Last term we put on a show of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I’d love to explain how we did it, how we fit it into our context and how we made it as student led as possible.
The search for a show
Our school does a Shakespeare play every other year and a musical or other play every other year. After our production of the Twelfth Knight last year, the students made it very clear that they were done with classical theatre for two years.
Our search for a suitable play was made complicated by the requirement for the content matter and themes to resonate with our school’s special character of transformation and the nobility of humankind. Thus, Grease was struck off the list as being immoral. Beauty and the Beast was good on themes but technically very difficult and expensive. We ended up cutting it very fine and at the end of the summer holidays were frantically searching still. When Emma suggested Joseph, I immediately said ‘OK.’ When we suggested Joseph to the Boss, he said ‘OK.’ When the students were asked, they said ‘OK.’
It helped that there was an awesome school version and that it was all on special. Our school is tiny and sourcing enough semiprofessional musicians to pull the complex charts wasn’t an option this time so we decided to go with the backing track. So glad we did. The show sounded tip top! The sheet music and tracks turned up FOUR days before rehearsals began so were really left it to the last moment.
Roles, rehearsals and auditions
Our school is so tiny that we had roles allocated to certain students straight away. We still held a series of lunchtime auditions and some minor roles were selected that way. Anyone who walked in could join the choir or brothers without audition because we wanted everyone to have a go. We wanted to have this all nailed down and concrete so that permission slips could be sent home and scripts could be issued.
We stuck pretty closely to the score provided and this proved to be a bit different to the popular recordings. Students needed reminding to listen to the official recordings, not one off YouTube because the vocal harmonies were quite different. We ended up ditching some of the harmonies because we couldn’t sing high enough (the school production seemed to be set for pre-adolescent voices) and that worked just fine. Rehearsals were during school time on a Friday afternoon and in the evenings during the week.
The musical really demanded that we get as many radio mics as possible. It wasn’t really a goer to get the students to sing acoustically and we wanted to do a semi professional musical as much as possible. We applied for funding to the Rātā Foundation for radio mics as well as a 32 channel digital mixing desk as well as lights and dimmer packs. Sports wanted a few things too so we threw that into the mix too. The massive application was largely successful and we were able to get everything – apart for the Mics and desk… The Rātā Foundation were so supportive and helpful with the gear we did get.
When it became apparent that my dream of getting a 32 channel digital mixing desk had not eventuated, I started urgently sniffing round for ANY desk at all. A local church was selling their 32 channel Soundcraft 2 analog so we ended up going with that. It was HEAVY to move!!! This desk actually was awesome for this job and is a fantastic piece of kit. We could program scenes to each song to mute inactive radio mics, we could set up groups and eq them to the character of the hall and control the overall volume of each group. Our hall is infamous for terrible feedback and we were able eliminate much of this using the desk’s features. I’m looking forward to finding some cool old rack mounted compression and parametric equalisers to plug into this monster. The desk now sits pride of place in the tech booth in the Hall. It is great for assemblies and bands as well.
Procedures of mic allocation
The next thing was to get it all set up so that students can operate it and know who to give mics to after their song. I also wanted everyone who wanted to to have a go with a mic. There were often lots of students singing without Mics because we would have needed twice as many to have one for everyone.
With that in mind, I wish I knew more about computational thinking to create a microphone allocation sheet but it ended up being done by trial and error in Excel. Mics could change person but only if they weren’t used for a song. This allowed the mic to be tak n off and passed to the next person, all while being (hopefully) muted on the desk 30 meters away in the sound booth. Once our microphone distribution list was created, it was entered by students into the desk’s scenes. The settings on the desk had to be debugged numerous times (once during the dress rehearsal) before they were accurate and seamless. You could tell a scene wasn’t right if you could hear feedback, people talking about how they had messed the song up and the rustling of them taking the mic off…
We only had the Mics a week including performances so we had students holding pieces of card with 1 thru 16 written on them and would check after random songs if the right people had the right Mics. The performers were awesome and onto it with this.
All in all, the students running the desk did a great job after a couple of gos. We occasionally had minor feedback but they pounced on it and eliminated it really quickly because they had learnt what to do. They had to do it all themselves because I was conducting and across the room.
How we stayed organised
We wanted this production to be student led and to have teacher mentors. The only main roles which were teachers were the director, Emma and the musical director, me. We followed a fairly standard division of labor between departments, for instance ligting, costumes, sound, marketing etc and held department meetings. Most of the work was done with students except for the money side of things which I generally did. We were pretty entrenched in Office365 and used OneNote, Planner and Teams for all of our organisational things. It mostly worked really well. I wanted to use Teams so that we could all chat and share data with each other but that ended up mostly being used by the sound dept. I also set up a live feed using Youtube so that people back stage could watch what was going on and get their cues right.
Our school, being a Waldorf school has cool timetable where each morning students have around one and a half hour of “main lesson.” These three week chunks cover many different areas and the three weeks coming up to the play is called the Play Week Main Lesson. This, along with evening and Friday afternoon rehearsals, was were the bulk of rehearsing happened. We are so lucky to be able to rehearse during school time and the support was fantastic for the whole show.
Putting this musical on was hair raising and it was the first time Emma or I had ever done one before. It was a great choice though in hindsight because it was inclusive, something the students wanted to do, it looked professional and sounded good. If I did it again, I actually can’t think of anything major I would do differently, other than getting even more rehearsal during school time, continuing to find better gear for the students to use and learn and pushing even more singing skill from the students in the choir so that we could start to work on vocal harmonies and accurate note reading. We are going to want a digital desk by the time the next musical comes in two years though so that we can record the whole thing, explore EQ and compression even further and generally push how good it can sound. Super stoked with how it all went!