Building Student and Community Support and Appreciation of Theater
Several “Tricks of the Trade” that Have Worked for the Upper St. Clair High School Spring Musical in Pittsburgh, PA. Adaptation of my 1992 article published in PMEA News, the state journal of the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association.
GOALS OF THE BLOG: Food for Thought!
- Brainstorm “tried and true” techniques that build support for the school musical.
- Share shortcuts for adding pizzazz to your PR – better ways to market your show.
- Generate discussion and collaborate on ideas… everything from student recruitment to ticket sales.
INTRODUCTION: Let’s examine “WHO and WHY” before “HOW and WHAT”
Multiple-choice question (choose your best guess):
Primarily, for what group of people do you sponsor a musical production?
A) Music students already enrolled in the choral and instrumental classes (and if you have them, drama/dance courses), who are more qualified and deserve the musical as a “reward” for their hard work and loyalty to the Fine Arts program.
B) A small core of the most talented students from the music program, probably those who have studied voice, drama, instruments and/or movement privately outside the school, participated in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera (CLO) Mini Stars, CLO Academy, or other local professional-caliber performing arts school, amateur theater, dance studios, etc. – the “cream of the crop” – many of whom will continue in theater or music as a career, but will achieve a higher degree of professionalism in performance, and thereby help the musical gain prestige and respect – not a “typical high school show!”
C) The general student body of non-music majors, e.g. a “class play,” which may help to draw some of them into the music program in the future (recruitment), while placing no emphasis on it for the students currently enrolled in music classes since they already have public venues for their self-expression.
D) Members of the community (parents, past drama alumni, amateur performers) alongside the students to share their more advanced skills and provide a higher level of performance and “taste” of realism, while filling the more difficult parts on stage, in the pit, and backstage – in short, building a support base community members by direct participation
E) All of the above with some limitation in using adults as actors
PHILOSOPHY: Sharing a Few Ground Rules for Improving Your Productions
- Nonlinear problem solving – There are no “right” answers in this business, only ideas.
- “One size does not fit all!”
- No one uses “all of this” at one time.
- Focus on your needs and prioritize.
- Take slow “baby-steps” towards trying a few new things every year, and discard any that do not work!
- Maintain (and share) YOUR secrets.
Two approaches that drive Upper St. Clair musicals: “bigger is better” and “throw out the rule book!”
SUPER TIPS: Creativity, Marketing, and Professionalism
The following 52 ideas are submitted for your consideration (and adaptation), under the categories of:
- Encouragement of Larger Numbers of Student Participants (#1-11)
- Student Leadership and Enrichment Activities (#12-20)
- Involvement of the Parents and Community (#21-28)
- Professionalism and Quality Productions (#29-34)
- Real Promotion of the Show (#35-52)
- Select a show that allows for large numbers in the cast (e.g. Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof, etc.). Many schools select a maximum of 30-40 cast members, which can severely limit the size and scope of the production as well as the audience. In a few scenes, try to stage bigger groups (up to 100-150).
- Larger casts place greater demands on the staging director. Be creative in your blocking. Use the middle and side aisles, and build multi-level sets. (A two story set can support upwards of 150 singers for the “Iowa Stubborn” selection in Music Man! A second floor loft would be perfect for Oklahoma!)
- Bring the dramatic action on stage closer to the audience by constructing runways, pit ramps or other stage extensions. This also allows for staging a larger cast.
- A simpler solution to open up the space and add levels might be to construct a dozen large crates or benches. A low budget production could camouflage band risers.
- Adapt several of the song lyrics in the show for adding large choruses. (“Eloquence” from Hello Dolly, for example, can be expanded to have the entire cast enter and interact with the leads.)
- For even more color, choreograph these “encores” with a small ensemble of skilled dancers.
- Feel free to have the chorus sing several of the leads’ solo selections during the curtain calls.
- Be daring! Display your school’s (full size) marching band parading down the aisles for one scene in Music Man! Or use students in the 6th-8th Grade Chorus to sing “Food Glorious Food” in the opening scene of Oliver!
- Actively recruit students to try-out for the musical. Secure help from other school staff. For example, ask the football coach to mention the auditions to his players. Nothing will be more flashy (as well as hysterical) than a chorus line of football stars on the front thrust in Hello Dolly!
- Do not place limitations on student participation in the spring musical. Some school programs require the prerequisite of enrollment in choral or instrumental classes. The best recruitment of “outside” students to the Music Department may be their involvement and brief “taste” of a musical.
- Offer pre-audition rehearsals on the required music, and/or simplify the try-out procedure as much as possible as to not “scare away” less confident students. Since the musical is geared for the entire student body (some of whom do not sing or act on a regular basis), make the try-outs a positive experience for all! Give the students a choice of songs and/or readings, as well as specifics on how to take an audition.
- Adopt an active and expanded Student Staff. The goal of quality education is to encourage students towards self-realization. In other words, the show should be “student run” – although selected, taught, and guided by adults. For example, once the scene changes have been rehearsed, the Student Stage Manager should actually call the cues.
- Persuade students who plan to major in communications, TV/radio, or theatre to join the student staff. Also, “get the word out” to other students who are not singers or instrumentalists that you have openings for carpenters (set construction), artists (painting), writers (publicity), seamstresses (costumes), etc.
- Develop comprehensive job descriptions for each student leadership position: Student Director, Producer, Rehearsal Assistant, Stage Manager, Crew Head, etc. Assign an adult sponsor for overall supervision of each area.
- Hold weekly student staff meetings, with student department reports, idea brainstorming, problem solving, and discussions on group morale. Get the students actively involved in the day-to-day operations of publicity, ticket sales, production schedules, etc.
- At all practices, Rehearsal Assistants should be placed at every exit (stage left, stage right, pit left, pit right, etc.), and should maintain script cues and warnings in order to call the actors and direct placement of props and sets.
- Present a leadership or motivational workshop for the entire company or the student staff alone. Two to three hour sessions are available on time management, teamwork, communications, personal initiative and leadership. Excellent clinicians in this area include Bill Galvin, Michael Kumer, Tim Lautzenheiser, etc.
- Announce a weekly S.M.I.L.E. award (“students most interested in leading effectively”) or other special recognition to spotlight extra achievement of individuals in the musical company. Display the winners (photograph and biographical information) on a public bulletin board.
- Reward the student cast and crews by sponsoring an all-night (“lock-in”) company party at the school or local restaurant after the final performance. This could turn out to be real incentive for future participation in the shows – a dance, late-night banquet, awards ceremony, swim party, bowling tournament, or a combination of all of these activities. Parents also appreciate a well chaperoned final celebration, instead of (in some cases) totally unsupervised house-to-house parties sponsored by individual students.
- Provide other perks for students. Plan field-trips around the community. Advertise the show by singing several selections at a local Women’s Club meeting or Rotary Club breakfast. Take the leads to the local TV/radio talk show, providing an audience for that thirty second “plug” of your show on the airwaves. Or sponsor an in-school theater production clinic (e.g. a make-up application session, underwritten by a local cosmetic firm).
- Try to fill your adult staff positions with school staff: shop, art, and English teachers, etc. Who is more knowledgeable and supportive of the students? You can encourage the integration of drama subjects in their curricula: scenery painting (art), costume design (home economics), set construction (wood shop), publicity (journalism/English), etc.
- Establish a parent volunteer group—theatre angels—to support the students in working on the production crews (costumes, painting, set construction, etc.). Grant the Angels special privileges (early ticket pre-sale) and “Honorary Thespian” status.
- Have the Angels man your box office to offer the public regular and varied hours for ticket sales.
- Utilize parents to set-up and supervise study halls for those long staging rehearsals. Set aside one room for absolute quiet and a separate waiting area for group study and socialization.
- Because of the large cast size, post hall monitors (parents) to assist during the night performances of the show (first aid, distribution of props, overall supervision, etc.).
- Hold sign-ups for the Angels during Open House or work through local PTA.
- On Saturdays, sponsor staff “cover dish” luncheons to give everyone the chance to interact socially.
- Invite a popular school administrator, public official, local actor, or other celebrity to narrate or assist in the show (e.g. the voice in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).
- Set out to achieve the illusion of realism in the scenery. Utilize a large student and adult crew of carpenters and build substantial backdrops, wagons, and book pieces to support your larger cast.
- Rent professional set drawings from theatrical houses (e.g. New Wilmington, PA firm Sceno Graphics).
- Ask for help from local professional theater companies (hand-me-down sets, props, or just advice).
- Always seek professionalism from the students on the stage. Are all of the actors consistently in character? Adolescents have short attention spans, and as a large chorus, must be coached in displaying real enthusiasm, self-discipline, and accurate characterizations one hundred percent of the time! Nothing is worse than an inanimate or lackluster chorus, talking on or backstage, or other noises that detract from the dramatic action portrayed by the leads.
- Be imaginative with special effects! Melt a witch (Wizard of Oz) using a trap door and smoke effects. Exaggerate their sizes—a ten foot Fruma Sarah in Fiddler on the Roof can be created by putting your lightest girl on the shoulders of an athletic boy; use a ladder on wheels to present a 14 foot giant (Ghost of Xmas Present) in Scrooge—all hidden by the costume.
- Set a fast pace for the show. Avoid those periods of inertia, especially the Act II “doldrums!” Always execute smooth set changes and transitions. Never give the audience time to talk or lose their concentration.
- Use theater P.R. firms (e.g. Pioneer Drama Service) to buy official logos, posters, buttons and publicity packets.
- Design an official show t-shirt and button. Announce musical t-shirt days and give out random cash prizes to students who remember to wear their t-shirt and serve as a walking billboard!
- Sponsor a musical trivia contest. Create a crossword puzzle and publish it in the PTA newsletter.
- Type-set and distribute a special musical issue of the school newspaper (e.g. an “Anatevka Times” for Fiddler on the Roof) in order to devote space on the background of the play, local historical “splash-backs” in the time period of the musical, and a picture album of the cast and crews.
- Insert a theater flyer in the school district or PTA newsletter mailed home to residents. Print informative articles about the play (Hammerstein anecdotes for South Pacific or Oklahoma, etc.)
- Sponsor an elementary school art contest (e.g. draw your Little Orphan Annie).
- Develop a partnership with your local merchants. Print pizza box advertisements, restaurant place mats, etc. Place messages on mall marquees, store magnetic signs, and in employee newsletters. In exchange for local business help in promoting your show, sponsor a special “employee discount” on tickets.
- Make clever P.A. announcements using the leads and adaptations of the script.
- Plan a pre-sale ticket lottery to determine the order students in the cast and crews can go to the box office to purchase their reserve seat admissions. This generates excitement and actually helps to sell additional tickets!
- Sponsor a school staff appreciation breakfast (donuts and coffee) thanking everyone for their support of the musical. At the breakfast, pass out ticket vouchers (two complimentary tickets) to the teachers.
- Help formulate creative school cafeteria menus using musical themes (e.g. “Wicked Witch” stew, “Jiggerbug Juice,” and “Toto’s Favorite Burgers”).
- Schedule an in-school theatre education assembly for younger students. Give a short synopsis of the musical and demonstrate several scene changes, technical effects and lighting, application of character make-up, and several dances or songs from the current show (make sure you retain the rights to do a segment of the musical!).
- After the final dress rehearsal, sponsor a picture taking session for the parents. Actors can pose in costume and in front of the finished sets. The taking of photographs or audio/visual recording during the show is illegal!
- Construct an attractive hall display of cast and crew photographs, “Music In Our Schools Month” materials, etc. Always include a photographic history of the evolution of sets in construction, and the student names in the company.
- Designate one performance as children’s night. Offer it one hour earlier (on a school night), and provide a special discount for children ages 12 and under, as well as backstage tours of the scenery, spotlights, soundboard, costume room, autographs from the leads, etc.
- Dedicate each performance of the show to a special adult contributor to the school music and theatre program. Invite the honored guest to the pre-show cast meeting, and send him/her several free tickets. Announce the dedication on the P.A. before the Overture, and post it on the hall display in the auditorium lobby.
- Find a P.R. “hook” – something that might interest the media – such as sponsoring Annie “dog auditions” or twins casted in dual roles. Send a new press release to the media every two weeks.
- Print the musical performance dates on the computerized student report cards and school district payroll checks. Use inter-office mail to send personal invitations to all of the teachers. Be sure to list the names of the cast – teachers will be interested in coming up to see their former students.
SUMMARY: Concepts to Consider—BUILD is the Operative Word!
- Involvement of greater numbers of students and parents will build audiences and community support.
- Presentation of a quality production with student leadership and supplemental activities will build student enthusiasm and appreciation of the inherent “value” of theatre in school.
- Finding the confidence to take risks and build on your own creativity—go ahead and adapt the score, script, set designs and staging to utilize your schools’ resources.
- The allocation of ample time to publicity and promotional activities will build community awareness, attendance and EXCITEMENT in support of the show!
SAMPLE RESOURCES: Companies, Books, Sites
- Dramatic Publishing: http://www.dramaticpublishing.com
- Dramatist Play Service: http://www.dramatists.com
- Music Theater International: http://www.mtishows.com
- Pioneer Drama Service: http://www.pioneerdrama.com/default.asp
- Rodgers and Hammerstein Library: http://www.rnh.com
- Samuel French: http://www.samuelfrench.com
- Sceno Graphics: http://scenographics.com/
- Tams-Witmark Music Library: https://www.concordtheatricals.com/
- Broadway Musical Home: http://broadwaymusicalhome.com
- Guide to Broadway Musical Theatre by Tom Tumbusch
Richard Rosen Press, Inc., New York, NY 10010
- A Practical Handbook for Musical Theatre by Larry Mitchell
Copyright 1984 by Larry Mitchell (now in its fourth edition)
- Let’s Put on a Musical – How to Choose the Right Show by Peter Filichia (Amazon)
- The Cyber Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, TV and Film by John Kenrick: http://www.musicals101.com/
- Producing Musicals – A Practical Guide by John Gardyne (Amazon)
- Technical Theater for Nontechnical People by Drew Campbell (Amazon)
- High School Theater Ideas http://www.ehow.com/how_2335679_teach-high-school-theater.html
- How to Build Sets for Plays http://www.ehow.com/how_2139989_build-sets-plays.html
- Publicity for HS Theater: https://www.musicals101.com/puton10.htm
- Promoting Your School Play on a Shoestring Budget: https://theatrenerds.com/how-to-promote-your-show-on-shoestring-budget/
- Costumes and Make-up (HS Musicals) by Doretta Lau (Amazon)
- The Drama Teacher’s Survival Guide by Margaret Johnson (Amazon)
- Let’s Put on a Show: Theatre Production for Novices by Stewart Lane (Amazon)
© 2015 and 2020 Paul K. Fox