Last night I went to my son With-a-Why's play, which was held at the same small elementary school I attended. As I sat in the gym, waiting for the curtains to open, it occurred to me that I have been going to concerts, plays, and recitals in that same gym for over 40 years. And I knew what to expect because the plays at that school have not changed in over 40 years. Here is their formula:
Choosing the play: Pick a famous one that your audience is familiar with. It's the only way that they will possibly be able to follow what is going on. Really, I am not kidding about this. The school also has a tradition of taking great liberties with scripts, rewriting whatever parts of the play they want to. When the school performed My Fair Lady, for example, they changed the setting from London to Train Track Village. This was consistently funny. My favorite was the little kid saying, "There's drinking and women all over Train Track Village." Maybe you had to be there.
Seating arrangements: Leave an open area in front of the stage where toddlers can wander around to watch their siblings. Often these toddlers are as entertaining as what is going on up on the stage. Back in the day, they used to always put a row of nuns right up front; this ensured that the cast always got a standing ovation.
Casting: Make sure that every kid in the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade gets a part or at least a role like scene changer or curtain puller. Add lots of extra characters to the play if you have to -- whole gangs of pirates or chimney sweeps or mermaids. Yes, this inclusion policy does guarantee that lots of lines will get fumbled and some of the acting will be just awful, but it will also give even the shyest child some stage experience to brag about. And always, there are glimmers of talent: one kid who is really funny or another who hams up his role.
Costumes: The school has a low budget for plays. Actually, they have no budget at all. But it is amazing what can be done with thrift store clothing and a little duct tape. (Note: the entire gang of pirates in the play last night were ALL wearing white and black, with touches of red. Either these parents googled my blog .... or they all have the same stereotype of pirates that I do.)
Special Effects: Sixth graders playing around with lights is about as special as it gets. But last night - and the kids were very excited about this - we had fog. Oh, the wonders of dry ice! The crowd was impressed but not quite as impressed as the cast, who were quite beside themselves. There was also a cool scene in which kids held long swatches of fabric and rippled it up and down to create the illusion of ocean waves. Christo would have been impressed.
Audience: No one ever leaves Train Track Village - many of the kids in the school have extended family in the area -- so every little school play brings in grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors. The gym is always packed, every chair and bleacher filled. And they are an easy crowd to please. They will not even flinch when the microphone makes that weird screeching sound or a kid looks over to stage left and says, "WHAT?" to the prompter.
Big green curtain: Yeah, they still close the curtain between acts. Way behind the times, I know. But this does provide two more jobs - pulling the curtain is an exciting and much sought after position. And it is fun to hide behind the curtain between acts, giggling and peeking out at the audience. I remember this well. Plus, this audience knows enough to clap wildly every time the curtain opens or closes. We are well trained.
Admission: Free. You can't beat that. Well, parents are required to drop their kids off half an hour early, which means that everyone has to spend thirty minutes wandering around the school, looking at the stuff hanging on the walls, and getting run over by gangs of giggling kids. But it is a small price to pay.
Best part: The kids are having fun. If you watch their faces, every kid, even the one with no lines, is excited. This play is a very big deal to them. As I watched my very shy child slithering across the stage last night in a crocodile costume, I felt gratitude towards his teacher, who had done such a nice job choosing a part for him. He didn't even have to say a word, but he still got a cool recognizable part. Parents and kids congratulated him afterwards, told him what a good job he had done. And he felt special. That part of the formula is hard to beat.