I’m going to go out on a limb and say a performance project is the most engaging way to finish a theater unit. Plays were created to be performed! Sprinkle analysis into discussions, in-class essays, and projects throughout your theater units, but if you possibly can, I say finish with performance.
When I was in college I kept hearing about this amazing Shakespeare professor. She won the student-choice award for popularity over and over. Every Shakespeare class she taught finished with a performance, always in the same format. She would divide the students into groups, give each group an act to perform, and say good luck. At the end of a semester’s worth of Shakespeare classes, each group, having rehearsed independently all term, would perform. The class would travel around campus watching each show, in order, until they had seen the whole play.
My senior year I took the Shakespeare “Comedies and Histories” course for myself, and I got to perform the final act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with my group. The project was just as intense, delightful, stressful, frustrating, and amazing as it sounded. It was enough to inspire me to do it with my own students just one year later when I began working as a teacher.
I hope this episode is going to help you empower your students to dive into theater with their arms wide open. You can listen below, or on iTunes
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From Student to Teacher
I only taught two plays that first year, Long Day’s Journey into Night and Death of a Salesman. One was to my Honors American Lit class, the other to my American Lit class. I decided to try the progressive performance project with both, and it went just as I hoped. Because I tried it with two different plays, four different sections, and two different levels that year, I feel confident in saying you can make this work for your students! Below, I’ll walk you through the steps of setting up this project.
The Play-by-Play for the Play
Step One: Teacher Prep
Doing the entire play was great for a semester-long project in college, but for my purposes, I just wanted to get through the main action of the play by choosing important scenes. I scanned each play and chose a few key scenes that, when performed in order, would bring out the main story of the play. Try to choose short enough scenes that they will all be able to be performed in one class period. I created a handout explaining the project and assigning students to groups. I did not assign which group would get which scene.
Step Two: Introduce the Project
When I passed out the project handout, I let students get into groups and look through the play for the different scenes, then race to the board to put their names next to the scenes they wanted. (I was impressed by their speed). We talked about what this project was going to look like (i.e., they would need to choose a location, rehearse, learn lines, block their scenes, create programs, get any relevant costumes and props they wanted, etc.). At this point, you should make your stance clear on whether or not students must memorize lines.
Step Three: Rehearse
I introduced the project before we were done reading and discussing the play, so that I could build in some rehearsal time along the way. It was nice to sprinkle group meetings and rehearsal in with our discussions and activities. Then at the end we had a full dress rehearsal day on location. I walked around to everyone’s spots (none were too far from our classroom) for final trouble shooting.
Step Four: Teacher Prep for the Big Day
Before the final performance, I made a small program for everyone to show where we would be for each scene and who would be performing. I also made compliment cards for students to fill out for at least three of the scenes they watched, so they would have a clear reason why they had to pay attention (beyond the amazing work their peers were doing). You might also wish to invite guests, your department chair, parents, etc. Creating a rubric at this point is also a good idea, since you will be able to more quickly jot down whatever info you need to create a final grade for each group if you have a succinct rubric in front of you. The final day will be busy!
The program from one group’s scene performance of Death of a Salesman.
Step Five: Performance Day (bring your camera, consider having a student taking video…)
On performance day, have everyone meet in your classroom. Pass out the programs and compliment cards, then dismiss the first group right away to set up. Make your way to their location, sit down, and watch! Take pictures, jot notes on your rubric, and enjoy. Then proceed to location two. This day should be so much fun for everyone. At the end, collect the compliment cards and consider sharing them with the various groups.
I hope you enjoy this project as much as I do! It’s a great way to wrap up the study of any dramatic piece.