Footloose: The Remix
A post-production journal entry by Lauren Noble
For many years I had held an image in my mind's eye that was as eerie as it was intriguing. It was the striking image of a group of young people on a dark, double-tiered stage. They were lit by a pervasive red glow and they marched in a uniform rhythm, in and out of the shadows, without any expression on their faces. They were completely devoid of any emotion. They were soulless. They were heartless. Their dark expressions and empty eyes made me think of one of my favourite quotes spoken by the feisty protagonist of Jane Eyre:
Do you think I am an automaton? - a machine without feelings?
And somehow, in the midst of this harrowing image, I was struck by an errant thought: what would happen in a world where young people were not exposed to the arts from a young age, growing up into adults who had no sense of appreciation or awe or even understanding of music, art, dance and drama. Imagine a life bereft of imagination - oh, the irony! A life where fact and fiction could never, ever collide because one was considered lesser than the other and had no place in the world of reality. As an educator of young minds, a director of make-believe and someone who often finds solace within her own imagination that thought was, quite simply, a nightmare. And yet many curricula around the world are cutting down the time spent on the arts or, even worse, fear-mongering by convincing parents and students alike that the traditional, time-tested subjects are the only subjects that can hold their own in a world like the one we currently live in (cue the "theatre is fun but you need to get a real job" discussion). The irony, of course, being that companies such as Forbes have just released a list of The Skills You Need To Succeed In 2020 with complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and people management coming out on top! Followed closely by coordinating with others, emotional intelligence, decision making, service orientation, negotiation and cognitive flexibility... There are so few situations where one is able to holistically explore skills sets like those listed by the above article and yet, frustratingly, there is still a widespread opinion that drama, music, dance and art are soft subjects that only the naïve choose because they cannot do anything else. The image of the marching students was becoming clearer and clearer in my mind's eye with each passing moment and, as with most of my partially manifested ideas, I held this image 'on the backburner' until it suddenly clicked into place in my brain. I was listening to some of our old school tunes that were always on full blast whilst doing household chores in my family home on a Saturday morning when Kenny Loggins' Footloose popped into the playlist... what if those marching students were under the oppression of a group of elders who thought that any overt expression of dance, drama, music or art was dangerous - giving young people ideas that encouraged them to deviate from the carefully laid out path of the tried-and-tested methods of yesteryear? And, just like that, Footloose: The Remix was born!
It was March 2015 when we performed the original version of Footloose: The Remix at my school in South Africa. I will never forget the feeling in the hall after the end of the first act when an ex-student came up to the soundbooth and attempted to shout loudly enough to drown out the excited buzz that had erupted in the hall after our Rewind Medley. The house lights came up and he caught me on my way down the gallery staircase: "Jim-Jones, I don't know what is going on here?! This is the most amazing thing... and I dunno why, but it also kinda feels like goodbye." (Little did he know that I had just applied for the role of subject coordinator of Drama at an international school in Dubai!) That feeling of passion and elation and even frenzy in our little school hall was something I will never forget; it was an extremely tangible feeling every night of that run and it was everything I adored about the theatre: the exhilaration that each of us go through from the techies who are running a mile-a-minute to keep the play afloat to the performers who have 38 costume changes, critiques and character notes to remember at any one time, from the directors and choreographers who are brought to tears because of moments of pure acting or routines that send goosebumps over your goosebumps to the audience who journey with you and fully commit to believing the story for two hours of their lives. I decided at the end of last year that the time was right to bring that feeling to the UAE and, in doing so, hopefully continue impacting the lives of students who have found a safe space of self-expression within the arts. Instead of a rehashing of the original story I decided to revisit many of the stories I had started in South Africa by expanding the world of Footloose to include a stronger sense of purpose for each lead role but also, in what was to become the crux of the story, to explore the repercussions of the awful tragedy that actually causes The Elders to feel as if they have to issue the ban on all artistic expression. The resultant plot line was one I was intrigued to watch during performance, pushing many of the characters to their limits emotionally as the story unfolded in front of the audience and within themselves every night.
The story of Footloose: The Remix 2019 follows a group of "four teenagers who arrive for their first day at the only school in town and soon realise that something is very wrong. A ban on everything to do with music, dancing, theatre and artistic expression of any kind has been enforced by the mysterious group of Elders. But what The Elders don’t know won’t hurt them, right? Because the students of the school have grouped together to form an illegal underground drama troupe called Standing Ovation - and they meet every other night in none other than the school hall itself! Taking part in songs from musicals, moments from movies and other amazing ideas all with the help of the vision of The Stage Manager and the enigmatic MC who guides their journey of self-expression through creativity. Join Maddi, Ezra, Izzy and Quaid along with their new friends, Autumn, Summer, Monroe and Zayna as they join the rest of the students in a rollercoaster ride of imagination! Let’s just hope The Elders never find out what they’re doing…"
One of the first devices I decided to play around with was a new character by the name of Sam who, in this version of the play, was the first student to enter into illegal activity by using the school hall for it's tech equipment like lighting and sound before more and more students were invited to join his underground drama troupe. He became the link between Standing Ovation and the character of The MC who we as the audience are fully aware is the acronym for the character of Mr Macallister, the English teacher who clearly values the act of artistic expression enough to endanger his career for art's sake. Through Sam we had the chance to dabble with the ideas of meta-theatre, a style of theatre that is fully aware of its own stance as performative and references the circumstances of its own performance in a world that doesn't really exist. We used quite a few throwbacks to The Mixtape Factory 2018 and even Timehop 2017 whilst drawing the audience's attention to aspects of the performance that aren't really considered when watching a final show: rehearsals, technical challenges (and boy did we actually have those!), opposing views between techies and directors, the difference between a snap and a fade to black and so on and so on... it was always great entertainment to duck out of the way every time Sam looked up to interact with the soundbooth, leaving our spotlight technician to behold the stares of 300 people who suddenly realised they could look away from the stage during our show too!
I have always loved PostModernism as a stylistic choice on stage and my appreciation for the various forms that these works can take permeates throughout my teaching: from the way I teach in my classroom to the content and contexts I choose, from the medium through which I deliver that content to the use of devices such as a fascination with imagery, intertextuality and a strong infusion of multiple media... PoMo is everywhere! Part of my work as a teacher of drama is to ensure that my students have ample opportunity to learn not just about the basics of the theatre industry but the contexts surrounding specific movements, genres, styles and pieces of theatre throughout history. Most of my productions make use of the Postmodern notion of "the snapshot" which, in general terminology, is the idea that a series of disparate snapshots (like those from an old Polaroid camera) can somehow be made to stand adjacent to one another whilst maintaining their stance as individual moments rather than merging into one super-moment, as it were. Footloose: The Remix was written to give my students an opportunity to experience a variety of snapshots and each for a different reason.
A big part of our process this year involved the design of a lively stage that matched or even exceeded the bright boxes and boombox introduced to our school during The Mixtape Factory. This year our Head Designer pulled out all the stops with an idea for a decayed stage that was abandoned for too long suddenly coming alive with the work of a group of passionate students who reclaimed the space to perform acts of rebellion against The Elders. Our Week Without Walls started us off on this journey with a variety of amazing props being crafted from scratch. This year we made:
8x Elders Proclamations (in the style of Dolores Umbridge)
4x double-sided banners (one side with ugly, boring rules and regs and the other with the four houses of Harry Potter)
2x posters with one ugly, decayed aesthetic and another with a bright, vibrant aesthetic (for Wicked, RENT, Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, The Lion King and Les Miserables)
1x Sorting Hat
6x bright red prohibition signs (for music, art, dance, drama, performing arts, photography etc)
5x bright red prohibition signs (for different styles of dancers feet or footwear)
4x new student folders
4x unicorn wings
2x MC steampunk hats
4x 2m by 3m grey brick wall school corridors with plain black doors for classrooms
1x Up house (courtesy our Head Designer who then couldn't fit it in her car to deliver it back to school!)
.. and so so much more! This year we really extended our hall into its own fantasy world for big numbers such as our own Bohemian Rhapsody and our Rewind-Remix Medley. The students loved the reactions of the audience to the little details that they, and many others, had helped bring to life during the process of designing the production with myself and our Head Designer. I believe our reliance on the talents of our staff alongside our students is one of those unique aspects of learning about the process of a theatre production as involving everyone in equal measure. My lecturers at university are masters of their field and taught me so much more than I ever dreamed possible during my Bachelor of the Arts Honours where I specialised in Acting, Design, Choreography and Directing. And yet, for their wealth of knowledge, they never taught me more than in the moments when they enabled us students to take lead on decisions, whether conceptual, creative or administrative in nature. It was that confidence in my abilities and the abilities of my peers that helped me understand the value of ensemble theatre... because sometimes our ideas worked, and sometimes they didn't, but at no point did anyone scoff at anyone's suggestions because they knew more than we did. The empowerment of young people through knowledge and skills is therefore a defining attribute in my classroom environment and that, of course, extends into the walls of any theatre. I wholeheartedly believe that humans learn by doing: by failing, by succeeding, by admitting defeat and then asking for help, by working together towards a common destination. It just so happens that in the theatre that common destination takes place in front of an audience and this alone places a unique pressure on the entire process. There simply isn't room for failure because that failure takes place in the public sphere so the only logical way to negate the threat of failure is to find a way. Thus theatre is inherently solutions-based and the problem-solving techniques that emerge throughout the process as a result of this is awesome to behold!
Every year we hold an awards ceremony to thank students, parents and staff who supported the production in ways big and small. We always begin the event with a speech which I admit is my one chance to speak more directly about the value of the arts in our society: "And just like that, the Footloose journey has come to a close. It feels like such a short time ago that I was in front of my cast outside in the KS5 quad – there had been a sandstorm that week and the air was still muggy with dust and debris. Who would have believed that just two and a half months ago we were starting choreography for 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and now we’re here together having just performed our final production for 2019. My journey of theatre at in Dubai has been one of utter fulfillment and that’s due in entirety to the children you see before you, some of some who are even sitting the audience having moved on to other places and come back for a visit (and then helped out with our technical difficulties this evening – thank you, Dami!) I am a teacher who believes in the value of camaraderie and my classroom environment often feels like a train station. It is a place of refuge for students after a hard day and a place of quirky character traits that come rushing out of them in strange bursts of energy or honesty or even craziness… I’d be lying if I said craziness was not a staple in our department!
During the trial scene Maddi says “We live in a world that makes young people grow up too fast, and sometimes that makes us feel like there’s no one there to listen. But at rehearsals for Standing Ovation, we get to let loose, to have fun and say things to an audience of people who are listening. Not just pretending to listen.” This is the crux of teaching theatre in this modern world. It allows students the chance to experience a multifaceted world in a small and safe space. A space of learning lessons and not just in the content of the story but in the context of how it gets on stage. It’s amazing how every year I think the level of expectation will stay the same and yet, as it did last year, the level of expectation of the performers you see before you has increased, not only for themselves, but for anyone involved in bringing this piece of theatre to life. And this is only because they are now more than ever, acutely aware of what they are capable of, both on and off the stage. After 10 weeks of rehearsals amounting to 78 extra hours of Sunday, Thursday and Saturday sessions I think the children you see before you embody the ideas of Sam who knows in every moment what his Standing Ovation team are capable of and that their rebellion is such a necessity in the lives of the students at this imaginary school.