Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Redefining Respect

On March 10th, I wrote a post highlighting my school’s drama director, Mr. Hochkeppel. His philosophies regarding mutual trust, student voice, and the freedom of choice remain prevalent in everything he is involved with. As we approach our fall mainstage play’s opening night, I took a moment to reflect on how impressively he has managed to incorporate student leadership. Most high schools in our area tend to give students opportunities to run technical aspects of theatre, but Mr. Hochkeppel (who is more commonly known as ‘H’ around the school) decided Stone Bridge could take it a step further. H is not directing our show this year. He stepped aside and gave directorial duties to a student. This monumental opportunity is one where this student, Paisley LoBue, has already learned, and continues to learn, a lot - not only about theatre, but about teaching as a whole.

“I’m redefining the word respect” (LoBue).

Paisley, who had quite a few takeaways from the directing gig thus far, was very adamant in the interview about how important she has found it to clearly respect those learning from her. With new experiences as a director, she began to realize the recipe for respect was harder to adhere to than she realized. Even when critiquing, she strives to make sure to express her thoughts “in a way that doesn’t make [the cast] think I am above them in any way - I’m not, we’re all working together” (LoBue). Although disagreements occur, what good does it do to lose civility? In a school, everyone is working towards the same goal. Students are trying to learn, teachers are trying to help students learn, and administration is trying to help teachers try to help students learn. It is important not to forget that. She went on to note that “some things that seem rudimentary to me, are not to a lot of people” (LoBue) when it comes to acting. What Paisley does so well regarding this topic is having patience. Certain people take longer to internalize information. That’s not a bad quality, it just means they learn in different ways. Rather than being verbally told what needs to happen, maybe a confused actor needs to visualize instead.

Understanding that not everyone will be on the same square from day one is a key factor in making sure students do not get tossed to the wayside. Nobody is always perfect right off the bat. To expect instant perfection from a student (who is supposed to be learning anyway) is unrealistic, unfair, and ultimately a recipe for disaster. Setting that unattainable precedent will turn off students to a class in a heartbeat. Students are far more likely to “respect someone who is working hard” alongside of them “to help get them to their goal” (LoBue). School is not a sweatshop. Teachers do not sit behind a proverbial pane of glass, demanding perfect results without any guidance. Students do not command from behind a pane of glass either. They should not be attempting to manipulate teachers. If mutual respect is built, none of these toxic relationships can come remotely near surfacing. It’s tough, “respect is… fragile… too mean and harsh and… they’ll… cast you out… as someone bad. If you’re too relaxed… they can hardly respect you either” (LoBue). Finding that happy medium is so important to keeping morale high and focus on what it needs to be on.

Though it may be common knowledge, creating a positive aura for your classroom is of the utmost importance. Constant, harsh negativity does not serve any purpose. Paisley brought up how she tries “to avoid… upsetting the cast before” doing any sort of strenuous work because that “negative energy… takes all of the joy out” (LoBue). Notes and, sometimes, warnings need to be handed out, but framing them in an uplifting way is essential. Doling out punishments or going on tirades won’t accomplish anything but deflate an audience. “When you need to get [production] from someone… you have to be nice” (LoBue) or firm for the sake of bettering, not disciplining. Acting requires you to be in your character’s head at all times. It distracts from the real objective when anger or shame muddies up your mindset.

The benefits of remembering that idea are applicable off the stage as well. A discipline structure based off of punishment does not encourage later engagement. Rapport is better built when teachers do not play the role of authoritarian. Energy would be better directed (no pun intended) towards generating excitement to be in the classroom. Nobody wants there to “be a dictator forcing everyone to do a good job, instead [let’s] get everyone excited to do it and let their passion drive them” (LoBue). The battle is half-lost if a classroom full of students is disgruntled and feels subordinated. A more worthwhile approach would be fostering any organic interest kids might have and allowing that to grow however they require. “It’s like having a team of construction workers build a building for you and having to describe what you want built. Sometimes you… [can’t] describe just exactly how to lay the bricks,” (LoBue) sometimes the builders will know what the best fit is for their skill set.

“Communication is a big thing” when it comes to respect as well, “you can’t glaze over anything” (LoBue). Continuity of past communicated details is also uber important. If a director changes stuff last minute, what example does that set? Why would a cast honor their commitments if the same expectations do not seem to apply to the director?

As with every aforementioned theme, this transcends theatre. Constant dialogue needs to be open between teachers and students. What is working? What isn’t? What expectations does each party have for the other? How can each party work together? These questions and more should have answers within reach at all times. Most importantly, when expectations are set, they should remain unchanged without prior warning. Teachers that stick to their word will receive higher amounts of trust than ones that do not.

We’ve all heard the adages - respect is based on treating people how they wish to be treated. No one requests impatience, destructive criticism, or a lack of communication, therefore students should not be subjected to that sort of treatment. Not only is that bad for students, it makes accomplishing end-of-year goals much harder. Students might begin to act out in slight mutiny versus the perceived disrespect they face. That definitely would not encourage teachers, which would set off a vicious cycle of rapidly deteriorating rapport. Disagreements may occur, but everything can stay calm and civil. “The way to do this is by keeping the common goal strong… and use that… as the driving factor,” (LoBue) in conjunction with always present respect and communication. One side cannot force success upon the other, working with one another is the only way to ensure multifaceted success.

Before I finish up, I’d just like to say Paisley has been a wonderful director so far. She practices everything that she preaches and strives to be the most understanding she can be. Over the course of the show’s rehearsals this year I feel like we have become better friends than before and it has been an absolute blast to work with her (and our subsequent cast members) and I am on pins and needles eagerly awaiting opening night.

We, the #BowTieBoys, will be in full strength this weekend at the NCTE conference. Be sure to check us out in any of our sessions if you get the chance!

Thank you so much for reading this edition of my blog! I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.


LoBue, Paisley. “Interview with Paisley.” 14 Nov. 2017.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Students as Teachers: Knowing Your Audience

My school’s Senior One Act Festival is a showcase for our theater department’s seniors to direct, cast, choreograph, and in some cases, even write their own show to perform for an audience. Not only is it a way to allow students to show off their talents in directing and onstage, but it is a venue for seniors to be role models for younger kids. As a follow up from yesterday, I will be featuring the director team from another one of the shows I was cast in. This time, my mentors came in the form of an inseparable pair of senior girls, who I had met around December of this past school year.

At first, I was going to use the One Act Festival as an excuse to hang out with my senior friends. This festival would be the last chance I could ever do a ‘Running Dog Production’ with anyone who had an impending graduation. So, when I was cast in three of the One Acts, I was thrilled. Everyday after school I would have a guaranteed amount of time to be around the seniors. There was a huge problem with my mindset though. As long as I saw the One Acts as an opportunity to relax and goof off, anything I did onstage would reflect that sentiment. Maybe that would fly in a comedy production (like the show where I was cast as a repairman who was hopelessly in love with his washing machine), but in a role that was more serious it would not. How could I accurately portray a disgruntled barista who was behind on rent payments if my attitude towards the whole experience was fully whimsical? Throw in the fact that these two girls had written all of the music, lyrics, dialogue, choreography, staging, etc. and it becomes even more clear that my outlook on this whole situation was going to need to change.

I originally auditioned for a less complex role than the one I was chosen for and to me, that was slightly worrisome. Others may be able to rest upon their laurels and effortlessly act onstage, but due to my lack of experience, it was necessary for me to push myself to put something together that would be performance-ready. Whoever was at the helm of this production was going to need to challenge me to better myself. Making it easy for me would have just permitted a lackadaisical performance, which trust me, was not what was envisioned for this show. On the flip side however, if the environment became toxic and criticism became destructive, I would have totally shut down. What I needed was a director (or directors) that would apply the right amount of pressure - an amount that would improve my acting, singing and stage presence, but would not make me hate every second of the process.

[Enter the team of directors]

From the moment we received our scripts, an expectation was set. Within the next two and a half weeks we would be required to be off-book, with all lines and lyrics memorized. Knowing myself, that deadline was hugely beneficial to me. This gave me room to budget my time in the way that best fit, while still having an end goal in sight. Had there been no completion date, I guarantee I would have put it off until the last second. Had there been an overly structured format for how I learned my lines, I would have harbored potentially mutinous feelings towards the overzealous requirements.

The road to getting off-book was not easy for me. This was all a new situation for me. Luckily enough, the directors were always available for advice or guidance on how to complete the task. I texted the director that was more focused on acting and she almost immediately had help to offer. Even if my questions were elementary to these seasoned actors, I was never made aware of that. Their demeanors always remained patient with me.

This was crucial. Imagine if instead of kindly answering my basic questions, they scoffed at my lack of fundamental acting knowledge. My trust in them would have plummeted. All of their tips and tricks would have come across differently. Rather than treating me with condescension, they brought themselves back down to my level and helped me through the somewhat complicated processes of theater. I was not left behind because I didn’t know the foundational knowledge.

Everyone else in the cast had been onstage before, so they were not forced to listen to the conversations that were helpful for me. These directors’ understanding of the importance of differentiated pacing was admirable. On day one, they did not focus on the nuances of acting or complicated singing riffs. They discussed with me the basics of being onstage. If I already understood something, they did not feel the need to keep hammering that point home. That would have been pointless.

Another great example of their adaptability comes from the day we began to block my singing scene. For the most part, I was able to sing the notes correctly and I was able to perform spoken lines the way they wanted me to, but I couldn’t put both of those ideas together. They tried exercises that they found helpful. Even though this came from the right place, it simply wasn’t helpful. No matter what we tried, every time I sang or acted I looked like two completely different people. That was all until one of them came over to me with a new idea in mind. It occurred to her at that moment that singing and acting together was too overwhelming for me. She removed the singing from the equation. Rather than singing my lyrics, she just wanted me to speak and act them to the best of my ability. Just like that, the message my character was trying to convey became clear. All I needed to do was look at the lyrics from a different perspective.

I was not the only one who was forced to look through a different lens though. Once she saw that her attempts to get through to me her way were futile, my friend had to get into my head. My strengths and weaknesses were not her own. She couldn’t treat me as if I were just an extension of her. It would be useless to persist with the same methods. Trying the same thing over and over and over again is the definition of insanity, right? The lesson she was teaching me was not getting across in its original form. Evolution of the original plan was necessary. Who knows? Working with someone else, the preliminary exercises may have been successful. No two people think the same though, therefore she needed to adapt or risk my continued failure. Teachers should utilize the same thought process. If an assignment is not connecting with students, it’s not going to warrant any results. Knowing your audience in order to connect with them is extremely important, and quite honestly success can hinge on that connection sometimes.

The differentiation that these two girls employed was remarkable, but that wasn’t even my favorite aspect of the whole experience. In any relationship, respect is a building block that cannot be pushed aside. Mutual respect and authentic bonds between mentor and mentee make teaching run so much smoother.

After my very first vocal rehearsal (which included only the writer/director and myself), there was a lot of time to kill before either one of us could go home. She and I sat in the choir room for a couple minutes in silence. I may have met her earlier in the year, but I didn’t really know her that well. That showed during the practice of my song too. While I was now comfortable enough to sing in front of people, I was only ready to do the bare minimum in front of her. She is a super talented vocalist and I was intimidated to mess up in front of her. As someone with a ton more singing skill than me, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that she would pass judgement at any slip up on my part. This brings me back to the choir room after rehearsal. Slowly, as we realized sitting in silence for thirty or so minutes was going to kill us both, conversation between us began to brew. The more we talked, the more we felt more comfortable with the other.

We started off talking about how we got into theater and our plans for the future (in theater and elsewhere). Our paths into theater (and how we originally fared socially) were very similar. This led us down different conversational paths. Soon we were discussing personal insecurities and upcoming decisions we were going to be faced with. Both of our comfort levels rose and we offered each other insight on these decisions, as well as trading embarrassing stories about self-doubt that filled the room with laughter. By the end of it, trust between us had skyrocketed.

At the beginning of the rehearsal, I was too anxious to talk unless I had to. Working on singing was painful to an extent, because outside of the actual song and any notes she had for me, there was no communication. Try sitting in a room with someone without talking to them. It doesn’t take long before that gets awkward. By the end of the rehearsal, I was no longer irrationally stressed out. An authentic bond had formed between us. At this point, she was no longer just my director, we were better friends than we had been before.

In the subsequent rehearsals, I was able to venture outside my comfort zone more often. Our dynamic had completely changed. No longer was I working for a team of directors, I was performing alongside my friends. Although they were not offputting prior to my conversations with them, I no longer worried when they gave me notes. It wasn’t personal, they just wanted to help me grow. Through that conversation, I had found out how much work had gone into developing the one act. They saw this show as their baby, and they entrusted me with a role in it. In turn, I entrusted the development of my acting game to them. If they were willing to put as much faith in me as they had, I could be comfortable enough to do the same. This mutual trust between teacher(s) and student only enhanced what we were working on. Both parties were enabled to produce higher quality work and ultimately, our jobs felt exponentially easier.

I am so thankful I got to work with these two girls. Not only have I improved tenfold since joining their show, I have received guidance and advice that I will cherish for a long time. They are perfect examples of the benefits of building a connection between teacher and student. I am proud that they entrusted me with the responsibility they did. When I saw how much they truly cared about my own personal growth, it became clear to me that I needed to put in whatever work necessary to make them proud. I wanted to do their words justice. That’s the impact a teacher can have on a student. The teachers you remember are the ones who make an effort to get to know their students on a personal level. I will remember these girls and their teaching for a long time.

Thank you so much for reading this edition of my blog! This one is also very dear to me. I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this on Fridays as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag, #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Students as Teachers: Restraint Only Hinders Progress

Time and time again it has been said that one of the best ways to learn is to teach. It has also been said that sometimes students can be some of the best teachers. A great example of putting these ideas into effect are my school’s ongoing Senior One Act Festival. Basically, to provide some context, this festival is a showcase for the theater department’s seniors to direct, cast, choreograph, and in some cases, even write their own show to perform for an audience. So, in an attempt to throw a curveball into the expected #BowTieBoys blog programming, for the next few posts I will be periodically highlighting the directors of the three shows that I am taking part in.

The first director is actually the reason I even auditioned in the first place. Prior to these Senior One Acts, I had never stepped foot on an auditorium stage with the purpose of acting before. I usually spend my time troubleshooting our department’s sound issues, as I am the soundboard operator for anything theater related. In my eyes, the word ‘comfort’ is more closely associated with sitting in the booth behind the board rather than acting and singing. Having only met him halfway through the year, I felt (and feel) a little bit cheated that he was a senior, so in an effort to be around him more often before graduation, I began talking to him about the One Acts. He strongly encouraged me to try out for his show, which to me sounded like he was offering me a spot. There was a glaring problem with this idea, I had never been onstage before and had no clue what to expect. His solution? The night before auditions, he invited me over and we worked for hours on both my singing and acting. It was a struggle, at first. In order to accurately help me prepare I was going to have to get out of my comfort zone. He knew if I was holding myself back in anyway, awkwardness would show through. Self doubt had to be free from mind, so his first mission was to scare it off.

Our first task was improving my singing. I had never gotten singing lessons, people rarely (italics would not have done that word justice) had heard me sing before, and I did not know any of the lingo that choir students may be acquainted with. In order to explain breathing techniques, pitch changes, and warm up procedures, he used inside jokes not only to break down our musical language barrier, but to simultaneously break the ice and ease my worry. Although I was clearly already comfortable being around him, I would not have been able to instantly make myself vulnerable. I needed to feel safe in my environment before I could open up to him. After working on the fundamentals, we went directly into working on my audition song, “One Song Glory,” from the greatest musical on the planet, Rent. Before we had finished my first attempt he already had a note for me. What he said is something that is not only valid in music (as I’ve recently learned), but in truly everything.

He turned off the backing track and paused before saying anything. Then I found out what I was doing wrong. Apparently, I had been singing “One Song Glory” an octave lower that it was supposed to be. Because my voice typically rests in that range, he hypothesized that it felt more comfortable for me to sing there. He was right, high notes are scary. The pep talk didn’t stop there though. What followed will stick with me for a long, long time.

My friend asked me if I wanted to know the secret to hitting higher notes. His advice was to just do it. It may feel like I can’t, but I shouldn’t even think about it. I should worry about the lyrics, or the acting, or even the color of the chairs in the audience, but don’t think about the pitch for even a moment. My voice can do so much more than I think it can, so I just need to trust it to do the right thing.

My first attempt did not go well. As the first high note came, my voice resembled the dying cries of an animal being run over by a car going sixty miles an hour. I laughed at myself, but it was out of embarrassment. He may have smiled, but my friend did not laugh at me. Nothing but encouragement came from him. More advice was presented to me.

Do not hold back. The only people in the house were him, his mom (who coincidentally was playing piano at the time), and me. No one was going to judge me, so just go for it. The worst that could happen is I might miss the note, in which case we would take the necessary measures to fix it. Restraint only hinders progress. If I held back, I would subconsciously be telling myself that I couldn’t do it. When I went for broke and let all of my insecurity fall to the side, I would be able to achieve what my fullest ability offered. Until then, any talent I might have would remain untapped.

That may be a pretty abstract concept, but it made total sense to me. I was afraid. I was afraid to mess up. I was afraid to look stupid. I was afraid to embarrass myself. He made it clear that in the unlikely event I was not able to do what he thought I could, no judgement would be passed. Outside of the situation that seems obvious, but at the time I irrationally believed verbal evisceration was headed my way if I made a fool of myself. His comments relieved that worry, and with that we began my next attempt at the song.

Even though nothing had physically changed, I was feeling exponentially more confident. I powered through the first portion of the first verse without any doubt. Before I knew it, I was tasked with defeating the high notes. “One Song Glory’s” iconic guitar riff began picking up speed and the palpable tension between his iPhone’s speaker and I grew. The high notes came, my self-doubt slipped away, and the notes came out just the way we intended. It was miraculous. I was so excited. We stopped the recording and did the run again. Even though the first time had gone smoothly, I was so excited that technique must have been abandoned because my vocals did not sound good to put it lightly.

We tried doing vocal exercises before singing along again. Once again, the end result was pretty abysmal. After finally conquering part of my audition song for the first time, I turned right around and failed spectacularly. Twice. I was crestfallen and quite honestly, ready to give up. My friend refused to let me get down on myself. Normally, it would have been easily to just succumb to self criticism, but my friend’s reassurance proved stronger.

He clicked play on “One Song Glory” and Adam Pascal’s voice filled the room yet again. This time, instead of letting me sing the beginning of the verse, he spoke to me. Forget about the high notes. They’re there, but they should not be intimidating. I already proved to him that I could hit the notes, so I really have no excuse not to do it again. Why get hung up on past mistakes rather than realizing I’ve done it before and just need to duplicate that success?

Suddenly, the first verse ended and the chorus started approaching rapidly. Swiftly bowing out, my friend motioned me to sing the chorus. Without having a moment to reconsider, I went directly into singing mode. He proved right again. The notes sounded the way they were supposed to. That was the second time I had sang it correctly! My soon-to-be director cut off the music and gave me a smile. I’d done it, he told me, when I didn’t allow myself to have second thoughts I was able to go ahead and hit every note.

We sang through more songs from Rent. Then, we sang songs from other musicals (more specifically “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” and “Pippin”). Goofing off and playing random characters, we sang to all sorts of different melodies. He pulled another trick on me. All of those songs were just more instances where I was able to hit hard notes. That had not even crossed my mind until he pointed it out to me.

In a matter of hours, I had gone from being too timid to sing anything in front of anyone to belting out assorted Broadway numbers while dancing around my friend’s bedroom. Consider the ice broken.

We jumped into the other side of theater that I lacked experience in: acting. Reading through the audition scripts was a breeze. I felt comfortable around him, therefore putting on different voices and playing with different emotions was not as worrisome. Unsurprisingly, we did not work on acting for nearly as long. He gave me tweaks here and there, but he let me in on another little secret. In practically anywhere, if you loosen up, the product you churn out will be much more satisfying. Good actors do not get scared stiff onstage. They don’t worry about their blocking or their lines. Often, it’s the opposite. Actors can be known as some of the most over-the-top people in the world. It makes sense. If they were always worried about how others perceived them, how could they perform?

I could go on and on about this kid. He is one of the most genuinely nice people I have ever met. You will never see him yelling, insulting others, or taking out frustrations on someone. Always looking for new people to interact with, he is also one of the most welcoming people my school has to offer. All of these are good qualities for a teacher to possess. No one ever has a bad thing to say about my friend, because he is not one to make enemies. Teachers who make an effort to reach out to every single one of their students will generate copious amounts of positive student rapport. In my opinion, rapport is the most important factor in a classroom. With authentic connections between teacher and student, a classroom can become an environment where students feel comfortable enough to try new things. We will not be afraid to potentially fail for the purpose of bettering ourselves. Without these bonds, a classroom remains a linoleum-covered prison that we are sentenced to for nine months out of our year. I know which one of those I would rather spend my time in. It doesn't take much for a teacher to give their classroom the feel that my friend gave his bedroom. After all, as my friend said, restraint only hinders progress.

This post is very dear to me, as my friend is graduating at the end of this school year. Like I said earlier, I have only known him for a short while, but in that amount of time he has proved to be one of the best teachers I have ever had. Teachers come in all shapes and sizes. They are found all around our community and the lessons they share are not any lesser just because they do not take place in a school. I hope we can all learn something from my friend and the guidance he offered to me. If we forget our insecurities and just reach for what we desire (in academics or elsewhere), it's within our grasp.

I would love to hear any thoughts (in agreement or opposition), any suggestions you have, or any questions you may have. I will continue to update this as the year progresses. You can follow me on Twitter @TheSammer88 for live updates from me. The hashtag, #BowTieBoys has been compiling my thoughts and my partners’ thoughts, so be sure to check that out if you want to hear more from us.