March is Theatre in Our Schools Month, a designation celebrated and promoted jointly by the Educational Theatre Association, the American Alliance for Theatre & Education, and the International Thespian Society. Here are some ways we can help fulfill our middle graders’ theater needs this year!
In our Pennsylvania county, “spring musical season” was suddenly curtailed last year as many middle schools and high schools first postponed their shows, then canceled them out of Covid necessity (for many, after months of rehearsals). Throughout this year, while a few schools in our area planned socially-distanced plays and musicals with precautions like face shields, many other districts have not slated any productions.
The beauty of theatre, though, has always been its flexibility, its resourcefulness, and its creativity. As teachers, librarians, and parents, we can offer theatre opportunities in plenty of ways other than traditionally staged and performed productions. Let’s talk about a few ways we can allow the show to (safely) go on.
Many drama activities are perfect for flexible classroom situations, social distancing, or remote learning, with or without an in-person or remote audience:
- Students can fill the role of director by choosing a scene, screen-sharing a script, casting roles, and leading fellow student-actors in a remote read-aloud.
- Learners can study script format, then become playwrights of short scenes. Follow up with socially-distanced readers’ theatre performances of students’ original work.
- Perform a favorite novel scene adapted as a radio show; this format is great for working vocal skills and facial expression, and those who would prefer a technical role can prepare and perform the recorded or live sound effects.
- Explore the history of theatre from the Greeks to modern times in a mini-unit, or how theatre, historically, differs from culture to culture.
- Have students complete and share mini-research projects on the technical side of theatre: stage composition, blocking, scene design, set construction, lighting, sound, effects.
- Monologues! Actors can write their own or adapt a character speech from a favorite MG book for class performance.
- Ever consider a class study of a dramatized version of a middle grade story? Dramatic Publishing Company, Dramatists Play Service, Theatrefolk, and others carry scripted, stageable adaptations of some middle grade modern favorites like Bud, Not Buddy, Walk Two Moons, and The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, as well as classics like The Jungle Book and Anne of Green Gables.
- And if your own kids or students are missing the school production they usually look forward to, consider staging a socially-distanced scene, one-act, or play in your classroom, library, or home school environment, or via remote means. You can keep it super simple with easy props and representative, homemade costume pieces. (Remember, Shakespeare did some pretty successful shows without any of that fancy stuff like lighting instruments, elaborate scenery, or microphones; you don’t need them either!)
- Some drama licensing vendors have a convenient e-script format: just pay and print (sample pages are usually available online for free). Theatrefolk offers a list of short plays with flexible casting intended for classroom production, with livestream and Zoom options for performance; if a live audience is not your goal, classroom study of a play is only a few dollars per student for a downloadable, printable PDF. Some even have free study guides!
- Finally, offer your thespians a middle grade read or two that might be new to them. Here are a few middle grade favorites featuring characters with a flair for drama:
The Marvels by Brian Selznick – Lose yourself in hundreds of amazing sketches that tell the story of the Marvel family, generations of brilliant actors whose drama-filled lives—on and off the stage—keep audiences spellbound for centuries. Theatre-lovers will especially enjoy the drawings of backstage, ropes, pulleys, drapes, flats, scenery, footlights, costumes, and a gorgeous proscenium arch.
Replay by Sharon Creech – Leo’s big, drama-filled family almost upstages his experience playing a great role in a class play. What Leo lacks in stage experience, he more than makes up for in passion, heart, empathy, and expression. And—bonus!—the play that Leo’s class performs is scripted at the end of the novel, in short, very stageable scenes for small groups or classes.
Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle – Eighth grader Nate knows he is Broadway-bound, even if he has to run away from western Pennsylvania the whole way to NYC to make it happen.
How to Stage a Catastrophe by Rebecca Donnelly – Sidney and best friend Folly try to save their beloved community theater, getting caught up in some bad drama along the way.
Thanks for reading and considering how to make theatre in our schools a reality, no matter the challenges!