of age in difficult times. I want them to know what it feels like to use their creative gifts and talents for positive change.  I want them to know what courage is, where it comes from and what it looks like. I want them to find their own personal courage.
We will look for examples of courage in our daily lives and throughout history.
Together, we will summon creative courage through collaboration and community to instill and inspire hope.
I will document our process and reflect on the experience of devising an original piece of theatre from beginning to end in weekly blog posts in the hope of inspiring other Theatre on Purpose practitioners.

Definitions of courage:
Merriam -Webster:  noun
mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear or difficulty

Oxford: noun
The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery

Original definition: The root of the word courage is cor - the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant "To speak one's mind by telling one's heart." 


Thursday, August 1, 2019

Hal Prince - An Appreciation

Last night the lights dimmed on Broadway. This morning, we should all be planning our next creative project. The legendary theatre director and producer, Hal Prince, famously went to work the next day after the opening of every show, flop or a hit, and began working on his next big idea.

 I'll admit that news of Hal Prince's  passing hit me harder than I would have expected. I never had the privilege of meeting the man. I can't say that I thought all that much about him on a daily basis. The fact that he was responsible for many of the Broadway musicals I grew up with, listened to, performed in and directed was not uppermost on my mind. But this morning, as I sat down to write this post,  I couldn't stop thinking about how Hal Prince impacted my creative life.  Fiddler on the Roof, Company, Follies, West Side Story, Evita, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the ForumPhantom of the Opera  - just a few of the astonishing musicals he helped create in the twentieth century - are the reason I love the theatre so much. Company and Follies were part of the sound track of my college theatre days. They imprinted on my creative brain. Each starkly different in style, they were something entirely different from anything I'd ever seen before

There is no describing the importance that Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story have played in my life. I've directed and performed in each of them twice. Both of these masterpieces rate among my favorite shows of all time.

I'm old enough to have seen Patty Lapone as Evita and I can still remember the utter thrill I felt as she belted out "Don't Cry for me Argentina." But the staging is what struck me the most about the show. It was the first musical I'd ever seen that incorporated film projection.  When the movie reel wound to a stop in the opening scene and the chorus of mourners began to process,  I was mesmerized.
 Phantom of the Opera ushered in the era of the visual and technical spectacle. For just one moment, remember the first time you experienced the chandelier falling. Hal Prince was a master of theatrical storytelling.

I am deeply grateful to have come of age in the twentieth century at a time when  musical theatre entered the modern age.

The legacy of Hal Prince has permeated my life in surprising ways.  But what I think I appreciate most about this artistic genius, is that he loved the craft so much that he never gave up. He just kept working. To me that is the epitome of the creative personality. Purpose-driven work is life-giving, energizing, passionate and essential.  I simply cannot imagine my life without the musicals Hal Prince produced. Period.

From everything I've read about Hal Prince, and I think I've devoured virtually everything written since news of his passing broke, he trusted his instincts and had confidence in his vision. There is a lesson in that.  Fearless, bold, larger than life, this legendary theatrical giant may have left this earth, but we will carry on inspired by and grateful for what he left us.

Now get back to work.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

On the Creative Process

 I'm guilty of having a lot of creative ideas. Sometimes the best ideas are the ones that terrify me the most. Lately, I've begun to examine this pattern.

It goes something like this:
One moment I'm sitting on the couch like a lump feeling purposeless, unmotivated and utterly worthless. The next moment an idea hits like a bolt of lightening. I feel a quickening in my gut. My mind begins to explode with thoughts. I see the potential. I connect the dots. Boom! I have a fully visualized concept!

 It's at this point that the surge of creative energy shifts and the anxiety sets in. I'm consumed with fear and doubt. What was I thinking?
I border on panic.
 It's at this juncture that I face a choice:
Curl up into a ball and pull the covers up over my head or take the first step toward making the vision a reality.

What am I afraid of? I reject the notion that I'm afraid of success. But maybe I am.
Or maybe I fear being consumed. Once I begin a project,  it's a deep dive. I cannot stop until I have mined the depths, explored every option and imagined the big picture.  Time ceases to have meaning. Hours go by without pause. Even when I get up from my computer to eat, my brain is still active. I absentmindedly fix myself a sandwich while the details swirl around in my head.  My desk or office begins to look like a bomb has gone off -  drawers open, files, papers, books, pictures, journals, notebooks are strewn around the floor. Piles with colored post-its identify next steps and to do lists.

If I allow myself to jump in, I know that I may not come back up for air for a very long time. That is the fear. It's all or nothin'.

They say "leap and the net will appear." Almost everything I've done has been aligned with this belief. There is a difference, however, between risk-taking and recklessness. When a creative risk is worth taking, I feel it in the core of my being. There is a palpable tension between the excitement and the fear.

The next step for me is to look for the right people with whom to share the vision. It's very important to be careful in this stage because the wrong person can kill the creative energy. I've learned to stay away from wet blankets!
The right collaborator is equally passionate about the project, understands the creative process and has skills and talents that I lack.
I have very high standards. But I do not allow my perfectionistic tendencies to paralyze me.  I also make mistakes because I move quickly.  I need someone who has my back and the courage to steer me in the right direction when I get off course.

I believe that every obstacle can be overcome. But it's not a straight road. Detours are inevitable. U-turns and changes in direction are part of the journey.  I do not lack patience with the meandering path. I embrace it.

I do lack patience when barriers are erected out of fear.  I believe that it's important to seize the day. When the opportunity knocks, open the door. The intensity of the creative fire begins to wane over time.  After the initial surge of inspiration, the nitty gritty work begins to realize the dream or vision.  I love both of these stages and thrive on the implementation of a project.
It's important to keep going even when you feel lost or out of control.  I always follow Rilke's words, "Live the questions."

I've come to understand my process and my behavior in each stage of a creative project. To quote Rilke again, "Everything is gestation and birthing."  The labor of giving birth to a creative vision takes time.  Determination, perseverance, tenacity, trust, and belief are all critical to success.

"A vision without a task is but a dream, a task without a vision is drudgery, a vision and a task is the hope of the world." From a church in Sussex, England, circa 1730

Friday, July 12, 2019

SPEAK UP! Takes Their Show on the Road

Paste the link below into your browser to read about how PROJECT SPEAK UP! is being implemented at Santa Margarita Catholic High School:

SMCHS offers an excellent model of how to implement a Mental Health Task Force in schools and organizations.

For information about implementing PROJECT SPEAK UP! in your school, contact

SPEAK UP! Save a Life!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Where Do You Begin? Take It From The T.O.P.

T.O.P. is a philosophy of educational theatre that is a content-driven, process-oriented approach that may do one or all of the following:

1. Use theatre arts as a means for ensemble participants to more deeply discover who they are through writing, developing, and performing original material around a particular theme.
2. Use theatre arts as a way to raise consciousness about societal issues for pre-determined audiences.
3. Use the gifts and talents of the ensemble participants in the creation and performance of the finished product. There is usually no outside casting of the finished material.
4. Use an organic, experimental approach to the development of the project.
How do you begin?

Know your purpose:  It's a process.  Know who you want to work with and what your goal is. (Teenagers? Older Adults? Children?) Remember Shakespeare said, "To Thine Own Self Be True." If you don't like working with kids then don't.  Stay with your passion. This is intense, intimate work that requires an investment of time, courage, energy, and risk. As a T.O.P. facilitator, you must have the commitment to the purpose and a passion for the work.

Know your audience:  It's a product. Know who you are creating the material for - specific population, demographic, community?

Students as Collaborators: This work is not directed by you.  This work is highly organic and requires letting go of control.  You may start with a theme but the process of developing the content is collaborative.  There is an art to facilitating the process and knowing what the boundaries are but let the students take the lead. 

Anchors: As the facilitator you are also part of the collaborative process. You may have a vision and there may be certain anchor points you want included in the finished product.  You may identify certain material, poetry, music, news stories, historic events or visual metaphors that will help shape the piece of theatre you are devising. This is not a free wheeling, completely unstructured process. Rather, there are seeds of inspiration that you plant within the ensemble. 

Theatrical Storytelling Styles:  Is the piece you are devising non-linear? Is it a collage? Will you employ a particular style? Genre? What will serve the purpose? Perhaps the piece is didactic in nature lending itself to a Brechtian approach.  Perhaps you are creating something that would best be expressed through physical movement.  Having students explore different genres, styles, practitioners and processes will ignite their imagination and invite creative exploration.

Time:  Give yourself the necessary time to experiment.  Eventually the piece needs to be solidified. However I always tell students, "You can't fake a process." If the process has integrity, the product will have integrity.

Controlled Chaos: Be comfortable with the messiness of the creative process. Remember you are starting from nothing. No script, no blocking, no roadmap. However, I recommend that the stage manager keep rehearsal reports so that there is a record of where you have left off and where you need to pick up at the next rehearsal.   

Intended Impact: Your compass is the desired impact you want to have on the audience. What do you want to be the take away from their experience? 

 Trust: Above all trust and keep going.  There will be setbacks. There will be doubts. There will be confusion.  There will be conflict. There will be breakthroughs. There will be discoveries. There will be exhilarating moments. There will be satisfaction. There will be fulfillment.

Reflect: Theatre on Purpose teaches a way of working that applies not only to theatre but to any creative endeavor.  I believe that one of the most important aspects of T.O.P. is what students learn about themselves.
At the end of the process, I always have students do a reflection on their own process of collaboration.  By holding a mirror up to themselves, they see how they work, how they deal with obstacles and how they communicate with others. 

There is comfort in coming to know one's self.  Theatre on Purpose provides a way for students to understand themselves, to recognize their gifts and contribution to the whole and to be confident in who they are. 
A Theatre on Purpose practitioner understands that the goal is not the product. It is the process. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Importance of the International Thespian Society

Often, students who are drawn to theatre are not involved in the main -stream high school programs, clubs, or sports teams.  It was for this reason that I chartered a Thespian troupe in my second year  building the Tri-School Theatre Program and years later reactivated a dormant troupe in my current position at Santa Margarita Catholic High School.  

When I began teaching,  I knew very little about the International Thespian Society.  The Thespian Honor Society formed the center of the program and created a focus.  By rewarding quality work with a point system, the Thespian Society gave me a structure by which to organize the program.  We established a group of officers and developed a constitution. The student officers were given the responsibility for communication, planning and executing social activities and philanthropic work and for tracking members’ the points.  The International Thespian Society elevated the program immediately because of its well -designed point and ranking system. Students achieve various levels of honors based on the number of hours of quality work. The fact that the International Thespian Society is recognized by colleges and universities as the only honor society for secondary school theatre students gave me a story to tell  students and  parents.  

Initiating new members in a dignified ceremony instilled pride in the work. By being a member of the International Thespian Society, students joined a multi-faceted organization with a long-standing traditions. We developed a potluck to celebrate and recognize the accomplishments of the students. This event quickly grew into a formal awards banquet in the spring. 
Parents love nothing more than to see their children recognized.  

For the T.O.P. practitioner, it is important to establish criteria that is in line with the educational theatre philosophy of the program.  Developing self-esteem in students is a priority.  I have seen students lives completely transformed by their involvement in the International Thespian Society.   It is the equivalent of an academic honor society for theatre arts. 


I believe taking students to one or two specific educational theatre festivals provides a growing experience on a number of levels.  A theatre community is like a family.  We come to know one another well and as a T.O.P. practitioner we see the potential in our students and strive to nurture their abilities. However perspective is a good thing.  If a student wants to pursue theatre in college or as a career, there is great value in providing opportunities to test themselves in a larger talent pool.  Some festivals provide adjudicated events for monologues, musical theatre, dance and duet scene work.  This kind of experience teaches students to:
1.    select appropriate audition material
2.    conform to time limitations and requirements
3.    understand how they perform under pressure
4.    benefit from written critique by other educational theatre professionals

The other great value in attending an educational theatre festival is that theatre students discover their “tribe.”    In a traditional high school setting, theatre students can feel like the proverbial “square peg in a round hole.”  In a festival setting, they meet other students who are creative, passionate, and like themselves.  There is no greater feeling than to belong and to be accepted for who you are. Theatre festivals create a safe environment where friendships, alliances, and support systems are formed. 
For programs with a Thespian Troupe, I recommend attending the state festival.  Usually this process is frenetic and overwhelming especially for newer teachers. I recommend not trying to do it all the first year. Take a small group and observe, ask questions, and get to understand the various opportunities. Once you have conquered your state thespian festival, I would suggest going to the International Thespian 
This is a much bigger undertaking because it requires travel and therefore, fund raising, chaperones and a week of your summer.  
Is it worth it? I would have to say yes. A week-long immersion for students to take workshops, see productions done by other high school programs and to compete in Individual Events based on their qualifying at the state festival is one of the best learning experiences a high school theatre student can have!