As middle schoolers who have performed in Hewitt dramas, musicals, and radio plays, we were excited when our Performing Arts Teacher Daniel Denver asked students to help plan this spring’s middle school production. Denver was inspired to form a student-led play production team after the success of our middle school performance of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He explained: “In spring 2020, the pandemic required us to shift our middle school production online, and I was impressed by the way the cast embraced working together remotely to produce their play. With students learning in person and online this past year, it was clear that we would once again have to think creatively about how to mount a show.” When Denver encouraged sixth, seventh, and eighth graders to bring their ideas and problem-solving strategies to the planning process, the four of us jumped at the chance to get involved behind the scenes. Each of us had already planned to audition for roles in the play, and we all thought that acting in a production we had helped bring to life from beginning to end would be an especially meaningful experience.
Our first responsibility as a production team was selecting the two spring plays, which was not an easy task! We started off by creating an interest form to get a sense of how many of our peers were planning on joining the play and whether they were most interested in comedies or dramas. Once we knew the approximate size of our cast, we combed through many websites searching for scripts that were engaging and that did not rely too much on physical interactions between characters, since most of the lines would be recorded from home rather than performed live on stage. After narrowing our choices down and doing read-throughs of each script, we settled on two one-act plays that we were excited to produce. The first play, A Virtual Whodunnit by Flip Kobler and Cindy Marcus, is a dramedy written for an online format that follows a detective as he investigates a crime and uncovers family secrets. Our second piece was Don Zolidis’s Cheaters, a drama about a group of students who have been accused of cheating on a test and must figure out who is guilty and who is innocent.
Once we chose our scripts, we turned our attention to designing an online audition process. This task involved not only creating signup forms and reaching out to students to encourage them to participate in the plays, but also picking scenes for students to read during their auditions. We tried to find scenes that had only two or three characters and made sure to switch up our pairings throughout the auditions. This allowed Denver, who cast both plays, to get a sense of the chemistry between actors and see which roles they were best suited to play. From there, the actors participated in Zoom rehearsals to memorize their lines and ensure they were able to portray their characters truthfully. Meanwhile, we worked with all of the actors to design costumes and figure out what props were needed for each script. Since the cast was going to be filming their own scenes from home, they also needed to prepare spaces to shoot, in some cases taking over their families’ offices and dining rooms! Everyone found creative ways to turn their homes into sets that worked for each scene, especially in the case of Cheaters, since all of the characters are supposed to be in the same classroom.
Filming over Zoom was tricky, both in terms of technical difficulties like video delays and lagging internet connections, and because each actor was alone in their own home. One of the difficulties of recording scenes over the internet is that it makes it hard to interact with other actors, which is a hallmark of good stage work. In order to elicit the best performance possible, cast members paired up as scene partners to record their lines, with one actor reading lines over the phone while their partner performed the scene in front of their laptop camera. After collecting everyone’s recordings, members of the cast also took responsibility for editing the scenes together to produce videos of A Virtual Whodunnit and Cheaters, which we showed to the Hewitt community via online platforms. The task of editing the footage was a rather hefty one, as it required cataloging each line to ensure it had been recorded, reaching out to cast members for reshoots, and, of course, the editing itself. Student editors first cut all of the footage to isolate individual lines and then stitched the clips together to create natural dialogue between characters. Not only did the editors have to place each line perfectly, but they also had to add in sound effects, reaction shots, and music — all of the final flourishes that pull a production together.
Being on the production team taught us that it takes quite a bit of work to get something as big as a middle school play up and running. As a group of students who were all starting from square one when it came to producing a play, we encountered a variety of challenges. Scheduling constraints made it hard to find long stretches of time we could dedicate to our team meetings, and working together online came with added disruptions from wifi outages. It was also difficult to sort through the sheer volume of plays we were considering to find scripts we wanted to produce. However, we understood that these kinds of obstacles are common and that pushing through them was necessary to get our work done. Denver shares, “The middle school production team was truly responsible for every aspect of putting these plays together, and they did a commendable job managing the many moving parts of this project. They gained hands-on professional experience as they set and met deadlines, employed creative problem solving, and stayed calm under pressure, ultimately creating something they were proud to share with an audience.” Looking back now, we see that the challenges we encountered taught us the value of patience and flexibility and reminded us of how important it is to communicate clearly and stay vigilant about timelines and deadlines.
This experience also taught us a lot about ourselves as leaders and teammates. Throughout the process, we discovered how helpful it was when one of us took charge (especially in moments of confusion), but we also realized that we should all take turns in that leadership role and that to be good leaders we would need to listen carefully to other people’s ideas. As important as it was for someone to take the lead, it was equally critical to know when to ask for support. We relied on one another for constructive feedback and helped each other by delegating responsibilities and spreading the work amongst ourselves. We also knew we could count on Denver to help us with logistical steps that required an adult, such as adding events to the school calendar or sending emails to the entire community. While for the most part he stepped back and let us develop our own ideas and systems for the production, he was always available to make suggestions, talk through ideas, and answer our questions.
Working on the middle school play production team was an incredibly rewarding experience. Though we worked hard, we also had a lot of fun together and there was a laid-back vibe that permeated our meetings because we were genuinely fond of each other’s company. We found time to laugh and make jokes as we pored over scripts and designed audition and rehearsal processes, and when one of our meetings fell on a team member’s birthday, we were quick to break out in song to celebrate! This camaraderie made it easy to work together and made even the most monotonous task feel less tedious. We bonded over being a part of this production from the very beginning, and that made exciting moments like seeing our hard work come to life during auditions and rehearsals feel even more memorable. There was something special about watching other middle school students try out for plays that we ourselves had chosen. We felt proud watching our peers show interest in the choices we had made and express enthusiasm for a project that we helped develop.
The play production team was a great opportunity to make new friends, learn what it is like to be a real techie, and create something awesome from scratch. Our work encouraged us to think critically about real-world challenges and consider how leaders must take the needs of others into account when making decisions. Learning by doing at Hewitt provided us with hands-on experiences that cannot be taught in a classroom or found on a search engine. We weren’t just working to prepare for a test or relying on a teacher to guide us every step along the way, we were learning about theater by doing the actual work of producing a play. This kind of student-led learning was a way for us to have fun while exploring the specialized skills that go into planning a production and get experience taking charge, solving problems, and working with our peers to achieve our goals.