Introduction: How to Do a Class Play With 4th and 5th Graders

I have taught 4th and 5th grade for 19 years, and for the last 18 have directed a class play. It has never failed to amaze me how unifying, confidence-building, and cathartic an experience this turns out to be. From the start, we wade through uncharted territory and tackle problems together as we pursue our goal of sharing a story that we care deeply about to the school community, family, and friends. What sets this approach apart from a traditional play is that nearly every aspect of the production is, within a broad structure, handed over to the students. It is very child-centered, and with that philosophy there emerges a powerful sense of ownership. I didn't start this way, but as I learned the ropes (I had no theater training whatsoever), I began to hand over more responsibility and decision-making opportunities to the students. The learning, teamwork, and overall individual growth was becoming more evident than any other particular curricular area. Let me outline the steps that I have developed over the years to create a unique and memorable experience for my students and their audiences.

Step 1: Choosing Books

Rather than picking a script ahead of time and then presenting it to my class, I took an alternative approach. During the summer, I would select three or four high quality books of children's literature. General characteristics would be medium length (150-250 pages), many characters, male and female protagonists, an interesting story, originality and maybe an unusual subject, maybe a connection to one of our study areas (history is great, because there are all sorts of costume possibilities), books I like (can't ignore that), and stories that would appeal to a wide range of ages. On the first day of school, I ask the class if they think that they would like to do a class play this year (they always say yes). I tell them that it will be challenging, because I expected them to choose the book, write the script, rehearse like crazy, create sets, design costumes, do the sound and light, learn to do their own make-up, maybe even write and perform songs. I want them to learn every aspect of theater, and find some areas that speak to them. I also expect every one of them to be on stage at some point. But settling on a book needs to be their choice. To keep it fresh for myself, I have never done the same book twice.

Step 2: Reading the Books

At this point, I start reading the first book as a daily read-aloud. Along the way, we pause and discuss different aspects of the story, the plot, vocabulary, make predictions, etc. We also consider what it may look like on stage. As we finish a book after four or five weeks, we have a pros and cons discussion, focusing on the viability of putting this story to the stage. We hear each person's thoughts as a brainstorming session, and jot down notes to refer to later. Then we move on to our next book. By February, it's decision time! We have read all of the books, analyzed each one, compared them to each other, and now we have to choose. We understand that we may not get our first choice, but we commit wholeheartedly to the class decision, as all of our voices have been heard.  We make sure that even though we do an eyes-closed vote, that there are no over-the-top celebrations, so as not to cause hurt feelings of those who voted differently.

Step 3: Writing the Script

Kids find their efforts to be so meaningful if they participate in all aspects of a project, and script-writing is one of the most important. I make it optional, and usually get about half of the class to participate. I break the book down into "scenes" by combining compatible chapters, sometimes eliminating unnecessary sections to bring the final product to a manageable size. I sometimes include the students in this process, but otherwise present the six or seven scenes to the writers. I let them team up in groups of two or three and choose a scene to write. It helps to show them scripts from previous plays, so the kids can have a sense of the format. They also learn that they can shorten and omit non-essential parts, and focus on the main aspects and spirit of the author. This process may take 4-5 days.

Step 4: Typing the Script

Once the scenes have been written, they need to be edited. It takes me 3-4 hours to correct, modify, and revise what the kids have written, and the final edit is usually about 85%  their work and 15% my editing. There needs to be a sense of flow and clarity, and the typists need to make sense of what is written. I don't expect the kids to edit-it's very hard, concentrated work to turn three or four chapters into a coherent and efficiently written scene. I then find parent volunteers to type the script. If six or seven parents can each type a scene using the same format, it can be done and copied within a few days. With a title page and cast of characters, our hard work has sprung to life!

Step 5: Auditions

A traditional play would have a director make all of the casting decisions. I want the students to have input to spur their motivation on, so I have them select four possible roles that they would be interested in. For the next few days, I have them audition in small groups, rotating roles and trying out some of the characters that they are interested in. They have been given tips on how to stand, project their voices, use gestures and expressions, and learn stage terminology. They will learn about standing at diagonals, so as to be seen by the audience. They will avoid standing in straight lines. "Stage right," "stage left," "upstage," and "downstage" are easy terms to learn. Speaking slowly and enunciating take more practice, but we play games to loosen them up and help them with their verbal stage skills. I am not necessarily looking for kids who have experience on stage, but have the desire and drive to take on bigger roles. There have been many years where some of my most difficult students, behaviorally or academically have emerged as the lead characters and thrived on the challenge. This can really turn a self-image in a positive direction. I also look for someone who can take a bit of feedback and show improvement on the next effort. The kids are not expected to memorize anything during an audition, just to try a short bit cold as best they can with some direction.

Step 6: Casting

Anything is possible in theater-boys can be girls and vise-versa, so casting can be very wide open. I try to balance what I think is best for the ensemble as a whole, while helping certain individuals have their needs met. I try to make sure that they have gotten one of their choices, but that doesn't always work out, so I may have to have a private chat and work things out. The biggest breakthrough I have experienced over the years is to double cast-having two entirely different casts, which gives many more opportunities for kids to have stage time. When not on stage, students are helping backstage, changing props and scenery, and working the tech table (more on that later).

Step 7: Rehearsing

Now the fun and mayhem begins! For the next 6-8 weeks, it is more than a 3-ring circus, but it can be an organized one. I block out 60-90 minutes of each day to devote to play production where the following takes place:
-small group rehearsals with me
-students highlighting and practicing their lines
-students sketching and designing their costumes (maybe even researching period clothing)
-designing scenery and props
-designing the program (2 or 3 kids)
-writing original stories with their character as the central figure
-other related curriculum that I create-may be vocabulary, poetry, research, diarama, etc. They may be asked to use dictionaries to learn and apply new words, crossword puzzles to answer questions about the story, create maps to show geography skills relating to the settings of the story, or research the history of some aspect of the story, such as the origins of circuses, or Gold Rush history.
Absolutely crucial to the success of all of this activity is the recruitment of parent volunteers. I have been fortunate to be at a school with a very active parent volunteer population, and I have an instructional aide as well. It's a slightly middle to upper income population, but it is a public school where the parents are deeply committed to supporting the classrooms. If I didn't have this luxury, I would have to scale back the whole operation.
When I do scene rehearsals, I do some short, fun, acting and expression games to get the kids to be loose and get into their characters. We sit down and look at the portion of the script to be rehearsed that day and have a short discussion about it. Then we break the scenes into smaller "bits" and "block" them out, deciding on positioning, entrances and exits. We consider our script to be "alive" and always subject to change and improvement, and I encourage the actors to give their ideas at all times. We always try to stay positive in our feedback.

Step 8: Costume Design

The students have free reign to imagine, design, and create their costumes. They need to create a detailed sketch and have them be approved by me. I might give them feedback on certain aspects, such as colors, style, small enhancements, authenticity to the period or age of the character, etc. In addition, some students will play multiple characters, and will need to plan each costume, as well as how to make the necessary changes in time. We have a school shed which contains years of random costumes and clothes that the kids can peruse and use if it suits their needs. Costume design is an integral part of theater, and all of the students will get a taste of it. Some will really run with it and even sew their own! Otherwise, kids will plunder the costume shed, their parents' closets, and thrift shops. I never expect much money to be spent on costumes, nor do I want it.

Step 9: Designing Scenery

Some students are very artistically inclined and like to get involved in creating the backdrops for the play. Our school stage has back and side walls suitable for permanent scenery. We use creative lighting and staging to take advantage of different parts of the stage and backgrounds, and students have input into the overall look. Once we have a vision that has been decided upon, with supervision, kids draw and paint on 4' by 8' cardboard panels which we attach later. The students will also create necessary props and movable scenery. We sometimes need to borrow the odd prop from families, such as a phone, bed, lamp or other such thing. Designing scenery is a great opportunity to teach kids elements of art, such as perspective, shading, size relationships, even putting 3-D objects on scenery to help it pop out. We always have a work party the weekend before the performances to put up all of the scenery, get props in place, program the tech board, and decorate the lobby.

Step 10: Program Design

A few who like working with computers can design the program. With some initial guidance from an adult, a small team of students can input the casting info on the inside, choosing fonts and styles that look good and fit the page. On the front, They can create the title, but leave space for original student art. I like to have each student draw a simple line sketch on a 4" by 4" piece of blank paper which represents the story to them in some way. These pictures are signed, scanned, and printed, so that the audience will have 32 different program covers, with each student having his artwork on public display. The back of the program is up to the designers. It could be a quote from the play, some thank-you's, or directions on how to fold an origami Yoda! All f this program design helps kids learn formatting and word processing, as well as teamwork. It's an opportunity to be creative and publish something for the public to enjoy.

Step 11: Stage Make-up

Stage make-up is an integral part of theater. At the very least, it allows features to be more prominent and noticeable under bright lights, and it also provides major enhancements when kids are playing adults, animals, clowns, etc. The boys are always very giddy about putting on make-up, but they get over it quickly when they see their male teacher or some game dad doing it. Over the years, I have had my daughter and several experienced moms give tutorials on how to do make-up so they would look good under the lights. Once the kids understand that everyone on stage, movies, and t.v. do the same thing, they become willing to do it themselves. It's sort of the beginnings of media awareness, and gives them a different perspective on the reasons for make-up. We provide a list of a simple kit to assemble, give them time to practice, and ultimately they do it for themselves come showtime.

Step 12: Music

Some years we have singing in our plays, some years we have live music and sound effects, and occasionally we have neither. It depends on the interests of the students. We do a lot of singing in class in general, and I encourage the kids to rewrite the lyrics of songs we know to fit the story in some way. This is really exciting when this happens, and can be incorporated in individual, small or large group singing. We can either find recorded background music, recruit a parent musician, or I can play an amplified guitar if need be when the scene comes. We have formed student bands of piano, violin, guitar, and percussion to play a few pieces as intros or intermission listening. The important thing is to give kids who are musical opportunities to add their skills to enhance the performance. I like to have my hand in this as well, by creating a score that complements the play with music during the scene changes when the lights are dim. It also creates a nice atmosphere to have music playing when the audience comes in and lively music during a curtain call. I've done themes, like jazz, David Bowie songs, classical, Latino, or pop songs with themes to match events of the story. That's my little stamp and I love doing it. I also recruit a parent to track down and record the necessary sound effects, put them in order with the music on a CD or computer to be cued up when the time comes.

Step 13: Tech

We are blessed with a substantial sound and light board at our school, but when I did my first play, I had kids hand holding bright lights to light up the stage. We performed in the library and there wasn't much of a sound system. Now, I need to have parents trained to use the sound and light board, with lapel microphones and pre-set lighting looks and sound cues. Students who want to learn how to participate in the technology can request it, and I take on eight, two teams of four per show. Two will team up on the lights and two on sound. Adults will supervise and we will have practices and dress rehearsals. They will learn to be in "professional mode" and be very businesslike in their work, as their timing and accuracy is very important to the smoothness of the production. They wear black so as not to be noticed,and have tiny flashlights so as to follow along in their scripts. Not every school can count on fancy equipment, but basic needs can be met by rnting from theater supply companies, and you can make do with some really basic lighting, and just a few floor microphones put strategically on the stage.

Step 14: Backstage

Students who work as "Stage Hands" also wear black and learn to understand the ethic of not being noticed as they go about their business making scene changes in a calm, quiet, and efficient manner. These kids will be onstage in the alternate show, as we have two separate casts. The stage hands are very important and keep everything moving along smoothly. We have a monitor backstage so everyone can see what is happening onstage, and we have planned ahead what everyone's assignments will be during the show. These assignments are written on posters backstage to serve as reminders. Parent volunteers help backstage with switching microphones and troubleshooting, but the kids are all responsible for their duties and cues. We have headsets for comuinication, and sometimes the kids get to wear them and be "Stage Managers" for the show.

Step 15: Promotion

It's fun to create posters to create anticipation for the show a week or two in advance, and post them around the school. We let the other teachers know when the performances are, and everyone comes. Sometimes we create handmade tickets to give to special guests like grandparents or out of town guests. We do a day and night show for each cast for a total of four performances.

Step 16: Actor Profiles

We like to have a distinctive and eye-catching lobby for the audience, and kids in the school to look at as the show approaches. A major feature of this is a nice black-and-white head shot of each actor, with a self-written actor profile: a third-person paragraph mentioning a few details of each actor's life, such as interests and hobbies, favorite books, favorite scene in the play, etc. The kids write and edit this, and it gets typed up and assembled into a nice poster for each child. Other lobby features could be candid photos of kids rehearsing, painting scenery, etc., as well as their costume sketches and character autobiographies for people to read. Some color and little frills and it all looks great!

Step 17: Dress Rehearsals

It's important to set performance dates well in advance so there will be no conflicts with use of the stage. After two months or so of preparation, with a week to go or less, it is vital to practice as if it is the real thing, with costumes, tech and everything. As error-prone as these are, the good thing is you can start and stop at will, re-do as necessary until it is done properly. It's a very exciting time, and good to have a few people in the audience for feedback. This is your chance to work out glitches, which will be many, and exhort the actors to give their best. This can be stressful, and the real thing is coming right up, but try to be light-hearted and firm at the same time.

Step 18: Curtain Call

Practice your curtain call by planning out how you want the kids to come out for their bows. It looks shoddy when they don't know what to do onstage, but if they practice individual and group bows, the audience will respond. Sometimes the actors will do interesting bows according to their characters, or you might want to have them come out in small groups according to scene or their relationship to each other. It's nice to end with an entire group bow with lively music playing. It really shows some pizzazz to have them all do some sort of gesture and/or saying at the very end to leave the audience with something to buzz about as they greet and congratulate the actors in the lobby or hall.

Step 19: Performances

You must enjoy these to their fullest! So much effort has been put into this, the anticipation and adrenaline is high, and the audience is excited. We talk about telling a story that should be told to an audience that can't wait to hear it. Often, the books we chose are little-known, so the audience will be surprised and taken to a new place. Mistakes will be made, but it won't matter, because everyone will help each other out and the audience will appreciate their best efforts. They should be and will be proud of themselves. We are all absolutely in the moment, and when it is over, we are floating on clouds. We created this from scratch, something no one has done, and we took hundreds of people along with us.
At the end of the last show, we thank all those who helped us, I surprise them with play t-shirts with their art on them, we strike the set, and then we eat lots of ice cream!

Step 20: Gifts and Party

I usually surprise the class with a play t-shirt with their names and art prominently displayed. I use a local company, Pegasus, that is able to do small batches of shirts at a reasonable price. Smaller, local companies are generally able to handle smaller orders and be more flexible, personal, and timely, so I'd recommend looking for a company like this to partner with, if you want to get shirts made.

These gifts are usually given after the last show while I'm on stage thanking all of the volunteers. The kids love the shirts and seem to wear them for years, even hold onto them after they have long outgrown them! Another nice gift for all of their efforts is a DVD of the show (someone needs to videotape it and make copies), as well as a CD of the music and sound effects that they have come to know so well. Of course, this wouldn't be complete without an ice cream party to seal the deal!

Step 21: Last Words

Somehow, each year, I trust that my new class will have what it takes to pull this all together. I often think that I would like a year off from the chaos, but it doesn't seem to happen. I firmly believe that a child-centered theater program has the power to transform like very few other avenues. It gives kids a chance to develop their abilities and explore new skills. They can break old patterns and molds and be appreciated by their peers in new ways. During my first year of teaching, I was fortunate to learn theater skills from an experienced teacher who had theatrical background, but after that I was on my own to forge my own way, and this is what I have developed. I hope you are inspired to pursue this in some way, no matter how small.

Good luck, and break a leg!