Directing The Dead

On the Sunday evening, when the world was watching as the 85th annual Oscars, there was a great deal of pomp and circumstance about the performers and their attire. But what about the talent behind the scenes? One of the most prestigious awards will go to the Best Director. How many of us understand just what it is a director does? Directing a production requires extensive work and responsibility: creating a vision for the script and the production, gaining respect from your actors, overseeing design of a set, and finding costumes.

Turning a vision into a reality can be a daunting task for even the most experienced directors, so how would a student fare? For over 25 years, Dana has given students the opportunity to move beyond their roles as actors to take on the director’s seat. One of the three plays performed at Dana is student directed, with almost no help or influence from Mr. Groppe, the School’s drama teacher. On February 24th, Dana Hall students performed Tom Stoppard’s, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, directed by Sophie Hall ’13.

Being a director “wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” says this year’s director, Sophie Hall. “You have to be at every rehearsal and make the rehearsal what it is…you gain a new sympathy for directors.” Watching Hall and the actors during a final rehearsal truly showed what Hall meant. Hall showed great finesse and maturity when calling out directions to her actors. When someone forgot or missed a line there was no fuss, Hall simply read the first couple of words and reminded the actors of what they had previously memorized. Although this job is exhausting and time consuming, it is easy to see that everyone contributing wants to perform to their highest standards. “Sophie, as a director, is a good combination of authoritative and professional while still being able to joke around with us,” says Maddie Schneider ’13, who will be playing the role of Ophelia. With minimal sets and props, Hall has directed her actors to utilize the stage in a way that allows the audience to feel that a lot more is happening, even if it’s only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on stage.

This practice of allowing students to lead and teach other students isn’t a new idea. Cooperative learning, an educational strategy started in the 1950s, was designed to remove competition between students and encourage full participation from everyone. This process teaches students about “collaboration and how to respect a peer,” says Mr. Groppe. The strategy has been proven to be successful in most kinds of classrooms, especially language classes where students who are more proficient in the language can help those who are struggling. In the same way, a student directed play allows students who are more proficient in acting to direct and instruct their peers, without teachers present at the rehearsals.

Even the most experienced directors face obstacles during the process of bringing a production to life. There are many challenges in the director’s way. “Every play is a huge problem that needs to be solved and the director leads that,” says Mr. Groppe, advisor of the play. The main problems in need of solving include the dynamic between the characters, use of space, costumes, and props.

Mr. Groppe acknowledges the clear differences between student directing and his role as an experienced director. “When I say something (to the actors) there is a fear because I’m an authority figure. A student director [in contrast] needs to get actors on board with rehearsal where participation is completely voluntary.”

Rehearsals for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead were six days a week, for a total of nine hours of practice every week. The actors started off by blocking all of the actions that occurred during the play and how they want it all to look. After they complete this process, rehearsals focus on acting.

“Sometimes directing can be hectic, but I love getting to know my peers while we are practicing,” says Hall. Being in charge of teens who normally are your peers has the potential to be uncomfortable and challenging. “I think people respect me for the most part,” says Hall. “They see me as the director. I handle any conflicts by not dwelling on them. Adjusting and moving on is the best thing you can do.” Possible conflicts include: actors being late to practice or not being able to go, struggling to memorize lines, or not blocking scenes on time. Geneva Cann ’13, the actress taking on the role of Guildenstern says, “I love having a peer direct me. It doesn’t feel weird at all…Sophie’s dynamic and strict personality comes out when she’s directing and she conducts rehearsals really well.”

The play was selected by Hall, herself, because of its humor and the philosophical challenge it poses. The play, inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, shows us what is happening in the lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when they were off-stage. Throughout the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss many topics and unknowingly, and humorously, pose important philosophical questions and thoughts. “The play is perfect because Seniors have just read Hamlet,” says Hall. “They’ll enjoy seeing this tragedy from another viewpoint with a different ending,” says Hall.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a daring choice,” says Mr. Groppe, because it’s “extremely funny, so you have to deal with comic timing; simultaneously, it’s an intellectual play…it has to be funny and sophisticated at the same time.” In order to find the perfect balance of humor and braininess, it was important for Hall and her actors to have a deep understanding of Hamlet, since Hamlet is, after all, the roots of this play. Occasionally, student directors ask Mr. Groppe to step in and offer some guidance if they are in need of some direction or feel stuck. While he provides some assistance as an advisor, he never interacts with the actors; that’s the director’s job.

Despite the challenges the cast may have faced, creating a production of, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, proved to be a rewarding experience for the director, cast, and crew. As the team worked closely together to bring the play to polish for opening night. Many lines were embedded in the cast’s heads by running through them incessantly, final comments and details were stressed by Sophie, and props were finally thrown into the mix; but students agree that they learned more than they do through faculty-directed plays. It even allowed students to take risks that they would normally feel self-conscious about in front of an authority figure. “I definitely feel more like myself without a teacher present, and that gives me the ability to get a little silly, which is good for this play,” says Cann.

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