Elf the Musical Projections Chat with K’Lynn Childress

Conversation with drama teacher K'Lynn Childress about her school production of Elf the Musical and use of projection backdrops in the show.

How did you get into theatre?

I grew up in Northeast Texas in a tiny town. Just doing little theatre things in the church that I was in. And then, when I was in middle school, I got to move to a big town, which was not actually a big town at all. It was a small town. But they had theatre in school.

I did theatre all through high school. I ended up going to college to study English and theatre. I was going to major in English and minor in theatre and then go into education. I lasted about a semester as an English major before I realized that theatre was what I was really passionate about. I did a little bit in the professional theatre world. Not necessarily performance, but just that whole ‘theatre world after college.’ And then, I realized that I really wanted to be an educator—a theatre educator. And so, I did my alternative certification and began teaching 8 years ago.

What did you discover that you really loved about theatre?

I have always been obsessed with the idea of storytelling. Having a story to tell, and your life being a story. And having the privilege to tell those stories on stage is what I love most about theatre. I think I connected with that even when I couldn’t put words to it. And as I’ve gotten older, when I’m looking for scripts to direct, or scripts to be a part of, that’s what I’m drawn to. It’s ‘what story am I getting to tell, whose story?’ Is it a story worth telling? And I think that’s what I’m most connected to. It’s what keeps me passionate about being a part of the theatre world.

Are there any stories along the way that you’ve felt a personal connection with or really inspired you?

Gosh, so many! That might take a second to narrow down. As far as the story itself, a few years back my co-director and I created—and he specifically wrote—our competition piece for that year. And it was the story of Ruth Coker Burks, the woman in the 1980’s in Arkansas, who took in gay men who had been diagnosed with AIDS. Whose families had abandoned them. She took them in and cared for them as they were dying. She cared for over four dozen men. She’s still heavily involved as an activist and served as an advisor to Bill Clinton during his presidency.

We got to be a part of telling that story. Our students were a part of that. It was just the most amazing process. She actually flew down and saw the show. And they [the students] got to meet her. We were part of a documentary made about her life. It was just a transformational process for all of us. To get to tell the story of someone who was so sacrificial and such a risk-taker. And then to get to put that on stage in front of her. With her sitting in the front row. I actually sat down next to her while she watched it and she just reached over and grabbed my hand as she cried and watched it. It was one of the most amazing moments I’ve ever experienced.

So this is a bit of a knee-jerk left turn, but fast forwarding a bit to the show you just did—Elf the Musical

[She laughs] Yes, yes, very different.

Can you talk a little bit about that show?

Yeah, so this is my first year at Jersey Village [High School]. We came up against some calendar deadline issues and scheduling issues with our musical. So we knew that the way the calendar fell, we weren’t going to be able to take on a full musical. So if we were going to take on a junior [play] we wanted it to be something good and something that was going to be enjoyable for a high school cast.

So we decided that Elf was a perfect opportunity for them to have some fun and a great family Christmas or holiday experience. So, we started planning for a whole Saturday of holiday experiences for kids. We had Santa there they could take pictures with. We had holiday crafts and games. We did breakfast with Buddy the Elf and they had pancakes. It was a ton of fun and our students had a blast getting to bring this iconic movie to life. And it was a great, super fun first show or musical to get to be involved with—with this group of students.

Was there anything about the making of this show with your kids about doing it unique to your specific group of kids?

Oh, absolutely. So, maybe not specifically our group of kids, but our specific space. So we have no fly system. We’re very limited in our wing space, and limited in construction space. We’re an older school, and overdue for some renovations and upgrades. So it was definitely, ‘how can we bring the magic of this show to life utilizing the resources that we have.’ So, we wanted to get the most bang for our buck, not necessarily financially speaking even, but just with what we had already.

We worked together to figure out how we could make this magical world. So little things like painting the stage white to create a snowy feel that the light can bounce off of, and fun colors. Or neat things that created an extra little magical touch. Like taking those fun little Christmas light projections that you put on your house, and projecting them up onto the ceiling, so that you have snowflakes fluttering all over the ceiling. During pre-show, intermission, and during a couple of the musical numbers. It was fun just to work specifically with our tech kids on this show. To work with them and find those little magical moments that we could bring to the show.

Can you talk about your initial vision for using projections in the show?

Yeah, so I saw Elf Jr. when one of the middle schools in my former district did it last year. And I immediately thought ‘Ok, I want to do this with a group of high schoolers and really go all out with it.’ And I knew immediately that it was a prime candidate for some really great projections. There is just so many beautiful settings that the story takes place against. So, I had always envisioned if we were going to do this show, projections were going to be involved. So as we started looking at what kind of look we wanted, what do we want to go with, we were really drawn to the idea of a children’s book, as the story ends up being a children’s book. The story of Buddy the Elf. So conceptually we wanted to go with this idea that we’re being told the story of Buddy the Elf as we watch the musical. I think it turned out beautifully.

You also had an artistic vision for a watercolor look. Can you talk about that?

So my niece just turned three years old, and for her birthday, she got like 2 or 3 different books that had beautiful watercolor illustrations in them. And I thought they were the neatest things. So when I started thinking about children’s books, that is what I had in my head. I was just obsessed with this idea of watercolor right now, so that was the vision that I just couldn’t get out of my head.

Can you talk about the process of getting all of your tech elements together for projections?

With me just coming in [as a new teacher to the school] and not really knowing what we had or what our financial situation was, we put some feelers out. Thankfully, we’re a district where the other schools in our district are extremely generous and helpful. So I put feelers out to say ‘hey, what kind of projectors are you guys using?’ And one of them said, ‘I’m not using mine right now, just come and borrow it.’ And so we were very fortunate to have one loaned to us.

We utilized our school computers. That was easy enough, and then we just projected onto our cyc [cyclorama]. This was a little bit of a challenge because, not having a fly system, our cyc is just dead hung. And pulled across, so it’s not flown in and out. So it doesn’t have the same tension that a flown cyc has. So it was a challenge. It’s one of those things that we just ended up kind of living with. And just accepting that it wasn’t going to be perfect. That we would just have to deal with it. It still turned out beautifully. And so sometimes you just make accommodations. We pulled it as tight as we could. We got it looking the best that we possibly could, and we just moved on. We were very careful to keep all of our staging downstage of our mid-stage curtain. And then we used our mid-stage curtain to frame out our cyc. And kept everything upstage completely dark so that the projections were nice and bright and crisp. And that, for the most part, with the exception of a couple of scenes, that were lit full stage, it really preserved the color of the projections. There were a couple of times where we lost a tiny bit of color. But for the most part, we were really able to preserve everything.

What areas are you going to work on to make it look even better next time?

I think it’s going to depend on the production, and how we’re using the projections. If we’re going to use them again on the cyc, then we’re going to think ahead about ways to increase the tension. Are there ways to do this differently? And that would definitely be a conversation we have at the start of the process instead of close to actual time [of the show]. Which is what happened this time. But then maybe the cyc isn’t the best option for us. Maybe we do something different. For us, that was the only real challenge that we faced utilizing projections in this show. It’s a pretty simple challenge, so we’ll take that.

What kind of tips or advice would you offer up to someone who wanted to use projections for the first time?

Well for me, in this production in particular, I knew that I wanted to create the projections as a focal point for the show. So when I made that decision, then I let that guide the rest of the design process. So it wasn’t cramming them into everything else. It was saying, this is what we’re going to do and then letting that guide every other decision that we made. And it worked out beautifully! So that’s something you [teachers/directors] can consider. Just try it and go for it and let it be a key part of your production. I think if you’re fearful of jumping in there that heavily at the beginning, do it in small ways. With very simple, atmospheric backgrounds.

I think there are ways to utilize what you already have. Last year in our one-act play, we utilized just our basic school projector. Did it do everything that we needed all the time? No. But did it give us some cool effects at times? Yeah, absolutely! So just playing with things, giving it a try, and seeing what you can do with what you already have—I think is worth a shot. You never know what you might be able to do, and then it might spur you on to invest in something more for a bigger project. But at least you’ve gotten an idea of what you can do without making the financial jump.

What are your hopes and dreams as far as where digital media and projections could go in the future, with telling stories?

Here in Texas, projections are becoming a giant part of our one-act play competition. And once it becomes part of the one-act play competition, it take off in the classroom. So I anticipate that very soon our students will be doing insane things with projections. And our kids our brilliant. They know more than we do about technology half the time. We’re going to be able to create some really neat things. I think it’s going to open up a whole new world of shows that maybe we wouldn’t have taken on before. That might have been considered too big, because ‘we could never build the set for this, or we could never create the world that this show is in.’ But through something like a projection, you can. ‘We could never create the magic for this scene, but through an animated projection you can do it.’ And so I think it’s really going to expand some horizons, and I’m excited to see where it goes. I was just talking with some fellow teachers a couple nights ago about how prevalent it’s become in the one-act play contest. And how much more of it we think we’re going to see in the future. And so I think there are some really exciting things on the horizon.

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