The Discouraging/Encouraging Speech

December 17, 2010

When I’m visiting music director at a school, I am always shocked at how much the speeches of the teachers affect the outlook of the students. A rehearsal can be an absolute terror where everything went wrong, and if a teacher comes up afterward and says, “We have a show! Great job guys!” The whole tenor of the room changes, the kids cheer, and everybody stops getting nervous, even if the situation is quite desperate. And the converse is true too. If a rehearsal goes pretty well, and somebody gives the, “In all the years I’ve done shows here, I have never seen a show this bad so close to opening” speech, all the perspective drains out of the room and the glass becomes half empty for the whole cast. It’s a mob mentality. All that by way of saying that you have tremendous power as you give your speeches during rehearsals.

One thing you should keep in mind is the building excitement and progress toward your opening night. There actually is such a thing as ‘peaking too early’, where your show is in such good shape that it actually loses some momentum and the opening is a downer. More likely, your cast just THINKS it’s in such great shape that they lose the drive to continue to improve, and the show stagnates. There is a funny story about John Rich directing the Dick Van Dyke show, in which the cast seemed to have completely nailed everything in the first rehearsal, but the filming date was 4 days away, 4 days with nothing to fix. So the story goes that Rich rearranged all the furniture in the room, and had them rehearse it that way for 2 days, then rearranged it back, and they had 2 days to get their bearings back. Obviously that’s a ridiculously eccentric way of pacing your progress, but you can carefully keep things progressing by giving speeches that are encouraging overall, but register serious concerns and demonstrate high stakes.

1) Affirm progress first. Begin with something you had asked them to fix that they are now doing correctly. If there is no such thing, find something old that they are continuing to do well.

2) Find a couple of things that are easy fixes and if possible, run them a couple of times. Be positive and affirmative with these smaller efforts.

3) Work your way to the biggest problems in the show. Make it clear that it’s very important to solve these issues, run them, tell the group to put aside some time to work on these things at home. A favorite line of mine: “it seems pretty clear that the time we’re spending on this issue here just isn’t quite enough, but if you’ll all look at this just for a few minutes at home, where there are fewer distractions, we can make tremendous progress.”

4) Close by reaffirming your belief in the ability of the group to carry out the task, and call them to their best selves. “You’re better than this”, my colleague Tim Myers often says to his choruses. “I care about you too much to let you sound like that.” Then he gives them a big grin and they do it again.

You see, what it’s really about is getting across the realism and the high stakes that will give the fear incentive to fix the problems, while at the same time, getting across the encouragement and aspiration to give them the courage to believe they can do it. Too much fear without encouragement and everyone gives up. Too much encouragement without any fear, and nobody thinks anything really needs to be fixed. Shoot for a balance.


One comment

  1. Totally agreed. No matter what shape the show is in, coaching and encouraging is the only effective manner of getting the cast’s giddy-up on – haranguing won’t do it and just casts a pall over things and causes long term damage to the student’s opinion of the performing arts. … and if they give up, you’re doomed.

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