When I joined my son's family last night to go see their daughter's high school musical, we didn't know if we would need MASKS or not. Our state has withdrawn the mask mandate, but not for all situations, especially not for indoor gatherings of more than 50. We fully expected the students in the show to be wearing masks as well. When we entered the auditorium, everyone was wearing their masks. But when the show started, lo and behold, the actors were mask-less! YAY! We had the hope of hearing their voices and watching their facial expressions! We could pick out my granddaughter in the crowd, too!
The students gave wonderful, high energy performances. The sets and costumes were whimsical and so colorful, right out of the Dr. Seuss books. I was blown away by the calibre of the voices. The director, Mr. Brown, told the audience that "Seussical" had never been a show that he intended to ever do at the high school. But, he had seen a performance last year at a local community theater that changed his mind. After his hard work of studying to find the deeper concepts and cultures represented in the show, he was able to direct the kids in a very entertaining, meaningful show.
The first time I saw "Seussical" was many years ago at a community college. It was presented by a cast of adults. I had always thought that this show was written for adult actors to perform for young audiences --- NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND! Unfortunately through the years, I have gone to see way too many elementary and middle school versions of this show and have been completely underwhelmed. And no wonder, the show is comprised almost entirely of singing and dancing. The young actors (10-13 year olds) just did not have the experience, stage presence, and maturity to carry off such demanding roles.
Fortunately, the vocal and dancing talent of the Skyridge High School in Lehi, Utah was up to the challenge of these demanding roles. I was so glad not to have to just endure another trying performance. I was pleasantly surprised and so happy to ACTUALLY SEE THE KIDS FACES. That alone was worth the price of admission!
Before the Disney machine began offering Junior versions of their Broadway plays taken from their mega-hit movies with all of their marketing hype and merchandizing, the choices for Children's Theater productions were pretty lean.
Back then, little plays in the 10-20 minute time frame for 6-10 year-olds were usually not very exciting. It seemed that what was offered for schools and small time community theater groups came in two varieties:
1. Stories told by a Narrator with a handful of lead characters (who could share the one stand up microphone in the center of the stage) and a chorus of extras (who helped sing songs but did not say lines) OR 2. Stories that could be acted out by a very small cast in a small space without being aided by microphones and sound engineers.
The songs tended to be VERY short, unsophisticated and frankly uninteresting. Many of the songs had forgettable tunes written for children with limited ranges (and pianists with limited skills).
Elementary school teachers who wanted their students to have some sort of theatrical experience appreciated not having complicated productions. Many teachers did the same little play year after year as part of their curriculum. These chosen materials were deemed AGE-APPROPRIATE.
I remember doing some of these kinds of productions in my youth and hating them. The songs and lines were dumbed down so much it made us kids feel like we were still babies. But, does that mean that a show will automatically be more successful if it uses plots, lines and songs that were clearly written for adult actors?
Nowadays, most school and community children's theater directors go straight for the big name shows that are popular. But they are NOT always the best options for young casts. These shows tend to be pricey to mount, need lots of technical support, and have songs that usually call for actors who have wide, developed vocal ranges. (Not necessarily AGE-APPROPRIATE) Unless the groups have really talented kids, these shows can fall flat.
I have been to some really bad Children's Theater productions over the years. I felt terrible that the songs and technical support failed the kids so miserably. I came away wishing that the directors had chosen material that would suit the developing talents of their kids better and allow them to really shine.
There needs to be a balance between POPULAR and AGE APPROPRIATE.
(Can be done, but it takes good research to find those vehicles!)
I don't care how popular the show is or how talented the costumers and set designers are, if the songs and dancing and acting cannot be delivered well, you will just have a big flop. I always feel sorry for the poor audiences of grandparents that dutifully come and have to endure such awful performances!
Writing Children's Theater (for ages 5-12) from classic fairy tales, folk tales or fables AND keeping recognizable characters and plot lines, can be challenging. Many of these traditional tales involve having male protagonists. In other words, the story revolves around a male main character who goes out on a QUEST or a hero's journey, or has bad things happen to him that he must overcome --- Sinbad, Hercules, Aladdin, Pinocchio, The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Some stories are generic enough that a female can be substituted in the protagonist role, but then the title has to change because it carries a male name. Unfortunately, with that change, the production loses the valuable advantage of NAME RECOGNITION.
When a female is the protagonist in Children's Theater and has famous name recognition --- Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Rapunzel -- as a director, you have a hard time getting boys to join the cast. Young boys usually stay far away from any play that even hints of a love story.
So, what does a writer/director of Children's Theater do?
Well, first I look for stories that have a recognizable title with NO gender name in it --- The Country Mouse and the City Mouse, The Empty Pot, (A Successor to the Throne), The Musicians of Bremen, Stone Soup, The Tale of Chicken Licken, and The Ants and the Grasshopper.
These stories are the easiest to reimagine with a FLEXIBLE CAST. That means that the protagonist and other characters do not necessarily need to be a particular gender.
(These are good for the casts that have many more girls than boys, which seems to be the norm in Children's Theater.)
Since I ALWAYS want to attract boys as well as girls to my shows, I may use a story with a male name in the title, but make sure it has NO LOVE STORY and plenty of good roles for BOTH GENDERS. I have found that creating good female roles for a show that has a male protagonist is easier to sell to boy participants than the other way around --- Momotaro, The Adventures of Dick Whittington, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, (Never Cry Wolf), The Three Billy Goats Gruff
An exception, has been Parizade's Quest - a tale from the Arabian Nights. This show has a definite female protagonist in the title, but also has four other strong lead roles for girls, as well as many important secondary female roles. (In fact, Parizade is not the actual main female lead.) It also has five strong male lead roles, and many strong secondary roles for boys. It has NO ROMANTIC LOVE STORY but does have a REUNITING of a FAMILY LOVE STORY. (The boys were okay with that.)
I actually wrote this show for a group of kids I knew pretty well at a local elementary school. Of the 45 kids in the cast, we had about equal numbers of boys and girls --- VERY UNUSUAL FOR CHILDREN'S THEATER!
According to the research presented in Lucy Worsley's "Jane Austen Behind Closed Doors," the famed British author spent her life mostly living in other people's houses --- her parent's house in Steventon, several of her many brothers' houses, rented rooms in (her least favorite place) Bath, and other even less appealing accommodations. Sometimes the houses were small and uncomfortable, sometimes large but populated with many people, and occasionally they were very grand indeed. Each place gave her fodder for creating the settings in her novels.
For a time she lived at the grand estate belonging to one of her brothers who had been adopted out to a wealthy family. This mansion had many luxuries (for the time) but was rather secluded from society. I can't help but wonder if Jane herself might have pondered which was better, a situation secluded but with many comforts or a situation less comfortable but with the stimulation of more social interactions?
Apparently, holding amateur theatricals with the people you are "quarantined" with is not such a new concept. Jane wrote several scripts for home theatricals even in her youth. A few have survived from that period and document that home theatricals were held while she lived in that grand estate. In her novel Mansfield Park, the residents and guests at the manor house had to come up with their own amusements. One such activity was putting on an amateur theatrical. They held rehearsals, created costumes, rearranged furniture, and mounted an event for the household to enjoy. (Of course, in the novel, these activities were also peppered with intrigues.)
I can't help comparing our little production of "The Country Mouse and the City Mouse" presented by the grandchildren to what we might have done if we were staying together at a remote estate and needed some homemade amusement. We indeed mounted an event that the people we were quarantined with could enjoy.
But I really will be happy when this quarantine (because of the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020) is over and we can get back to more social events!
We have decided to go ahead with our Family Reunion despite the Covid-19 social distancing and quarantine regulations this summer. We are doing some of the familiar things, but definitely not the high adventure activities we usually try to do. Most activities will be close to home and won't involve spending much money. I guess that is a good thing in the long run.
As part of our Family Reunion, we are doing a Cousins Theater Camp. Many of my grandchildren live on opposite coasts of the country. As a result, they have not been involved in any of Grandma's shows before. In fact, I realized that these young people really don't know any of my background and history. With that in mind, I decided to write and illustrate a few formative stories from my youth and put them into an Early Reader Chapter Book format. These stories are about how I got involved in singing and doing Musical Theater.
My mother, Carolyn Thompson Lee was extremely talented. She could sing and dance, could play the piano effortlessly, and could throw together a show at the drop of a hat. She had her children performing from practically the day of their births. Even though these are memories from my own childhood, in a way, these stories honor her most of all. She was such a driving force in making exciting things happen for me, as well as my siblings, and anyone else within her sphere of influence.
The first story, Betsy Takes a Bow, tells how my mother taught me little songs to sing and had me performing from the time I began talking. She always told people that I learned to sing before I learned to talk. When I was two, she coaxed me into singing by allowing me to wear what I considered my fancy costume --- my "ruffly, fluffly" white petticoat.
The second story, Betsy Loves to Sing, is about how Aunt Janie Thompson began including me in a children's trio when I was 5. We sang for some pretty big gatherings in front of very large audiences.
Janie Thompson was actually quite a famous entertainer and director in her own right. At the end of World War II, she toured the world as a Big Band singer with the Ike Carpenter Band. She and Tony Bennett were the singers. Janie was asked to return to BYU to train young performers in the early 1950's. She then took those talented college kids performing all over the world.
The third story, Betsy Takes Piano Lessons, is about the problem of being the 6 year old daughter of a talented mother who desperately wanted her own daughter to have advantages that she did not have growing up.
Unfortunately, I did not think any teacher measured up to my own mother and I did not appreciate piano lessons very much.
The fourth story Betsy Directs a Musical is actually dedicated to a favorite Elementary School Teacher. Mrs. Richardson not only allowed, but encouraged a group of over-zealous 5th graders to put on their own version of Peter Pan in front of the entire school.
I hope my grandchildren can humor their Grandma and get to know the reasons why I do the things I do. I blame it all on my mother!
While watching a podcast the other day by Shoo Rayner, a popular British children's author and illustrator, I heard him answer an audience question. "How do you decide what to draw in an illustration? What goes on in your mind?"
In order to address that question, he told about his journey to how he got to becoming an illustrator and later, an author. He said that first off, he always loved to draw. From the time he was a child, he also used his drawing to tell stories. He said that he created his first book when he was just 5 years old. But as he was growing up and planning his life, he tried lots of jobs -- print design and set up being one of the formative ones. However, in college, he thought that he should be a scientist. But, he found out that he just wasn't good enough in math. His professor suggested that since he was always drawing, he should transfer to the art department. After trying so many jobs and failing at most of them, being in the art program was liberating. (He could get a job doing what he was good at and actually interested in? What a concept!) What caught my attention, though, was how he admitted that having those early experiences gave him a broader knowledge of life and a better base for understanding people and telling stories. An illustrator is ultimately a storyteller.
He also told about how he goes about planning the pictures for a story book. Because he grew up with television and movies, he said he thinks cinematically. As the story goes along in his head, he "sees" what is happening in pictures in his mind. (Where an author uses words to paint the picture for the reader, an author/illustrator uses pictures to paint the scene without needing to use words. In fact, using so many words on the page that say what the picture portrays is redundant and boringly unnecessary.) So, as he is planning the story, he is already visualizing the action in his head, and then, when it comes time to draw the illustrations, they are already there.
I have been thinking about how I have gone about writing scripts and songs for Children's Theater. After thinking about the STORY, SETTING and CHARACTERS for some time, and contemplating the children who might be in the cast, the limitations of my "stage," costumes, sets, props, choreography, and so on, the SCRIPT and SONGS almost came by dictation --- because they were already there.
One show in particular came about this way, "Parizade's Quest." I saw in my mind (mostly in visions through the night) the scenes, actors, costumes, and dances, then worked madly by day to put what I had already visualized onto paper. And just like an illustrator uses pictures to economize words, I could use songs instead of dialogue to move the plot along. Inspiration is miraculous!
Being an author, composer and director of a Children's Musical automatically sets you up for looking like a control freak. And it is easy to get into that mind-set of wanting to put your vision and JUST your vision into play. However, if you are wise, you will welcome other helpers and be open to their contributions. You need to be aware, though, that those helpers will come with their own ways of doing things that may be very different from what you envisioned.
While there is a recognized and respected hierarchy of jobs in the Theater, sometimes small community or school groups have to do their best with whatever they get. The Director oversees choosing the show, recruiting helpers, auditioning, casting, and overseeing all decisions related to what happens onstage and even backstage. The Producer sees that the needs of the Director are met -- finds the performance venue, rehearsal venues, oversees budgets, resources, and manages financial and personnel matters. Musical Director - teaches songs, may accompany the show or direct a group of musicians, or manage recorded tracks. The Choreographer plans The choreography and teaches dances, may oversee some Dance Captains. The Costumer oversees all aspects of costuming from designing to making, fitting and repairing costumes, also manages sewing committee. Stage Manager is responsible for planning movement of scenery, pulling drapes, lighting, stage crew, and entrances and exits of actors. Other helpers may include Scenic Designer, Lighting Designer, Sound Engineer, Hair and Make-Up Designers and crews of folks who work for these people. In Children's Theater, it is helpful to have Group Leaders assigned to 5-6 children to help them manage their costumes and changes, learn their lines and dances, and otherwise help them be where they are supposed to be, doing what they are supposed to do.
Most small Children's Theater shows are produced by a few people doing all of these jobs. The larger the cast, the more difficult the work loads of these few people. My advice is to either limit the size of the cast or recruit more helpers!,
Over the years, I have learned to be accommodating of other "ideas" as I have learned to work with the helpers who came and volunteered for combat duty. Sometimes, these helpers took my little ideas and developed them in beautiful and exciting ways. (I was humbled, astonished and overwhelmed by the amazing results!) Sometimes, our ideas were polar opposites, but we figured out compromises that ultimately worked. In any case, the focus should be on the kids and what they should get out of their experience in a Children's Theater show. All adult ego's should be checked at the door. We need to be TEAM PLAYERS!
Over the years, our family has had a tradition of gathering together on Christmas Eve and reenacting the Nativity complete with costumes for everyone. No one is exempt from joining in -- including guests who happen to just find themselves there visiting. The adults are usually the Narrators, Shepherds, Angel chorus, and the Wise Men. The youngest children are the sheep and donkey, the Angel/Star (holder) and of course, Mary and Joseph. Sometimes we have a newborn to play the role of the Baby Jesus. This was one of those years. Baby Camilla was born just a few days before Christmas, so she got the job, without even an audition! We knew she could tackle the role and do it perfectly.
Alas, one of the other actors was not so prepared for her assignment. Our little sheep, 2 year old Avery, did not agree that her role should require wearing a costume. And she much preferred doing her own interpretive dance to the Christmas carols, instead of silently and sedately "lowing in the field."
Five year olds Zak and Iris and 7 year old Ethan, however, took their roles as the donkey and Mary and Joseph very seriously. They stayed in character the entire time. And Iris was a beautiful Mary and insisted (with the ever watchful care of the actual mother) on holding the baby Jesus throughout the songs and narrations. And our Angel/Star (holder) Isabelle (age 8) was perfectly cast to lend sparkle to the production.
We even had a few surprise Oscar-worthy performances. The Wise Men this year were played by Great Uncle David, Uncle Michael and cousin Grace. They sang their verses of "We Three Kings" with style and expertise.
And Special Guest artist Great Uncle Steve gave a polished performance as the Roman Prefect who announced that "all the world should be taxed." All of the older adults (family and guests) read the Narrations and joined in the singing. They kept in character and also gave stellar performances.
This has become quite a tradition in our family. In the olden days, Great Grandpa Tom would read from the Bible and Book of Mormon and any combination of his children and grandchildren would act out the roles. As the family grew bigger and older, the different families continued to carry on the tradition in their smaller groups in their own homes. This year, because our child actors were so young, I decided to write an actual Christmas Nativity Script (a much abridged script) including the words to the songs, with enough copies for everyone to have one to hold.
A wonderful time was had by all and we enjoyed feeling the Spirit of Christmas and celebrating the birth and mission of the Savior of the World together this Christmas 2019.
Labor Day Weekend. Traditionally, the last weekend of summer. School here is already in session, but I recall that in my youth, school started after Labor Day. Many people have their last vacation get-aways on Labor Day Weekend, and some people use this time to recover from their previous vacation get-aways. I myself am taking this time to look back on all of the activities of this summer. Backyard Theater Camp, vacation at a Beach House in North Carolina, travel with kids and grandkids, going out to see shows with friends, trying to get the garden in and growing, choir rehearsals, my daughter's family moving out into their own new house, writing a new children's picture book... The list goes on and on. No summer loafing' for me!
In the mini-musical "The Ants and the Grasshopper," the Grasshopper sings a song called "Summer Loafing'" where he actually entices one of the little ants to try the easy, relaxing way of life. However, the Queen Ant knows that PREPARATION is the key to survival for the ants and she convinces the little ant that she needs to finish their work of gathering food before winter sets in. Of course, the grasshopper mocks the ants and continues his loafing ways UNTIL winter comes in earnest. He then begs to be let into the Ant Hill where he can get out of the cold and find food and shelter. The little ants beg the Queen to let him in to play music for them so they can dance throughout the winter. He joins the ants inside the ant hill, but then after a LONG time of playing his "fingers to the bone" while the ants make merry, Spring finally comes and he can GET AWAY. He learns that "You can play now and pay later, or pay now and play later. But either way you'll have to pay." (quote from John Maxwell)
In some respects, I have had my share of summer loafin'. I spent some pretty relaxing days at the beach house. But, I can't tolerate doing nothing for very long. I guess "Summer Loafing'" is not for me. Looking forward to Autumn!
During the Romantic Period of Music (late 1800's through early 1900's), a form of composition became popular called the Tone Poem or Program Music. The music played by the orchestra told a story. Usually, the poem or story was also published in the program notes so that concert goers could have it to refer to while listening to the piece. One very famous example of Program Music is "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (1897) by Paul Dukas (1865-1935) which breathes life into a poem by German poet Goethe (1797). The music tells the story of the old Sorcerer who leaves his young apprentice alone to do some chores. The apprentice remembers just enough magic to get himself into trouble. He repeats the conjuration he heard and causes the broom to carry pails of water to fill a large container. He just can't remember how to make it stop. You know the rest, undoubtedly because this once modestly successful piece for orchestra was later included in Walt Disney's "Fantasia" (1940). From that springboard, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" motives and themes have been used to underscore hundreds of theatrical shows, cartoons, commercials, and even a live action film by the same name. It is now considered wildly successful.
I admire composers who have such a command of the colors and sounds of the orchestral instruments that they can arrange and use them in their musical compositions to conjure up images for us in our minds. I also admire artists and animators who are especially equipped to use their imaginations and skill to give the listening and viewing public unique visual interpretations of classical Program Music. In fact, those artists can take almost any music and use it to tell some kind of visually appealing story. Musical underscoring helps move the plot along in a story or theatrical production. Directors of plays have long used the music of the classical Masters (Program Music or not) to "up" the theatrical appeal of their shows.
It's all Show Biz. We like to be entertained. And we like best what we know. We like to have the music used to underscore movies and theater be what will carry us away into the world of the story. It may be heroic and action packed. It might be spooky and suspenseful. It may transport us to exotic locations. It may reflect the popular music of the day. It may also educate us about music of a certain historic period. Modern composers may want to find their unique voices when composing scores today, but they also want to build upon the fantastic examples from the past. Even the legendary film score composer John Williams (b. 1932) used themes for "Star Wars" (1977) that sound like they are heavily influenced by Paul Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." It's all right. Composers "borrow" ideas from each other all the time.
In my own small way, I wanted to give a salute to the famous Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) when I wrote the mini-musical "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." He wrote incidental music for a play by Henrik Ibsen in 1876. These short musical pieces vary in style and help illustrate the moods and activities of the protagonist "Peer Gynt." I used little snippets of some of these pieces to add flavor to the songs from my little mini-musical. Perhaps you will recognize them. Enjoy.
My name is Betsy Bailey. I have sung, written and taught music all of my life. I enjoy writing and directing Children's Theater shows. This blog will be directed to topics on creating the magic of Children's Theater. I would love to hear your comments!