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Picking The Right Play For Your High School Drama Club
As a high school drama teacher, adviser, or director, one of the toughest and yet most important decisions you have to make is selecting the right script. Script selection can--and should--be a long, challenging process. If you pick a script without due consideration, you may wind up with a play that's too far above--or perhaps, below--your actors' aptitude, not to mention your theater's technical capabilities. You may also end up with a boring or unengaging script, and thus a boring and unengaging production.
With literally thousands of scripts available for consideration, it's tough to even know where to start with this process, but like every decision, you have to begin with the basics. Knowing your actors, your technical abilities, your budget, and your community are all important things to consider when selecting the right script. Below, I've outlined a series of tips and tricks to help you make the right selection for your theater group.
Know Your Numbers
With so many plays available, the first thing you have to do when selecting a script is eliminate those scripts that just won't work for you. You may end up bidding adieu to some of your favorites, but sometimes it just has to be done.
The first cut to make comes down to numbers. Based on your student population, you should be able to make a rough estimate of an ideal cast size. If your drama club auditions aren't likely to pull more than fifteen people, a cast of thirty is obviously out of the picture. Conversely, if you frequently pull fifty or sixty students to auditions, the four-person cast of The Glass Menagerie won't fit your needs. In my experience, I tend to find that a cast between ten and twenty for a non-musical and about thirty (including the chorus) for a musical fit the needs of my school.
You must also consider the genders of the roles available and what kinds of characters are available to your actors. It's not uncommon to pull three or four girls for every one boy at a drama club audition, so if it's possible to balance the genders of your characters accordingly, it affords the best opportunities to your students.
Will you be casting every student who auditions? I've never been a big believer in this practice--I think students can learn a lot from a bad audition and the feedback that comes with it--but if that's your philosophy or the philosophy of your school, you'll have to pick a script with some variable numbers: a collection of townspeople or a chorus that can be made any size, for example. This will give you some wiggle room when it comes to those auditions.
Once you have your rough numbers figured out, you'll be able to eliminate whole swaths of scripts, and even though you may have to say a temporary goodbye to a play you love, you can at least know you'll be making the best decisions for your group.
Know Your Students
Your students need to be the primary focus of any script you select. Yes, you should consider your audience; yes, you should consider your budget; yes, you should consider your own ideas. More than anything, however, your show needs to be about meeting your students needs--giving them a chance to learn, grow, and have new experiences.
As a general practice, you shouldn't pre-cast your shows. If you go into auditions with your cast already in mind, you're likely to miss out on some surprising and unexpected talents. You may also breed resentment among your students--especially those who believe you're playing "favorites" and aren't giving everyone a fair shot.
That said, you should know the general capabilities of your students before you pick out a play. If you're looking at musicals, do your students have the vocal ranges needed for the main roles? Will you be able to staff a pit that needs a tuba, an electric guitar, and a zither? What kind of dance experience to your students have--can they handle advanced choreography?
If you have a group of students unusually talented in a certain way--perhaps a common sense of comedic timing or a strong understanding of movement and space--can you find a script that showcases these talents? Conversely, if your students struggle with deeply emotional scenes or physical comedy, pick a script that downplays these skills while focusing on others.
Just like casting, your script selection should be based off of potential. You'll want to select a script that challenges, but doesn't overwhelm, your students. If you read a play and think, "My students could do this in their sleep," then it probably isn't the right play, and the weeks spent at rehearsal will bore, rather than engage, your kids. You and your students all need room to grow, experiment, learn, and have fun.
Know Your Technical Capabilities
What kind of lighting, sound, and set-building equipment do you have at your disposal? What are your talents here, and what are the talents of your students and volunteers?
The technical side of the theater gives you and your students another chance to play to your strengths and engage your creative sides, and just like when considering your acting capabilities and potential, you must allow yourself and your students room to grow on the technical side of things.
Every theater space is different, and each one has its own quirks, advantages, and disadvantages. You must, of course, eliminate scripts with technical needs well above your own capabilities, but you shouldn't let a technically challenging play discourage you.
The discussion of sets and technical capabilities goes hand-in-hand with discussion of budget, as the technical side of your show (sets, costumes, make-up, props, lighting, and sound) will make up the majority of your cost. There are always technologies such as fly systems and microphones available for rent--for the right price. If your budget can handle it and you feel confident with them, you should take advantage of these opportunities. Your students will gain chances to experience theater in new ways, and your production will benefit by their inclusion.
Know Your Budget
The rights for most full-length straight plays (that is, non-musicals) cost about $75 per performance. One-act plays average at $35. Musicals vary significantly--but are all, without fail, much, much more expensive to produce than straight plays.
Do you have your own costumes as resources, or volunteer students and parents who can make or alter costumes for you? What kind of props and furniture do you have access to? Many local companies and theaters are willing to loan out their pieces for a small fee, so long as you return them in good condition and agree to advertise and thank them in your program.
Generally speaking, non-profit theaters (including high school theaters) should expect roughly half their budget to be covered by ticket sales alone--the other half should be covered by district supplied funds, donations, and fund-raising. This is something to consider not only when you're setting your ticket prices, but when you're mapping out a budget for any given play. You may also want to consider pre-selling tickets, or offering discounted season tickets for regular attendees. This will give you the money to work with up front, instead of having to wait on paying all your bills until after your box office closes.
Know Your Community
Knowing the larger community around your school may not be as important as knowing your students themselves, but it's still something to take into consideration while picking a play.
It's safe to say, for example, that most communities would frown on a high school presentation of a David Mamet play. Most communities have a set of values and mores that it expects its schools to match--or at least, respect. These vary from area to area, and sometimes even town to town. There are scripts written specifically for an adult audience and an adult cast--shows that would not be the right fit for even the most mature of high school students. Unless it's in your nature to seek controversy, you probably don't want letters written to the editor of your local paper complaining about your play selections. Trust me.
Of course, it's easy to rely on a community to tell you what not to do when it comes to theater, but you should also consider what would work for that community. If a town is facing a significant challenge--bullying, perhaps, or the closing of a major factory--you might try to find a script that brings out these themes and ideas, giving your community a place to relate and discuss these problems.
You could also consider the activities of your community. If your area has a city-wide initiative--the NEA's Big Read, for example--you could incorporate it into your play selection. If everyone in town is reading Pride and Prejudice in January, they might enjoy going to see a stage production of it in early February. In fact, finding a way to incorporate your productions with other events in your area will give you a great chance to advertise and grow your audience.
Know Your Script
Chances are, you are not a better playwright that the published writer whose script you're considering. Even if you are, you should not change someone else's work, unless the script includes specific allowances and instructions on how to do so.
Some playwrights, such as Neil Simon, absolutely refuse to allow their scripts to be edited or amended for performance. This means that no matter how much you love Laughter on the 23rd Floor, you absolutely cannot cut out the F-words to make it appropriate for your high school group. If you can't perform the script as written, you shouldn't pick this script.
I know. It's tough.
There are some exceptions; sometimes, playwrights will leave a note, saying one character could easily be switched to the opposite gender or that if one technical aspect doesn't work, you may substitute it for another. Before you go making any unsuggested changes to the words of the script, however, you should check with the rights holders or in some cases, the playwright themselves. Chances are, they will say no--and you need to be prepared for that eventuality. It's easiest, then, just to pick scripts that do not require editing in order to fit your needs. You must to adapt to fit the needs of the script; you shouldn't adapt the script to fit your needs.
Know What You Want
Your primary focus in script selection should be your students. What will they get out of the experience? Will this script challenge them? Will it engage them and allow them to grow as performers and technicians?
Once all that is considered, however, you absolutely shouldn't pick a script you don't like. If you don't like it at auditions, you'll hate it six weeks later when the curtain goes up. If you hate it, you won't be able to give the play your all, and it will suffer as a result. I've been in the situation where I've picked a lackluster script that provided balance to the rest of the season and gave some interesting opportunities to students who wouldn't otherwise get them. I don't regret those aspects, but the fact is, the script bored me and the play bored me. I missed out on details and mistakes I should have noticed and fixed and I wasn't able to give the feedback the students needed to hear in order to get the most out of their chances on stage.
The play isn't about you, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't give yourself at least a little consideration. Find something about the script that offers you a challenge, too.
Script Reading Tips
- Sometimes, you can tell in the first five minutes of reading a script that it's not right for you and your drama group. Unless you want to read it for other reasons, don't waste your time with it.
- Any time you sit down to read a script, you should be sure you can read it all in one sitting. This will give you a fuller sense of the script and story as a whole, and will also give you an approximate running time.
- Generally speaking, you can assume that each page in a script is roughly a minute onstage: a ninety-page script will run about an hour and a half.
- If you have to take a break in reading a script, do it at an act break or at the very least, a scene break. If you're interrupted, go back and start again.
- If, after your first read-through, you're still considering the play, put it down for a day or two. Come back to it with a pencil and paper, making notes, sketches, and character observations as you read it.
- Remember that the set drawings that come in the back of the script are suggestions--not rules. They're a good place to start in your set design, but you don't have to feel tied to them. As long as all elements called for directly in the script are managed, you can have some fun with the set itself.
- Personally, I don't like directing scripts I've recently seen on stage or adapted to film. I want to come in with fresh ideas; otherwise, I'll probably find myself unconsciously mimicking what I've seen before.
- I also discourage my students from watching other performances of the material, as their acting then turns more to impression of what they've seen then fresh ideas and interpretations.
Picking The Right Play
I know that this is a lot to consider when picking a script, but after a while some of this becomes second nature. And remember, just because a script may not work for one group of drama students doesn't mean it won't work a few years later with a fresh crop. Don't get discouraged or overwhelmed. Lots of people have been where you are and lots more will be there after you. Even if the script you pick doesn't end up being all you dreamed it would be, there is still a lot you can learn from every experience.
Break a leg.