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The Real High School Musical: Meredith Mohr Directs Gleefully

By Monica Friedman August 3, 2012

High School Theater, Small Town America, Herding Cats

Certain modern television programs create the illusion that “performing…just magically happens,” says high school theater director Meredith Mohr. After directing 28 high school shows, 5 college shows, and 8 community theater productions, Mohr thinks she has a better, more realistic idea of what it takes: “hours of grueling work.”

Coaching high school drama requires a particular kind of dedication. As with any teenage endeavor, there is a “herding cats” aspect to the job, navigating varying levels of commitment and maturity, incongruous schedules, unrealistic expectations, and adolescent emotions. The successful director must possess not only an artistic vision, but also an ability to serve as “therapist, parent, disciplinarian.” And, in Mohr’s case, working in small, rural Kansas schools with limited budgets for the arts, the director might also be called upon to act as set designer, costume designer, sound technician, lighting technician, and any other job no one else will do.

The payoff? That would be “the moment I would hit the green room door after the shows, when the kids were hugging, crying, yelling with joy, for what had just transpired.”

Seeing the students’ faces as they bask in the glory of curtain calls and standing ovations “are the greatest single moments I hold with me,” says Mohr. But these moments are built upon months of hard work, tension, and heartbreak.

Troubling the Boards

At every level, Mohr reports, directors face the terror of the performing ego. It’s worst at the community theater level, “dealing with adults who aren’t professional actors but who have been working in the craft for years,” whose “touchy moments” including acting “as if a director is holding them back from their true abilities.” At the college level, “most of the students were ‘the stars at their high school,” meaning that, there’s always a degree of culture shock when “they all come together at the college and have to compete with the other high school ‘stars.’”

But it is the tempestuous and unpredictable teenage ego that she’s found most problematic. The students who refuse to perform at all unless they are cast in the leading role are the least of her problems. Her “most eye opening moment about setting boundaries” came when she was only in her second year of teaching.

At about 2 o’clock in the morning, she heard a “loud non-stop banging at my apartment door” and found “one of my senior girls, drunk off her butt, being the cause of the banging.” From this she derived “lesson one: the kids don’t need to know where you live!”

The problem was that “she was angry about getting the comedic role in the show” rather than the bigger singing role although “she wasn’t the strongest singer.” While Mohr’s response as a young teacher might not be the same one she would have today (the student was banned from attending a debate tournament, but was still allowed to participate in the play), the incident did teach her to be ready for drama offstage.

Anything Can Go Wrong, but Sometimes It Goes Right

In these early years of her career, Mohr learned “to be ready to deal with any issue as quickly as possible, because the time is finite in a rehearsal and production schedule,” and anything can go wrong. In one production, she learned to hide asthma inhalers around the set so that a young actress didn’t have to repeatedly leave the stage when she needed her medication. In another production, she had to cast another teacher at the last minute when one of the male leads announced he was moving, two weeks before the show went up. From then on, she learned to cast understudies. This doesn’t just help with last-minute catastrophes, but also helping to maintain expectations. “For instance,” she says, “having understudies can really inspire the actual leads to be on the ball because you can remind them that someone else can take over if need be.”

One of her most ambitious, and favorite shows, was the traveling performance of Wizard of Oz, which her students dubbed “The Tornado Tour.” The script was rewritten to allow for plenty of participation by a young audience, and sets and costumes were designed to handle the stress and limitations of travel. But the success of this show, she says, was based on the same thing that makes any show successful: “select the best material for the time, budget and performers…[t]hen…work hard to impart to the students that their best was always expected, but that I would never ask more from them than I was going to put in myself.”

Tempests in Teapots and Other Occupational Hazards

Mohr is no stranger to hard work, nor is she innocent of the perils of working in small town mid-America. Producing Godspell for the first time, she encountered opposition on both sides of the political spectrum. One church in town strongly objected to this choice, saying “it was blasphemy to have a student playing Jesus, among other complaints.” Then, “another group in town said it was too religious for a public school to do.”

At any rate, the show went on, although Mohr was “really shocked by the fuss.” Later, she braced herself for the same reaction when she directed Godspell in an even smaller town, but found that there was no controversy. Everyone was delighted with the decisions made by the new drama coach, until the run ended and she selected Dracula for the next play. Then, staff members who “wanted to talk to the school board about their concerns over the show, because of ‘dark and demonic’ themes” approached her. “I couldn’t believe it, and remember asking them if they ever read the book,” she says, because “the good guys win in the end.”

In that case, the principal backed her choice, and the show went on. Other troubles pale in comparison (like the time she announced that Little Shop of Horrors would be the next musical performed, and a hard-of-hearing parent became very upset, “wanting to know why I thought it was even remotely OK to produce Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at a high school.” And then there was the time that the principal had his heart set on on staging Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but only five boys showed up for auditions, and one of them refused to perform if he didn’t get the lead.

Promoting the Arts

With funding for the theater always in jeopardy, Mohr has learned how to promote herself. At one school, she started a “theatre boosters association,” and included donors’ names in the program. With that success under her belt, she began selling ad space in the programs. Most of the local businesses contributing included phrasing like “proud to support the arts” in their ads, so it felt appropriate.

In general, she likes “getting out in person with my actors when possible to promote.” For high school productions this could involve taking performers to elementary and middle schools to “have the characters interact with the kids.” Taking older performers to local malls or other public spaces “to show a scene or do a few musical numbers,” is another useful strategy, especially for musicals. “People like musicals,” she explains, but “they are so much more…expensive to produce that you really have to hit the publicity machine hard.”

Another great idea, at the high school level, is to hold Halloween fundraisers, which she organized at every school. Her “theatre kids would set up a Halloween festival for the small kids in the town. Games and food and not-too-scary options for children too small for haunted houses.” Keeping her overhead low by soliciting donations of food and prizes for local businesses made these ventures profitable. “These were always very well attended,” she recalls. “My students would dress in their own costumes and would run all the activities. It provided a great financial boost, garnered good PR with the community.”

Visually Speaking

Today, high school theatrical productions can get the word out with Facebook pages and Twitter campaigns, but Mohr will never discount the idea that great print products are important to the stage. “A well-produced program sets the tone,” she explains. “I have always spent as much money as the school or community company budget would allow,” although this might not be very much. “Most schools just want you to type up a sheet of paper and copy it on colored paper and hand it out.” Mohr has even spent her own money on creating more impressive programs, “because I really wanted to ramp up the look and give the students something they would be proud of keeping.
Before social media, “plastering posters and placing ads in local papers in every place possible was always the first line of promotion,” and, while things have changed, “there is still a place for the print materials.” She believes beautiful souvenir programs are an indispensable part of a production.

“God forbid the day one goes to a play,” she worries, “asks the usher for a program, and is simply told ‘there’s an app for that.’”