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by Terri Koontz
The summer approaches and with it the promise of longer days, warmer weather, and a break from schoolwork. All too soon, however, the time that was so longed for becomes long hours with bored children looking for something to do. What a wonderful opportunity to channel intellect and energy into an often-neglected educational experience. Drama is a perfect avenue for creativity, fun, and learning; and summer is a prime time for a back yard play.
The first step to play production is rounding up neighborhood children. Most children are found in back yards on any sunny summer day. (If you have something cool to drink and some snacks available, they will be in your back yard.) Present the idea with excitement and enthusiasm. A whining 'You wouldn't want to have a back yard play, would you?' will probably not draw as much interest as an enthusiastic 'Hey, let's put on a play! We could make scenery and dress up and invite your parents to watch!'
Once the children are convinced, make sure parents give their permission. Very few parents will balk at the idea of having their children involved in a worthwhile project, especially if it takes them out from under foot for lengthy periods of time. However, a phone call to the children's homes giving the necessary information will insure proper intentions. Before the phone call, prepare two or three tentative dates for performance from which the parents can choose.
After you receive verbal permission, it is a good idea to have a form go to the parents with the discussed information written out, the performance date, and a place for the parents to give written permission. Include your phone number in the written information for easy access by the children's parents.
The next decision you must make is what play to perform. Published plays are available, but the greatest educational and creative benefit will be gained if the children write the play themselves. Write a play based on a well-known Scripture passage or a theme or character quality with which the children are familiar. The older children can do the actual writing with the younger children providing ideas and Scripture. As a topic is narrowed and writing begins, children should strive for good literary quality by developing believable characters and including rising action, a climax, and a conclusion. Plan to sing a group song or recite Scripture at the close of the performance so that even minor characters have one final moment on stage.
Foremost in importance for this performance is that the children be heard. The audience will forgive mistakes on lines and action, but if they can't hear the message, the play will be ineffective. Good volume without shouting is ideal. The actors should concentrate on aiming their voices out toward the audience.
Another important factor in your performance is the positioning of the actors on stage. The director should avoid positioning the actors in profile to the audience. Since so much of the meaning of a line is revealed by facial expressions, it is vital that the audience be able to see at least three-fourths of the face of the actor who is speaking. If the actor begins the line (speaking part) while looking at the other character and then finishes by talking toward the audience, he should have no difficulty revealing his face to the audience. Actors should also gesture with the arm closest to the back of the stage so that they are less tempted to turn away from the audience. Positioning actors in a straight line across the stage isn't advisable since characters in a line tend to bend forward to see each other and, after all, we rarely see a group of real people standing in a line when speaking to each other. Characters placed in triangle formations look better on stage and are easily seen by the audience.
The actors should also pay attention to who is speaking. While one actor is talking, others on stage need to be careful not to distract by unnecessary movement. Movement motivated by what is being said is acceptable. For example, actors in a crowd who are listening to a speaker may nod and look at each other to show how they are responding. If a crowd gets so active that the movement of the actors distracts from the lines being spoken, though, then that action is inappropriate.
Even rehearsing for something as exciting as a play can become dull with all the necessary repetition. To relieve the tedium and pressure of practice, intersperse rehearsals with set-making days. Curtains (old sheets) can be hung on your clothesline or on a rope between two trees using large safety pins. For scenery, stretch another row of sheets or craft paper at the back of the stage and paint the scenery directly onto these or use the natural setting of your yard. Paint other scenery such as buildings, bushes, or rocks on cardboard and staple it to an 'L' of one-by-two lumber, or lean it against a small stool. Simplicity is the key. The sets don't have to be exact but should aim to give the impression of the scene.
Costume design and preparation can also break up the routine of rehearsal and can utilize more children. If a play based on the Bible is performed, a church may lend Christmas pageant costumes for the production. If those aren't available, bathrobes and towels make sufficient replacements. A good idea for any other play is to set it in the present so that the children can concoct costumes from home wardrobes or from secondhand stores.
Makeup probably won't be necessary unless a child needs to appear as an older adult. Purchase white or gray hair spray from a beauty supply or department store to spray on hair, or sprinkle hair with baby powder to give the appearance of age to a child. Brown pencil eyeliner makes great wrinkles. Have the child frown, smile, and raise his or her eyebrows to find the natural wrinkles and then lightly draw lines following those natural facial creases. Brown eyeliner or eye shadow can also form great stubble for a rough beard or resemble dirt patches on face and hands.
A week before the play, mail or hand deliver invitations to neighbors and others chosen to receive them. A child with artistic talent can design the invitation by hand or on a computer to be copied at a quick print shop or local library. Prepare programs at this time also. The programs should include the play title and author(s) as well as the names of the characters and the actors playing them; the names of people who helped with set preparation, costumes, and program design; and acknowledgements for people who gave supplies.
On the day of the play itself, children can arrange chairs and/or blankets on the lawn for the audience. Two children can hand out programs as the guests arrive. When everyone is ready to begin, one person should thank the audience for attending, announce the play title, and open with prayer. A short reception after the play with lemonade and cookies or other refreshments made by the children is a final cap to the performance. This reception allows time to fellowship with friends, to become acquainted with neighbors, and to congratulate the cast and crew.
This summer, take time to enjoy the many opportunities and challenges a back yard play provides. I won't promise that it will be easy. Dealing with personalities, emotions, play preparation, and performance can get quite intense, but keep it fun by taking a lighthearted approach and bathing the whole process in prayer. The camaraderie and creativity developed and the knowledge gained by each person involved will be invaluable. Don't be surprised if a week later when the pictures come back, you already start planning next summer's performance.