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Stupid Things I Have Done: 4 Things Not To Do When Directing a Play
Don Zolidis

Don Zolidis

I think it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’ve done a lot of stupid things over the years. I’m going to limit this to my experiences as a director of my own work, though, to narrow it down.
To start with, I’ll admit that I’m not a great director. I’m decent enough at getting good performances out of actors, but I made a lot of mistakes in my first years. Here’s a few of them.

1. Use plastic chairs to stand in for your set. At the middle school, I didn’t have a shop. I didn’t even have a hint of a shop. There was no wood. So, if I needed a bed, I put three plastic chairs next to each other and draped them in a blanket. Problem solved. If I needed a coffee table, I tipped one of the plastic chairs over and put it in front of the couch, (which was also made of three plastic chairs next to each other.) The only thing I didn’t use plastic chairs for were walls, which I conveniently left off.

2. Tell kids to “find their own costume”. Another facet of having no budget was having no costume budget. Our “costume closet” was really an underground space where someone left a pair of sweatpants once. Incidentally, that pair of sweatpants appeared on stage frequently. Of course, I hoped that kids would be able to find their own costumes and bring in amazing things. As you can imagine, results varied widely. Sometimes parents would spend hours and hours carefully crafting a tapeworm costume, (not kidding), or other times kids would bring in a pair of jeans to play Santa Claus. Some of my first shows looked pretty darn ugly.

Check out my awesome set and costumes for "Alice’s Adventures with Poorly Cooked Cafeteria Seafood"!

3. Don’t practice lights and sound. I was lucky enough to have a light board – which was connected by a cable to backstage, so I could operate the lights by standing to the side of the stage. We had six areas we could use and no colored lights. If I turned all the lights out, the entire theatre went pitch black (which caused two things to happen simultaneously: 1. The middle school audience starts to scream “ooooh!” with the teachers threatening to send everyone to the office, and 2. One of the actors trips over a plastic chair thereby destroying the entire set and making a lot of noise.) My “sound system” was a boombox that I placed in front of the stage. Again, without practicing this, (and since I was both light op, sound op, director, and playwright), I made quite a few gaffes.

4. Don’t time your show. Our plays were normally performed during the school day, which meant they had to fit into a 50-minute class period. It usually took nearly twenty minutes to get three or four hundred middle school kids seated, so realistically, our plays needed to be thirty minutes or less. Well, since we were just finishing shows right before performances, I never had the time to actually see how long they really were. Most performances I kept one eye on the boombox, one eye on the light board, and one eye on the clock. I was never worried we were going to forget our lines; I was terrified that the bell was going to cut us off. (Because once that bell rings, it doesn’t matter if someone is saying, “and the killer is –” the kids are going to charge out of the theatre like a rampaging herd of water buffalo.

I didn’t make all of these mistakes for every show. In fact, I got a lot better at things. I started paying attention to costumes. I started finding ingenious ways to build sets – (I made an entire forest out of nine Christmas trees one year) – I managed to get some band kids to run light and sound (band kids are trustworthy, and they’re usually passing all of their classes, so you can pull them out to run the show.)

Four years after Alice, I was actually making decent costumes. This is "Oz".

Eventually, I even figured out how to relax during the play. A little bit. Just remember: even if you have a great script (which I always did, thank you very much) and even if you’ve got a bunch of great actors (which I always did), mood and atmosphere are crucial to a truly exceptional show.

–by Don Zolidis

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