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Theater on the Field An Interview with Linda Davis

Trey Reely | April May 2021

    Linda Davis graduated from Arkansas Tech University in 1974 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English Education. She met her husband, Danny Davis, in choir at Arkansas Tech and after their graduation and marriage, they moved to Lepanto, a small town in eastern Arkansas where he became the high school band director. She soon realized that if she ever wanted to see him, she would have to help him with his band work. They were fascinated with drum corps and decided to start a flag line. Her school responsibilities included directing the junior class play. She soon developed a love for theater and earned master’s hours in theater and the certification required to teach drama and theater. As they moved to larger schools, she continued this dual role with theater productions and color guards, using principles of theater to drive what is presented on the marching field.

What similarities do you see between the theater stage and the field?
    It’s not difficult to connect the theater and color guard because they both find ways to draw an audience into a storyline. The only difference is the size of the stage. In both cases, communication of the storyline and emotions must take place between the performer and the audience.

As for individual color guard performers, how is their role like a stage performer?
    Both require proper control of the body for the complete enactment of a role. Proper alignment is the foundation for better balance, control, and execution, so it is important to begin by concentrating on simple body alignment. It is ultimately presence that is seen on the field, and proper body alignment facilitates this. It has to become second nature. Once the muscles have learned proper alignment, it will be seen in practice, performance, and their daily lives as well. Students will sit, walk, and move with better posture and carriage.

How do you teach proper body alignment?
    It is not enough to tell students to stand tall and put their shoulders back. In theater, we do exercises to create body awareness. The same should be done for the color guard.
    My favorite technique is having students stand with their feet together while thinking of themselves as a puppet with a string that runs through the entire body and comes out the top of their heads. Then they should use one of their hands to pull gently on the string and imagine the spine and bones lifting in a straight line, just like the limbs of a string puppet when you pick it up from a sitting position. They should lengthen their necks and lift up tall until they feel like raising up on the balls of the feet. Encourage them to feel very light on their feet and shift their weight slightly forward to the balls of the feet. Hands should be dropped back to the side but with the body still lifted.
    The second is the shoulder press. Students should raise their shoulders up to their ears, roll them back, and then lower them. They should be aware of the sensation of pressing the shoulders down while at the same time lengthening the neck and being lifted like a string puppet. There should be no tension in the neck, shoulders, or arms.
    Third is what is called the birdcage. The shoulder press will automatically open up the ribcage. Using the analogy of a birdcage, students should think of the space between the ribs like the space between the bars of a birdcage, but not so wide that the bird will escape. I also tell students to “let the light shine.” They should imagine a light in the center of the chest, open the rib cage, and let the light shine.
    Finally, I tell them, “Don’t Spill the Soup.” This also involves getting as much space as possible between the rib cage and the hips. Concentrating on the hips and pelvis, they should imagine that resting between the two hipbones is a bowl of soup that has to be kept perfectly parallel to avoid spilling it. If they push their rears out, the soup spills. If they raise one hip, the soup spills. If they let the abdominal muscles hang out, soup spills. The hips should be targeted straight ahead and engaging the abdominal muscles while imagining the navel pressing back to the spine and the spine forward to the navel. Students should keep the soup bowl in mind while aligning the hips and pelvis. If aligned properly, the hips should be stacked over the knees and then ankles. Most importantly, I remind them to keep breathing and focus on taking air in and staying relaxed.

How do you communicate concepts and images on the field?
    Whether you are blocking on the field or on stage, it has to contribute in a positive manner. The guard has to be integrated with the band, and the movements must enhance the music. Also, you have to decide whether to use concrete images or just suggested images. These concepts can be approached based on whether you want to use lots of props and how you will integrate them into the drill. With creativity, you may find that a suggested image is just as effective as a concrete one. In a theater production of Oklahoma! I had the boys use pretend ropes in a dance sequence to lasso the girls. I think it worked better than using real ropes.
    Don’t be afraid of drama or comedy on the field if they are an integral part of the music. They should be emphasized in body language, facial presentation, prop usage, and all other aspects of general effect. This projection of emotions can help pull the audience into the story and performance.

What are some important considerations when it comes to putting the product on the field?
    Don’t fear simple ideas. One person in a hundred can pull the attention of an audience if blocked properly on the field. As in theater, always consider that the audience will look at what is different. For greater impact, group the visual ensemble close together. Separate the visual ensemble to draw the audience from one area to another.
    Make sure equipment changes are written into the drill; consult with your show designer to make sure this happens. Good drill designers will already be thinking about this. If they do not know that you want rifles or swing flags at a particular point, they can’t help you create a fully-coordinated show. If you design the show, and someone else handles the guard, collaborate on the routines and how they will impact the show and placement on the field.

How do you use color effectively on the field?
    Color selection is usually dictated by the music. A hot red flag for a slow ballad or a soft blue flag for a hot jazz number would be wrong choices, but there are many other factors to consider. Be wary of using flags with intricate designs; up close they look great, but sometimes the effect is lost because of the distance from the audience.
    Don’t be afraid of the solid color flag. They are a great buy for small schools with limited budgets. Many times, a solid color will give more impact no matter the size of the guard. You can use a solid color and vary the textures using different material choices or tie a show together with a single color that runs through all the flags. Also, the shape of the flag can be the distinguishing factor or use the same shape in different solid colors on the field.
    Digital flags have advanced in design to a point where if cost is not a detriment, the sky is the limit on what can be put on a flag. Again, make sure that the design on the flag is a visual that can be seen from a distance.  
In designing a flag, the placement of a single color on the tip or on the bottom of the flag can create a problem when the group is spinning. If a line is strong it can be a great effect, but for those with timing issues, it simply makes problems stand out. Be careful of colors that may get overshadowed by the band or guard uniform, or even the color of the field, and it is also important to consider how a flag will look at night or in daylight.

What are the key factors for transitions?
    Make transitions seamless. Incorporate counts of equipment exchange into the routines. Make the equipment change as precise as the routine and avoid flashing the flag before it is used. Don’t change flags just because the band is playing something different. All changes should have purpose. Diversion is a good way to draw the audience’s attention to a soloist or small group doing something different while an exchange is made.

Do you have any suggestions on using props?
    There are several considerations here. First, a prop should create surprise or an AHHH moment. To achieve this, it should be used for more than one measure and staged and incorporated into the drill in a prominent way that is easily visible to the audience. Avoid a prop that is so elaborate that it takes away from or overshadows the context of the show.
    Practically speaking, you have to consider who is going to make them or where you are going to purchase them. Then you have to decide if they add enough to the show to justify the cost.
    Backdrops should enhance the show, without telling the whole story. The guard and the band should do that. Like a good set design, it should not get in the way of the actors and storyline. Make sure that whatever you use can be transported on and off the field easily and is durable enough to survive a lot of transporting.

What basic equipment you would recommend?
    The whole line should use the same length pole; six-foot poles are the most common now. However, the size of the flag determines the size of the pole. Make sure the flag size is appropriate for the pole.
    Swing flags on swing poles can be used to great effect. These flags come in all shapes and sizes but are amazingly effective on shorter poles. Larger lines can handle choreography using part of the line on swing flags and others on the six-foot poles or rifles (36") or sabers (36-39") all at the same time. I call this the three-ring circus effect.

Do you have specific suggestions on routines?
    There does not have to be equipment movement on every count. Body moves are just as effective at communicating the effects of the music. Exaggerate everything – movements, make-up, body work, and color. The distance from the audiences makes this essential.
    Just as you would not put a soloist or main character in the back of the stage, don’t put the visual ensemble there unless their impact in the back will enhance the music and presentation of the band. Keep things on stage and clearly in view of the audience. Flag moves toward the end zone are only visible to the referees waiting to come on after halftime. Change equipment off-stage (marching perimeter) or behind a larger prop on the field.
    The audience is trained to look left to right. If you want them to focus on something, start on the left and move to the right. Having movement converge to center stage can be a powerful moment. Diagonal movement can also create the most tension and anticipation on stage and on the field.
    Hire a choreographer if at all possible. Local university bands often have current and former students who will work with your group. Worst case, an instructor can make a video of all the routines for your students to learn and use for practice.
    Remember that simple many times is better. The important thing is that the students can achieve the routine. Still, use as much variety in the routine as possible, avoiding repetitive moves.
    Watch step size requirements in the drill. Intricate flag work is not helpful when moving down half the field. Let the guard move when the band is stationary but make sure the flag work can be done with movement.
    Contests and performances are often windy. Plan ahead on whether to perform tosses or not. It is wise to prepare alternative moves. However, if the line has practiced on windy days and learned to control the flag in these conditions, you may not have to change anything.
    It is also important to have a consistent guard warm-up before practices and performances. It helps them begin to focus for the show.

What are some of your color guard pet peeves?
    One is to put the color guard in the back and not use them to their full potential. Much of the guard work looks better when they are moving. Integrate them into the design with movement, not just planting and spinning. You would not move instruments in a way that did not enhance the music so don’t do that to the guard.
    It also bothers me when the drill is not working with the guard and little or no time is taken to fix it. Part of this occurs because there are some directors who never truly look at the guard until a contest. Pay attention at rehearsal to the amazing or disastrous impact they can have. Another pet peeve I have is when there is equipment on the field that the band is marching over or stepping on, or the guard is crawling along the front sideline, visible to the audience, exchanging equipment.

What are some practical things band directors should watch for with the color guard during rehearsals?
    Check for good posture and proper shoulder angles. Make sure they are exaggerating their motions for better projection to the audience. Stress proper head, hand, shoulder, and foot placement. Most of all, make sure the flag movements are the same even if their bodies are at a different angle. Consistently check if the placement of the guard and their routines are working well with the position of the instrumentalists. Mark measures for discussion with the guard after rehearsal.
    In practice, have the weakest members behind a strong member to help with timing, and then put them in the front to help them learn the routine without watching others. Have members use checkpoints to make sure their spinning is together. A checkpoint can be any reference point – hands of the clock, degrees, or some other method.

What things should be considered when outfitting the group?
    The uniform is like another flag on the field. The colors can be in contrast to the band uniforms so they make an immediate impression, or they can be a complement to the band uniform to create a cohesive presence on the field. The uniform can tell the story of the music, for example, a gypsy or pirate show. A fringe or flowing skirt can provide a look of movement. Creative changes can be made with a versatile uniform with different parts. There might be a jacket, a top, and half of a full skirt that can be taken away or added during the show. Those on a budget may opt for black jazz pants with a new top each year.
    Body types on the line are another important consideration. Spandex is not the right fit for everyone, but undergarments can make a big difference. Fortunately, most uniform companies now provide a free service to help find a show and body type appropriate uniform. Stay away from costumes  that get in the way of the performance or equipment and hide body moves. Avoid hairstyles that cover the face or distract from the show, and make the hairstyle and make-up fit the theme of the show. Always consider how a uniform will look from a distance. Personal jewelry should not be worn, even though jewelry on the field will rarely be visible to the audience. For a mixed group of male and female performers, make sure the costume translates well for both. Fortunately, costume companies have embraced designs that make this easier.
    My first group loved the uniform they wore, and that created more interest for the next year’s recruitment. Be sure to purchase t-shirts that the line can wear to school on game days and matching sweatshirts/pants for cold games and parades. This also helps with recruiting

Do you have any suggestions for directors starting a flag line for the first time?
    Start by showing band videos with cool flag work or Winter Guard International videos to your band classes. If you want to reach out to non-band students, have band members put up posters and send invitations to an informational meeting where you provide snacks, show videos, and make clear what membership on the line means. Start teaching basics in January. Once or twice a month, find someone to teach if you cannot do it yourself. Learn with your students. You do not have to become proficient, just knowledgeable. Most directors have a decent understanding of all instruments in their band – add flag work to that. For tryouts, I always brought in a judging panel. It added legitimacy to what we were doing.

Do you allow students to participate in the guard who are not band members?
    Sometimes it is difficult to have those who are not in band participate in the guard. There is a family feeling about band that is hard for newcomers to understand. Band students also generally have a better ability to count and feel a pulse than non-musicians, although this skill can be learned if they work at it. However, some of my best guard members came from the general school population and were fully a part of the band family by the end of the year. It is a win-win for those students and the band. This can be a huge bonus for small schools.     

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A Working Vocabulary: Color Guard Dance Terms

Arabesque: A pose in which the working leg is extended with a straight knee directly behind the body – both the height of the leg and position of the arms are variable.
Basic Positions: The five positions of the arms and feet – so-called because they are the basis for all steps in the vocabulary of classic dance.
Demi-Pointe (also half-pointe): On the ball of the foot or half toe.
Extension: Raising the leg to the straightforward position with the foot high above the ground; the ability to lift and hold the leg in the position off the ground.
Line: The arrangement of head, shoulders, arms, torso, and legs while dancing.
Passé: A “passing” position, usually part of Développé, in which the working foot or leg passes by the knee of the supporting leg. When this position is held, as in Pirouettes, with the foot of the working leg resting against the knee of the supporting leg, it is known as Retiré.
Plié: A bending of the knees – it can be grand, as in exercises done at the barre in class for warm-up; or demi-plié, as when a dancer is preparing for a jump off the ground.
Relevé: From relever, “to lift again,” – it is raising the foot from a flat, standing position onto either half-point (demi-point) or full pointe.
Spotting: Focusing the eyes on one point in the distance in order to keep balance while turning.
Supporting Leg: The leg upon which the dancer is balancing.
Turnout: Rotating the leg outward from the hip such that they form a straight line on the floor, toes facing away from each other; a way of holding the body, developed in ballet, that allows the dancer more articulation, speed, and variety of movement.
Working Leg: If one leg is a standing leg, the other one is a working (or moving) leg.