It’s For Kids, Dummy
Having a hard time making your womanizing, meth dealing, wife-beating protagonist redeemable so your audience can share in his triumphant return as a featherweight champ? Does your post second world war drama about that quadriplegic hopelessly in love with that Jewish gal he was separated from at the fire bombing of Dresden have you feeling a little glum? Can’t quite wrap your head around that brilliantly eloquent but devilishly complex British villain who likes to wear her victim’s underwear and skin? Well, why not try something a little more fun and…
WRITE A CHILDREN’S PLAY, DUDE!
Don’t give me that crap about how you’re an artist and you need to write the next Schindler’s List or Shawshank Redemption. Do yourself a favor, tap into that inner tree fort building kid you once were before you started hanging out with that pretentious art crowd, and write a children’s play. I guarantee you will find it awesomely fun, completely liberating, and if you want to get all self-worthy about it, kids need you to show them how to be awesome people before MTV ruins their brains.
Are you with me? Let’s do this!
I’ve written a few plays for kids, and I’ve learned a few things that I think can help make your experience a fruitful one. Here are my suggestions for writing a piece that will be both fun for you and the kids you’re writing for while keeping your play for young audiences a readily producible one.
As I see it there are two types of theatre for young audiences: Theatre meant for kids performed by adults or theatre for kids performed by kids. It’s important to keep this distinction in mind when you’re thinking ahead about the business of getting your play produced.
If it’s all kids performing the parts, then the piece can be easily cast in a middle school or after school program. If the piece has a mix of adults and kids, you get caught in children’s theater purgatory where your play is much harder to produce because you have to worry about the adult actor’s work schedules and younger actor’s school schedules. If your piece is to be strictly performed by adults, then it would be in your best interest to keep the cast size smaller so economically it makes more sense for a theater to easily produce.
But as far as this article is concerned, we’re talking about plays performed BY kids FOR kids.
You’ll find this restriction less limiting than you might expect. It doesn’t mean you can’t write adult characters, it just means they have to be played by kids.
Keep the cast size large. When you start brainstorming a piece you want to write, try and think big. If the cast size is large it draws a different type of attention. Folks working with middle school theater programs or after school summer camps often look for pieces with larger sized casts to cater to as many students as possible. Even more so, because these pieces are so attractive to middle school programs, they’re attractive to play publishing companies as well, and are a convenient way to get your foot in the door with a publisher. I usually aim for a cast size that is 15+.
Keep the play short. Kids have short attention spans. Heck, we all do. It behooves you to write a piece with a running time of an hour or less. In the theater an hour means roughly 55-60 pages. I’d shoot for less, but make it a complete piece. Somewhere in the 40 to 60 minute range is a good spot to aim for.
Keep the lines short. When you start putting fingers to keys, try and keep in mind that memorizing Hamlet type monologues isn’t a forte of most 6th-8th graders. I think you’ll find that when you have a very large cast, writing short bursts of dialogue comes pretty easy as you look for ways to squeeze more characters into a piece.
Keep it cheap. I think this is a rule that spans the gamut of writing for the theater. If you’re a burgeoning playwright chances are a hot shot Broadway producer isn’t going to be interested in your script, and the folks at a T. Jefferson Middle School aren’t going to be impressed with the helicopter you have landing on stage at the beginning of the second act. You want to give a director every reason to want to produce your piece. A great way to keep them interested is to make sure that your piece won’t take an oil tycoon’s pocket book to produce. Keep in mind that your piece might get produced in a cafeteria, a classroom, and if you’re lucky a theater. So be resourceful. It is the theater after all. If your protagonist stands at the middle of a blank stage tells the audience they’re atop a mountain, then the audience tends to believe her.
Write androgynous characters. Don’t get me wrong, a few parents might be a bit put off to find their kid has been cast as Ziggy Stardust. What I really mean is try and keep your play open to options. A middle school program at one place may have 15 boys and 2 girls sign up for a class and somewhere else it may be quite the opposite. So try and write at least a few characters in your large cast that can be either a girl or a boy. For instance in a play of mine I wrote the brotherly duo “Buck and Chuck.” When a particular production needed to cater to a few more girls than boys the characters were easily changed to the sisters “Carla and Marla,” because the lines I wrote initially for Buck and Chuck didn’t convey a sense of gender. I tend to find that middle school classes and summer programs generally have more girls enlisted than boys, but don’t take my word for it.
Kids aren’t stupid. I think this kind of goes without saying, but don’t treat the actors or the audience like they’re dumb drooling babies. Kids are funny. By the time they’re in the 6th grade they have senses of humor and not much makes it over their heads. And after all, when kids perform, their families tend to show up. You want to make it fun and entertaining for all parties involved. The added bonus of all this? Parents are some of the best audiences a writer can ask for because they are utterly captivated by seeing their kids on stage.
Kids say the darndest things. One of the things I have found that is so liberating about writing children’s theatre is that kids say what’s on their minds. In more dramatic writing, a writer might get hung up on a character’s intent and the character’s subconscious wanderings, but when you write children’s theater your characters tend to say what’s on their minds, because well, kids say what’s on their minds. This often lends itself to focused characters with clear wants and clear actions.
This will be good for you. Writing protagonists that are kids is a good way to get out of that rut of essentially writing yourself as the protagonist of all your pieces. I know when I write a piece with adult characters, at least one if not all the characters tend to sound and think like I do, because well, I think a great deal of myself and why would I not make an interesting protagonist? The fact is, I don’t. And therein lies the rub. Sometimes folks tend to care too much about themselves embodied in their protagonist to make the right choices or give their protagonists the chinks in their armor that are necessary for an interesting three dimensional character. Writing a child protagonist can be easier because they aren’t like us. Don’t get me wrong, kids are complex, but they tend to have clear wants and needs, and the conflict in your children’s play is often more cut and dry than the convoluted plots you might dream up to impress your book club buddies. Personally I know writing children’s theatre has helped me focus my more dramatic writing, keeping me conscious of wants, needs, and real conflict.
It’s a big deal. Pat yourself on the back, dude. It’s a big deal to write for kids. You have an amazing opportunity to influence a lot of young minds in a positive way, and at the very least you have the opportunity to help them have a little fun. If it’s your first time, I think it would be a good exercise to concentrate on writing just that: a piece that is fun. You’ll find it’s an amazing time. And maybe after you get a few of these plays under your belt, you can really tackle the harder issued children’s plays. After all, kids have got it pretty tough sometimes.
Thanks so much,