This past March, a troupe of startlingly talented Dhahran Middle School students entertained the community with one of the school’s most accomplished productions yet, Beauty and the Beast, Jr. Produced by Erik Melver and under the musical direction of Abbey Smith, the show was a full-scale singing, dancing, and acting extravaganza. It was masterfully co-directed by DMS teachers Tara Van Heel and Kirsten Palmer Thompson, both experienced thespians. We asked Kirsten and Tara to offer insight on what it’s like to manage a production of this scale, and the challenges and rewards of directing.
DTG: Do you have directing experience? Do you have a background in this sort of behind-the-scenes work?
Tara: I directed a scene here and there in college, and then my husband Chad and I directed adults together for the community theater in the small town where we lived in Minnesota. When we moved to Kuwait, I had a chance to take over the drama teaching position and directed high school shows for two years. After a move to Cairo, I continued as a drama teacher for another year.
When I came here to teach at the middle school I showed up in Erik Melver’s classroom and said “I want to help.” And he took me up on the offer.
Kirsten: I was a theatre major in college, with a focus on stage design and acting–not so much directing. Every school I have worked at, I have been involved with the show, whether it be casting, design, or assisting directors or producers.
Here in Dhahran, I started to assist with Erik, which led to working with Tara. On past productions, Tara focused more on costumes while I did the scenic design and build. For the show Once on This Island, I assistant-directed and Tara stage-managed, but we really didn’t directly work together until last year. Then Erik asked both of us to direct Cinderella. We learned very quickly how each other worked, and easily came up with a vision and idea for the show. It’s been great to have a partner.
DTG: So how did Beauty and the Beast come to life? What was the process, from start to finish?
Tara: Well, first Erik worked with our music director to pick a script. Once he handed it over to us for directing, Kirsten started on scene design plans and I started on costume design. Then we had a few meetings about casting– deciding just exactly how many actors we needed. And of course, a lot of scheduling, budgeting and organizing had to be ironed out during this time as well.
Before winter break, we had two days of auditions. Over 60 kids tried out! We had another day of callbacks to have a second look at a few students. Then the show was cast, and we had a week of read-throughs and learning the music just before the holiday.
After winter break, we returned to start on blocking, scene work and choreography. That first month, we met with the cast on Sundays, Mondays, and Wednesdays for 90 minutes. In February, we added on 4-hour Saturday rehearsals. Needless to say, it was a big commitment from the kids, and everyone involved.
On the tech side, we contacted some amazing community members to start work on everything else. They got right in there and painted and glued along with all of the assembled helpers. That’s how sets were built, props made and gathered, and costumes found, fitted and constructed. Honestly, loads of people helped. Some were cast parents, some our colleagues, some were just those amazing community members who just come out to work on our shows because they like the work, are tired of Netflix and looking for a new way to have fun or challenge themselves.
And then poof! Magic. We had a show.
DTG: You’ve directed two shows together at this point, both full-scale productions with hundreds of little details. What does the process of collaboration look like? How do you make it work?
Kirsten: Well, we tend to work every day, at all times of the day–shooting each other emails and quick messages. We also meet face-to-face every other day to discuss directing ideas, staging and costumes. We try to keep each other informed about everything, including ideas we want to try or what scenes we each think we need to work on. In the long run, we both push to make the other better by either expanding on an idea or allowing the other to just run with a concept.
DTG: And what have you found rewarding about directing… personally, professionally, and even socially, perhaps?
TARA: Directing is fun. At certain points, to figure out how I want scenes to go, I’m up there myself–playing all of the parts, singing the songs, saying “See? Like this!” You get to play around with all the roles, performing any you want to play, rather than being in the cast where you’re just stuck with one part. And then it’s even more brilliant when actors go beyond what you’ve shown them, when they feel confident enough to play around and try new ideas themselves. They surprise you in amazing ways.
I also find it so rewarding to witness and be a part of the learning everyone experiences. You always see so much growth in the actors, the crew. It’s so satisfying to go from having to give really specific directions–step here, do this, say it like this–to that point where you get to step back and let them just do it, all on their own, without reminders or prompts. And by the time you’re running the show, they’ve got so much confidence that if a problem happens, you can sit back and really enjoy seeing how they solve it.
And yes, while I’m directing a show, the show is my social life, my extended family. Thank goodness my actual family usually gets very involved as well; otherwise, I wouldn’t see them! There’s just so much fun and camaraderie that develops when you’re doing all of that work together. It feels like when you’re taking creative risks with someone, you get to a more true, intimate side of yourself. The friendships formed in the process feel deep and strong.
Kirsten: I also find working on a show in a school setting especially rewarding, because it allows me to work with students in a different, non-traditional capacity. We get to know each other on a different level. We are able to interact differently outside of the classroom, and if I don’t happen to have them in my actual classroom, we are at least able to get to know each other. The show also gives them a place where they can be different; they can be more of who they are, instead of staying in the social or educational confines of the classroom.
Professionally, it helps to get back to my roots of acting, stage design, and theatre in general. I love how it allows others in our community to see the other kinds of talent their kids’ teachers and administrators possess and feel compelled to give back to their communities.
Socially, a director’s life revolves around the people in the show. Friendships are tested, certainly. They are strengthened, and sometimes pushed to the limits because of the stress of wanting a particular vision to be seen and experienced by others. It does make you become a stronger person to stand up for yourself and what you believe in–as well as learn how to support the people around you! You learn to support the students by speaking up on behalf of them.
DTG: What do you find challenging about directing?
Tara: For me, the hardest thing to do is to ask for help… and then to accept it.
As a director, you try as much as you can to control the whole artistic vision of the show. Still, you can’t–and, in my opinion, shouldn’t–do everything yourself. So if someone says, for example, “Hey I’ll paint that for you,” and then it ends up not being exactly how you would’ve done it yourself, you just have to be able to work with it. You have to be grateful for the time that person just gave you, and love that work and let it replace whatever idea you had in mind in the first place. The shows end up richer for all the different hands and minds that touch it.
Kirsten: Challenges arise when you are not on the same page, when any one person feels they are more important than the collective. As a director especially, you need to listen, to observe, to allow yourself and others to truly be who they are. You need to make people aware–and then remind them periodically–that they are a team.
DTG: What do you feel are the main responsibilities of a director? Any advice you could give aspiring directors or assistant-directors?
Tara: Ultimately, you need to have a vision. You’ve got to see how you want a show to be. I like to have a guiding word or phrase as a big idea that the show is centered around. And then, not least, you have to put together a good team.
Kirsten: If you’re the show’s director, you need to be able to juggle many things at once and really keep tabs on everything. If you’re assisting the director, learn to watch, tweak, and ask the student to advance. Don’t interject, but see how the scene wants to go… and then find a way to ask the performer to give the director more. Do all you can to help the vision of the director come alive–then you’ll be able to step back at the end and enjoy the results. Have fun!