How to Manage a School Play from Script to Show
You Can't do this on Your Own
Before you start, you need to think about your support team.
- Who is going to practice the lines with the students?
- Who will do the choreography for the dancing?
- Who will take responsibility for sound and lights?
- Who is going to source the props?
- Where are the costumes coming from?
It's virtually impossible for one teacher alone to bring together everything that constitutes taking a play from a script to its final live performance. If you've been tasked by your superior with the duty of managing a school play, you must be sure you discuss with them which other teachers will be working alongside you on the show.
If you are left all alone, you might consider using older high-school students to assist you, as they may be looking for experience for their résumé. For example, science or engineering focused students may be interested in operating the sound and lights. At some schools you may find the students are in charge of their own performance and the roll of teachers is minimal. The case discussed below looks at when teachers are required to manage a student show.
It's Better and Faster to Write Your Own Script
There are literally thousands and thousands of scripts for well-known stories available on the internet; sometimes they're free, sometimes they need to be paid for. My experience has been that it's better to write your own script. If you use someone else's, the words are not your own, the story is not yours and, most importantly, the scripts on the internet tend to be long winded, wordy and tailored by the author to suit their own institution's needs.
I'm not saying don't look at other scripts out there. Skim through them, take good ideas from them, and then write your own. You'll be closer to the story through all the practices and you'll have clarity about what it is you want the students and support staff to do and how you want them to do it.
But, we're missing a step. You can't write a script if you don't know what story you are going to do? Don't just pick a story you think will work. Consult with the students who are going to perform first. Canvas ideas from them and then whittle it down to two or three that seem to be getting a positive response. Then, let the students take a vote. If the students feel like they have chosen the story for themselves then they are much more likely to take ownership of the play and want to make it a success.
So now you can write your own script. If you're not familiar with the story the kids chose, search for plot summaries and character lists on the internet. That'll give you the ideas for what scenes you're going to create and how many actors and actresses you are going to need.
Before you get into writing the story, the first important page on your script is the cast list. Write out the list of characters and in brackets jot down a few notes on the personality of the character. Are they strong and determined or are they playful and so on. This will help you to think about which students could suit the roles.
When you write the lines of the story, consider putting actions in square brackets. For example, you might want the actor or actress to appear angry with hand on hips, you might need a prop bringing on stage for this scene, or you might need a sound or song playing at this point. It's not just the words you write, it's what surrounds those words in action and materials to illustrate what's happening and the surroundings. What works for me is to largely write the lines first and then go back to add the actions and instructions after.
Don't make the task of writing a script too much of a big thing in your head. Get it written in one day. This is a school play; it's not a Hollywood movie. Parents are going to watch because they want to feel proud of their kids and to enjoy the evening. The students too should get enjoyment and some pride from doing this, but don't make expectations unreasonably high. It doesn't need to be perfect, just put together nicely and with care, because it's often the rough edges that provide the character and amusement during a school play.
Script Template in Word
Microsoft Word has a very useful script template for a screenplay that you can adapt to help you get started on your stage play. In Word, click on file - new and then search for script or screenplay and you will find the template as shown below.
Play Characters: Don't Put Round Pegs in Square Holes
Remember, not all the students will want to perform. If a student really isn't comfortable in taking any part in the show (or they may not be available on the date of the performance), just let it go. You want students in the show that want and are happy to be there. This leads on to the next point, which is that when you look at your character list, you must assign students to the roles that in some way fit their personality. No good having a shrinking violet as the protagonist for example. Ask the students as well to make sure they are comfortable in the role you are thinking about giving them.
You will need at least one narrator too, though sometimes two or three works. You're looking for students who are outgoing and like to speak for narrators.
It's likely that all the speaking roles will be filled by a fairly small number of students. Those that are left can be used as dancers, stage hands or given a non-speaking role, like villagers or extras for example.
So, now you should have your cast list of who will be who. Arrange the first practice for a day or so later. You have something else to attend to before you can have the first practice.
Support Staff: Don't Put Round Pegs in Square Holes
We talked earlier about who will work with the students to practice their lines, their acting and their dancing. Now it's time for you to set your team. Look at your list of characters and the students in the roles. You need to assign teachers to help students practice. One teacher can take on more than one student. Try to assign teachers to students based on the teacher's personality, much the same as you did with the students when deciding their role.
Narrators too will need a teacher to help them with, for example, projecting their voice.
Also on your team, you'll need support staff to train dancing and possibly singing; best to have someone musically inclined to help here. Lastly, give someone technically inclined sound and lighting responsibility and have someone creative responsible for props, backgrounds and costume.
Once you've sketched out your team on paper, you need to meet with them to introduce them to both their duties and the script. It is best when you are giving tasks to other teachers to give them a reason why they would be good for the job as it shows you've tried to match their strengths to the task, rather than randomly assigning duties. Once this meeting is done, you are ready for the first practice - which will include all the students and the teachers who are helping. At that meeting, don't have high expectations, just introduce students to the teachers who will be helping them, let the students read the script and see their lines and then make an appointment for the first practice - scene one.
Prior to the practice run of scene one, teachers should spend some time with their students to practice lines, actions, dancing and so forth.
Be a "Silent" Director
Just because you're in overall charge doesn't mean you can't assign a director. If there's someone better suited than you, give them the reins. Let them put your script into action. Keep yourself in the loop by being one of the teachers who helps train one of the characters. You can still jump in if you see something you think isn't working.
Practice Regularly and Use the Real Stage Several Times before Show Day
Most of the practices leading up to the show will likely not take place on the main stage. Use a large room and go one scene at a time to begin with. You'll need to practice a lot and it's going to feel frustrating and you'll get the feeling it's never going to come together. Be patient, it will get better with time and, although it's a real cliché, it will be alright on the night. Practice choreography separately to start with until the students are getting proficient and then bring the dances into the scenes.
It's important as you get nearer to the day of the show to have several rehearsals on the actual stage. This will help with getting the students to time when and how to enter and also how to exit. It also helps you to get the students in the right parts of the stage. They might be too far back or off center for example; correct their positioning errors for them and use a little colored tape to mark for them if it helps. Furthermore, this practice on stage will help the stagehands perfect bringing in and taking away props and changing the backgrounds.
Keep an eye on students off-stage too, because they need to learn the prompts to ready themselves for the time they should enter.
A day or so before you should have at least one, if not two, full dress rehearsals. You want to make sure there are no wardrobe malfunctions, help perfect all the timings and check on the technical side too (lights, sound and so forth).
Make sure you have organized the area where all the cast and crew will gather to prepare and dress on the day of the show. Keep everyone in and around one location so you are able to solve problems and give last minute instruction without having to rush around all over to find the person you need. Check nobody is absent.
Some parents have really useful skills, like doing make-up or hair for example, so don't close the door to them if they want to come in and help.
I find it's useful to have a game or two to play with the students. Some are really hyper and excited on the night whilst others are nervous - playing a game will help both sets of students settle.
Remember the other teachers will be a little nervous too - they put a lot of work into the show. Praise them and be positive; the show will go just fine (or near enough anyway!).
My final tip would be to buy some candy or some kind of treats for the kids for after their performance. Let them know they did an awesome job. You'll likely see in their faces that they enjoyed it. Likewise, praise your team of helpers for a job well done and give them a gift the next day (you can buy them coffees or snacks for example).