School Theatre

Director tips: Using theatrical digital backdrops in online theatre for schools, and how to approach directing a musical.

During 2020, EdTA Hall-of-Famer Holly Stanfield converted an onstage production for online performances. We sat down with Holly to discuss Something Rotten! and her experience bringing a production to life on-screen using projections.

Lawrence Haynes: Hi, Holly! Thank you so much for talking with me today. You’ve had the unique experience with Something Rotten! in that you have performed the original and subsequently adapted the production for streaming. Your original staged production garnered praise and an invitation to the International Thespian Festival. I want to start with discussing how you tackled the show (comedies like this can be complex to pull off)! How did you go about creating a high-calibre production with young students?

Holly Stanfield: We had a great experience with this show! The thing that I found to be the most important to the direction of the show was the dialogue. When you're working with a comedy, the audience needs to clearly understand what you’re saying to get that laugh. The thing we’re most proud of was a comment from an adjudicator remarking on their understanding of everything the cast said – we spent a lot of time focussed on that and the kids worked really hard at it.
I guess the biggest thing about Something Rotten! is that it’s a big show. The technical elements are big, the property elements are big, the music is big, complex and fun. The tap dancing is essential and the comic timing is what really pulls it all together. All of this is a huge project. But, boy, we had a blast and the kids loved it.

Lawrence: I learned recently that you auditioned students across your school district. I think it really exemplified how the arts can act as a generator for community – it brings everyone together.

Holly: That's exactly it. I mean, I think in some communities they view the arts somewhat competitively – like athletics – and we don't see it that way at all. We think it's the place where the community can come together and work and tell stories. That’s our focus.

Lawrence: How long have you been auditioning across the district? Is it standard practice?

Holly: Well, this kind of started a long time ago. I started teaching in 1990 in Kenosha and I was at the alternative school when I began. And the thing was the alternative school was nobody was forced to go to the alternative school, but anybody could come to the alternative school for any reason, if they had a need in education.
During my first year there, we did a production of Godspell and everybody was so excited about it that my boss in the fine arts department said, "Hey, do you want to do a summer show?" I said, "Sure." So we did Annie – of course you always begin with Annie. And from that moment on kids from across the district came and participated in our productions and that's how that began.

Lawrence: That’s great! So you’ve performed Something Rotten! to an in-person audience, you were adjudicated and invited to perform at the newly-virtual International Thespian Festival, so you had to adjust the show for online. How did that go?

Holly: Well, that was the project. In the past, all we would usually do is put one archival camera in the back of the auditorium. So, after we were accepted to the International Thespian Festival, that's all we had: It wasn't really focused correctly as far as lighting, so the kids would be bled-out. So you could get an idea of what the actor looked like, but everybody was in miniature and with onstage comedy the struggle to translate to film – that chemistry in the house between the actors and the audience. And it just didn't work for me. So I thought, boy, what do we do if we're going to bring any piece of this to the international festival.
So, we worked with John Prignano [Chief Operating Officer & Director of Education and Development] at Music Theatre International and took some of the best, big moments from the show filmed with our archival camera and combined that with studio footage of key characters filmed in a studio against Broadway Media’s Scenic Projections – one child at a time. We got permission from the authors [Book by John O’Farrell and Karey Kirkpatrick, Music and Lyrics by Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick] to play on the whole Covid/Black Death theme in a CNN news commentary style, using Scenic Projections as the backdrop for these interviews.

Filming Something Rotten! for virtual ITF using projected digital backdrops (Scenic Projections)

Lawrence Haynes: Was this your first experience using digital scenery in theatre?

Holly Stanfield: This was the first time.

Lawrence Haynes: How did it go?

Holly Stanfield: It went extremely well. They were wonderful and we'll definitely use them again. The projections added the location element when we were “interviewing” a character, it was as if we were on the street in Shakespeare-era London. We really are looking forward to using projections in the future – they’re a wonderful tool.

Lawrence Haynes: I’m glad you found them to be so useful, particularly combining your first time using projections with creating theatre in a new medium! Let's talk a little bit about your career in education and theater. I want to know, after over 30 years of doing this, what continues to drive your dedication to education in the arts?

Holly Stanfield: There was a moment with my Junior High School kids. We were doing a production of Bye Bye Birdie, and I was in the back of the auditorium – these were extremely gifted kids and they were just doing an incredible job. I realized that it wasn't just a lot of these parents watching and responding to their kids, but they were laughing because the kids knew what they were doing and were doing it extremely well. And I think that's the biggest thrill of my life is to watch young people really excel at something, work extremely hard to get there, but then have that moment where the community connects with them and they connect with the community. High school just has a special energy to it.
We’ve been lucky to have a guest music director from Skylight Opera Theater of Milwaukee – Richard Carsey. After he got done with the production, he walked out and he said, "this has been like a breath of fresh air. They're just so excited about doing this every night." And he said "I had forgotten what that feels like." I don't have to forget because I know every single time I walk into a classroom that they're very excited to do this. That's just an amazing way to spend your life.

Lawrence Haynes: Absolutely. That’s what we shape our work around – it’s about getting kids onstage and engaged in the arts. We feel lucky that our theatre makers aren’t just drama teachers either. We can help schools where teachers work cross-discipline to create opportunities for the students like this.
So I kind of wanted to ask, with your experience, if there's one or two pieces of advice you would offer a non theater teacher for directing a musical?

Holly Stanfield: Pay attention to the words. Everything's in the script. If you direct from what the playwrights and the composer has given you, you can't go wrong. Really, the only thing you need to tell a great story is to be seen, to be heard and to be understood. And that's it.

Learn more about using Digital Scenery for online theatre at this link.

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