If I had to pick one thing that I love to teach, it’s drama. And I’m not talking about just Shakespeare, either. I’m talking about The Glass Menagerie, Trifles, All My Sons. All works of literature that I absolutely love. And one of the best things about plays is that there are so many creative things you can do with them. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are lots of reasons why we should be reading more plays in high school.
At the end of the year I let my seniors choose one of eight plays to read to finish out the year. I also gave them the choice of working in either groups or individually. (By the way, voice and choice is great for seniors at the end of the year. They are more likely to be interested in stuff they’ve picked out themselves.)
But after they read the plays, then what? I gave them a list of 9 activities and told them they had to complete three of them. They could do them individually or in groups – that way, if one of them wanted to do something that the others didn’t, they had the freedom to do so. And while some of them don’t work for every play, they all work for most plays.
Create a missing scene.
Any play will have a significant action that occurs offstage or in between curtains. Troy’s death in Fences. The offstage conversation between Martha and Holly in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Laura’s visit to the typing school in The Glass Menagerie. Lena’s visit to the bank in A Raisin in the Sun. Students can write this scene. It needs to read like a play, though – it can’t just be a description. And it can’t be a sequel. It has to be something that occurred during the running time of the play.
Look at set designs.
Most plays have a detail description of the set in the first few pages of the play. Students can examine this for the most important items – what absolutely needs to be there in order for the play to work even in a low budget high school production. Students then find five images of set designs for their play, copy them into a document, and then annotate the pictures with where those important items are. What are the similarities? What are the differences? There are a lot of photographs out there of stage designs with some interesting choices, and this activity gets kids thinking about what it takes to put on a play.
Watch a filmed stage production.
Search for any play on YouTube and you’ll find clips and full productions of it being performed on stage. Because students are reading them first, they obviously have some expectations about what they’ll see. Have them watch a clip and explain how the play met or does not meet their expectations for how the characters look and behave. This works well if you can find an important scene or one that was a little confusing when read.
I had my students actually annotate a YouTube clip. There were a couple of ways to do this. The Turbonote Chrome extension was a popular choice. Some students used the Record It app on their phones or iPads – this allows you to record what’s on your device while the microphone is on. Others used one of the many screencast programs available.
Watch a film adaptation.
There are also lots of clips from film adaptations of these plays (I’m particularly fond of the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) Students can analyze how the director uses the medium of film in purposeful ways by doing things that aren’t possible to achieve on a stage. What limitations of stage performance are minimized or circumvented in the film version? They can use the same technology as above to complete this task.
Rewrite a scene as a narrative.
Students can choose a passage from the play and turn it into a narrative – a passage from a short story or novel. They will obviously keep the dialogue – or most of it anyway – and then use the stage directions as a guide. To do this successfully they need to consider what isn’t there – how characters move and how they respond. For an additional challenge (and I may actually make this a requirement next time) have them do the scene without dialogue, rendering it completely through narration.
Perform two dramatic readings.
For this activity students will choose a passage from the play and do two different dramatic readings of it, both of which are plausible (in other words, they can’t make it go completely off the rails.) They should introduce each reading with what tone they used- angry vs. sad, for instance. They can either film it, or simply record it.
Costume design is important for the stage, and students can create costumes for two of the characters (or two different costumes for the same character.) They need to be informed by the stage directions. Sometimes you’ll get some information about what characters are wearing, but other times you have to make an informed choice about clothing based on the time period, the character’s personality, and other factors. You also have to consider that these costumes have to be worn under very hot lights and may require the actors to perform large dramatic gestures. Here’s an article about costume design that addresses the things you have to consider.
Figure out how to make a difficult prop work.
Many plays have a scene that presents staging difficulties because of a prop. For example, The Cherry Orchard has a few magic tricks performed on stage. Choose a prop or scene that presents a problem and explain how you would solve it. (This activity is based on this cool prop design challenge, which I also have the students do.) The students pick something that requires some thought-every part of a set design presents some sort of challenge, but you want something that requires some figuring out. Furthermore, a successful design will be something that the backstage crew could feasibly implement from the directions given, so it can’t be vague.
Create a symbol map.
Many plays have an important symbol (and frequently its in the title!) For this activity students create a symbol map for an important object in your play. Place your symbol in a circle on the middle of a page (you can do this electronically of course with an app like Popplet.) Students choose a color and create a web of all the associations that the word has apart from the play – memories, connotations … anything that comes to mind. In the second annotation students choose a different color and explore the significance of the object within the context of the play. Finally, in a paragraph they analyze how their associations with the object and the use of the object in the play coincide and diverge.
If you’d like to see the handout that I give students that explains each of these activities, click the box below.