How to Direct a High School Play - Choosing A Play to Stage
Have you ever gone to see a live play or musical and wondered if it would be rude to ask for your ticket money back? I know I have. Not all live stage plays are spectacular, especially when you are dealing with untrained actors in community and school theater. Although it seems that the process of putting on a play might be easy, that isn’t always the case. There are a lot of factors to consider. Over the last six years, I have been the drama club advisor at the school where I work. I have directed ten shows, and co-directed one. I have produced an additional seven shows. Along the way, I have learned a few things that have helped us have successful productions. The first step in the process is choosing the play.
We all have our favorite shows, and you may even have a vision for your favorite show. Unfortunately, choosing a play is not as easy as deciding on your favorite show. If your favorite play is Hamlet, but you don’t have an actor to play Hamlet, then you have a serious problem. So what do you need to consider? Here is my list.
How many actors will you have? Sometimes the play you choose will designate the number of actors that you can take on for your production. If you are working in a school setting, you may have a policy, like we do, where you need to accept all interested actors. You will need to decide if you are going to choose a play that has a large cast, medium sized cast, small cast, or a flexible cast. You can always add actors in as extras when necessary, but that is easier to do with some plays.
Who are your actors? Do you have more girls than boys? Do you have a handful of serious talent, or just one or two brilliant actors in your group? Can the actors play the roles in the play of your choice? Can they memorize the number of lines for the characters? Do they fit the demographics of the characters (age, gender, etc.)? You can always dress a girl up as a boy, if the actress is willing, and you can add a gray wig and wrinkles to make a sixteen year old into a sixty-six year old. However, the kind of characters in the play of your choice need to be considered alongside the talent you are working with.
There are a lot of jobs in a theater production. Therefore, not all students who audition need to be on stage. There are technician and stagehand jobs that need to be filled. You can usually find a job or project for everyone, even if you have to get a bit creative.
Before you choose your play, consider your budget. A straight play will cost less to produce than a musical. A modern day play may cost less than a period piece, because students will be able to use some of their own clothes for costumes. Many plays, musical and straight plays alike, will require that you pay for performance rights. When you search for the play of your choice, the company will tell you how much it costs for the royalties per performance. Straight plays will have a much lower royalty than a musical.
You can also choose to produce a play that doesn’t require royalties. These plays will come from two sources. First, you can choose a play in the public domain. Plays in the public domain are generally older, and you can often find the scripts online. Public domain plays include all Shakespeare plays, as well as others such as The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. The second source for a non-royalty play comes from within. In other words, you, or your students, can write your own script. This could have positive or negative results, so know your talent. If you are not a great writer, it might be worth the $60 - $90 is costs for royalties on a play that someone else wrote.
My Favorite Sources for Play Scripts
- Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice - A Stage Adaptation - Donna Hilbrandt - TeachersPayTeachers.com
Check out the script I wrote! This is a full length play written in two acts which stays true to Jane Austen’s original novel Pride and Prejudice. I wrote this script when I couldn’t find a script that didn’t drastically change her beautiful story.
- Music Theatre International: Licensing Musical Theater Theatrical Performance Rights and Materials t
- Dramatists Play Service, Inc.
- Dramatic Publishing: Play publisher of musicals, drama, childrens plays, comedies, duet-scenes, mono
- Samuel French, Inc.
- Baker's Plays
- Pioneer Drama is the Premier Publisher of Plays and Musicals for Christmas, Schools and Community Th
Straight Play or Musical
The musical is always a popular choice. However, it is not always the easier choice. In all of the shows I have directed and produced, only two have been musicals. Why? Musicals take longer to rehearse and prepare, and they cost more money. Musicals require actors who can sing well. Musicals also require more assistance. Often, you will need a separate musical director who can focus just on the preparation of the music in the show. You will need music to accompany your show as well. Do you want a pit orchestra, a piano accompanist, or a taped accompaniment? If you want a pit orchestra, you will need to find musicians and a conductor. Personally, I would never go with the canned cd accompaniment, but that is just my preference. Musicals often require choreography as well. You may need to hire a choreographer if you don’t have the time or talent to do the job yourself.
Straight plays are easier to produce, especially if you are flying solo as a director. The timeline is shorter, and the choice of titles is much larger. It might also be easier, and it is cheaper, to get the performance rights for a straight play. (Sometimes, depending on your area, performance rights are not available.)
Space and Resources
Before you decide on a play, consider your space and resources. What kind of stage will you be using? What sound and lighting capabilities do you have? What props and costumes are available for your use? All of those are flexible categories, but good things to consider before you decide on a play. The stage I work on is huge. We have a lot of space to fill. Our lighting capabilities are fantastic, while our sound system has a bit to be desired. We have some props and costumes, but if I am reading a script that requires something we don’t have, then I think about our available rental budget before I make my final decision.
Check out other articles in my series "How to Direct a High School Play"
Need more advice in order to pick the right script? Check out this article by hopped:
Your timeline is of utmost importance in choosing a play. Having enough rehearsal time to prepare your show is key. I have put shows on the stage in as little as four weeks, but some shows we have rehearsed for up to nine weeks or longer. My advice would be to consider the following time lines:
· Straight plays: 4- 6 weeks
Some scripts are easier than others. If the material is modern and written for school age students, you may need less time. If the script is more challenging, you will need more time.
· Shakespeare: 7-9 weeks
Always add a couple of extra weeks if you are performing Shakespeare. The language is difficult, and students will need the extra time to understand and memorize the text.
· Musicals: 8 – 10 weeks
Just learning the music for a musical will take some time. I have found that when I am trying to block a musical, it is hard to do if students are not ‘off book’ with the music. It helps to take a few weeks to learn the music first, and then start working out the stage movement.
The time lines I have listed assume that you are rehearsing for a few hours each day. If you can only rehearse two or three days a week, then you may need to extend the time line. However, my advice would be not to drag out your production time, especially if you are working with students. Students sign on to do a theater project for many reasons. They will be enthusiastic and excited. However, if the process begins to drag, you will lose their enthusiasm, and you may lose them. Teenagers, especially, have other interests and commitments, so value their time if you want them to stick with you.
There are many questions to ask before you even begin reading scripts for your upcoming production. Having the answers to these questions will make the process smoother and more fun. When you have considered all of the questions, then you should begin reading scripts. Read several. Make yourself a list of your top three, then go back and consider the questions outlined above again. Making the right choice from the start will lead to the best results.
Written by Donna Hilbrandt, 2012.