Tag Archives: theater

Advice for Any Foolhardy Novice Shakespeare Directors Out There

I’ve got Shakespeare in the works again.  This go around, things will be a little different because we’ll be preparing for the Folger Children’s Festival, where kids at the elementary level perform a twenty-minute Shakespeare something, be it an except, a collection of monologues or a shortened play.  We’re going for a short version of MacBeth and this time around I’m looking forward to blood and sword-fighting.

Anyway, I have said here several times that I’d do a more detailed post about all the elements of putting together a Shakespeare production and I told someone recently I’d really do it.  So here it is, to remind myself as much as anything.  I admit that it got longer than I expected.  There are a lot of little tasks in putting together a big production – things like programs that are easy to forget.

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BalletBoy as Prince Ferdinand in our production of The Tempest.

 

Get a Group

First, I have started with my inestimable group of friends and their kids.  The first year we did this, we had five and six year-olds, as well as some seven and eight year-olds, doing real Shakespeare.  I am still a bit amazed at my own moxie and the trust of my friends and random homeschool acquaintances in letting me try it.  As well, at their willingness to help by pitching in with extra money, making programs, putting together sets, making costumes and designing great fairy wings.

Both times, and we’ll do it this way again, we’ve met before we started the play in order to goof off and play some theater games together as well as introduce the play and some Shakespearean language.  At the end of those meetings, I cast the play and hand out scripts.

From the first time to the second, I learned something.  Kids need to learn their lines before we start rehearsals.  Even eight year-olds can’t read lines aloud well enough to properly rehearse and six year-olds are pretty much hopeless at it.  Therefore, I highly recommend giving kids a month or more to have a role, let it sink in, and memorize their lines.  Make it extremely clear to parents and kids that they are committing to learn those lines and that the whole group is counting on them.

Make Up a Script

There are several places to find shortened Shakespeare.  If you do a search, you’ll turn up a number of books.  So far, I’ve taken my scripts from Shakespeare with Children by Elizabeth Weinstein.  The book shortens six Shakespeare plays.  One of the things I like about this version is that they include some of the smaller parts in order to allow for a larger cast where every kid feels important.  For example, in The Tempest, the masque scene with the spirits is included and it was a small matter to insert a short line for each of the spirits from the play.  I’ve typed up the scripts and removed a few lines here and there to shorten parts, added back language from the original play to beef up others in order to customize it for our particular group.

There are other sources.  You can, of course, start with the original yourself and edit away. Do it when you’re feeling especially gutsy.  Editing the bard is not for the faint of heart.  Alternately, you can search for a free abridged version.  This site has a few and I’ve seen others as well.

Play Games

Obviously, once you’ve got a cast and a script and you’re probably tempted to just get to work.  However, I’d like to advocate for playing more games.  Games warm everyone up and get everyone excited to be there.  This may surprise you, but sitting there watching other kids run the same line over and over in a scene you’re not even in isn’t that much fun to kids.  That’s part of why games are important.  Games can also help young actors learn to project their voices, use their bodies, pay attention to their fellow castmates on stage, and good skills.

The book I have used the most for theater games is On Stage by Lisa Bany-Winters.  There are many others though.  101 Drama Games and Activities is a good resource as well.  The same series has an improv title with good suggestions.  Theater Games for the Classroom is another.  I’ve tried to build up a repertoire of quick games for getting started and running around games for blowing off steam and learning to work together.

Rehearse

As I said before, I think it’s essential for kids to know their lines before rehearsals begin.  For the director, I think it’s essential that you’ve decided on basic entrances and exits before you begin and have some idea of blocking.  In fact, blocking is the theater piece that I’ve seen kids find the most difficult on stage.  Basically, going into things, just be aware from rehearsal one that there’s a good chance you’ll be fighting to get most kids to face the audience and not stand in a flat line.  The one thing I’ve found useful in helping kids with this is running a dumb show in rehearsals.  When we spent a morning doing a dumb show before Midsummer’s Night Dream, some of the scenes came to life that had been the most difficult parts of the play to get through.

Get the Stage and Set It

Both times we’ve performed, we’ve rented a theater with lighting.  The first time, it was a black box and the second, it was a church theater space.  Many theaters are very small.  Don’t underestimate (as I did our first year!) how many family members each cast member may want to bring to the show.  Fifty seats or even a hundred sounds like plenty until you realize that each cast member may have half a dozen relatives who want to see them perform.  Depending on your group, fifty seats might be fine, but check in first.

If you use a space that isn’t set up as a theater, theater supply stores may rent lighting at a reasonable cost.  That’s an alternate option.  You can also, of course, simply perform in an open space without lighting.  I’ve just found that kids feel a great sense of pride at being in front of an audience on a more traditional stage.

We’ve used various things to create our staging.  In The Tempest, potted plants, fake vines and old ottomans disguised as rocks made a simple set.  The backdrops were just abstract paintings on old sheets.  In Midsummer’s, the kids constructed fake trees and decorated old chairs to become thrones.  Because of the festival we’re participating in, we’ll have minimal set pieces this time.  You can get elaborate and build flats or keep things as simple as possible.  In the first go around, the kids contributed, but didn’t do the bulk of the work.  Most things came from thrift stores.  The second time around, I made the design and conception, then asked the kids to carry it out in their own way by painting the tops of the thrones and so forth.  Most things came from creative reuse centers.

Costumes

Both costumes and sets can be assigned to different people.  Directors don’t have to do it all, of course.  The first time around, kids got guidelines for their costumes, but parents were mostly expected to get them themselves.  The second time around, I had volunteers putting together costumes and we only asked parents to send kids with certain things, such as leggings for the fairies.  We kept it pretty simple.  Also consider how face painting can help, even if it’s just by giving a couple of kids beards.

It probably goes without saying, but doing a dress rehearsal before the show will reveal both costume issues as well as last minute staging issues, especially if it’s the case that you haven’t been able to rehearse in your theater space.

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Mushroom as Oberon in our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Perform!

At this stage, little extras are fun.  Printing up tickets and making a program lends an air of professionalism to what you’re doing.  We’ve put the kids’ artwork onto the programs both times, which is fun.  You can also include quotes from the kids about their experiences or mini-bios of the kids with headshots.

Be sure that during rehearsals, you’ve given enough time to practicing taking bows.  This is one of those things that seems like it would be easy, but both shows have required that I come on stage and drag kids into position despite plenty of practice.  I think their brains turn off when it’s time for a bow.

Celebrate

Don’t neglect to hold a cast party after the show or find another time for the kids to celebrate the hard work they’ve done.  It doesn’t have to be elaborate.  I think it’s just nice to give the kids a chance to blow off steam and receive their due compliments after the show.

I Only Have One Theater Book…

I only really have one theater book that I’ve used over the last two years in playing games with kids and getting them to perform in various capacities.  It’s the wonderful resource book On Stage by Lisa Bany-Winters.  We’ve checked out many other theater books from the library, including a couple others by the same author, but they’ve all been disappointing, at least from my perspective.  All the other theater books we’ve used have focused on information about the theater – types of shows, the terminology of the theater, etc.  That’s all fine and good but not so useful for someone who is trying to figure out what to do with a room full of 5-8 year olds who need to learn how to express themselves on stage.  However, this book is 100% nitty gritty activities of all kinds.  It has wonderful games, some of which are very simple and others of which are much more complex.  It has warm ups, improv games, character building games, games for thinking about movement and expression, games just for fun and much more.  The activities in here extend from preschool all the way up to middle school and beyond.  Since our library doesn’t seem to have anything else like it, I know I need to take the plunge and get another book or two of theater activities to keep things fresh.  However, in the meantime, this book has really gotten me through coaching two years of Destination Imagination as well as preparing kids for our ambitious Tempest production, so I highly recommend it.

Our Revels Now Are Ended…

It’s the day after our amazing, excellent performance of The Tempest.  My thoughts are too muddled for a serious post and I have few images worth sharing because I was way too busy to take pictures.  But deeper thoughts about children and Shakespeare, young performers, set designs and so forth, as well as much better images I’ll steal from people who had proper cameras and time to snap pictures, can come later.  Right now, I’m just filled with satisfaction and pride that my kids and their friends performed a real, actual Shakespeare play, even abridged.  And I’m filled with thankfulness for the parents who helped make it happen as well as for the many kind things they said about all of my efforts.

Mushroom and a friend goofing off on the set (they were making "shadow angels") on Friday as the stage manager mom and I get things in place along with the director of the theater.
At home before we left for the theater once I had everyone's face painted (BalletBoy has a tiny mustache to play Ferdinand).
This blurry picture is BalletBoy as Ferdinand, wooing Miranda. He said, "Admired Miranda!" so earnestly that the audience chuckled.
After the show at the cast party at our house. Mushroom became suddenly sad when he realized it was all over. Poor kid!

The Story I Always Remember

My whole head is full of the stuff dreams are made of…  that is to say, The Tempest.  The insanity of this project is only really now hitting me.  What was I thinking?

I have drama in my head for the first time in many years.  As a kid, I thought I wanted to be a actress when I grew up.  All through elementary and middle school, I strove to be in every school production and talent show.  I loved it.  Then I got to high school and found I didn’t really care anymore.  Now, I’m remembering all those drama teachers of my youth, especially Mrs. Fuller, my middle school drama teacher, who was a queen of proper pronunciation.

But there’s one early experience I had in elementary school that I will always remember, when I had my first big role in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.  I played Woodstock.  It was an honor to be a lowly third grader in with the teenagers in the play.  I thought it was so much fun to be with the big kids.  Every day in rehearsal, I would sit quietly and watch, but it was often a raucous time, which I think I enjoyed, honestly, even though I didn’t really participate.  The drama and music teacher grew more and more frustrated with the misbehavior.  Finally, the music teacher lost it one afternoon and yelled at everyone.

Once she had us properly sedate and attentive, she angrily pointed to a painting on the wall.  I’m pretty sure it was a student copy of Vincent Van Gogh’s sunflowers.  “You see that painting up there?” she asked us.  “It’s pretty, right?  It’s a nice painting.  Well, let’s imagine that there’s a piece of sh** in the corner.  Just a tiny piece.”  You can imagine, the whole room went stiff at her swearing at us.  I’m sure some kids snickered.  “If there was?” she asked.  “Would you notice the nice picture?  Of course not.  You’re only notice the sh**!”  I can remember so clearly being shocked and wondering what in the world this was all about.  Then she said, really harshly, “Well that’s what it’s like if we put on a wonderful play while you guys are goofing off and making noise backstage.  No one will notice the play.  They’re only notice the bad part!”  Everyone shut up and the rest of the rehearsal went very well.

For me, that story is the best example of a truth I try to remember as a parent, which is that swearing very rarely to get across a serious point can often be very effective.  But also, I just remember it as the right sort of metaphor for a production or a project of any kind.  If you do a good job, but then goof off or otherwise embarrass yourself, then no one will even see the good job.  All they’ll see is the goofing off.

As you can imagine, every week at rehearsal, we have this problem with the kids in The Tempest.  After all, they’re kids!  They want to be rambunctious and goof off and be silly.  I’m just hoping that when it comes down to it, we’ll get serious enough to not embarrass ourselves.  The kids have worked so hard and it’ll be so wonderful to see the production really work.  At least, I hope so.