Six Tips on Writing Your Own Classroom Plays

Every so often I get a request from a reader to draft a play based on a specific book: The Hobbit, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or Roald Dahl’s The Twits, for example. I’m certain they’d all make wonderful plays and they’d be fun to write, but due to copyright restrictions, I’d be unable to legally publish any of them. That doesn’t mean you—or even your students—couldn’t attempt to turn your favorite book into a play on your own. If you’re ready to give it a try and bring “The Twits” to a stage near you, here are a few pointers:

SCOPE-110113-PlayKeep it short. Most of my plays, particularly those that have appeared in Storyworks, are limited to about 1500 words. If too much longer, the students tend to lose interest. Such brevity requires cutting every extraneous scene, line, and word. It can be quite painful (which is why I sometimes cheat and leave the hard cuts up to my editors).

Avoid narration. “Too much exposition,” as the saying goes on Broadway, will kill your play. While you’ll need narration to quickly advance the story, keep the narrator’s lines to a minimum. Never let a narrator speak more than three sentences in a row, and whenever possible, find unique ways to narrate. In my play about Jackie Robinson, for example, it’s the peanut vendor and hot dog man telling the story from the grandstands of Yankee Stadium.

Use a child’s perspective. Kids relate to kids. That’s why many of my civil rights plays are told through the eyes of a child. “MLK’s Freedom March”–my play about the day Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech”—might be rather dry were it not seen through the eyes of a child with a story of her own to tell.

Imagine your play acted out on stage, even if you intend it just for reader’s theater. Avoid changing settings within a given scene, and always try to include some action. Plays where the characters merely stand around and talk are easy to write and stage but boring to watch and perform.

Emphasize the literary elements you do when teaching literature such as setting, conflict, rising action, and climax. A powerful ending like the one in “Freedom for the First Time” when Mama strides into the Big House to reclaim her youngest daughter, will make the play memorable for your students. In less-serious plays, create endings that let your students ham it up, such as in my “Cyclops” play.

Incorporate dialect. There’s nothing better than having a kid growl like a pirate, drawl like a redneck, or pontificate like an English gent. I’ve had kids bring down the house with their countrified version of Mr. McGregor in my “Peter Rabbit” play. You can do the same simply by having your narrator refer to the way a character speaks.

So, rather than waiting until 2060 for me to publish a play adaption of James and the Giant Peach, consider trying it yourself. Not so inclined? Too busy? Then check out my long list of professionally published titles such as Charles’ Dickens’ Christmas goblin story, “Gabriel Grub,” coming next month, and Maupassant’s “A Piece of String,” available on TeachersPayTeachers in January. Like all my plays, just a few dollars buys you the license to print and use a class set every year. In the meantime, keep sending your ideas for story adaptions and re-enactments of historical events to lewis@jeffnet.org.

Happy Directing!

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