Life, Live Theater, and the Lively Classroom
Today is the day my right hand finally finds out what my left hand has been doing. Since 1980, my right hand has published fifteen books for young readers, and on the strength of those books, I've been invited to speak at schools, libraries, and conferences like this one. But since second grade -- well before 1980 -- my left hand, figuratively, because I'm not actually ambidextrous, has been writing plays.
And, yes, I'm aware that the left hand is associated with things sinister, gauche, off-balance, wicked, dark, dangerous, and "not quite right,"but theater has always been accused of all of that -- and proud of it. I saw at-shirt recently that said, "Film is art, theater is life, and television is furniture." Life is the messy one, but life is also the big adventure.
I actually began my life upon the wicked stage in first grade, not as a writer, but as a performer: I played Vitamin A. A Junior Literary Guild editor once told me she made her stage debut as Plymouth Rock. It also turned out to be her last theatrical endeavor, but I went on to bigger things. By second grade, I was improvising skits based on popular songs of the day: "The Tennessee Waltz,""The Shrimp boats Are Comin'," "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window?"
None of my creations was ever written down. My company of players and I worked entirely "on the hoof," as it were. I'd boss them around: "Now Joycie'll stand here and Paul will say this and then we'll all sing the song and do a dance and take a bow." And they'd say, "That's dumb. I don't wanna." And I'd say, "Well, okay, how about . . . " And so it went, until we got the job done.
Our teacher let us perform for the class and then sent us on tour around the building. James G. Blaine Elementary School in Philadelphia was three stories tall. We did fine on the first and second floors, where the elementary classes met. But when we got to the third floor, where the junior high kids lurked, and where ordinarily we were not allowed to roam, we got nervous.
We lined up in front of our first junior high class, and they looked so big to us, so important, so dangerous, that we got the giggles. And we giggled and we sputtered and we snorted until, finally, the teacher asked us to leave the room. That was the end of my touring company, but that was the beginning of my playwriting career.
I've moved between the worlds of theater and books ever since, and it has been amazing to me that those who speak of "children's literature" and "young adult literature" almost never include plays for young audiences under those headings.
Last year I served on a language arts evaluation team for our school district in Springfield, Missouri. Our committee was compiling a list of all the language arts programs available to the young people in our schools: literary journals, computer publishing centers, district writing contests, a children's literature festival.
"What about school plays?" I asked.
"Oh, no," I was assured, "that's not language arts. That's speech and drama."
Imagine my surprise. All this time, I'd been reading plays, writing plays, attending plays, and performing in plays under the misconception that those activities had something to do with language!
That committee's reaction is not uncommon. Many of the book people I've met don't even realize there's a rich field of dramatic literature out there. Do the names Aurand Harris, Suzan Zeder, V. Glasgow Koste, or Joanna Halpert Krausring a bell with you? They -- and many other playwrights like them -- are highly respected in the world of children's literature, and their award-winning plays -- The Arkansas Bear, Mother Hicks, The Tolstoy Story Play, and The Ice Wolf, to name only a few -- belong to a literary treasure too often hidden behind the wall that separates plays from the rest of children's literature.
Possibly you've heard of Sandy Asher before today, but never of Sandra Fenichel Asher. That's the name my left hand goes by, the one that writes plays. They travel in different circles, Sandy and Sandra do, and sometimes it's interesting for each of them to be an invisible observer in the other's world, but it's frustrating, too, because the two worlds have much to offer children and could reach them far more effectively working together.
If you aren't already acquainted with the people I've mentioned and other modern playwrights creating theater for young or family audiences, you have a great treat in store for you. The field is booming -- and it's changing in wonderful ways. Jeff Church, artistic director of The Coterie, an excellent family theater in Kansas City, notes:This season, a play we've slated sold out all 29 weekday school performances five months in advance. This play is not Wizard of Oz or "Flopsy Goes to the Circus."
It is The Meeting. A play about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X alone in a room arm-wrestling. To some it doesn't sound like theater for kids -- but we think just the opposite. We believe our school and public audiences are craving a unique brand of children's theatre; that indeed we are being sought by a growing audience.
For The Coterie, children's theatre is about two oil workers discovering a cavern of dinosaurs; it's about a child raised by wolves; and it's about two genius South African high school debate students . . . all subject matter for our new '93 season.
As well, children's theatre is still about the classics, Oliver Twist and Anne of Green Gables, skillfully adapted and made stage worthy. Even a modern kids' cult comedy novel called Bunnicula (cross a bunny with Dracula) can live superbly in a Coterie season. A special one-woman show called Blazing the Outback . . . is already sold out . . . .
Finally, we have a five-state tour we are currently booking for 1994 of Sandy Asher's A Woman Called Truth, a play about Sojourner Truth for which we could not add enough performances last season to meet the demand.
Each play represents one of a series of very unusual choices that we've planned to make theatre going at The Coterie a rare experience. Children's theatre is being redefined, and what the schools are wishing to see is very encouraging. Goodbye "Flopsy Goes to the Circus."
Across the border, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan sees its mission differently, but with equal enthusiasm. Marya Lucca-Thyberg, Educational Coordinator, writes,Since its inception in 1976, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan has been dedicated to bringing classic literature to life on stage through the creation of exciting scripts and productions. The Caravan strives to enhance the language arts curriculum through performances and involvement in workshops, offering students an opportunity to experience the literature of the classroom in an entirely different way.
The students see . . . one creative vision of what a certain story and set of ideas meant to a specific playwright and a particular group of artists. Through workshops the students make creative decisions, just as the artists have done, encouraging them to realize what that story, those words and ideas inspire in them.
The Caravan devises study guides to assist the classroom teacher in following through on this process as well as taking the issues of an individual play into other areas of the curriculum. This use of theatre in the classroom/curriculum allows students to become aware of . . . the images, ideas and emotions that the literature evokes for them. They can begin to recognize their contribution to any work of art, written, visual, or aural, as well as their own creativity.
I like that approach: Each student's reaction and contribution to the experience is unique and valued. Students discover themselves as they discover literature. "What do you think?" is an irresistible invitation to learn.
The Coterie and Nebraska Theater Caravan are two out of hundreds of companies across the country committed to offering high-quality theater and related workshops for young audiences. I urge you to explore those in your area, including out-of-state groups on tour. If you're not aware of any, contact the International Association of Theater for Children and Young People (ASSITEJ/USA) and ask about member theaters in your state or nearby. (Write them c/o Amie Brockway, The Open Eye: New Stagings, 270 West 89th Street, New York, NY 10024).
Some of the plays companies choose to present are unpublished and may be unique to that performing group, but many other scripts are available at about the cost of a paperback book through play-publishing companies. I wrote to several companies and asked them what teachers who are not necessarily their school drama coaches ought to know about them. The response was generous. Like producing companies, play publishing has changed with the times.
Editor Marjorie Murray reminded me that along with my own A Woman Called Truth and The Wise Men of Chelm, Dramatic Publishing Company offers about 850 titles, including many you may even be teaching in book form: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, Charlotte's Web,Dandelion Wine, and Flowers for Algernon.
Raymond Pape, Associate Editor of Baker's Plays, points out that,. . . within the last ten to fifteen years, there has been an incredible demand for plays that are about teenagers. Our focus as a society has shifted to the teens again in many ways, most obviously in the movies. But on the stage, we try our best to bring plays that are contemporary and plays that speak to teenagers on their level, and to their experience . . . . Within this trend is the "issue oriented" play, which has become immensely popular. Plays that deal with issues such as AIDS, teen pregnancy, suicide, chemical abuse, prejudice, are being produced on the high school level all across the country, and more power to those kids.
In many ways, theater for young audiences is right now where book publishing for young readers was in the seventies and early eighties: wide open to new ideas and experimentation. In spite of censorship crusades and a gutted National Endowment for the Arts, difficult subjects are being dealt with in youth theater, and the freedom to do so is generating much excitement and fine writing.
However, the same danger lurks in topical plays that eventually overwhelmed so-called "relevant" or "problem" novels: The problem can become more important than literary quality. In his book An Odyssey of Masquers: The Everyman Players, Orlin Corey, editor of Anchorage Press, warns against what he callsstage sausages . . . stuffed with instant and ersatz solutions to whatever is currently fashionable -- child abuse, incest, racial discrimination, divorce, police brutality . . . nuclear power, etc. and etc. . . . one-tenth sermon, six-tenths antics, and three-tenths spurious logic and sensationalism, a recipe for gaseous dyspepsia. Masquerading as "serious," "socially significant,""now-theatre," these highly marketable pastiches are none of the above. In reality they are neo-Victorian and neo-Puritan -- arrogant, "ethical,"prescriptive.
Which is not to say Mr. Corey is against difficult topics being dealt with in the theater. "No one can protect children from the life [that serious literary works] imaginatively and sensitively reflect," he reminds us. "Winston Churchill, when asked why the British public in 1940 was so opposed to fascist dictators, puckishly replied, `Because they have known Macbeth since childhood.'"
"But lest we forget," Raymond Pape says, "theater is also meant to entertain .. . . Our feeling [at Baker's Plays] is that . . . kids are growing up faster than we ever did, and much too seriously. We also provide for the need that is out there for these kids to cut loose."
All of the publishers I heard from offer a wide variety of plays, truly something for everyone. A trip through any of their catalogues is an adventure in itself, and I am constantly ordering scripts described therein for the simple joy of reading them. To give just a taste of the smorgasbord available, let me move at high speed from the sublime to the sublimely ridiculous.
I Never Saw Another Butterfly by Celete Raspanti is the story of one of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezin, a military garrison set up as a ghetto during World War II, a stopping-off place on the way to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. This sensitive and life-affirming play, available in both full-length and one-act forms, is based on collected poems and drawings by those children, which were recovered and published in a book by the same name. The title poem goes like this:I never saw another butterfly . . .
The last, the very last,
so richly, brightly, dazzling yellow.
Perhaps if the sun's tears sing
against a white stone . . .
Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly `way up high.
It went away I'm sure because it
wished to kiss the world goodbye.
For seven weeks I've lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto,
but I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me,
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don't live here in the ghetto.
(reprinted by permission of The Dramatic Publishing Company)
Way at the other end of the spectrum of trials children must face is a lighthearted but surreal one-act called This Is a Test by Stephen Gregg. "As the ticking clock reminds you, you have only sixty minutes to complete this oh-so-important predictor of your future," reads the catalogue description that caught my attention. "But you didn't get the review sheets, the teacher doesn't seem to like you, and your classmates are blatantly cheating. Time is passing and the voices in your head keep reminding you that though you may be having trouble with the test, your personal life is far, far worse. Then you reach the essay question. The good news is that it's an opinion essay. The bad news is that it's in Chinese . . . ."
There is no topic of study, including the topic of studying, that can't be made more vivid and personal by a good play.
But maybe I'm preaching to the converted. Maybe you've already been bitten by the theater bug. In that case, it's very likely you've still experienced some difficulty justifying the inclusion of post-Shakespearean drama in your curriculum plans -- to yourself, possibly; to certain powers-that-be in your school system, almost certainly. There is still that suspicion, even among enthusiastic theater-goers, that it takes 300 years or so for those naughty things called plays to petrify into literature.
And it's not only book people, of course, who have maintained the wall between dramatic and other forms of literature. Many theater people keep themselves well on the other side, at a safe distance from the literature departments of their schools. Maybe it's because the two groups see each other as conflicting personality types: Book people read, reflect, talk, and write; theater people read, reflect, talk, write, jump up and do. Book people are often quite happy in their own company -- alone with a good book. Theater people cannot do what they do alone; they need each other and they need an audience.
Both kinds of personalities exist in every classroom, and there are children --I was one of them -- who embrace both extremes. But young people, as a rule, do tend more toward the active than the passive mode, more toward the social than the solitary life. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to get them to sits till and be quiet when they read and write. Maybe, for a change, we ought to let them stand up, move around, and be noisy while they read and write. Why force naturally left-handed people to use only their right hands?
Plays do come naturally to children. My second-grade friends and I weren't unusual, except that we were given many opportunities to strut our stuff. You and I and all of our students began creating plays almost as soon as we could talk: "Let's pretend you're the students and I'm the teacher and first I'll give you a spelling test and then you'll be bad and I'll make you stand in the corner and then you'll cry. And I'll tell you if you promise to be good, I'll let you go outside for recess. Okay?"
Characters, conflict, dialogue, action, even a theme -- it sure sounds like a play to me. And it's as natural to the human organism as walking upright: Let's get together and pretend. We know how to do that. We were born knowing how. It's part of the standard-equipment language arts program on our mental computers.
Playacting is a way of reviewing what we already know and finding out more. When you and I get together and pretend, possibilities arise that would never have been available to either one of us alone. We draw on each other's strengths and shore up one another's weaknesses. Discoveries are made about each of us, and about the two of us together, and about people in general and how they interact, both in the play and in the making of the play.
Playacting produces a work of fiction, but it's also a new and real life experience. As in a book, the story exists, the characters exist; but in a play, real people also exist -- in the same place, at the same time. Actors, characters, and audiences join hands to take part in games of "let's pretend." Story and life are integrated and intensified in a way that only live theater-- not film, not TV, not even books -- can offer. Everything is engaged: mind and body, intellect, imagination, emotions, and senses -- and that, as we already know, is the ideal way for young people to learn.
"Theatre allows us to laugh, learn, and explore just about anything imaginable," writes Marjorie Murray. "We can be exhilarated, motivated and/or moved to reevaluate the world around us and ourselves. And let's not forget entertainment! It's wonderful to be dazzled by this art form."
Sounds like fun, doesn't it? And now that I've conjured up that three-letter word, I'd better face it and deal with it. Yes, plays are fun. They don't call it a "play" for nothing. And fun doesn't get the respect it deserves in many of our schools. There is no fun factor on standardized tests; fun grades do not appear on report cards; no one gets into a gifted program for having a higher-than-average fun-Q.
Still I believe it's a safe bet that the kid who says school is fun is the kid who is learning. Teaching tools that delight as well as entertain -- the arts among them -- are too often dismissed as frivolous. If it tastes good, it must have too much sugar in it; if it's fun, it has to be fluff. And yet the exact opposite is often true. Fun can be highly nutritious!
Anne Fendrich, president of Pioneer Drama Service, sent me this clipping from her newsletter:At a time when educators and the educational system are subject to a great deal of criticism, it has become obvious to us that dedicated teachers are not in short supply . . . . They know, as educational specialists are pointing out, that the arts are not merely the frills some have thought them to be.
An article in U.S. News and World Report of March 30, 1992, points out, "Mounting evidence that comprehensive programs in the arts can radically improve graduation rates, grades, and overall achievement level has captured the attention of an array of groups with a vested interest in educational reform . . . . Theatre experience offers to the student an opportunity to achieve what the Department of Labor considers to be skills "for the workplace of the future . . . . the capacity for working in teams, communication, creative thinking, self-esteem, imagination, and invention."
I wholeheartedly agree that plays are an especially effective teaching strategy for today's students, all of them: the brightest ones looking for creative challenges, the reluctant ones who see no purpose in sitting alone with an open book, the non-athletes who need a legitimate way to stand up and be noticed. The production of a play brings together people with a broad range of interests and abilities: Anyone who can read, write, research, act, sing, dance, play a musical instrument, design, choreograph, sew, draw, paint, cut and paste, hammer and saw, pull curtains, work a tape recorder, turn lights on and off, sell tickets, usher, collect donated furniture, costumes, and props, deliver posters around town, or direct, supervise, and/or clean up after everybody else can make a contribution to the production of a play. And every single contribution makes a significant difference, because there truly is no such thing as a small part. The tiniest hitch can ruin everything; meticulous attention to detail can produce magic.
Plays offer endless opportunities for individual leadership and cooperative problem solving. Knowing that today's students will face situations in their lives, on a personal, community, and global scale, that we cannot possibly foresee, practice in identifying and dealing with a wide variety of uncharted situations should take top priority in their educations, right along with the development of the self-esteem needed to face the unknown with hope and courage.
There is nothing quite like live theater for generating uncharted situations. Some theatrical problems require long-term planning; others, on-the-spot decisions and lightning-fast action. Some call for an exchange of ideas; others leave you quite on your own. Either way, each decision affects every other decision and every other person involved in the on-going process of presenting a play. And no matter what happens, you can't go back and you can't stop. Not only must the show go on, it will go on, one way or another. Sounds a lot like life, doesn't it?
But all right, you and your school simply do not have the time, money, staff, or support needed to get your kids to the theater, bring in a touring company, or put on a fully-produced play yourselves. Hard to believe in a country that spends a billion dollars a year on hairspray, but, yes, it happens. So what else can you do to bring dramatic literature to life in your classroom?
You can read plays and do everything you do with books and stories, including the mundane "describe the characters, summarize the plot, and identify the main idea," if you want to. But you can also do more.
Before I suggest how, I must address the topic of royalties and when you do and do not need to pay them. Most of you are familiar with Plays, the monthly magazine that publishes about eighty new scripts for all grades every year. Those plays are royalty-free; that is, you may perform them for non-paying audiences without paying a fee to the publisher. Once you charge admission, though, you're in a royalty situation and need to contact the magazine for permission and royalty rates.
Other play publishers also have royalty-free plays in print, and their catalogues will say so, but most of their scripts do require the payment of royalties whenever the play is presented before an audience, paying or non-paying. When you purchase a play script, you may read it to your class without paying a royalty, you may have the class read it to themselves or to each other without paying a royalty, and you may have one side of the class perform it for the other side without paying a royalty. But once you leave your classroom, even to perform for the class next door, you must pay the royalty. It is unethical and illegal to do otherwise. (Royalties generally run between fifteen and fifty dollars a performance, depending on the play's length, your troupe's professional standing, and other factors.)
That said, let me repeat that you may purchase one or more copies of a play script and use and enjoy it within your classroom as you would any other book. And you can have the additional fun -- and personal involvement -- of reading and thinking about plays the way professional theater people do.
Why not examine a character the way an actor might: Stand up and move through the script. Here she enters for the first time. Where might she be coming from?What kind of mood is she in? How would she walk? What does her voice sound like?
Now she drinks a cup of coffee. Would she be a dainty sipper or a noisy slurper? Is she the impatient type likely to burn her tongue? Why does she do these things in this way? How do her actions affect everyone else in the scene? How do their reactions affect her?
The answers to these questions are not in any teacher's guide. Like clues to an inexhaustible treasure hunt, they're hidden in the play itself and in each actor's interpretation of the role. Acting means more than memorizing and reciting lines. It requires minute analysis of the character's personality and background, of the situation she's in, of the time and place in which she lives, of what happened before the play began that affects her behavior now. Good actors spend a lot of time in libraries, researching their roles. Thinking like actors, students can climb inside each character's skin, make decisions, and make discoveries. Reading like an actor is intense, intelligent, and very personally involving.
While I'm on the topic of reading like an actor, I'd like to put in a word here in favor of rehearsal time, even for an informal classroom reading. It was never Shakespeare's intention to have his plays read aloud by sullen, hesitant, embarrassed students who'd never set eyes on the words before. The Bard is not at his best under those conditions, and neither is anyone else! Short scenes analyzed, rehearsed, and then read aloud to the class are far more satisfying than attempts to stumble through line after line of a play without a first, let alone a second, thought. Think like an actor: Don't go public until you've rehearsed.
There are other intriguing roads into a play. What about the set designer's point of view? Or the costume designer's? Both jobs call for more than artistic talent. Designers study every word of a script to balance their own interpretations against the physical needs of the actors, the playwright's intentions, and the theater's dimensions and budget. Designers need to research time periods and geographical locations for accurate details. Again they learn enough to enter the world of the play and, by their individual decisions, help to bring that world to life.
The director has to straddle both the artistic and the practical aspects of the play. How can he or she work within a budget and still be true to the spirit of the story? Which actors should be chosen to breathe life into these characters?And why? What special qualities might each bring to the play? (If you're not actually presenting the play, you can draw up a fantasy cast of famous names, or mix those with classmates, if you like.)
Could one actor be hired to play two or more roles? It saves money, but is it physically possible? Is there a point at which the actor would end up on stage as both characters at once, talking to himself? You have to know a play intimately before you even cast it!
What ideas might a director offer the actors, designers, and other participants to keep costs in line and yet bring his or her vision of the play to fruition? Might the sets and costumes be suggested rather than fully executed? Might music bridge the changes in scenery or eliminate the need for scenery altogether? What kind of music would be appropriate? Again, there are no right and wrong answers, but there are answers -- in the script and in those interpreting it.
The differences between the book and play versions of a story, and between story writing and playwriting in general, offer intriguing possibilities for analysis of a play from the playwright's point of view. Like stories, plays generally begin with a character -- a character with a problem to be solved, a goal to be reached. That character determines the direction of the plot, because certain kinds of adventures happen to certain kinds of people: Don Quixote did not sail to the New World; Christopher Columbus did. Even if Don Quixote were real and Columbus were fictional, they would still be true to their own natures.
Like stories, plays present a theme. Events are not chosen randomly; they are arranged to mean something, to illustrate and illuminate, to make a point.
But while story writers can develop character, plot, and theme through narration, playwrights depend almost entirely on dialogue, action, and spectacle. Characters in a play are known and judged only by obvious external factors. How they look, what they say or fail to say, what they do or fail to do -- and what other characters say about them -- are the only hints we get about who those people are. Other characters, the actors interpreting each role, and we, the audience, have nothing else to go on. We're not mind-readers. And while the playwright tries to provide enough information to make his or her intentions clear, he or she rarely steps onstage, the way a narrator might in a book, to tell us what's going on beneath the surface. This is another way in which plays call for active involvement from audience and readers. All the work is not done for us.
Like play characters, real people are known and judged by externals: how we look, what we say and do, what others say about us. This fact and the misunderstandings that often arise from it are acutely apparent to young people. There's no narrator around to explain how we secretly feel or what we really meant to say or what extenuating circumstances lie behind our deeds. Examine the human dynamics of a play -- what's readily communicated, what isn't, and the ramifications of both -- and you come away with insight into the dynamics of daily life.
Unlike the authors of stories, novels, TV shows, and movies, playwrights have to accommodate their work to the special physical problems and challenges of the theater. In a story or a movie, time, space, characters, and action are limited only by the imagination. A character can be a baby asleep in his crib one moment and a grown-up lost in space the next. Mountains and mobs can appear and disappear with a touch of narration or camera work.
But in the theater, you're dealing with real flesh-and-blood people who have to perform the story nonstop from beginning to end, often many times over, sometimes more than once a day. Characters who fly are possible, but difficult, and expensive. The climactic, bloody boxing matches in the "Rocky" movies could not be done convincingly eight performances a week by real actors -- at least, not in a realistic manner. Or not with the same actors each time!
In theater, you're dealing with a real physical space: floods, volcanoes, train wrecks, and earthquakes are hard to reproduce onstage. The aerial dogfights of the Star Wars epic would be expensive at best and silly-looking at worst.
The reader of a book can take as long as needed to digest each page, but at heater audience can't stop to rest or review and can't be expected to pay attention indefinitely.
Finally, while the author of a book has only to keep one imaginary reader in mind, someone very much like himself or herself, a playwright has to take into consideration the future needs of producers, actors, designers, audiences, and so on. Everyone involved in the presentation of a play has a creative vision of what the play should be, and not all of them necessarily agree with each other-- or with the playwright's original intentions. There's Shakespeare as musical comedy, Shakespeare as opera, Shakespeare in the park, Shakespeare in sign language. It might be interesting to compare a production of the play with the written script and imagine the playwright's reaction to the interpretations. I'll give you a hint: It's not always pure joy! Fortunately, each production means a new approach -- or set of approaches. A play is a living thing, capable of growth and change, onstage and in the classroom.
The differences between story writing and playwriting can be seen as limitations, but they're better thought of as challenges -- and infinite opportunities for creative problem solving. Given the obstacles mentioned, and others that your students may discover on their own, how do playwrights make their stories interesting, even exciting, whether they're working on original scripts or adapting stories for the stage?
Rising to the challenge, some of your students may want to carry thinking like a playwright to its logical extreme -- writing plays. I won't go into the mechanics of playwriting here; that would require far more time than we have. But remember that it can be done "on the hoof" as well as on the page, and that opens the door to students of wide-ranging skills.
I've written about both techniques in some detail in Ruth Nathan's book Writers in the Classroom, and there are many excellent books on playwriting, creative dramatics, and improvisational theater available, including several offered in the catalogues of the play publishers I've quoted earlier. There are also wonderful models for teenage playwrights in Sparks in the Park and other titles in the ongoing series of books from Dell featuring the winners of the annual Young Playwrights Festival, high schoolers who write with inspiring candor and skill. Dramatic Publishing Company features several plays by groups of teenagers, and Baker's Plays also sponsors a high-school playwriting contest and publishes the winners.
Whether we write them, read them, perform them, or attend them, plays involve us physically and emotionally as well as intellectually, and because of that, they make an imprint that's practically indelible. However your students connect to the beating heart of a live play -- at home studying lines, backstage mending a costume, in the art room painting a poster, flat on the floor playing Plymouth Rock, or just imagining these possibilities while reading -- they will develop and internalize language skills and life skills --not to mention specific lessons across the curriculum.
And they'll have fun doing it.
I'd like to end with a few testimonials that shed light on the value of plays in the language arts curriculum from a variety of angles. The first is from Charlotte H. Ray of East Webster High School in Maben, Mississippi, writing to Pioneer Drama Services:I'm a P.E. and science major, but I sponsor a play because I've seen how much it means to the students. When I attend class reunions, the most often remembered event in high school is the Senior or Junior play. Also, each year I'm amazed at the student who comes out of his/her shell when . . . accepted by the audience or . . . fellow cast members. One mother told me after the play that her son had been a different person since accepting a part. She said, "I can't believe it, and I owe it all to you." What better reward can you receive as a teacher!
Playwright William-Alan Landes observes,A teacher in Missouri thanked me for one funny children's short play, saying she had spent a year trying to encourage a ten-year-old to read. She thought she had failed. At a seminar she found a copy of Aesop's Friends and some notes on usage. She tried having her class read aloud, dramatize, and perform. The ten year old got excited. After a couple of play reading sessions, she found the entire class enjoyed reading more. As I've said for years, plays are good reading!
Here are four very different responses to one company's production of one play, my own A Woman Called Truth, performed by the Open Eye: New Stagings in New York. (I apologize for the immodesty, but my own are the only reviews I collect en masse!) From Marvin Krislov, U.S. Justice Department, Civil Rights Division: "I commend you and your company's important contribution to educating all people in the history of this country and promoting racial harmony and understanding." From Corey, P.S. 35, New York City: "Your show made me sad, happy, and angry. Your show was heart warming. I gave it two thumbs up!" From Jacquelin Powell, enrolled in an adult high school equivalency program: "As I sat in your audience last Thursday morning, staring directly at the stage and watching you perform the play . . . with such dignity, I thought to myself that if it were me, would I be courageous and brave as Isabelle was?"And finally, from playwright J. E. Franklin: "As for my own daughter's reaction, she was full of questions after the play. For some time, I had left a copy of Sojourner Truth: Narrative and Book of Life lying conspicuously here and there in the house, hoping she would someday pick it up. A few days after the performance, I saw a bookmark in it."
The play's the thing . . . .
Books and Plays Cited
Montgomery, L. M. Anne of Green Gables. Coterie production adapted by Joanna Blythe, unpublished; commissioned by Oregon Children's Theatre Co.,Portland, OR, 1990. Also adapted by Joseph Robinette for Dramatic Publishing Co., 1989.
In addition to her work as a playwright, Sandy Asher is the author of the recently published collection of short stories, Out of Here: A Senior Class Yearbook, and numerous novels for young adults. She is a former member of ALAN's Board of Directors and a frequent speaker at ALAN and NCTE meetings.This article is adapted from a presentation at the International Reading Association Great Plains Conference in Kansas City, Missouri, October 30, 1992.An abridged version of this talk appeared in the Fall 1993 issue of theConnecticut English Journal.