Props … Costumes … Sets … Lighting … Sound … Choreography … Blocking. With all their moving parts, school musicals are no easy feat. So when Burbank Elementary School in San Diego decided to take on its first-ever school production this year, it sought the wisdom and experience of another Turnaround Arts: California partner school — Fremont/Lopez Elementary.
BURBANK: This is our first attempt at a musical. What should we be mindful of before we choose a musical?
FREMONT-LOPEZ: Choose something that both you and your students would be interested in. Something that would be easy to create sets, costumes and props for.
Did you choose a 30- or a 60-minute show? Why or why not?
We chose a 30-minute play and are glad that we did. We started auditions in December and started practicing in January. Our performances were the first week of May, and we ended up cramming extra practices into our schedule in the two weeks leading up to our performances because we weren’t sure we’d be able to pull it all together.
How did you generate interest in the musical? How did you inform and educate students?
We included information about the musical in our morning announcements, distributed flyers, and hung posters around the school. It must’ve worked because we had around 80 students try out.
Did you tie participation in the musical to school attendance or behavior?
In order to even audition, students had to get permission from their teachers and their parents. [Click link for samples.]
How large was your cast?
We started with 35 students, but we ended with 28.
Did you double-cast?
We decided not to have understudies because we worried they might spend all that time learning the lines and never get to perform. However, at our last performance, one of our leads got in trouble at home and was unable to attend. Fortunately, within 24 hours another student learned most of the lines and most of the songs and dances. If we were to do it all over again, though, we still would not have understudies. We would instead make sure the expectations were clearer to parents. We had sent notes home, but we had not held a meeting with the parents. Next time, we’ll be sure to include that face-to-face interaction with families.
How did you schedule rehearsals and all the prep work?
The students who played our lead roles were unable to meet after school hours, so the majority of our rehearsals were during the school day. We pulled students out of class for 50 minutes two times a week beginning in January. In late April and early May, as the play got closer, we met a few times after school and for a few hours on a couple of Saturdays.
What was your rehearsal policy in terms of missed rehearsals and student behavior?
Since most rehearsals were during school we didn’t have too many missed rehearsals. We didn’t really have behavior issues either — just a little playing around. The students wanted to be there and did not want to get sent back to class.
Any tips for sets, costumes, lighting and sound?
We connected with a high school, who lent us some costumes and props. We sent out a wish list of props that were needed to the staff, and for anything else we went to thrift stores. For lighting and sound, our school was already equipped with a system. It was old, but our music teacher made it work. We did have to rent body microphones. They were quite costly, so we just ordered four for our main characters.
What would you do differently next time?
I wish we had started rehearsing sooner because we were rushing toward the end. Also, we should have held a meeting with all the parents once the students were cast so that they knew how important it was to be present at all rehearsals and performances. Honestly, you learn as you go. I was fortunate to have a team of two other teachers helping me. Please keep in mind that I can’t sing or dance, but somehow I was able to help students do both! And by the time the curtain went up, the students had created a show that their friends and parents loved.