It’ll be alright on the night

February 2012


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ALAN HITCHCOCK looks at the highs and lows of putting on a school play.

Many years ago my wife asked me for an opinion on three school plays she was considering as possibilities for the impending intermediate school production. This bi-annual task was part of her role as music teacher at Matamata Intermediate. After a read-through of the three plays I grandly announced that I could write something better. These famous words were my introduction to school plays. For the next eight years I wrote and directed plays for my local intermediate school (The Amazing Adventures of Robin the Hood, Treasure Island, Mud and It’s Tough at the Top).

I would grade the standard of these plays as ‘fair’ to begin with and improving to ‘above average’ by the final one.

I fell into many traps with my first effort. Without any thought to the poor old backstage crew, I had many complicated and time-consuming scene changes. We went from the castle to the forest, back to the castle, down to the street, back to the forest and so on, as I tried to weave my story with subtle nuances and intrigue. Every five minutes, the audience stared at closed curtains for what felt like an eternity while the red-faced, sweating stage crew wrestled with the scene change.

The similarity of the scenes confused the cast and more than once a budding thespian with only a couple of well-rehearsed lines in the whole show would burst into the forest scene, for example, to announce the villain’s imminent arrival only to find that the villain was already warming his hands by the fire. The confusion this caused the rest of the cast was, in retrospect, quite hilarious. The degree of complication in the storyline was confirmed to me when I peeked through the curtains at half-time. All the parents and grandparents were frantically locating their programmes so that they could re-read the synopsis on the back page.

First lesson learned – make plays easy to produce, easy to perform and easy to understand.

My fourth and final attempt at a school play (It’s Tough at the Top) had a main set and small mobile sets with simple props in front of the curtain. The story continued without a break while any changes to the main set could be carried out by a far more relaxed and composed stage crew. By having a seamless flow both the cast and audience understood and engaged with the story, but, just in case, I included a couple of actors who discussed the evolving storyline, which hopefully reinforced the plot for the benefit of the audience.

I never enjoyed the audition-casting part of a production. My wife and I were usually faced with 200 kids trying for around 80 parts. Excluding so many hopeful, smiling faces was never enjoyable. With Treasure Island I was so overrun with talented, shiny-eyed “wannabes” that I went home and rewrote the play to include an extra gang of kids, thus giving 20 more students an opportunity to be involved.

Occasionally we got it wrong. It comes as quite a shock at your first rehearsal to find that your leading man, who has four songs, can’t reliably sing in tune. Be wary of hot tips from classroom teachers.

While it would have been tempting to write a ‘tight’ and punchy play with 30 parts and cast the entire accelerate class in to the show, I was given the brief to include as many of the students as possible from a cross-section of the school. School plays are not about Oscars and personal glory. Giving as many kids a go at something new is what it should be about.

I worked to the philosophy that the play is for the kids and their parents, so if someone is struggling with timing or learning their lines, or fails to achieve the slightest hint of dramatic inflexion, it doesn’t really matter. For them, having Mum, Dad, brothers and sisters and Gran and Pop beaming from the audience is what it’s all about. Even if the distraction of the proud smiles and waves sometimes causes the odd missed cue or forgotten lines. For the school the review from four nights of packed halls is not too bad either – ‘bums on seats’ is a big part of a school production.

I tended to write my plays with the mums and dads in minds. I avoided slapstick – people slipping on banana skins and the like – and pursued more adult wit. My plays were liberally sprinkled with adapted one-liners, both original and not-so-original, to add humour. Unfortunately, most of the ten, 11 and 12 year-old actors didn’t ‘get’ the jokes; on many occasions, after having explained the joke, I was still met with a stony-faced “I still don’t get it”. I remember the startled look on Friar Tuck’s face when his opening lines were greeted with warm laughter from the audience. I struggled not to yell from behind the curtains, “Michael, I told you it was funny.”

One problem was that the young cast had no idea how to play to the audience. They were so unprepared for audience response that they didn’t stop talking during laughter or applause. Or if a poorly grandfather had a coughing fit that drowned out a punch line, which I had told them to pause for – we were left with a deafening silence until someone spotted my frantic windmilling arms from the wings, insisting that they resume the dialogue.

For the first production we performed for local primary schools as a warm-up dress rehearsal. This proved to be a disaster because the humour was lost and the audience’s enthusiasm quickly waned as the seven- and eight-year-olds began fidgeting and talking. I then went for the ‘rent-a-crowd’ idea. A quick phonecall to the local service clubs saw an enthusiastic turn-out of the local ‘A-listers’ to a wine and cheese/few beers followed by the final dress rehearsal show. Every utterance and double entendre was picked up and enjoyed by the learned audience. Every song and dance was applauded enthusiastically. It was fantastic. The rent-a-crowd gave the cast a chance at real audience responses and gave us – the writers and directors – a chance to iron out any last minute or unforeseen issues. The most memorable incident was when one of the ‘plotters’, who was supposed to say to his mate, “We’ll catch them, by golly” got caught up in the moment and instead said, “We’ll catch them, by Jesus Christ”. Obviously an apologetic explanation was extended to the slightly affronted Rotarians at half-time and the offending ad-libber was given a stern talking to.

The final thing about kids delivering lines is that they can quite innocently butcher a joke. In one play we included an often recycled joke that goes, Old Woman: “Waiter, this coffee tastes like mud.” Waiter: “Well, it was ground yesterday.” When the young girl playing Old Woman announces “Waiter, this coffee is yuck” it tends to leave the poor old waiter stranded and the audience left wondering.

Another issue that I had not expected to encounter was the hormonal/power/ego games that develop. When a handful of kids are grouped together with people who are not in their usual ‘in’ gang, cattiness and put-downs can sometimes surface. On the second night of Mud, in the dimly lit backstage as they prepared to go on I noticed one of the ‘blue girls’ in tears. After a brief discussion I was informed that “Stacey” had told her she was fat or ugly or couldn’t dance or maybe all three. Deciding to nip it in the bud I escorted Stacey to the stage backdoor. “But I’m in this scene,” Stacey announced. “Not anymore,” I said. No more cattiness in that show. Problem sorted.

Following the hormonal theme, another issue that surfaced, for which I was totally unprepared, was that when you put one of the school’s beautiful 12-year-olds in adult clothes, add a bit of make-up and a few sassy lines to deliver, you very quickly get a pop star look-alike: strutting the boards, sultry looks, hip wiggles, flash of diminutive cleavage – the lot. I left that one for my wife to sort out.

If student egos can be a challenge, so too can the egos of teachers and parent helpers who have either volunteered, or been instructed from on high, to be part of the production team. While adjusting the spotlight high up on a ladder, I remember dropping a crescent spanner on the head of the school caretaker. He went home.

I remember making a call that the lights be dimmed on the ‘forest creatures’ as they performed the mystical dance that had been months in preparation. The lighting guys misunderstood and all but blackened the stage during the dance – the result was very mystical indeed. The dance teacher went home.

I remember telling the costume team not to be so precious with the costumes as it was distracting the performances on stage – I was told to go home.

When the final curtain goes down on the last night of a school production and the hall is ringing with whistling and warm applause, you can’t deny the glow that everyone feels. The kids on stage feel it, the band feels it, the backstage crew – well, they were just pleased it was all over. But, the poor old writer/director certainly feels it. It is a feeling of satisfaction tinged with relief. A feeling of having just successfully run the gauntlet.

My last attempt at playwriting was a play about a dithering and vague Prime Minister of New Zealand, who ducked and dived his way through a storyline of mystery and scheming. In my plays, for the last scene I used to write in a mystery-type of epilogue with cameo appearances by mystery guests. Keeping the identity of mystery guests hidden was always a challenge; I can still recall the deputy principal driving home in his gorilla suit after each performance...

In the final scene of It’s Tough at the Top, the Prime Minister is challenged by his overbearing wife to “get a real job”. Okay, he replies, I’ll give this job to the next person who walks through that door. In the first three performances we engineered secret cameo walk-ons from the local mayor, the local high school principal and the local MP – all of whom, when offered the job of Prime Minister, assumed the role with relish as the curtain slowly closed.

Earlier in the piece I had the nerve or cheek to write to our Prime Minister of the day, Helen Clark, inviting her to perform the cameo role. With good spirit she accepted. Understandably Ms Clark caused quite a ripple when she walked onto the stage and was offered the Prime Minister’s job. “That was easier than I expected,” Ms Clark said to the audience as the curtain slowly closed.

After the show Helen Clark spoke warmly to the gathered cast, offering praise and encouragement. I stood in the corner taking it all in. It was quite moving to see these country kids from Matamata being spoken to by the Prime Minister. They will remember it for the rest of their lives.

As I watched, I remember reflecting that I could do another show, making further improvements and learn from mistakes made in this one. But could I get the Prime Minister to join in again? I figured it might be better not to risk it. It might not get better than this. And at that point, I stopped writing plays.