Thursday, January 8, 2015

Director's Corner- How to Choose a Play

Every Thursday I am going to give tips and ideas to help teachers produce their school plays. Educational theater has a very special place in the world of community theatre. It is not without its own unique challenges and difficulties that most directors never encounter (very limited/no budget, all young actors, stage parents) When I first began directing plays I wish there had been a place I could go to get advice and tips to help me through the process. Hopefully I can be this place for someone else. If you have any questions about your play process, feel free to email me. I know how important it is to have a sounding board when trying to organize a massive production.

The first (and possibly most important) decision you must make when directing a play is what play are you going to direct. Before you decide on a title you first must consider what type of play you are interested in directing. Determining the type will help narrow your search. You also need to know your budget for the production as well as your ideal cast and audience size. All of this information will help you choose the perfect play.
Tips for choosing the right school play:

Types of plays

Showcase- A showcase is a combination of short selections taken from several sources. These are usually produced from a sampling of what is happening in class.

One Act- A one act play only has one act, meaning this is usually shorter than traditional plays. If your group is interested in entering theater competition you typically enter with either a one act play or a full length play that has been condensed to one act. The most well know one act play competitions for education theater are at the Thespian Conferences (check your local/regional chapter for more specifics).

Straight Plays- Full length plays that do not contain music. Shakespeare is the most classic example of a straight play. August Wilson, Thorton Wilder, and Tom Stoppard are also well known for their straight plays. If you have very little music expertise and this is your first play you might want to consider this as a good option.

Elementary Musicals- these are musicals designed to be produced by the whole school. Often the students sing on risers as a whole group. Between each song small select groups of students will come to the microphone and say a few words. Think back to elementary school,you were probably in one of these plays :)

Musicals- My personal favorite type of play. These are the tradition plays that come from Broadway. They have singing, dancing and acting all at the same time. These are typically your largest cast and audiences are usually bigger for these performances. These are also your biggest money makers! Keep in mind these plays are often the most expensive to produce as well.

A word on copyright

When choosing a play, it is very important go keep in mind intellectual copyright. Playwrights work very hard writing these plays. They expect to be paid for their hard work. Just like you wouldn't go into a bookstore and steal a book, you cannot produce a play without paying for the rights. Make sure you read your production rights very carefully before producing the play. There is a difference between purchasing a play to read and purchasing the production rights. Make sure you are purchasing the correct play (buying a script from Barnes and Nobel is not buying the production rights). There are serious consequences for being caught breaking intellectual copyright. Do not do it!


If you have no budget you probably want to look for either a readers theatre script or a script from the public domain. Keep in mind though that if you price your tickets correctly you can make up the cost of purchasing production rights on the back end. (These prices are estimates and do not reflect any actual titles).
Reader's Theatre typically cost the price of a book at Barnes and Nobel $20.

One Act cost are more varied and can cost anywhere between $50-$300.

Straight plays typically cost between $150-$300.

Elementary Musicals typically cost around $25-$75.

Musicals cost between $550-$2000+.

Cast Size ( the bigger the cast the bigger the audience )

Small- under 20 if you are wanting to produce a play with a very small number of actors look at producing a showcase or one act. These are typically geared for this cast size.
Medium- 20-40 students For a lot of directors this is the ideal cast size. You have the most freedom in choosing a play with this number.
Large- 40+ you probably want to look at producing a musical with this number of students. You will be able to make a large company with this number.
Whole School- if you are producing a production with a whole school you should probably look at an Elementary style musical. There are also a few regular musicals that can be adapted for a whole school. (MTI has some great kids/jr versions that use the whole school).

Questions to ask yourself

Once you have made your decisions regarding cast size, cost and type you are ready to start searching for your play. When analyzing potential plays keep in mind the following questions:
-Is the script well written?
-Does the script have literary merit?
-Does the script contain a lesson that is important or relevant to your students?
-Is the script interesting and relevant to your students?
-Will this script challenge your gifted students?
-Are there parts available for students who struggle in class?
-Is the script age appropriate?
-Do you want to direct this play? Does it excite you?

Where to find plays

Public Domain- There are some plays that are in the public domain and free to produce for public use. Most popular in the public domain is Shakespeare. There are several other playwrights who are also listed in this category but make sure you check with the publisher before producing the play.

Reader's Theater- There are several reader's theater scripts available for use in the classroom. Look for scripts that say available for free for educational use. Most of these scripts grant limited production rights. Most of these script can be used in a production for parents but ONLY if you DO NOT CHARGE for the production. I often use Reader's Theatre scripts for my showcases. This works out well since the scripts are usually only a few pages long and I never charge my parents for showcases. If you are thinking about charging for a showcase you probably cannot use the Reader's Theatre scripts.

Licensing Companies: JW Pepper and MTI are my two favorite places for purchasing musical scripts. If you are looking for a classic elementary style musical (all the kids stand on risers to sing then a few students come down and speak in a microphone) you cannot go wrong with JW Pepper. They have a ton of scripts that are very affordable. Bonus they also offer unlimited production rights- meaning once you purchase the play you can perform it as often as you want without paying more money.

MTI is my favorite place ever to purchase musicals. They are so easy to work with and provide so many supplementary materials that it makes your plays turn out amazing. I also like them because they offer Jr. And kids versions of most of these musicals. These versions come in show kits that you can keep for forever (they offer one year unlimited production rights on their show kits, after one  year you can pay a reduced price to reproduce the show again.) The show kits contain accompaniment CDs, choreography DVDs and a director's packet that will help you though the process. They also offer discounts if you are using only middle/elementary school students in your production. These guys also hold the rights to all the Disney Musicals. These are huge audience draws.  Seriously check these guys out! (I get no money for recommending these guys they are just that good)!

MIT and most other licensing companies offer perusals of their plays. This is a great way to read a play in full to make sure you like it before committing to it. Most perusals cost under $10 and are well worth the investment if you are going to pay hundreds of dollars to produce the play.

Internet - obviously you can find scripts on the internet. Be careful when purchasing/getting scripts from the internet. There is a lot of plagiarism out there. You can still get in trouble even if you "didn't know" you had to pay for the rights.  There are a ton of great scripts out there but you really need to do your research and search out the best one for your class.

Final Step- Do not Skip!

Once you have found the perfect play for you, you must do two things. First get the play approved by your administration. No matter how appropriate you think a play is there is always a chance that a parent will take issue with your play choice. You want your principal to have your back if this happens. Also make sure you have the answers to the questions above. This will help you in defending your choice. After you have approval you are now ready to purchase the rights to the play. Once there rights and materials arrive you are ready to begin the production process!

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