The class play is a concept that can easily strike terror into your heart. So many parts to assign, rehearsals to launch, energy to reign in. So much chaos to control.
And yet. So much learning! So many memorable experiences and life lessons. A class play is experiential learning in one of its finest forms. What better way is there to learn about theater than by stepping on the stage?
My advisor in college, Martha Andresen, passed away this year. She was a legendary professor, known for her impeccable style and her Shakespeare classes. She won the student choice award pretty much every year she was eligible for it (they wouldn’t let her win every year… it wouldn’t be fair to the other professors). In every Shakespeare course she taught, she would choose a play and have the class perform it.
Lucky for me, the year I took “Shakespeare’s Histories and Comedies,” she selected A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She put us in small groups, gave us the term to rehearse on our own and choose a location, theme, costumes, everything. Then, on the last day, we traveled around campus watching everyone’s acts, in order.
What an experience. It certainly ranks among the top most memorable of my education. I can still feel the sun on my neck as I walked through the grass by the outdoor volleyball court, playing my tiny role as one of the rude mechanicals. I remember the day we painted our sets, our decision to have themed t-shirts made up for our costumes, the night we watched a horrible musical version of the play for inspiration. I’ll never encounter the play without remembering the day we performed it.
Which brings me to today’s podcast episode. I’m so delighted to welcome Danielle from Nouvelle ELA to the show. She’s a theater guru, teacher, writer, curriculum designer, and podcaster. PLUS, right now she’s working with a teen Shakespeare company! She’s here to share the nitty gritty details of how to succeed with a class play. How to make it doable and successful as well as engaging and amazing. She and her students put on the same play I did in college, and I can’t wait for you to hear (or read!) how they did it.
In case you’re not in the mood to listen, I’ve bulleted Danielle’s main points below. In a nutshell, she assigned her cast and understudies, gave kids time for guided rehearsal while sprinkling in theater mini-lessons, did a dress rehearsal in front of an authentic audience, then watched the magic as her kids nailed their final performance. Get way more details by reading onwards…
Step #1 Cast the Play
Students may be intimidated by the bigger roles, so be sure to give them a pep talk about the goal of the project (learn about theater, bond, enjoy the process, etc. NOT judge each other). You’ll also help students tamp down their reservations if you choose a shorter play or an abridged version of Shakespeare, like one of these amazing ones that Danielle collaborated to create.
Run auditions for the larger roles, then use your amazing knowledge of the rest of your students to ninja sort them into all the other roles AND the understudy parts. Understudies are critical! You will have kids out sick or injured during rehearsals and probably the performance too, so don’t leave yourself high and dry by forgetting this important step.
Step #2 Theater Mini-Lessons
Danielle sprinkles theater mini-lessons into the unit to give students the skills they need to be successful in rehearsal and eventually, performance. Those lessons get a lot more interesting for students when they are actually doing the real work of theater.
Choose helpful lessons like blocking strategies and vocal projection (have students practice speaking to each other from the stage to the back of the auditorium). Sprinkle these lessons throughout the first week or two of rehearsal, to give students the tools they need to succeed.
Step #3 Rehearsal
This will be a busy time! Let students get moving, talking, and planning while you circulate and listen in. Danielle uses a practice log to help students set specific goals for rehearsals and show their progress. If you go this route, give students a few minutes at the end of class to write about what they’ve done and then set achievable goals for the next day of rehearsal. Collect these logs a few times throughout the unit to respond to what the kids are saying and coach them on the types of goals they are setting.
One key lesson Danielle works hard on with her students during this part of the project is learning that they can contribute and be productive even on a bad day. Maybe they are exhausted, grumpy, or having a fight with their significant other. But they can still run lines with someone, paint a set, search for images for the program online, etc. There is SOMETHING they can do to help, besides stew in their own juices.
Step #4 Grading Along the Way
Here’s how Danielle grades the unit…
- Collects the practice logs three times to grade the process.
- Quizzes students over the theater mini-lessons.
- Gives the students a lines test for committing their roles to memory.
- Develops a soft skills rubric with the kids about what they will learn through the process and then lets them self-assess and give evidence for their grades in each category (this rubric covers things like developing problem-solving sills, engagement, focus, attitude).
Step #5 Dress Rehearsal
The dress rehearsal is such a big day. While students might be working out some final kinks, it’s a great chance to give folks a sneak peak and give your students an authentic audience at the same time. Danielle invited her students’ parents to the dress rehearsal, a win for everyone. You might want to do the same!
Step #5 Final Performance
Danielle and her students had agreed that their final performance would be in the evening for the younger students of the school. They made programs, found a way to film the show so they could later share it via DVD, and then wowed themselves and the younger kids.
Consider having your final performance in the school auditorium or some other professional-feeling space, and don’t forget to have students design programs everyone can take home. Adding a summary of the play’s plot on this program will help your audience to understand the action, especially if they are not necessarily familiar with the play.
Enjoy this big night (or day) and take lots of photos for your classroom walls.
Connect with Danielle, of Nouvelle ELA
“Join us for a round-table discussion of a new title in Young Adult literature! We’ll be joined by readers, teachers, librarians, authors, and media critics as we converse about these books. Even if you haven’t read one of our titles yet, you’ll be able to listen to the first half of each episode spoiler-free. Although we read a wide variety of books, we especially love those with diverse casts of characters and those that tackle a range of issues. We always look at books for their valuable representation and wide range of experiences.”
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