Studies have shown amazing benefits to arts education in schools. Students who participate in classes and extracurricular activities like drama tend to earn higher grades and get into less trouble than students who don't. Still, when school funding takes a hit, the arts are often the first things to go.
But teachers (and parents) don't necessarily have to give up teaching kids about theater: Planning a children's play can be a pretty simple and low-cost endeavor if you know what you're doing.
Here, some guidelines to help even non-drama-types put together an elementary- or high-school production that gets rave reviews from both participants and audience members. It doesn't have to be a grueling process; scripts, rehearsals, even costumes and sets can be pulled together pretty easily with some resourcefulness, creativity and a kid-friendly approach.
It begins with incorporating some not-so-dramatic skills into the production.
Sets and Costumes for a Children's Play
A great-looking production doesn't have to cost a ton of time, effort and money. Quick, home-made (or classroom-made) sets and costumes can, not only go a long way toward a complete theater experience, but also make it an extra-well-rounded one that incorporates multiple skills and talents.
You've got several options when it comes to putting together easy, low-cost sets and costumes for a kids' play:
You don't have to be seamstress, a designer or a carpenter to make your own costumes and sets. A rectangle of fabric with a hole cut for the head can be a versatile article -- a knight's tunic, a toga, even a bird if you paint some wings under the arms. PVC piping, heavy cardboard and portable blackboards can easily become set frames.
Your kids may even have costumes and sets at home without even knowing it. Ask them to bring in boxes of old clothes from their attics and drapes or sheets their parents don't want anymore. Some paint, scissors and well-placed stitches can turn them into practically anything.
You can buy your sets and costumes on a very limited budget. Thrift stores are excellent sources for décor, clothing, aprons, shoes and hats, not to mention super-cheap linens you can paint and drape over your set frames.
If your area has any children's theaters or private drama programs for kids, ask about borrowing sets, props or costumes. They might be happy to lend them out for a week for a good cause. (If you go this route, make sure to tell your actors to take extra care with these borrowed pieces!)
Finally, know that you don't have to do it alone. Ask your kids and their parents for help. With some teamwork and home-based crafting, you can pull together your play's sets and costumes in very little time and with the added pride (and, by extension, better behavior) that comes with the kids playing a central role in the process.
Which brings us to one of the big differences between putting on a kids' play and an adult one: With kids, the most crucial "directing" isn't necessarily about lines and blocking.
Music and Direction for a Children's Play
If you've ever been in a school-age classroom, you know that one of the greatest impediments to learning is poor behavior. Even a few kids acting out can hinder the transfer and absorption of information and participation rates.
As it is with math and English, it is with drama. You're not going to end up with much of a production unless you first set out, and then enforce, some very clear ground rules for your little actors. Make it known ahead of time which behaviors will not be tolerated in rehearsal. No chatting, no running, no playing with props and no making fun of others' errors are good starts in this regard. To help everyone follow these rules, you'll want to keep as many kids onstage at once as you can. Lots of unsupervised actors in the wings can mean more time spent disciplining than on rehearsing.
Once you've laid the ground rules for play rehearsals, you can move on to the actual play.
Learning lines and lyrics
Keep in mind that your kids will feel more confident if their lines are very easy to remember -- long, wordy monologues might make your actors more nervous than necessary. Take extra care to keep the dialogue appropriate for your age group.
What's more, make sure they practice those lines at home, not just in your class. Ideally, each child will take a script home and memorize their lines as homework, with the help of their parents. You want to use as little rehearsal time as possible on learning lines -- rehearsals are best used for focusing on blocking, acting and delivery.
Children require some additional, or sometimes simply different, direction techniques than adults. They might remember less, be more sensitive or easily embarrassed, and have less-developed senses of spatial awareness. To address the specific needs of young actors, consider these tips:
- Get them in the right mindset: Before starting rehearsal, do some sort of ritual to get everyone into the "mood" to practice seriously. This could mean a minute of quiet time, a breathing or speech exercise, or coming up with a collective goal for that day's rehearsal.
- Be specific: Don't expect your actors to know exactly what you mean when you say, "Try to look relaxed," or "Speak to the back row." Instead, describe what a relaxed actor looks like, and demonstrate the volume you're looking for.
- Use tape! It's not easy for kids to remember just where to stand, so make it easy by using color-coded tape for each child, placing an "X" at exactly the spot where he or she should be on the stage.
- Minimize distractions: Make sure no one brings any non-play-related items to rehearsal, and try to minimize interruptions by hanging a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the rehearsal-room door.
- Have an assistant: If at all possible, arrange to have a second adult around during both rehearsals and the big show. Off-stage actors will need supervision and assistance while you're directing, offering cues and setting up the music.
Even with all this, and even in professional adult productions, mistakes will happen, problems will come up and some rehearsals will go poorly. It's the way it goes in the theater, and it goes double when your actors are still drinking milk with lunch. In the end, your biggest ally in producing a children's play is going to be your patience -- and your sense of humor. The show will go on. The kids will have fun. The parents will applaud like they just watched "The Producers," with the original cast, on Broadway.
For more information on kids' theater, including specific drama lesson plans and script ideas, check out the links on the next page.
More Great Links
- Marantz, Penny, Meighan Smith, and Karla Huntsman. "Tips for Engaging in Classroom Drama Activities." Brigham Young University School of Education. (Feb. 20, 2012) http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCQQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Feducation.byu.edu%2Farts%2Fdocuments%2FTIPS--.doc&ei=bZtCT-a7GKqTiQKhsbmNAQ&usg=AFQjCNG5YDL55DHXzYSFNR0X1z6pvRlPPA&sig2=xTViDrFUrJtHIg9UwfFTrg
- Mev's Tips for Directing Drama with Children. Christian Musical Theatre. (Feb. 20, 2012) http://christianmusicaltheatre.com/drama_tips.php
- Wood, Danielle. "Why Children's Theater Matters." Education.com. (Feb. 20, 2012) http://www.education.com/magazine/article/Why_Childrens_Theater_Matters/