I am directing a production of Dickens' A Christmas Carol in Egypt with middle school students.
What follows is
My Director's Diary
Start reading here for the newest entry.
Cutting the Show in Half
Some weeks speed by and certainly the final week of rehearsals went by in a flash. We weren't able to get through the whole show in the 50 minutes allotted to our club time. It was then that I made a major decision: we would not perform the whole show on the following Monday. Sunday would be our final rehearsal; Monday would be only ACT I and II (or the first half of the show); Tuesday would be ACT III and IV (or the second half of the show). We would repeat this performance schedule of first half on Wednesday and second half on Thursday. The performance for the parents after school on Thursday would be the only time when the whole show would be performed.
Doing a show is stressful. We were under a big time constraint of 50 minutes. Sure, I had timed out our show at 40 minutes but...what if there were delays? Even if we performed the show at 40 minutes, those students had to change out of costumes and make it to their 8th period classes. That's tough! I made it easier. It goes against convention but it made sense.
What's funny is that, if you think about it, Dickens' stories were not originally intended to be taken in a one lump sum. They were the original cliff hangers given out in drips and drabs to the paying public in magazine formats. Making the audience come back to see the conclusion is in keeping with the way readers first got to know the story of Scrooge.
Time is So Short
Scrooge. He has been a challenge for me. He went AWOL for a week earlier on in the process. When he came back, there could have been some bad feelings towards him from the cast members who had been coming loyally. I made the decision then not to do or say anything which would push him away.
It was so nice to see him getting scenes memorized. He was so happy to know the first scene by heart. I didn't want to be a downer so I didn't tell him that he was mostly stating either, "Bah Humbug!" or "Good afternoon". The great thing is that his enthusiasm to learn lines kept going. Sure, he became overwhelmed and I did have to cut some great lines at the end. Yet, he found a way to eat the elephant (one bite at a time). I'm proud of this boy.
As we sat there, the cast all excited about the week ahead, I asked him in front of everyone about that week he didn't come to rehearsals. "If you could magically go back in time and live that week again, would you still have stayed away from rehearsals?"
"No. Time is too short."
I patted his back and said most sincerely, "Then I'm happy because you've learned a really important lesson."
Time is too short!
The Land of Long Dresses
One of the crazier problems has been getting the kids to find costumes. I thought it would be a breeze! It's true that they're used to highly financed costumes being made-to-order but I knew that they could find their own ready-to-wear outfits in their own closets. They could look in mom's stuff or their cousins'. Little by little, the troop would bring in clothes. One boy was so interested in dressing the part that he brought in five different ideas until he found the right look.
Not everyone could handle this assignment. I started bringing in clothes that I had. I figured that something was better than nothing. What was weird that my clothes on these young girls looked so different. Subhanallah, it actually worked. We added some boots and some shawls and piled up their hair. Voila! Victorian!
One girl drove me nuts telling me that she still couldn't find a long dress. "What country do you live in?"
"What do you mean?" she asked as the school bus bumped along.
"Don't you live in Egypt?! That's like the Land of Long Dresses! Don't tell me you can't find anything." I chastised.
"There was nothing at City Stars," she explained.
Everyone around us on the bus told her how you don't go to the Westernized mall to find baladi clothes. We told her to look at places like Khan Khalili. I had the feeling her inability to find a long dress might have something to do with her favoring pants.
Busted Up Belinda
Unbelievably, the Cratchit family ended up with two lame children Tiny Tim is the usual one to walk with a limp. Tiny Tim is supposed to have a lot of brothers and sisters around to care for him. Our show kept losing the actors in these small parts so I cut them all except Belinda. Yes, Belinda would be the one to help Tiny Tim. And then...Belinda broke her leg. She's been in a cast for weeks. Really, only Tiny Tim can be the lame one in the Cratchit family or the impact becomes lessened. What to do?
I hated to tell her that she was out of the show for two reasons. First of all, it wasn't her fault that she had been injured. She was already having a hard time and I didn't want to make it worse. Secondly, we didn't have anyone else! Waiting for her to stop using crutches has been a drain on my patience.
When I get stressed over things like Belinda in a cast, I have to laugh it off. A show can become very stressful but it's supposed to be fun. What are the chances, I tell myself, that out of allll the kids in the show, the broken leg had to be on the one character who has to help Tiny Tim? Laugh it off and keep it going!
Let it Go
It's what I needed to do when the posters for school walls and the invites to the parents didn't show up on Thursday. That was something that was out of my hands and out of my control. I'm working on not freaking out if I literally can't do a thing about it. That's hard when you're a director! You've been creating a little world but in the end you have to live in the REAL world with real constraints. I let it go.
My voice was almost gone. I had been sick and using my voice in class is a must----I simply can't not talk. People think that if a teacher loses their voice it's due to shouting at the kids but it isn't. I am projecting pages and pages of material over seven hours. How can I not lose my voice after being sick?
I did find a little extra volume for the cheerleaders who are in the show. I love them and they bring so much to the play. The problem is that they want to do it all and be in two places at once. Even though they have permission from their coach to be with me this week, they keep asking to leave rehearsal if their part is done. No! Cast members have to stay and support the others. I've talked with them about giving the show 100% but I think they still are torn between the two clubs. It makes me wonder if I would cast cheerleaders in the next show.
It's funny. "A Christmas Carol," is not even up yet and I'm already thinking of the next.
Start reading here if you want to go back to the beginning.
It's worth stating that I wanted to be an actress from a very early age and my B.A. degree is in theatre. I have performed in dozens of shows. I've written many and directed a couple of shows with my KG students at my former school in Egypt. When I switched to my current school, I was told that two other teachers were involved in theatre. I waited that first year until I understood the situation more.
Last year was my second year at the school and I had a weekly theatre club which went very well. Mostly, we did improv but I started to bring in scripted scenes and even an adaptation I had written of a Winnie the Pooh scene. That scene had gone so well that I started to wonder if a full show could be performed.
Before clubs were finished for the year, I asked my group of girls about the idea of putting together a show. Would they be interested or not? Their enthusiasm helped me decide to push forward.
In my head, I began planning how I would pull a show together.
- start rehearsals in the fall and aim for a December show.
- make the show's theme connected to Christmas.
- chose a classic story to portray since our school values classic literature.
- have many roles with many scenes to facilitate the amount of students.
- include some music for music-loving Egyptians.
- keep production levels low-key without purchasing costumes.
- work on the show alone since few seem to have a process-over-product vision.
Students and teachers kept reminding me that no one had ever pulled off a show. They were telling me that it couldn't be done. I countered that I had never been given a chance and I put into practice that, "the show must go on." If I started the process, then I would finish with a production inshahallah.
Writing the Script
After five weeks of school, we had a week of vacation for Eid Al-Adha. In those first weeks, I had waffled between being sure that I had to direct a play and feeling that I was setting myself up for ridicule.
I made up my mind that I really could pull this off a production of "A Christmas Carol" in Egypt at a school which has never had a play produced. A couple teachers had tried and failed. I adapted the script from the actual story rather than use a free adaptation. This way, I knew what I was putting in or leaving out. I did not make up any of my own dialogue; I was faithful to Dickens because (frankly) he's a better writer than I am.
The first day back after Eid, I prayed that my bus would arrive on time to school---and it arrived early! I swear to God that this never happens but for some reason it happened that first Sunday back. I asked permission to go the microphone for morning announcements. It's funny but no matter how many times I speak in front of an audience there is still an "OH MY GOODNESS! What am I doing up here?" question in my mind the moment before.
Hearing my voice boom over the campus for the first time ever, I greeted the crowd below and asked students interested in acting to show up for auditions. I maybe should have sounded more selective but I really wanted to drum up as many people as I could. That moment when students spontaneously applauded for me felt really good.
After lunch, I held auditions. There was a large number of very competitive students. Confidence was not lacking! That's one great thing about Egyptian kids! Each wanted to read a scene that I had printed out from the script. I did a preliminary casting by types and English ability and then grouped students into scenes and had them rehearse. Then, I sat down the whole group on the floor as I felt like I had to clear something up.
"I'm looking for good actors and actresses but I really have to find a people who can work with others because that's what theatre is about. Actually, that's what life is about too. You can't tell me "no" that you won't read with the person I give you because that means you don't listen well to me and you don't treat others the way you would like to be treated."
Then I had them read. I only had 50 minutes total to cast all the parts! I would listen to their short scenes and jot down the quickest notes you ever saw. Maybe I'd end their audition there or maybe I'd switch the parts around. If I saw potential in an actor, I would have them read as a different character. Of course I was most interested in finding our Scrooge.
I had already hand-picked a boy for Scrooge. He was perfect. He looked the part physically with his tall, angular frame. He was volunteering to read in class whenever he could AND he did a great job. Also, he was an 8th grader so he brought some maturity to the cast. I had met with him right before the auditions and had had him read. He did a great job! However, he didn't want to make the time commitment. Meet everyday? No, he would not.
During auditions, there was one very eager 5th grade boy. He didn't want to stop reading. I looked at him with new eyes. Sure, he was young but he had that old soul look about him. I started to consider him for Scrooge. I had him read different scenes again and again.
While he was reading one scene, I was borderline obnoxious with him by giving lots of comments. I wanted to see his patience level. Would he lose it if I pushed him? He didn't!
"How many days can you meet?" I asked.
"I can give you all the days," he answered with complete conviction.
The next day, my first choice for Scrooge asked me how it had gone. I told him that a boy had done well trying out for the part and told me that he could, "give me all the days."
His eyes widened in surprise. "You should give it to him then, " and I did.
When I put the cast list up, I surprised how the students with big parts weren't happy. They wanted BIGGER roles. They were pouting about not being in every scene. I had to convince them that having a NAME and LINES was a big enough deal and not to ask for more since some cast members didn't have either.
Soon after the cast list went up, it was to be our first meeting. I gathered them on the floor of our rehearsal space. I had made-up my mind not to have any chairs involved in our time together since there would never be enough for everyone. It was better to sit on the floor in a circle and feel more egalitarian.
The older girls, who had begged me for roles, came in late with books to study. I told them that they couldn't study during the meeting. One of them tried to challenge my rule. I was firm. She wondered if she really had to attend the meeting and of course she did. While I was talking about costumes, she tried to sneak out. When I called her back in, she then started to study aloud with another girl. Unbelievable! I told her right then that she was out of the show. It's too bad but showing that kind of disrespect not only for me but for the process had to be addressed directly and severely.
First Three Rehearsals
I jumped right into blocking. I decided that we really didn't have time for a read through. Since I had organized rehearsal by act, it was nearly impossible any way to do a full read-through. In a way, blocking the scene gets the actors physical and in the "now" better than sitting with their voice disconnected from the rest of them.
I had a great scene for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (this is the creepy ghost). The girl I'd cast had been with me in my acting club last year and I knew I could count on her to deliver. She has zero lines but her stage presence needs to be communicated through her body language. I'd seen some Japanese Noh actors talk about how the spirits in their very stylized plays are given very long sleeves. I told her to think of moving about long sleeves; it wasn't in slow motion but in a very weighted down heaviness as if through water.
Scrooge's reaction to the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was priceless. The Ghost enters up through the aisle and keeps her back to the audience (which I explained is usually a no-no in theatre). Scrooge's fearful face signals to the viewer that THIS is a terrifying experience more than showing the Ghost's face. Remember: the unknown is always more frightening than the known.
I blocked Scrooge backing up, falling over and then being on his hands and knees crawling over to the Ghost. There's this part where he states that he wants to change so I put him center stage kneeling as if in prayer to a Merciful God but an uncaring ghost. It was powerful in that moment.
It was that Thursday rehearsal that had me feeling that I was putting together an important experience. All the week's efforts seemed worth it. There was a show I was directing and it was going well.
The word got out that we were doing something fun. I couldn't walk anywhere without being accosted in the hall. Everybody wanted a part in the show! I decided to have them add their name to a piece of paper I called "The Understudy List". In an emergency, I could ask them to drop their other clubs and just attend ours.
I also put together an attendance list. The sheer number of students involved was mind-boggling! Every time I thought I knew who all was in the show, someone else would show up at rehearsal and remind me that they'd been cast or replaced someone else. It felt out of control---and as a director that isn't a good thing.
It is however a great way to meet more kids. I know it's not wise to cast kids you don't know but at the same time I hated when I was new in school and no one gave me a chance.
Despite the rehearsal schedule, I am not getting kids showing up on their days. No matter how much organization on my part, I have to bow to the scholastic needs of the kids. They have tutoring, exam re-takes, and sessions with teachers. I can't get in the way of all that. So, I work with whoever we have when we have them.
The other actors get bent out of shape but I can't get that way. I know that it's better to keep it all rolling along by working around those absent (me or someone else reading lines) than acting as if we can't do a thing.
Where is Scrooge?
Our Sunday rehearsal didn't have Scrooge. He didn't show. As a director, your pivotal actor missing is a big deal---even if you pretend that it doesn't matter that much to your other actors.
The next day, my actors told me that Scrooge had quit. I told them that NO ONE can quit because all of us made a commitment to do the show. I gave my talk about how we all wanted to put on a show and if anyone saw him then they need to remind him of how we are all counting on each other.
The day after, I saw him. He had a big grin on his face and told me that he had quit. I sent his friends away and spoke very straight like a coach.
"You told me that you really wanted this part. You told me that you could give me all the days. Remember? If you think that you can just walk away from all of us, it's not that easy. We expect you to do the right thing and come back to rehearsals so we can do the show."
I wasn't sure if I'd said the right thing. I worked on contingency plans. Maybe my stage manager could do it? Maybe...
Day after day, he didn't show. The whole week went by and, despite my cast member's efforts to coerce him, it didn't seem like he was coming back. How can anyone do A Christmas Carol without Scrooge?
Even without a Scrooge, we had to keep going.
At auditions, there had been a girl who REALLY wanted to be Tiny Tim but the problem was that she was just too healthy looking. Honestly, if Tiny Tim robust, then Scrooge (and the audience) won't feel that extra pull on heartstrings. I couldn't cast her.
There was another girl who didn't even try out. She was one of my smallest fifth grade students both in terms of height and width. I wanted to know if she would be in our show. She was perfect for the part with her big brown eyes pulling you into her angelic little face. With a cap pulled down, she would be the perfect little boy.
She agreed but she didn't show up. Day after day she didn't show and that other girl who REALLY wanted the part was anxious to replace her. Other cast members questioned when we would ever see her. I held my ground. The truth is that, while being a pivotal role, Tiny Tim doesn't have a lot of lines.
The day she showed up was worth the wait. She learned the song and worked with me to tone down that Arabic hard "r" sound in "Merry". She sounded great.
It was time to tell her that there's a problem with Tiny Tim's leg. I asked her if she had a leg that ever hurt and she told me the left. So I told her that for the show her left left would not work as well. Her foot would not point out straight but rather point in. I then told her to walk with her foot pointing in. She walked slowly watching her foot slid heavily across the floor. I then had Mrs. Cratchit call to her and told Tiny Tim to walk with that difficult leg quickly to her mom but while looking at her face. The effect was so amazing. You saw this huge effort from this sweet child and you yourself wanted to cry.
Time to carve the Christmas goose. This is the scene that Scrooge watches with the Ghost of Christmas Present. I filled in for Scrooge and read the line, "Will Tiny Tim die?"
There was an audible gasp from Tiny Tim and those big brown eyes searched for me with wonder. "Will I die?" she asked in all innocence.
"No, Habibi, " I soothe. "You'll be OK."
By Thursday, I was desperate for a Scrooge. I had already tried out the stage manager. He had been too reluctant to even read a scene at the auditions but had readily accepted the responsibility of coming every day. He knew the scenes so I had him read one. It was as wooden as can be.
"I'm not a good Scrooge," he told me after his scene reading.
"No, you're not," I had agreed.
"I'm not?!" He said incredulously.
"No," I said sadly about it because he had been my back-up plan.
Maybe I had been wrong for not choosing only based on the audition. All of a sudden, I realized WHY high school directors have favorites and rarely chose based on talent alone. Losing our main actor was beyond tough.
When boys I knew walked by our rehearsal space to check out the haunted house, I grabbed them for a try-out. Neither one was known for good behavior but I knew them both. First one read and I had to admit that he was an impossibility. The second one read and I saw a real chance to cast him.
This time, I asked him to take home the script, read it and talk to his parents about it. I wanted their support. The show couldn't handle another AWOL actor.
Unfortunately, that possible savior came back and declined the role because it was too much of a commitment. When I told the cast, they felt down but I told them that it's better than him accepting the role and then not being able to handle it. They agreed.
We brainstormed different ideas. They liked the idea of a teacher doing the part. I talked it over with the teacher they named and he nixed the idea immediately. He told me to postpone the show. I can't. I have made a commitment that "the show must go on."
We rehearsed the opening scenes without Scrooge...or his nephew Fred. Where was he?!
Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig
One of the problems about directing pre-teens in a show is that boys think girls are icky and vice versa. There are characters who are couples in the show and SOMEHOW I have to convey that they are connected...without any physical touching.
I had to work on this before with Bob Cratchit and his wife. He comes home from a hard day and his wife greets him at the door with
The same thing happened today with Scrooge's boss Mr. Fezziwig and his wife. I had originally asked them to do a dance together. They refused. I had to think how to handle it. How could I show the festive atmosphere of Fezziwig's Christmas party and their love for each other?
I had Mr. Fezziwig get very physical with Young Scrooge and Young Jacob Marley (I added the actor playing the Ghost of Marley to this scene). Fezziwig claps them on the back and spins each one around.
Mrs. Fezziwig then enters from the right with two big trays of cookies. When her husband tries to take one, she swooshes the tray in her left hand through the air away from him. He then goes for the right hand tray and she backs up with him in hot pursuit. He is after her cookies and she goes around the back of the two young employees in order to come to offer them cookies. After standing up, she sees her husband and offers a tray of cookies for him to pick but he takes the whole tray! He is acting silly and takes a cookie of the tray he is now holding. What does he do? He takes that cookie in his hand and gives it to his wife.
This is love without one touch. I swear to God, on stage is a deeper moment of that true connection a husband and wife have. I love theatre with constraints because this is when I am more creative and the production is richer.
The Return of Scrooge
He came back. I convinced him to come back---even if he wasn't going to play the title role. He had signed up for the show and we could give him a small part and we could give Scrooge to someone else.
I sat the cast down with them in our regular meeting circle and we welcomed him back. Then, I explained to him that we didn't have anyone else so asked if he could please read Scrooge's line today. He agreed.
At the end of the rehearsal, we sat together again and I had the cast tell him what a good job he was doing. In talking together, he admitted that he tried twice to learn the lines and couldn't. Poor guy! He actually had thought that he could learn alllllll those lines in two study sessions. The cast helped me explain how learning lines works.
I told him that I would make note cards for him so that his lines could be held in his hand better and he could learn them easier than in the script. If he never learns all his lines, we will just have to deal with that in the show.
I cast him. I still think he's brilliant in the role. I know another director would have let him go a week ago but I don't want to do that. I'd rather work with young actors than castigate young actors.
We are building a program. I need everyone---even if they might need to carry note cards.
God Bless Us Everyone!
We spent more time on scenes from Act II when the Ghost of Christmas Present brings Scrooge around London and into the Cratchit home. Once again, we faced the problem of boys and girls working together since Tiny Tim is actually a little girl. No, her "dad" couldn't touch her in any way while stating, "There's a hearty lad!"
I had to think of HOW to show that sense of big love without any physical connection. Bob had been seated and I had him get up to make more of an entrance for Tiny Tim. I thought of having him make a grand gesture but then cancelled that. No, Bob is not a showman. Instead, I realized that Tiny Tim needs to sit down so dad would offer him his seat and he would stand (even though we saw him almost collapse from tiredness in the chair earlier).
Tiny Tim's next line is "God bless us everyone!" I didn't want it sitting down. It's a big moment! So I had Tiny standing up and praying loudly with hope that everyone would be OK. Then, because Scrooge needs to be concerned about Tiny Tim's health, I had Tiny Tim put a hand back on the chair and sit carefully down, then put a hand to his chest and breathe a couple of quick breaths (as if that exertion had been too much).
Seeing our Tiny Tim do this moment was God blessing us. I swear that I have had faith in my cast---when they didn't show, when they weren't sure, and when others wrote them off. I was right with my casting alhumdulillah. I didn't base it on grades, or behavior (as some told me I should); I based it solely on talent at the audition. Whatever else happens, I want to remember those magical moments I've seen in rehearsal.
Coming Back to Rehearsals
Our school's policy is that clubs do not meet during the weeks for revision and final exams. I knew this when I scheduled our show. In my planning, it seemed absolutely fine to start rehearsals again on December first, and after two weeks, have the production before winter break.
After being gone from rehearsals for those two weeks, the cast came back together again. Needless to say, their lines weren't all memorized. Actually, I shouldn't say that was true across the board. The quiet girl who plays Scrooge's sister Fanny had memorized her little speech and to see her scene was inspiring.
Another moment with this girl had inspired me as well. I had been passing through the halls during exam week when we saw each other. Of course I said hello to her. She stopped me and asked me about seeing the show on youtube. I recommended The Muppet Christmas Carol because Micheal Caine plays Scrooge so well. As I walked away, I thought of how this girl, so interested in soccer, was now interested in Dickens. It's a small victory for an English teacher in Egypt.
Many of the smaller parts didn't have names. I knew this was a problem. It's hard for a any actor (let alone a student actor) to embrace a nameless role. Originally, I told them that I'd find a list of Victorian names and we'd chose some together. During the two-week break, I had another idea. I went to wikipedia and looked up all the various character names Dickens ever used. He was especially clever in naming. I took names like Lady Jemima Bilberry and Mrs. Flora Finching for the Charity Collectors, Mrs. Bagstock and Polly for the thieves and Betsy and Lucretia for the gossipers in the street. It feels so much better to have a name and I saw how happy it made the girls.
I then had new scripts printed out. This time, I used a much larger 14-point font so they could see their lines easier. I took those scripts and cut them up into half size in order for them to be held on stage. I highlighted everyone's lines. Yes, I made it incredibly easy on the cast. In the beginning, I had wanted them to take responsibility to a much larger degree but it wasn't working. They were overwhelmed and failing in their attempts to learn lines.
We started our new rehearsals with a new-found emergency. You can't really envision how quickly the time flies by when you are in October. It seems as if December is miles away. Suddenly, those lines you never managed to learn, become more of an immediate need. I hit that point home with telling them, "In the end, it will be you on stage, not me. You will look better knowing your lines. The play will run quicker and smoother. If you have to carry that card, then you have to but see if you can push yourself more."
These kids are already pushed in many directions. They have many other interests. The salsa class was meeting at the same time on Wednesday and Fred wanted to attend that instead. He felt that he had done his part in the show and could therefore leave rehearsal for that other club. I understood that I could give him free choice in the matter but that would mean losing him and perhaps doing him a disservice in the end. His lengthy speech about Christmas was not yet memorized. I gave Fred a very straight talk in front of the others that I would cut those lines if he didn't know them by next week. He stayed and the others got the message too. Suddenly, seeing actors off stage learning lines while others were acting on stage became the norm.
We didn't lose anyone this week alhumdulillah. I had been getting reports that Mrs. Cratchit had dropped out (an impossibility) but I found her on the basketball court and got her back on stage. She has such a great no-nonsense demeanor in the role. It's funny how we often cast girly girls in mother roles whereas a tomboy, with all that driven energy, is closer to the kind of woman who runs the home and guides the family.
Scrooge. God bless that boy! I handed him his script---impossible to only be on hand-held cards. He is in every scene and has so many lines that the paper is mostly yellow from the highlighting. Our Scrooge, who thought at one point that he could drop out, is "in it to win it" now. You should have seen him when he memorized his first scene with Fred! He was proud. Yes, his task is more daunting than the others but he is rising to the challenge. If he fails to memorize all his lines, it will not be his failure but a real success for the attempt.
Another English teacher asked me what is happening with our show. I explained the basics and then added, "They are all memorizing Charles Dickens. To hear a room of Egyptian children memorizing and acting out the words of Charles Dickens is a joy." It is.
I've been too busy this week. I've forgotten some of the joy of the process. I even showed one crack of stress. For weeks, I'd been able to balance my teaching duties and my directing duties but this week I also had to substitute---for not just one but two teachers who were gone. Suddenly, I was needing to be three places at once! I'm not joking.
There was even a chance that the administration might pull me from rehearsal to sub instead. My twenty-minute lunch break was a bit tense while it was decided. It was a moment of truth. Would my theatre program be valued? Sure, I could be giving the show my all but if I didn't have support for my efforts, then maybe...but alhumdulillah it was decided that I should be with my cast and the show carried on.
Next week, we will have five days of rehearsals before we open inshahallah.