09 September 2009

Creative Dramatics: Creating A Play

Some years ago, I led a project in a fourth-grade English class to introduce the students to writing plays. The classroom teacher was introducing her classes to various forms of creative writing, including haiku and stories, but she had previously asked me to lead a role-playing project in her social studies class, so she invited me to guide the students through the segment on playwriting. This project actually produced scripts which taught the craft of playwriting along with the creative and performance benefits. The process can be used successfully in formal classes in schools and in workshop programs, and is suitable for children as well as adults (with some obvious adjustments).

If desired, the written script can be omitted so that the final product is improvised within the general scenario. I used improvisations for the introductory session, but the idea of this project was to create a written play that could be performed for an audience after it had been developed. (This also results in a document the kids can take home with them in the end, a nice lagniappe that enhances the sense of accomplishment.) It’s very enjoyable for the class to perform their works for the rest of the school, community group, or arts festival as a sort of reward for the successful work. Furthermore, the classroom teacher wanted the students to learn some of the conventions of playwriting just as they’d been doing in the poetry and story-writing segments, so a written script was built into our lesson.

I also decided that I’d use theater terms in conducting this project. When the same teacher and class did the historical role play, we deliberately used non-stage expressions--'rehearsal’ became ‘caucus,’ for instance--because that project wasn’t a theater exercise, but a social studies lesson. But I felt that since they were learning about playwriting and theater this time, using theater words with the students would help make this project special and set up an atmosphere of performativeness in the classroom, which was now a theater studio for the duration of the project. So clothes were ‘costumes’ and the outline was a ‘scenario’ and so on. I was careful to make sure the special meanings of my words were understood, and I tried not to go overboard with this (lights were still ‘lights,’ not ‘instruments’), but I wanted the fourth-graders to feel like insiders, getting a glimpse of something not everyone else knew.

While older, more sophisticated or experienced students might not need a refresher of the basics of dramatic writing, beginners such my fourth-graders probably will. Though the social circumstances of this group of 10-year-olds gave them access to both live theater and even professional actors, a number of the parents being in the entertainment business, their age meant that more often than not, they equated a play with TV or the movies, their most common experience of performance. I reminded the nascent playwrights of the conventions of good playwriting, cautioning them, however, that they’re not rules they had to follow, but only advice based on common wisdom and experience. “If you have a good enough reason,” I told them, “and a clever enough imagination, you can violate any convention.” In theater, there’s only one rule, I explained: Whatever works is right!

“Your play should have a beginning, a middle, and an end,” I taught them. The beginning should include the introduction of the major characters, an explanation of the situation, and the exposition (revelation) of the pertinent facts. The middle should develop the conflict or problem that will be the crux of the play. The end should contain the resolution of the conflict or problem in some concrete manner. Any “loose ends” left, I suggested, may weaken the play. (In fact, this point is well demonstrated in TV sit-coms and series episodes. When I taught a college introduction to theater, I used the tapes of an old Jeffersons episode and an I Love Lucy show to illustrate dramatic structure.)

To be dramatic and stageworthy, the play must deal with actions as much as possible, I explained, making sure the students understood what ‘action’ means in theatrical terms. Something must happen to the characters and be resolved in the end. If the writers want to explore psychological or emotional “actions,” I instructed them, they should translate the feelings into physical action as well. Plays that just talk are boring.

I reminded the students that their plays would have to be performed live on stage with live actors. “You’re not writing a film or TV script!” I prompted them. “Though this might restrict what’s physically possible, it doesn’t have to limit your imagination; theater permits a wide range of illusion and stage magic to replace and enhance reality.”

Using a simple worksheet helped keep the project organized as it developed. It also provided a way to assign a topic or idea for students who are inexperienced enough to resist using their own imaginations. If the worksheet isn’t used, the teacher can hand out cards with the title, situation, and characters. Adults and older children, though, may want to make up their own plotlines from the outset. In either case, it’s important to stress that the story of the play can change as it develops and needn’t end up resembling the original idea.

The class was divided into small groups of three to five performers each. This is the most efficient number for these short plays, which should be from five to fifteen minutes long when they’re finished. Fewer players cramp the imagination of the creators; more is cumbersome for organizing. Doubling and tripling actors to create more roles should be discouraged, but not prohibited. (It devolves into an exercise in logistics instead of creativity. It also engenders entropy.)

I provided the barest facts at the first meeting. I wanted the creators to invent their own answers to problems that arose. They should write their own play, not some version of the teacher’s. I was a resource and adjudicator of procedural or technical disputes, but did not impose my own ideas.

This project can be the basis for eight sessions, including a performance of the finished plays. My first session was an Introductory Improv Session. Each group was assigned a basic situation for a scene, with the characters and circumstances provided. (A list of some examples is below.) I gave the groups, now a cast of actor-creators, time to discuss the plot and details, and then present their play to the class. A critique-and-comment may follow if desired.

The second session began the actual script development. The groups were given their worksheets with the title, situation, and characters provided. (A list of some intermediate and advanced plot suggestions is below.) This session concentrated on plot and story line, which was developed by discussion and improvisation among the cast members. I monitored all the groups as they worked, encouraging them to try out all the ideas. One student should not be allowed to become the playwright of the group, though one person in each cast should be the scribe to keep note of what has been decided. The session ended with a written outline of the plot (scenario) so the next session didn’t have to begin with trying to recreate what was accomplished here.

The worksheet is useful to keep track of the progress from each session, though students who are imaginative enough to invent their own plots don’t need the boost of suggested plots. Even those that do need the help should be encouraged to find their own interpretations of the suggestions and take them wherever their ideas lead them. I was amazed at the specific ideas that these 10-year-olds came up with for their plays, some having entirely abandoned the suggested plot line I provided after it served them as a catalyst for their own imaginations. Others put a spin on the outline and turned it into something entirely unpredictable. The results ranged across a half dozen genres of plays, some dramas, some comedies, some farces, some adventure stories. Some were serious treatments of issues with which the students were obviously concerned, others were just fun. Several were remarkably sophisticated and sensitive, even grown-up. I was sincerely impressed.

The third through fifth sessions were devoted to writing the play and developing and refining the idea. Actual dialogue was written down so that a script could be compiled, but all the work was developed and tested by improvisation and performance. Younger students may want to make major changes in the basic idea several days after the process has begun. This should be discouraged gently to avoid starting over each time. Small changes as the idea is developed and refined, on the other hand, should be encouraged. Try not to let the groups “set” their work after only one or two tries, though. Again, written scripts were turned in at the end of each session to avoid losing the work that had been done.

By the time the workshop reached the sixth session, the groups were ready for actual rehearsals of the draft script. I encouraged the casts to bring in props and costumes for their plays. Whether the groups need one or two sessions of rehearsals is the decision of the teacher.

The eighth session was devoted to performances of the plays. Each cast presented its play to the rest of the class. Comments and critiques are possible, but should be supportive and non-threatening, especially for beginning performers. A first public performance can be very scary.

The most successful plays were selected by a vote (secret ballot, of course) of the class and were performed for other classes. If a written script is created, “revivals” for assemblies, festivals, and other events are a real possibility. Ideas for topics are infinite, but here are a few suggestions. (These were mostly prepared for fourth-graders.) Don’t forget, though, that the writing groups should be allowed to take these suggestions wherever they lead them. They are only meant to get ideas started so that the student writers don’t get stuck at the very beginning. The introductory set is intended to be superficial and light-hearted since its use is for a single session to model the project. The third set below was prepared for older students, and I never used it. The second set, which was the basis for the actual scripts for my fourth-grade playwrights, generated some absolutely remarkable and astonishing results.


  • “The Body Shop”: trading in your body for a new one; 1 sales clerk, boss, 2 customers
  • “Animal Talk”: animals talk about people; 1 dog, 1 cat, 1 wolf, etc.
  • “Space Station”: 3 astronauts living in a space station
  • “Cave Dwellers”: a family living underground; mother, father and child/children
  • “Men in the Moon”: astronauts land on the moon and meet moonmen; 1 or 2 astronauts, 1 or 2 moonmen
  • “Museum Pieces”: statues in an art museum come to life at night; Venus di Milo, Winged Victory, The Thinker, etc.
  • “Ghost Story”: ghosts planning to haunt a house
  • “Body Language”: your body works like a factory with each department talking to other departments; brain, heart, lungs, etc.
  • “Germ of an Idea”: germs plan strategy for an invasion of a body
  • “World Factory”: celestial engineers design a new world; water department, land department, “interior decoration”
  • “Toying Around”: toys in a toy store come alive at night; ballerina, toy soldier, teddy bear, etc.
  • “Will the Real Human Being Please Stand Up”: a scientist makes two robot copies of himself and tries to convince another scientist they are human

  • "If I Ran New York City (or Wherever)": Kids become the government of the city; mayor, police commissioner, schools chancellor, city treasurer, etc.; a) Winning the election & the new rules, b) Facing a problem, c) The solution
  • "The New Student": A foreign exchange student who does not speak much English arrives at school; exchange student, class leader, class clown; a) The first meeting, b) The class clown makes fun of the exchange student, c) The exchange student and the class clown become friends with the help of the class leader
  • "Leaving Home": A child has a fight and decides to run away from home; 2 children, mother, father; a) The argument, b) Running away, c) The parents alone, d) The return and reconciliation
  • "The Big Game": On the day before the last game of the season, the star player cannot play; star player, team captain, team manager, (coach, parent, doctor); a) The problem, b) Making other plans. c) The solution"The Lost Homework": A student has lost an important homework paper just before it is due; The student, 2 friends; a) The discovery, b) What to do?, c) The solution
  • "The Homecoming": An older brother/sister who has been away a very long time is coming home; 3 younger siblings; a) The news, b) Uncertainty (How to react?), c) The decision
  • "Trouble": Two friends find out a third has done something that may get them all into trouble; 3 friends, (a cop, a parent, a teacher, etc.); a) The revelation, b) What to do?, c) The solution
  • "Rivals": Two friends are finalists in a contest that both want to win; 2 friends, a judge; a) The results of the semifinals, b) The rivalry, c) The resolution
  • "The Party": Three friends are invited to a party, but one has a job to do at home and may miss the party; 3 friends, (host/hostess, parent); a) The invitation, b) Disappointment, c) The solution
  • "The Surprise": Two siblings discover that their parents have bought a gift and hidden it away; they don't know what the gift is, why it was bought or whom it is for; 2 siblings, mother, father; a) The discovery, b) Who should get it?, c) The solution
  • "The Hospital": Two patients in a hospital ward are awaiting the return of a third who has gone for his/her operation; 2 patients, doctor, visitor, (nurse); a) Visitor arrives, b) A confusion occurs, c) Resolution of confusion
  • "Detective Report": A private detective becomes personally involved with his/her "subject"; private detective, husband (client), wife (subject); a) Detective makes report to husband, b) Wife enters; involvement is revealed, c) Resolution
  • "Mind Games": A man is trying to drive his wife insane; husband, wife, police detective, maid/butler; a) Husband and maid/butler conspire, b) Detective arrives and suspects husband, c) Solution
  • "Stop Thief!": A man/woman catches a burglar in his/her apartment; man/woman, burglar, man's girlfriend/woman's boyfriend; a) Man/woman catches burglar, b) Girlfriend/boyfriend arrives, c) Resolution
  • "Hysterical Historical": Two men/women living alone in an isolated cabin are visited by a famous, but long dead, historical person and his/her companion; 2 men/women, historical person (e.g.: Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Washington, Lincoln, Alexander the Great, etc.), the companion; a) 2 men/women alone, b) Historical figure arrives and causes confusion/problem, c) Resolution
  • "Blind Man's Bluff": A young woman moves in next door to a young man who is blind; young woman, blind boy, his mother, her boyfriend; a) Young woman and blind boy meet, b) His mother arrives and wants him to come back home, c) Resolution
  • "The Room": Four strangers meet inexplicably in a room with no doors or windows; 4 people; a) Fourth member arrives and meets other three, b) How do they get out? How did they get in?, c) Resolution
  • "Intelligence Report": A general of an invading army is waiting at an inn for some important intelligence; general, lieutenant (the messenger), innkeeper, female spy; a) General and Innkeeper, b) Lieutenant arrives without documents, c) Spy arrives, disguised as a man, d) Resolution
  • "The Apartment": A young man moves into a new apartment with a crazy girl as a neighbor who wants to borrow some rope to hang herself; young man, girl, old woman (neighbor); a) Young man meets girl, b) Girl tries to commit suicide, c) Resolution
  • "The Jail": A man is in jail for a crime he may not have committed; man, girl who cleans up the jail, jailer, the accuser, (accuser's spouse); a) Man and girl get acquainted, b) Jailer and accuser enter, c) Resolution
  • "The Doctor": An inspector is coming to check a private clinic where the doctor and his wife (also a doctor), seem to be hiding something; doctor, wife (doctor), inspector, (nurse, delivery boy); a) Doctor and wife together, b) Inspector arrives, c) Resolution

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