Summer Lovin’ – Part the Second

Posted on August 3, 2013

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This is my second post of three about my involvement in school productions during the eighteen years that I have been a teacher. The first, about why new teachers should get involved in these events can be found here.

This post takes me forward in my career by five years, two schools and a promotion and a relocation to the south. At the time I was a KS3 Coordinator of English (aka Second in Department, but there’s nothing like a lengthy job title to secure one’s sense of self-importance) at Adeyfield School in Hemel Hempstead and so it fell to me and the Head of Drama, Frances, to put on that year’s show. It was 1999, just two years after the release of Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet and so we decided that we too would do an abridged and modernised version of a Shakespeare play. Apologies to the purists in advance, but we wanted to capture the zeitgeist and we were unashamed in our pursuit of it.

Following lengthy discussions we decided upon A Midsummer Night’s Dream and dreamt up an idea that we could base it in a modern day nightclub. It was my job to take the original text and make it work for the new context: a collaboration with Shakespeare as I told myself with not a small degree of hubris!!! I read and re-read the play at least a dozen times, taking out large chunks of the text to make it manageable for the time we had allotted, relocating the odd line here and there for impact or to ram home a point, but never adding a single line of my own and never ‘modernising’ the language of the original. We wanted it to be an artistically licensed version of the original, not a Bowdlerised version, and with the creation of ‘A Midsummer’s Nightmare’ I hope we achieved just that.

Having written the script our next job was to audition (read recruit or pressgang) the cast. Together Frances and I pushed the issue in assemblies, in our classes and in the staff room for two weeks ahead of the official auditions: we were relentless and we needed to be. The result was brilliant and on the day of the auditions we had enough students to fill pretty much all of the roles, but we were left with one BIG problem – Anna as Titania. There was nothing wrong with her. Far from it. She was the best actor among us. But she was a six foot tall Amazonian sixth former standing just that little bit too tall amongst the Lilliputian year ten boys that had rocked up to the auditions. And given that we had made Oberon a rather gangster-like owner of the nightclub we needed someone who could at least reach up to her chin!!

I scoured the sixth form common room for males who could act even a little and came up empty-handed. I studied the relative heights of Y11 boys in the dinner queue and came up empty-handed. I asked shorter men amongst the staff whether they had any Cuban heels at home and came up empty-handed. I asked the London Dungeon for the loan of a rack and came up empty-handed. A drawing-board has never been revisited so many times, until that fateful day when Frances told me that she’d had a ‘brilliant idea’: I should do it. Before I had time to express my doubts (aka run a mile) she hit me with her best theatrical blackmail shot. “You’re the director, Kev, and a director has to do whatever it takes to ensure that the show goes on”. And that was that. I was Oberon.

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Yes, that is me. Yes, I wore lots of leather. Yes, I even shaved my head for the part on the orders of Frances. And no I don’t have a better quality picture than that.

Auditions began well but the most amazing things that happened in those early weeks were the development of the set thanks to the largely unsung heroes of many productions, the art and technology departments. We had a loveseat especially manufactured based on a scribbled thought on the back of a fag packet (probably literally).

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We had stylised trees to connote both the natural setting of the original and the manmade setting of our version.

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And we had massive strips of foil and four metre long garlands of reels of videotape hari-karied from the bowels of unused VHS cassettes as the backdrop to our DJ booth. The videotape idea was inspired, giving a modernist feel to the setting but also reflecting light in an almost mirrorball manner.

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As you can see from the DJ booth our nightclub was called The Wood in order to help make the Shakespearean text fit our new setting. Oberon and Titania were the dodgy owners of the club in the middle of an almighty domestic. Titania’s fairies became the ultimate party girls, club regulars.

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The mechanicals were the hardest parts to modernise, but we drew inspiration from The Full Monty, and so they became a bunch of underemployed builders looking to make a fast buck out of stripping who saw The Wood nightclub as the perfect venue for rehearsing their moves. The casting of the tallest teacher (seated second right) alongside the shortest Y8 child in the history of schooling (standing, I assure you, leftmost) was, alas, Frances’ idea not mine.

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The figure who held the whole modernisation together was Puck, an Oberon-authorised ‘house’ drug-dealer, dishing out ecstasy tablets to all and sundry. It had only been four years since the death of Leah Betts so we had the actor play him as a sinister, rather than comedic, figure.

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Of course because it was set in a club, the soundtrack to the production was as important important to us as the scenery, costumes and props. For Titania’s hangers-on it had to be this Donna Summer classic:

And for the mechanicals it was the massive summer hit of the year by Mousse T and Hot & Juicy:

With these, and the numerous other classic and contemporary disco tracks we wove into the production, I couldn’t have been more in my element and the audiences loved it.

But, of course, at the centre of it all was the story of Demetrius, Lysander, Helena and Hermia. Part comedy, part-romance these parts were all taken by our Y10 students as the play was performed post-exams and by heck were they good. The actors particularly loved the fight scenes.

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Ironically, but perhaps typically, they were less enamoured with the amorous elements of their role, but we did managed to get a convincing on-stage kiss out of two of them (albeit finger-bitingly not until the final dress rehearsal). Recalling myself as a 15 year old I can only imagine the reserves of strength and fortitude that they had to draw upon to take on the cat-calls and wolf-whistles with that lip-to-lip encounter: I couldn’t have done it.

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I still have an amazing amount of fondness and respect for these kids. Having dug out these pictures fourteen years after the event I realise that I can still remember their names: Ben, Carley, the two Marks, etc, etc. I’m not sure I’d recall them if they had simply been students in my classes (and many of them were).

The final piece of the jigsaw, again Frances’ idea, was to bookend each half of the performance with old Shakey himself, using previously discarded lines from the original play and cobbling them together to make the Bard of Stratford our chorus for the play.

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Lord only knows where Frances purloined this outfit from, but that was her genius as my collaborator, making things happen that I could have never imagined happening in my wildest dreams. I took a lot of plaudits for this production but she was the inspiration for so much that was good in it.

And then it was suddenly all done and dusted. The final of three performances came and, fittingly, it was easily our best, culminating in the whole cast scene and the after-show present giving and mutual thankyous that seem interminable at the end of a long performance and longer artistic journey.

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Of course there were the assemblies full of praise for our efforts and very oddly-written but lovely write-up in the local paper. And of course memories, including the ones welling up inside me right now. I’m absolutely sure that some members of that cast, now aged between 26 and 31, get flashbacks to that period of time when they felt that they could achieve anything.

But it wasn’t about those things at the time. It was about sheer, bloody hard work. For the kids, sure, but for the staff mainly and for Frances and I particularly. And that is the point of this post; how much time and effort teachers put into productions. Like me at the time, and like Frances, these are often middle leaders or junior leaders (now TLR2 holders) who have other significant responsibilities within the school, not to mention their own classes. They do these things not because they are easy or gain you promotion or get kids on your side but because they believe that schools need to have a focal point for something beyond the classroom. And they do it in the face of moaning by students who want to learn lines without effort, in the face of artistic temperaments spilling over into anger and tears, in the face of some staff cynicism and in the face of their own fleeting self-threats to just give it all up for a quieter life.

Frances wrote me a letter after that production that I still have on my office wall amongst a montage of memories from that time (I shall add a picture later). In it she writes that she “has rarely seen such hard work and dedication” and that it inspired the students to achieve amazing things. I’m still glad that she praised me for my hard work and dedication (ever the non-fixed mindset, me) rather than anything more glamorous. It was a time of 99% perspiration as it is for all staff who lead productions where only the other 1% is on show to the rest of the world.

I want to finish this post with two pleas. The first is to junior and newly middle leaders contemplating putting on a production. Just do it. It’ll keep you going when you no longer feel that you have the energy to do so again. And it’ll provide a careers-worth of happy memories to draw sustenance from. Most of all, though, it’ll make your school a better place for a few months.

My second plea is to school leaders. Make sure you support ventures like this in every way you can, whatever the other pressures coming to you from the DfE, Ofsted, exams, parents or the staff and students themselves. Don’t let school productions fade meekly into the wings and let exam performance hog all of the limelight. Most of all, let your staff have these midsummer nights’ dreams and then turn then into a reality for your school. The alternative is a nightmare scenario we really ought not to be contemplating.

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