So I turn 60 this year and I think that I may have finally figured out this “theatre” thing. However, it wasn’t what I thought.
I used to think that I probably understood at least a piece of “the arts.” I should.
I lived in the Williams Building at Florida State University for what seemed like a decade and the reality was that I had no intention of ever leaving that campus or that English Department.
I knew that there probably wasn’t much else out there that could beat reading and studying great literature for “a living.”
Actually, it was over a decade.
My primary frame of reference for theatre had been my own high school theatre experience.
That meant a group of odd students - the ones that didn’t quite fit into any of the more mainstream clubs or activities and by default seemed to gravitate to the theatre where they sort of disappeared and occasionally put on a play or two that was poorly attended - if attended at all.
While I’ve been to a few Broadway shows and attended some great local theatre, my initial impression was never quite displaced.
The Milton theatre program however, was obviously different. That difference hit home to me recently when I started thinking about how incredibly popular the program seemed to be.
I did some math. The Milton theatre holds somewhere around 300 people. In the last couple years, the show performances have frequently sold out.
For example, all eight shows of their Cirque performance this Spring - Raz*Sta*Va sold out. So that would be around 2,500 people (at $10-$15 per ticket). If you take out the students actually in the program and their parents, that leaves about 2,300 - roughly the enrollment of the entire Milton student population. The more I thought about it, the more curious I became.
What was going on that could break down so many barriers and attract “most” Milton High School students - as diverse in interests and agendas and as cliquish as we know high school students can be. What created this common thread, I wondered?
My guess was that part of the answer was the quality of the performances. They are as good and entertaining as any high school performances in the country I am sure. But then again, it’s theatre and they are teenagers.
I think the rest of the explanation might have more to do with the thought that somehow, everyone at the school in some way felt like they had “skin” in the theatre program – that there was a collective sense of ownership.
But, how could that be? The program is quite small.
The answer, I thought, might be found not in the “destination,” which were the performances, but in looking at the “journey” that led to the actual performances.
And if that were true, again, how could it be that the entire school was able to “participate” in the journey of so few – the performers, tech / stage folks, directors and parent volunteers.
That “journey” that leads to the performances is fairly amazing, when one actually looks at what happens.
These high school theatre students build sets that normally only professionals could build.
They use power saws.
They affix rigging at heights that cannot fail.
They design. They use geometry. They use hydraulics. They figure out how to move all these big set props during performances on a schedule broken down into 5 second intervals.
They also raise money, learn to delegate, direct, follow direction, set and meet goals, as well as learn about the dynamics of promotion and marketing.
Sounds a little like an accelerated corporate America fast track program doesn’t it?
They solve problems and manage crises. More than a few instances this year - and these are just the ones known to me - large and sometimes serious problems were identified, accessed and solved within the roughly 30 second windows between scene changes.
Entire scenes have been changed and major set components created or modified only hours before a performance.
I am aware of other issues were prevented by far sighted staff because they had been given the responsibility of being far-sighted and diligent.
Scripts are never black and white either.
Execution of scripts is a collaborative effort between the director and the students.
Nothing is how only one person sees it or wants it — ever.
“What works” is the rule and figuring out what works – in this context – is a collaboration among equals and is a very two way street.
The theatre program begins relatively soon after school starts in early fall.
It ends the last week of school. In the time between there are countless rehearsals, planning, set building, writing, directing, fundraising and the actual performances. For much of the year, these kids are starting before school, continuing in their actual drama classes and then after school and into the night.
Seven day weeks were frequent.
Saturdays were almost always spent at Milton.
Starting at 7 a.m. and getting home at 9 p.m. or 10 at night was part of the norm.
And while all this is happening, grades and the rest of school are being budgeted for and managed.
I do not know the statistics, but I imagine that the cumulative grade-point-average of these theatre kids is high.
So what is it that makes these theatre kids willingly and with enthusiasm work 6 days a week and sometimes 7, for months on end before school and after school?
What is it that creates bonds between these kids - the jocks, the scholars, the misfits, the popular and the average kids and the extraordinary ones who have opted to get involved in Milton’s theatre program?
How is it that they are able to work together and so thrive?
The theatre program creates art that touches and connects people. Today, in a world that is increasingly desensitized, in a world that wants to commoditize everything and reduce it to a lowest common denominator or measure quantitatively, in a world where relationships and interaction between people grows more remote and more chilling, there is theatre and the arts — for which our need has never been greater.
People absolutely must be and feel connected.
In life everyone needs to feel like they still have skin in the game. We are lost without it.
So here is the rub in as few words as I can muster. A wise administration empowered the teachers and students in the Milton Theatre Department. By “empowered,” I mean that they were given latitude, responsibility, authority, and autonomy which in turn tapped amazing talent, energy, and passion from everyone involved.
This yielded these fabulous and well-loved productions. I believe this must be the Holy Grail part of the formula.
In offering that empowerment, great respect and trust was extended and expected - very transparently and very publicly.
It doesn't work any other way. I think that the entire school saw and embraced this - hence, the “collective skin in the game.” You can’t fake that stuff.
Milton students see and understand that what is going on is real. They like it and respond to it. Companies, boards of education, and yes, parents would do well to take notes.
Theatre at Milton – and everywhere – is about possibilities, empowerment and connecting people.
It is about passion, commitment, team work, deadlines, goals and goal setting, problem solving, trust, confidence, engagement, risk, humility, pride, interaction and effective communication.
It is about real life and it gives us the tools that we all need to maintain it.
Please never let someone try to tell you that the arts are discretionary or underestimate their value. It is the glue that holds us all together. Yes, Sinatra matters, because art matters.
I want to thank everyone involved in the Milton Theatre Department for their courage and passion these past four years.
I know there is nothing that you cannot do in the future because I have already seen what you can do in the past.
And finally, Cliff Jones, I cannot think of any other words than “thank you.”
You have changed the lives of so many people and your legacy will stretch far beyond what you accomplished at Milton — through these kids.
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