The arts these days are in an excellent state. At least in Pleasanton, California, where I have had the pleasure of working with their Civic Arts Stage Company these past 5 months. There are many factors that have gone into making this the most enjoyable work experience of my career thus far. I’m working with a fantastic company with excellent leadership. I know that I am 100% supported on an administrative level. The office is accessible and communicative. It’s glorious. I also have a cracker jack team of artists that work with me at the theatre. There’s no ego involved. We’re all there to teach kids and create art. Our rehearsals are collaborative, warm, and outrageously fun. Finally, there are the students. This is an after-school program, where kids ages 8-18 have to audition for each show. The fact that this is a by-audition program does a great deal to ensure that the kids involved come in with a desire to be there and a commitment to the project. They are excited to come to each and every rehearsal, and their joy, in turn, makes me more and more excited that this is where I get to go to work three or four days a week.
From the get-go, I’d had a sneaking suspicion that the Pleasanton program was something special. It’s not very often that you find a city-sponsored program with such a phenomenal budget and commitment to artistry. But in in this little hamlet, way out in the East Bay, the community is coming together to create excellent arts programs for their children. The more thought I’ve given to it, the more I’ve been able to whittle the magic – for that is indeed what this feels like – down to Community.
Our work in the theatre really is all about creating community. As an educator and a director, I really have three jobs. One is to create a community or company within the group of directors and actors who are with me at the theatre for every rehearsal. In this case, adults and kids alike are working together to create something special. Establishing what we’ll call Community Level 1 is something that I strive to do right from the beginning. I want everyone to know that we are in this together. Whether you are playing Charlie Bucket or an Oompa Loompa; whether you are the director or the stage manager – we are all equally accountable for the final production. I find that giving people ownership like this increases everyone’s commitment and belief in the project. Inside of the company community, is the world of the play – Level 2. In our recent production of Willy Wonka, it was necessary to establish both the world of the Bucket family outside the factory, and Willy Wonka’s magical universe inside the factory. The ability to create these imagined worlds is completely reliant on first establishing community within the acting company. The actors’ ability to relate to each other in character and on stage directly correlates to the level of trust they have for their directors and fellow actors.
Level 3 is reaching out to the city, town, or community at large whom you wish to come see your show. As a director, I have a duty not only to educate my students, but to teach the community in which we function about the value of our work. I want the parents, siblings, and friends who come see the show, not only to enjoy the story, but to feel like they got to step into our family for a short while that evening. Willy Wonka was a perfect show with which to establish all three levels of community. It starts with the song “Pure Imagination,” in which Wonka pulls Charlie into the story. It’s also an appeal to the audience. “Come with me, and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination.” Isn’t that really the point of any show. The actors, directors, and designers have worked tirelessly to create a world and a story, and now we have to convince the audience to come along for the ride.
Willy Wonka was one of those particularly special productions, where it just seemed like the perfect combination of people and energy. Every rehearsal was a joy. The kids were warm and eager to learn. Usually, as a director, I mainly am focused on Community Levels 1 and 3 – that is, the community of our entire company, and our ability to reach out to an audience. It really is up to the actors to create Community Level 2 – the world of the show. Yes, I envision the world and give them the tools to create it, but ultimately, they are the ones on stage, breathing life into these characters and making their world something tangible. In Willy Wonka, however, I had the unique opportunity to experience that on-stage world first hand.
In a strange turn of events, I ended up having to play the role of Ms. Teavee – Mike Teavee’s mom – for one of the performances. Our shows are double cast, so there should always be an understudy, but this was an extraordinary circumstance. I got the call on Friday at 4pm that I would need to fill in for the 7:30 show that night. As the director, I was, of course, very familiar with the character and the blocking, but there is a rather big difference between knowing the role on paper, and actually walking in her shoes! When I arrived at the theatre that evening, we let the kids know what was going on, and told them that I’d need to practice a few of the scenes before the performance that evening. There was some choreography that I didn’t know, and a rather quick costume change that required a bit of finesse. The kids were shocked, awed, and excited. They all quickly jumped in to help me, whether it was showing me a dance step that I wasn’t certain on, getting the costume ready, or guarding the dressing room door while I was changing. Once I got over my initial fear and adrenaline rush, and began to settle into the performance, I was struck by how warm and supportive the kids were. One of the younger girls came up to me at one point and said, “Rachel, this is so cool. You’re our director, but now it’s like we’re teaching YOU!” And she was right. They gathered around me that night and made me feel completely safe and taken care of. There was no way I could fail. They were there, sending me good energy on stage, discreetly showing me where to stand when I was lost, high-fiving me when I came off stage after every scene, and congratulating me at the end of the performance. I feel incredibly fortunate that I was able to step into their world for a night and experience, first hand, the family they had created on stage.
The best theatrical experiences are the ones in which you reach all three levels of community engagement. That’s really the whole point of theatre – bringing people together to share stories. If the show happens to be polished and filled with top-notch talent, that’s an added bonus. I have a feeling that as our community grows, our levels of talent and finesse will increase as well. The more that students return for show after show, the more they learn and improve. The more that people keep coming back to see our productions, the more support the city will send our way. I am so fortunate to be working with this large talent pool of enthusiastic actors, a passionate and giving staff, and a supportive surrounding community. As Willy Wonka says, “If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it.”