Right out of college I landed a job with a performing arts summer camp. It was good fun, and I felt like I was putting my degree to good use. But more than that, it was the perfect place to try out some new ideas and methods with my writing and approach to teaching. I got very experimental, and came out of that summer with some well-tested ideas that have since come in handy. In particular, that summer was the first time I tried out my “Instant Playwriting” lesson.
Instant Playwriting is a method for producing a short play or skit with a group of kids, and then putting it on. In all honesty, it’s probably nothing new or revolutionary in how it approaches story-building, but it is something I came up with independently, and it works. I’ve pulled it off with groups as young as pre-school, and as old as 12-13. I call it “Instant” because it’s a streamlined process and produces results in a fairly short time. It requires a bit of work on the part of the facilitator, but the trade-off is that the kids feel like they have created the story themselves (which, in no small part, they have).
The specifics of how to work through this lesson vary with each age group, but I always start with a brainstorming session. Before you even go through the following steps, lay down some ground rules about how the group communicates. Make sure it’s fair, that everyone’s voice is heard, and that there are no bad ideas. Maybe it’s just that I tend to work with sassy little children, but I often deal with overly critical group dynamics. Don’t let the loudest voices overcome the original ones, or the group’s story may suffer. I have everyone raise hands, and when we vote to keep or discard ideas, we use a blind vote in which eyes are covered.
(Note: the following process can be done within the space of about three hours, but that is intense. I usually spread this lesson out over the course of a week, and an hour or so each day devoted to brainstorming, practice, and creation of costumes and backgrounds. That helps mitigate the nervous breakdowns.)
With all that in mind, here are my steps for brainstorming. Every story needs to have these basic components: setting, characters, conflict.
- Setting – I would say this part is actually optional, but I like to include it, and here’s why: most groups already have fixed ideas about the story they want to create, and what characters they want to be. Even worse, they might have formed one or more cliques and started batting ideas around before you engage them in structured brainstorming (and it’s hard to stop this). Setting is the widest focus for storytelling, and writing down a few different ideas for a setting, hopefully very different ones, can get the group thinking outside the box. Get a few ideas down, and then vote on the favorite. Something I do frequently (because these rules are made to be broken), is combine two or more settings into a new one. This is especially helpful if the group is largely split on their favorite ideas.
- Characters – Come up with an expansive list of characters that fit loosely into the chosen setting. Kids love this part, because they get to pick whatever they want to be (and you should almost always let them be that thing). It’s like a dream version of a real play, where they don’t have to audition, they just say, “I want to be the robot unicorn.” Be prepared to create ensembles of characters that have a similar theme. My regular drama group at the after-school program is mostly girls, and they always want to be sisters or goddamn princesses. This process creates very simple stories that don’t require a single protagonist or “lead,” so this is fine. Make a story with twelve princesses who are all sisters, it’ll be okay. If every single member of the group winds up in the princess club, that just means you have to be the bad guy. You can end this part of brainstorming when you have figured out who every group member wants to be. If you have some shy characters who don’t want to act, explain that the group also needs help with set, costumes, and backstage support.
- Conflict – Also know as “The Problem.” This is what the whole story will be built on. There is a problem, and the forty brave princesses must work together to solve it. I find it helpful to highlight examples from fairy tales to explain how this basic principle is present in all stories (Snow White has mommy issues! Aladdin is poor! The Beast is a beast!). And if they have trouble coming up with their own problems, transplanting one from these stories is fine. My group seems to love tales of revenge against evil, domineering adults. The central conflict will also help determine the basic scene structure, which transitions us into the next part of brainstorming.
- Scenes – Keep things simple, all you need is this:
- A scene which introduces the main characters and the conflict.
- One or more scenes that introduce “minor challenges,” or obstructions to the solving of the main conflict. If you have minor or peripheral characters (like that robot unicorn) these are good places to introduce them so they can either help or hinder the main characters. As the protagonists bypass these minor challenges, they build up to the finale.
- A resolution scene in which they solve the main conflict, often confronting an antagonist along the way. Everyone lives happily ever after, the princesses defeat the evil drama teacher and make him pay for his cruelty.
That’s it. After that you can settle down and make costumes and a set. I find that construction paper hats work well in all scenarios. A big sheet of poster paper and some markers will do nicely for a backdrop (you’re not putting on Hamlet).
Narration is nearly always the key to these things pulling together. You already have a story that your group came up with, so just narrate it to the audience. Write it up word for word if you need to, or just improvise! If this is a smaller project with a limited production time, you may be doing narration for the whole thing. If some of your actors want to improvise lines, simply point out the gaps in your narration where that would be appropriate. When I do this with really young kids, they usually don’t have lines, unless they’re 5-year-old Laurence Oliviers. It’s all physical acting on their parts, so all you need to practice is blocking. And blocking can be really, really simple. You have 68 princesses? Have them stand in a row facing the audience, and have them take turns interacting with other characters in each scene, otherwise keep them in that row. It’s not very exciting, but it’s fast and easy, and they feel like they’re acting.
Of course, this method doesn’t have to produce simple, formulaic skits driven by adult narration. I have used this brainstorming method as the basis for writing actual plays, tailored specifically to the group. I’m going to include one of these plays for the use and enjoyment of educators and people with bored kids. Even though I wrote this play, the kids came up with the story, and played the characters they wanted to play. They felt like it was their own, and were thus more enthusiastic during production. Obviously writing a play is a lot of work, but I will say that it was a lot faster and easier when I had the whole story laid out before me the way they wanted it. All I had to do was plug in snappy dialogue.
If you use the play for anything, please give me credit, and/or link people to this page. That’s all!
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