Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Les Misérables – The Ups and Downs of Producing a High School Stage Production

Inspired by the Film Doctor’s entertaining and edifying logs chronicling the joys and trials of teaching a video production class, I record here the saga of producing a stage adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables with my Drama Club, which consists of 29 students from grades 7 through 12.

Spring, 2009:

I must choose a play for the Drama Club’s annual stage production which we present each school year at the end of January. As the school year ends, upcoming seniors and other club members hang around in my room at lunch and brainstorm possible productions for the upcoming year.

I toy with the idea of doing Night of the Living Dead. I have actually found a script, but the cast is too small – except for all the zombies. I usually have about thirty drama club members – varying in talent from naturally talented to serviceable to downright dreadful (I often wonder why some of them sign up).

But I have always run Drama Club with the philosophy that if a student wants to get up on stage and act, I want to provide that exciting experience for him. This adds more work for me, which often involves writing in bit parts or, my faithful fallback, a crowd scene of townspeople as a sort of chorus commenting on the action or providing comic relief. But I’m happy to do it.

To defray their disappointment of not doing Night of the Living Dead, we spend our remaining club meeting time making a very quickly done but fun movie called Night of the Living Dead Nazis which includes parody of Jaws and Cape Cod.

Finally, I revisit a script I’ve had for a long time: an adaptation of Hugo’s Les Misérables. It has a large cast . Just what I need. Everybody gets a part and I even have to give some players two bit parts. The play also has a large number of female parts. That’s good because my drama club is usually mostly girls. One year I had about twenty girls and five guys so we did an adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock - the perfect thing: a story that takes place in a girls’ school – and it turned out to be my favorite theatrical experience of the twenty-three full-length productions I’ve done over the years.

I go with Hugo. The story has drama, romance, and action. I never produce a high school play that doesn’t have action. Our audiences need action or comedy or both. Also, I love live theater, but my passion for movies far surpasses that love of theater, so I’m not that crazy about classic plays that are a lot of talking. I always tell my students, “You know that when I’m directing the play, in my mind I’m directing a movie.”

So Les Misérables has just what I need: lots of factory girls and citizens (the population of Paris will be mostly female), escape and pursuit, revolution, barricades, and shooting.

Summer, 2009 –

Props are the bane of my existence during a performance. They get misplaced or played with and broken by the younger members of the cast – and that means disaster! There’s nothing worse than when an actor looks for a prop and it’s not in its proper (ooh, pun!) place – and it’s time to go on stage.

Drama Clubbers remember the legendary story of Sophie’s muff from a production of Tom Jones. This symbol of Tom’s love for Sophie is brought on and off stage by so many players that it got mislaid during one performance, and when Partridge comes on stage, needs to hand it to Tom, and realizes he’s forgotten it, he runs off stage to get it, only to find it’s not in its right place, and he has to run all over the backstage area while everyone’s frantically looking for it. When he finally recovers the muff and gets back on stage, it’s obvious to the audience what has transpired, but it made for a fun unscripted bit of comedy.

Just fine for a comedy – not so good in a more dramatic production – as in Rehearsal for Murder when the murderer needs to reach into a drawer and pull out a flashlight – a piece of evidence that will incriminate him – and he rolls the flashlight to the back of the drawer, can’t find it, gets frantic, and I roll my backstage flashlight around the backdrop behind the desk.

But I like looking for props, and I usually try to do most of that during the summer. This play needs costumes more than props so I make many trips to Goodwill to buy long dresses, corduroy pants, old coats and jackets. I find an old greatcoat for Jean Valjean the ex-con; I have an old leather knapsack for him and a great walking staff.

As for props, I chiefly need a number of revolvers that look realistic. As for costuming and set decoration, I decide to set the play in the late 1800s – with rabble-rousing anarchists leading the revolt - rather than the early 1800s. For a previous performance, I bought a couple of authentic-looking metal toy revolvers at a little toy store down Cape in Orleans. I go there as early in June as possible and buy out their whole stock.

In the barricade scene, the police will run in from the side entrance to the auditorium and outflank the revolutionists. Standing with their backs to the audience, they will advance, Odessa steps style, and then aim their revolvers. Off stage I will supply the gunshots as the policemen jerk their pistols back with the recoil.

For gunshots I always use an 8-shot .22 caliber starter’s pistol. It delivers a nice loud bang. I’ve used one onstage and offstage for a number of performances, but I need to order a new one. High school sports catalogs don’t carry them anymore, but I can order it from a theater catalogue. From the same catalogue I get Nazi-type caps for the policemen.

I get most of my furniture props from the school’s gargantuan October yard sale that fills an entire gym. I get some great old chairs, bookcases, and a tall cabinet.

September, 2009 –

Damn! Summer vacation is over! Back to school! But for me, and many of my students, Drama Club gets us through the humdrum.

As in all schools, conducting an activity is always a competition for time, space, and student membership. Besides all the sports and activities that compete, teens these days lead busy lives. We can’t start rehearsals until December – because the soccer season competes in the fall. Even though we start rehearsing in December, the music department has gradually taken over use of the stage during that time for their Christmas concert. In order to avoid friction, I decide to spend the December weeks rehearsing after school in a large classroom; we will simply drill lines in all scenes and not worry about blocking.

But starting in September we meet every Day 3 of a 6-day rotation during a chaotic much-conflicted time period known as “Activity Period” – though to the students it means lunch – so it’s hard to get much done.

We cast the play. (A number of players will need to play two roles. In order to give a departing senior a challenging job, she will play Fantine and Cosette. I need another substantial role for another senior girl who has been with me for five years, so I cast her as a female Javert.) We do a partial read-through. We talk about costumes.

I will supply many of the main costume pieces, but the students are expected to come up with whatever else is needed. I have some European army sweaters with epaulettes for the policemen but they need to have black jeans. They are told this in November. The deadline for final consultation on costumes is early January.

On January 27, the day before the first performance, one clueless policeman (who must have missed some meetings and never read the handouts or the downloads on the Drama Club web page) comes to me and wonders about pants. “You’re supposed to have black jeans.” “I have black sweat pants with white stripes down the side.” Ah, fuck! That’s what I think. I can’t say it, so I insert one of my famous f-bomb euphemisms.

Another string of innocuous words beginning with “f” comes when one student has missed all his scheduled rehearsals. It’s getting too late to fool around. He never comes to me to negotiate. During a key rehearsal, I give his main part to another deserving student. When the recalcitrant student finally shows up and I tell him he’s out, he doesn’t understand why never appearing for a meeting or rehearsal and never showing up to consult with me should lead to his termination!

Another glitch is that the terminated student was also supposed to play a no-speaking bit part as an insane prisoner who is supposed to identify another prisoner as Jean Valjean. Rehearsing the scene, I stand in as the insane prisoner and realize I haven’t appeared in a cameo in many years and this very brief part is right up my alley.

In the past, I’ve usually appeared in a cameo as someone insane. I played Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. I played an insane Martian in The Martian Chronicles, a Bible-beater in Inherit the Wind, a Pythonesque moronic guard in Newgate Prison in Tom Jones. As Bibolet, I will wear the big greatcoat and a floppy hat and shuffle in muttering about the horrors of the prison. It could be fun.

December –

“Rehearsals” in Room 303 go well. We act out the scenes and drill lines, going over and over a scene until most of it is memorized. Students have shown up with most of their lines memorized. This is a first. Most students feel they can “learn” their lines during rehearsals. Some avoid reading the playbook as much as possible. But this group is different. Peer pressure begins to work advantageously as the kids see that the “in” thing is to have their lines memorized and they don’t want to stand out as the ones who don’t even know where their playbooks are.

January –

We finally get the use of the stage for 14 days and block out all the scenes! Still, there are conflicts. We do not have a real theater. The stage is built into a small gym. Thus, we need to be done at 4:30 when one of the basketball teams comes in to practice. Another time, a puppet show troupe that came to do an assembly is taking down their stuff when I’m trying to set up my stuff. I lose another day of rehearsal for a mandatory all-faculty meeting about the financial situation.

On election day – when Ted Kennedy rolls over in his grave as Republican voters elect Scott Brown over Martha Coakley, half of the gym is used as a polling location. All day I’ve wondered if I will be allowed to rehearse on the stage nearby. I jokingly tell my head that I don’t need to tell her what I’m more concerned about – the fate of the nation or drama rehearsal. Finally, at the end of the day, I get the go ahead.

It works out fine. The voters are quiet. The bored policeman gets something to watch. And we have devilish fun rehearsing the uprising scenes. I’ve added chants like “Down with oppression! Long live anarchy!” We play it up! After rehearsal, I have to race over to another polling place to vote fruitlessly against Brown.

Conflicts continue. Our last rehearsal is on January 27. We go over Act 2. But the teacher who coaches Mock Trial has failed to tell me that two of my cast members – one of them being Javert – have a trial that afternoon and so they will probably miss the rehearsal. Javert says she will try to get scheduled to go first and then race back to rehearsal.

We go through Act 2 non-stop. Marius needs to inform Javert about the Thenardiers’ plan to rob M. Leblanc (Jean Valjean). I stand in for Javert. Suddenly, the girl playing Javert leaps up on stage, takes my place, and says the next line. Some of these kids are true professionals!

We have spent a lot of time rehearsing the building of the barricade and the massacre of the citizens.

The set consists of two upstage areas with furniture to suggest two different rooms for various scenes. When it comes time to build the barricade, the citizens storm out and use all the furniture to create a barrier running upstage to downstage. It takes choreography and strict assignment of who helps whom carry which piece of furniture. When done, it looks cool.

Then the police come on stage right and tell the citizens to disperse. Little Gavroche (the group’s mascot) shouts the cops down and the citizens cheer. After that, Jean says he’s going to execute Javert as a spy but lets her go and fires off a shot to make it sound like he’s shot her. After Valjean returns to the barricade, the police come through the auditorium and outflank the citizens.

The shooting is strictly choreographed. When Valjean points off stage, I need to fire off one shot. Then, when the police attack, I need to fire six more shots. Bang. One of the leaders falls down. Bang. The other leader goes down. Citizens run. Gavroche runs to pick up a gun. Bang. He goes down. Marius runs to Gavroche. Bang. He’s wounded. A guard aims at Marius to finish him off and – bang – Eponine blocks the shot. Ideally, I’d like to fire one more shot to accommodate a little girl who has begged me for the opportunity to die on stage. Then, the police chief is supposed to march up to Eponine and deliver the coup de grâce.

That’s a total of seven shots from an eight-shot pistol prone to misfires. Should have bought another gun, but it’s too late. No time to reload after Valjean’s shot, so I decide to do the first shot by smashing a roll of caps with a mallet – which delivers a gloriously loud bang if done right.

During the final run through, there’s a misfire, a delay, and when I fire the fifth shot in the barricade scene and Eponine blocks it, the citizen girl falls too – but it looks okay and we decide it’s the miracle bullet that passes through Eponine, avoids Marius, and hits the citizen behind.

Sometimes I realize that I complicate things by trying to please everybody. I add a lot of citizens to the barricade scene – which gives the factory girls a chance to do two roles – but that complicates the choreography of everything and we spend a lot of time rehearsing the action scene while other scenes need work.

The students are feeling nervous about Act One. But I tell them they’ll do fine.

January 28, 10:30 AM – Performance for the Middle School –

We’re ready to start on time (we need to be done by 12:15), but the middle schoolers are ushered in late.

The play starts. Valjean hikes through the audience. He is harrassed by police. He tries to sleep in the middle of a path. A woman points out a house that might take him in. It’s a good strong beginning.

Then, in the house of Bishop Myriel and his sister, Valjean drops a line. Then the other two students – who were the shakiest with their lines during rehearsals – drop their lines. Practically a whole page vanishes, thus cutting out the introduction of Valjean’s parole papers and tattoo which are important establishing details for later in the story.

Watching from backstage, we all gasp! Then the girl playing the sister saves it. From then on, everything goes pretty smoothly.

Time for Bibolet to make his appearance. The middle schoolers, my 8th grade history students among them, love it!

Comes time for the action scenes! All goes well. The audience yelps at the loud shots. The chief of police steps up to finish off Eponine. Misfire! But he’s cool, waits for me, the next shot goes off, and he reacts to the recoil.

January 28, 7:30 PM – First evening performance for the public –

Act One, Scene 2: Valjean, Myriel, and the bishop’s sister redeem themselves for the morning’s disaster and they nail the scene perfectly.

Comes time for Valjean’s offstage shot and I confidently use the first shot in the pistol instead of the problematic roll of caps. I rush around to stage left and all the massacre shots fire nicely until the policeman approaches for the dramatic coup de grâce. Click. The student playing the policeman keeps cool and waits. Two more clicks. I’m screwed. I left the mallet and caps off stage right. We’re really screwed! I try to reload. Bang! A very quick-thinking student off right has hit a roll of caps with the mallet! It does the job. The policeman and my wonderful Eponine react instantaneously!

January 29, 10:30 AM – Performance for the Dreaded Upper School –

The cast is always extra nervous performing for the high schoolers – which includes the SENIORS. The seniors – like the groundlings of Shakespeare’s day – are very exacting audience members. Some seniors like to sit in the front row and try to make their friends laugh.

But everything goes well. We get through Act One, Scene 2 without a hitch. No props mislaid.

Comes the barricade scene and the shots work dramatically. I can hear the audience reaction from my station near the lights control panel.

January 29, 6:30 PM –

Students start arriving for their fourth performance in two days. They’re on a high, but they’re very tired – and a tired teenager is a hyper teenager. They are loud, running around the halls, making messes. I tell them when they need to start getting into costumes and makeup, but they don't pay any attention to me.

I interrupt a small group in a darkened alcove between two sets of doors. As bothered by the hyper ones as I am, they are holding a group meditation session. Meditation, good! Burning joss stick, not okay.

I tell everyone that curtain time will come quickly and they will be caught unprepared and out of character. "You are cruising for a downfall," I say. When most of them are gathered, I try the breathing exercises and voice exercises that usually get them into the zone. The exercises are not working. I give up and head for the lights. “Uh, you’re starting soon. Lights go up – you better be ready.”

7:30 PM – Second evening performance –

They come down from their hyper high, sobered by the imminent approach of their appearances on stage. Sometimes a little tiredness is good. It can make them calmer on stage, less likely to speed through a scene.

Lights go up. Valjean does his long walk through the auditorium. This gives the others time to calm down.

The play starts. They fumble through some scenes but then they gain momentum and they do just fine.

Saturday, January 30, 6:00 PM –

We meet for Chinese food and cake to celebrate. This is the last performance. The students are tired but determined to do their best tonight – to add the lines they’ve dropped, to correct the lines they’ve fudged. Monsieur Thenardier, when he talks greedily about all the things he’s going to steal from Valjean, has been saying, “Worth a plenty” instead of “Worth plenty” – for some inscrutable language disability reason.

I have had Drama Club members with speech impediments, extreme learning disabilities, and severe shyness. But I’ve sent them out on stage, and they’ve overcome a lot of personal obstacles.

I give the perennial warning not to ruin the last performance by overacting or adding a joke line. This has happened before. Strangely, the ones who have been full of stage fright or have had a tough time memorizing lines suddenly get cocky and overconfident on last night and they want to add a line that will get a laugh.

I’ll never forgive the student who played Montag in Fahrenheit 451. It was a performance on the big community college stage before a large audience of school groups from all over the Cape. In his opening monologue, Montag talks about how much he loves the smell of burning things, and the student playing him added, “I love the smell of kerosene in the morning.” How clever! He thought he could impress me with his film knowledge and I wouldn't mind that he broke the golden rule. It might have even worked except that he did it self-consciously and out of character.

Perhaps worse, in an epic two-hour adaptation of David Copperfield I had scripted, Little Emily meets Martha, a fallen woman who ends up in a horrid whorehouse in London, and a student called from offstage in a British accent, loud enough to make his friend playing Martha crack a smile, which was his aim, “She’s got the herpes!”

So, with these and other episodes in mind, I reiterate, “Don’t add any lines!”

7:30 PM –

Last performance. Sometimes disasters occur on last night. The muff misplacement occurred on a last night. But these students have enjoyed the play, and they put their hearts and souls into the final performance. They take my advice, “Act like you’re this character thinking these words before you say them. Don’t just recite lines.” They inject every line with sincerity. The improv in the crowd scenes gets a little too liberal, but no one adds any jarring lines.

The Thenardiers are despicable snakes. A Chinese student plays Azelma like a pathetic waif out of the manga literature she loves. Fantine, played by a totally exhausted senior who burns the candle at both ends and in the middle, looks like she really dies. Valjean in his transformation from ex-con to humanitarian mayor to protective father shows three distinct characters. The citizens put passion into their rabble rousing. “Down with oppression! Long live anarchy!”

The only thing that goes wrong is that damn gun. It works admirably on the first shots of the massacre and the actors time their falls perfectly. Little Gavroche has just enough time to pick up a fallen gun and start to point it and then BANG! But the gun misfires three times on the coup de grâce. CLICK, CLICK, CLICK. Eponine falls anyway. From the audience’s point of view it looks fine – like the sergeant decides not to shoot her and she slumps down from her previous wound. I only have myself to blame. I got too technical; I made the scene too complicated.

There have been worse technical disasters - like during David Copperfield when I turned on the projector to project the storm waves but the student on sound had forgotten to change CDs and turned on "Soldier of the King" instead of the storm sound effects.

Javert delivers her final monologue. She rushes off stage with a gun to her head. Bang! (The gun works like a charm!) Blackout. Final scene of reconciliation. Valjean walks off with Cosette and Marius. Charlotte, the maid, picks up Valjean’s old pack. She looks at his old parole papers. She looks at the audience in horror at the suffering recorded there. She walks off. Lights down.

Curtain call. Applause. Director takes a bow. Tradition dictates that I bid the senior members of Drama Club farewell before they go off to college in the fall. It’s emotional – luckily, only two have been with me since 8th grade. Tears and hugs. Javert gives an amazing speech of gratitude. I get flowers (traditional) plus a gift card to Regal Cinemas (because they know me well).

Then the students depart like a tornado, leaving behind a scattering of forgotten shoes, jackets, jewelry, hats, and electronic devices.

Sunday, January 31- 9:00 AM –

Every Sunday during the school year, I put a thermos of hot tea and breakfast in a pack and take my Cardigan Welsh corgi for a long hike at Sandy Neck, a wild place of beach, tidal marsh, sand dunes, and a vast world of interdunal swales filled with vernal pools and thickets of scrub pine, oak, and sassafras. It's always a welcome getaway after the Saturday performance.

It’s sunny, but the wind is freezing and the tide is high, so I am the only one there. That’s how I like it. It’s beautiful. The wolf moon has turned the marsh into an icy inland sea glistening in the sun.

Here I get lots of ideas. I plot fiction, compose parts of blog posts, plan future drama productions, or solve complicated staging problems with the current play. Here I also get props. Beach rocks for Picnic at Hanging Rock. A board for the Thenardiers’ Inn sign. Boards and rope for the wreck in David Copperfield - as well as video footage of storm waves for the storm scene effect.

The play has been on my mind since last May, the performances were emotional experiences, and so I know I will suffer the inevitable post-production blues tomorrow at school, a time when I can be especially sensitive to complaints about any messes we left behind or to frantic requests that we move our props out of the backstage area. I need to immerse myself in another creative project, discuss ideas for next year’s play (I have no idea what to do - go any ideas?), and remember how appreciative all my cast members were after the performance on Saturday night.

I need to tap into those words of appreciation, feel the residue of emotions stirred up by our epic tale of injustice, obsession, and devotion, and listen to the echoes of dramatic lines.

Down with oppression! Long live anarchy!


The Film Doctor said...

Nice work. That's an impressive number of full-length productions. I've directed 7, with a drama class worth credit, and that seems easier overall than working with a club. Your scheduling and theatre space sound crazily complicated. I've also used prop guns from a theatre company that make a satisfactorily loud bang, but I understand the stress of wondering if a gun will work properly in a key scene (such as when Juliet shoots herself at the end of the play).

At the moment, I'm enjoying having nothing to do with making a play or a movie, but the new film class will start writing something later this week. We were thinking of perhaps producing a suspenseful scene in the mode of Inglourious Basterds. We're also in the midst of studying Donnie Darko and Notorious.

Impressive video sample, by the way.

Richard Bellamy said...

FilmDr - Thanks for reading. I knew you had directed some plays. Somewhere you had mentioned that. We work in the same sort of sphere.

I understand how you feel about not having to be involved in making a movie or film right now. I feel like a massive anvil has been taken off my back - as much as I enjoyed this experience much more than some previous ones. When it's a club - with no academic credit - some of the kids lack motivation.

But this group was great. They were totally into it - and they made the big undertaking easy because they weren't pulling against me. They even used peer pressure to get students to memorize all their lines before we started blocking in January.

As for the list of plays - and we also did Hamlet in a modern setting - and another favorite was Splendor in the Grass - it's hard for me to direct something frivolous - though the students like that sometimes. I prefer something dramatic and something with a story that is more or less familiar to the audiences.

Now that this is over we still have our Day 3 meetings and they are clamoring for Night of the Living Dead Nazis II: Zombies vs. Vampires. Fine with me - we'll do it improv in the woods behind school - no more scripts and lines to memorize this year!

I like the idea of doing an IB sort of scene of suspense. I like how the opening farmhouse scene is such a simple set.

Jason Bellamy said...

I'd been saving this post for when I had time. Congrats on a great production, and cool video summary.

Sounds like even the technical misfires (pun intended) didn't cause any damage.

I suppose you can't do an epic without biting off too much.

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for reading and viewing, Jason. It was a challenging production but they really pulled it off - and in talking to students about the production, I consider it one of the most successful as far as perfection of line memorization and acting across the board. It is also one of my favorites for its varied scenes - wandering the countryside, the factory, the trial, Paris, the barricade, the escape - its variety of characters and its action. Of course, the script describes some sort of vague, suggestive, low-lighted action - but I changed that. I wanted it choreographed and clearly seen. Also, the script doesn't describe the citizens marches I staged.