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Unsolicited Advice

So, You Want to Coach Drama?

  A few weeks ago, I wrote a short guide to people who were interested in becoming a Teaching Assistant. As I am also a big proponent of this whole unsolicited advice thing, I thought I could continue this ongoing occupational guidance malarkey with another job that I’ve had in the past. Tune in next time for “Unsolicited Advice: So You Want to Be a Corporate Barista (Or: Drinking Yourself to Sleep Without Breaking the Bank).”

  For the early part of the 2000's, I worked writing and directing plays at a high school. Now, I’m hardly an expert in these matters, but I would imagine that most experts on this subject are embittered drunks counting down the days to death or retirement, whichever comes first. I am, however, capable of learning from my mistakes and failing to impress this information onto others, so there’s that.

  So, you are bright eyed and bushy-tailed on your way to a job interview as a new-fangled high school drama coach. You have a list of qualifications a mile long, love theater, and have an eye for technical detail. But before you unfold your stupid “director’s chair” that everyone seems to want to buy you, just remember...

Everyone Can Do Your Job Better than You (Provided You Aren’t in the Room)

  Now, you might be thinking that this is the “everyone’s a critic” clause. And to a certain extent, you’re right: you will be surprised the number of people who come of the woodwork to tell you about their time in the arts, how their high school did it, or a million other things that you are failing at. And believe it or not, these people are actually pretty alright – they are critics and, however tactlessly, are voicing ways that they feel you can improve. There’s nothing wrong with it.

  But there is something about human nature that makes a lot of people both non-confrontational and whiny at the same time. And this ranges from students who think you’re an asshole to parents who think you’re an asshole to staff who know you’re an asshole who is also the antichrist. These people will never confront you directly, but will still complain loudly to whomever else is willing to listen – like the kids in your club. Yup, they are essentially a drunken divorcee venting to their children in the hopes that it will get back to the other parent, who will then shake their fist in impotent rage.

  That kind of brings me to my next point.

There Is a Silly Amount of Politics Involved

  Even if you are just an under-paid coach, you are at the bottom of a – frankly ridiculous – Machiavellian web of power and deceit. The band teacher hates the school psychologist, who hates the receptionist, who purposely loses the mail of the history department, who is locked in a land war with the Asian studies program, who has been receiving aid from the English department in a way that the history teachers can’t prove yet but they sent in their spies a month ago to dig up some dirt. As petty as it all seems from a distance, it’s just the nature of humanity – you can’t cram a bunch of people together under one roof and expect harmony.

  Anyway, since you had the temerity to be anywhere near said web, no matter how low you keep your head you will almost certainly be dragged into it. This will manifest in really obnoxious ways – the examples of complaining to students above – to subtle ways. Probably the most common is the English department’s occasional insistence on doing a Shakespearean play, completely ignorant to the concept of props, costuming, talent, or number of actors. And if you acquiesce to their request, well then the history teachers would really appreciate it if you put on The Crucible, so it can do double duty in teaching kids about McCarthyism and the Salem Witch Trials. And then the math teachers will complain about how nobody does a play about Pythagoras and you’ve just made a mortal enemy of the entire department, most of whom are also athletic coaches who will demand their team take a blood oath of fealty so as to leave you without actors.

  Long story short, you can’t win a game that you hardly even knew you were playing in the first place. But, hey, at the end of the day, you have semi-total control over your domain, right? And you and your students have a mutual love of the arts to keep you going! That’s gotta be worth something!

  Yeah, about that...

You Can’t Make Everyone Happy

  Think of performing a play like a sport: you want your best people front and center with a reliable string of support players reinforcing them. And then you want the best and brightest for your tech crew, because you’re going to need people to hit lighting and sound cues as well as ensure that everything is set up appropriately on stage. If you think that’s of limited importance, then you’ve never staged a murder mystery where someone had to fall down in the same spot reliably without braining him- or herself on a table.

  The point is that during a championship game, a football coach is not going to send out an armless quarterback or a wide receiver who can only catch the ball if three chickens had been sacrificed to Ba’al at the last full moon and the cheerleaders chanted in Latin. So why the hell would a person in charge of running a play give a major role to someone without talent?

  Theater in high school is one of those weird things where you end up taking in everybody that doesn’t light the furniture on fire. And, indeed, you’ll sometimes take them too. But just because you take people in doesn’t mean they have the talent to give a soliloquy without sounding like a robot. Or they audition for a role as a big tough bruiser and have the body of an elderly concert pianist with a case of diphtheria.

  Because your position requires a certain amount of tact, you can not actually say why they didn’t get a part they wanted, especially because the reason has to do with an inherent inability to act. I don’t necessarily think that acting is something that can come from nothing – either you have it or you don’t. Sure, you can hone it, but if you can only convey the emotional range of a baked potato, that isn’t going to change no matter how many times you play Freeze or What Are You Doing.

  Getting back on track, this forced silence on your part is horribly debilitating – teenagers will take this personally. Not because teenagers are stupid or vain but because they don’t have enough experience to think any other way. In a nutshell, your decisions will never be viewed as anything so benign as you don’t want them to embarrass themselves or are wary about their capabilities – it will be because you hate them personally/resent their wellspring of talent/have had your brain replaced with Styrofoam.

  And then, the corollary...

You Will Play Favorites (But Not in the Way You’ll Be Accused Of)

  One of the things that crops up once you’ve been going through a few semesters is that you will have a core group of dedicated students who learn their lines, emote, don’t start shit, and are generally good human beings. You will go back to this group time and time again because they aren’t awful. Invariably, however, someone whose mother assured them that they were going to be the next Johnny Depp will tell them that no, you are simply handing roles out to people who don’t deserve them. And once this floats around, you have to get up on stage to tell your students that no, you don’t play favorites and everyone is a precious little star sent from on high.

  And then you will go to hell for lying.

  I’m not saying that you should give people preferential treatment. Oh, goodness no. Everyone should be treated the same way – rewarded for good behavior and punished for bad in an even-handed manner, regardless of their role in the production. But just like you don’t trust Joey the Pyromaniac with the Dead Sea Scrolls, you probably aren’t going to put a lot of stock in people who miss cues, threaten the lives of the other cast and crew, or just in general behavior like maladjusted sociopaths. Once again, think of the football coach – they aren’t going to risk a game to ensure that everyone on the field gets an equal amount of time with the ball, so why should you?

  As a side note, there was one semester where I had a couple of such students form the “We Hate Jonathan Bruce Club” after I finished casting the play. Or maybe it was the “Let’s Kill Jonathan Bruce Club” – reports varied. Although I am still intensely amused by this – I had my very own, totally inept and unimaginative Legion of Doom! – how am I not supposed to take that into account? It just goes to show that your choices have consequences.

  Hey, speaking of which...

You Will Make Terrible Decisions

  Every semester, you will probably end up taking a risk on something or someone. Maybe you’ll have a special effect that ends up looking like crap. Or maybe you’ll give the underdog a chance only to discover that said underdog is mangy and on fire for a reason. Or perhaps you’ll put too much stock in another person’s opinion and end up sacrificing personal integrity and decency to get them to shut the hell up.

  The point is that these, fundamentally, are all your decisions and yours alone. If you are in charge, every person you bring into the fold, every bad idea you put stock in, every person you don’t give a chance because someone else told you not to is yours to keep. And, if you’re a decent person and you actually care, this can be haunting. Some you can just wave away as learning experiences – “Welp, not gonna cast that douchebag again.” – while others will stick with you, reminding you that you have the capacity to be truly awful.

  And all you can do is try to not let it happen again.

  If you don’t care, well, that’s something else I’ll get into later. You’ll just ruin people’s experiences and continue on like some oblivious fun-butchering fairy. For example, one charming adult from my past, upon first meeting me my freshman year, proclaimed that I was going to be a violent mass murderer because I watched The Simpsons growing up. This person also loudly voiced their hatred of working with male students because they were unreliable and stupid. From my own experience, I can say that this person was wrong on both counts – I am not a serial killer and both genders have precisely the same capacity to be terrible, terrible people. But the point is that even if you think you are above being monumentally stupid, you aren’t.

  Hey, don’t look like that! You can sometimes blame the students for things like missing cues, forgetting lines, and stealing your car! But before you do, you would be wise to consider this...

Their World Does Not Begin, Nor Does it End, with You

  In a lot of places, high schoolers get up fairly early, get to campus, and then proceed to essentially go to work for seven hours a day. And for each hour, there is additional work that they need to bring home with them. And that’s on top of long-term assignments, guidance counselors pressuring them to go to colleges they may not really want to go to, parents who expect the world (or, worse, absolutely nothing), teachers telling them to join all these activities, and external commitments like part-time jobs and warthog lassoing. Plus, they apparently need to eat and sleep at some point.

  The point is that there are a lot of expectations on teenagers that adults tend to forget because they have a whole slew of other things to worry about. A homeowner might have a mortgage, but they don’t need to get an A on the next chemistry exam to maintain a B average so they can continue on the swim team in the hopes of acquiring a scholarship to a college that their parents seem absolutely insistent on sending their crotch-spawn to. I’m not saying one is more important to the other, I’m saying that some perspective is necessary before you start yelling about flubbed lines.

  At the same time, you need to recognize the signs of someone having too much on their plate. There were numerous times in my tenure that I should have realized someone was pushing themselves too hard and drama wasn’t helping. Instead, all I did was get frustrated with what appeared to be a lack of commitment. They, in turn got, frustrated by everyone else’s expectations and their parental-enforced inability to slow down. And as we all know, nothing says ‘love’ quite like giving your child a nervous breakdown at seventeen.

  This suddenly seems like a lot of pressure. But you know something?

If You Care, They Care

  I’ve encountered people who had long since stopped giving a shit about their job. And it’s especially apparent when the job they have is one they didn’t care for to begin with and the biggest factors in their hiring were “alive” and “no one else wants to do it.” These are the most irritating of human beings, because they tend to be the ones that you remember and paint your perception of events. We’ve all worked for bosses like this, and when there’s little (if any) oversight for their position, all you can do is roll with the punches.

  More often than not, these people are like clockwork – phone in their duties until the last possible moment, unleash a torrent of anger when things aren’t magically perfect, then resume their apathy as their underlings panic and do all the actual work themselves. The point is that these unemotional overlords set the tone for the rest of the project – and if they don’t give a rat’s ass about the play, why should any of their students?

  I always prided myself on doing everything I asked my students to do. If they were going to do a fight scene, I did it, too. If they were having trouble with lines, I would work through it as an example. I did occasionally sit in the audience and shout direction, but you could usually find me standing at the foot of the stage, if not on it. If you are willing to go the extra mile, they will see it and appreciate it because you clearly appreciate them.

  And, hey...

It Will Be Worth it  

  For all the crap that can go wrong and the things that can make you dread it, there’s nothing that beats watching something that you help create come to fruition. Somehow, when everything comes together, even the students who called for your blood seem to be wonderful little gems set against a wonderful... thing... that gems are on. If you care, then building toward some big finale with a team that also wants to do well is an achievement that you can take with you forever.

  Or until the funding is cut. One of the two.

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.

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