It’s a beautiful, sunny day and outside my study window, the trees are once again gloriously green and in the distance I can hear the rumbling of the council mowers trundling over the verdant spaces of our neighbourhood.
Summer is truly here and as I write, plans for countless end of term “spectaculars” are taking shape in primary schools across the land.
So, it would seem from the some of the anguished posts in various online teacher forums, are the near nervous breakdowns of many a non-specialist primary teacher as they struggle to direct a coherent rehearsal with a young cast who seem blissfully unaware of how rapidly the “big day” is approaching.
Having progressed into teaching from a career in light entertainment, I brought with me many “in trade” tips and tricks for ensuring a successful production and applied them, almost without thinking, to shows involving my students. Over the years, I’ve witnessed the struggles of colleagues who had much less or even no performing arts or music background. It’s not easy to infuse your young “cast” with the necessary skills and confidence when you yourself have no frame of reference upon which to draw.
So, for my very first SG contribution, I wanted to offer content that would be of real practical use for primary teachers who may not be music or performing arts specialists and as a result may be feeling somewhat out of their depth as producer, director and technician for the end of term “show” whether it‘s a “Summer spectacular“ or a “Christmas special“.
Whilst I can’t claim to have developed a miracle “one size fits all” success strategy, looking back I do seem to have enjoyed much less stressful “show terms” than some of my colleagues. My own area of expertise is music and I’ve had the privilege of working with and learning from some excellent drama and dance teachers along the way. With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful if to pass along some of what I have found worked well for me. Hopefully, they might just work for you, too.
1. Begin with the entire cast knowing the whole story
It may seem obvious as I say it. However, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called in to help “rescue” a performance (usually with just days to go!) only to find that the crucial step of a full “read through” has been missed entirely. Sometimes, this has been due to perceived pressure on the part of the class teacher to get stuck in to rehearsals as early in the term as possible. Yet, rushing straight into “proper” rehearsals can prove counter-productive. The human mind is hard wired for stories. Young minds find it much easier to make sense of new information and to remember and internalise that information if it is embedded within an entertaining narrative. A coherent story has a beginning, a middle and an end.
If your young cast are unfamiliar with the story of the play from beginning to end, their thinking (and therefore their behaviour) will be fragmented throughout the rehearsal process. They will not be able to visualise their character’s part in the proceedings and how it fits into the whole production. Neither will they be able to effectively communicate the story to their audience. So I advise you to devote your first rehearsal session to listening to or reading through the entire script and listening to any songs, in full, in their place within the script. That way, each of your cast will have a mental template into which to fit their contribution.
2. Include consolidation activities into your plan and repeat them at intervals to assess progress.
A simple quiz is all you need to assess whether or not your cast have grasped the plot and acquired any of the knowledge contained within it. For example, one of the opening narrator lines in my musical play “Strauss, King of the Waltz” states: “This is the story of Johann Strauss the second, an Austrian composer who was born in October of 1825.” How many quick, simple quiz questions arise from that? A ten to twelve question quiz, gleaned from the narrative of the play will quickly reveal how much active listening has been done. Later, after the first three or four rehearsals, you can repeat the quiz to see if more information has been absorbed and retained or whether some pupils have “lost the plot”.
3. Think from the end - and teach your students to do the same.
It may seem counter intuitive to work backwards but I’ve found it works a treat when planning your rehearsals to begin with the performance date and work back to the date you’re at today. For example, even if you have no performing arts background, you likely understand the concept of a dress rehearsal. However, you would also be wise to include a technical rehearsal in your schedule. This is a rehearsal with all props, scenery and sound equipment but no costumes. It’s also beneficial to insist that the rehearsal immediately prior to your technical one is “off script.” This means that, on the stated date, the cast will attempt to run through the entire show without referring to scripts or song lyrics. No props or scenery should be involved on that occasion. Those can all be mimed. The point of the exercise is for children to find out if they have truly memorised their part. It’s quite common for some children to be adamant they know their lines until they actually come to try performing without their script. It’s all part of their learning curve. If it turns out that the story is not as secure as might be desired, there will still be plenty of time for a bit of intensive catch up work. Plotting in this simple failsafe can help prevent tears, including yours, on the big day.
Learning to cope with props, sound gear and scenery is best done once lines and songs are secure. If your show has two parts or several scenes, it’s beneficial to set target dates for rehearsing each segment and stick to them regardless. That way, you avoid reaching your penultimate rehearsal with the second act still unrehearsed and members of your cast being kept waiting whilst others get yet another “turn”. So, depending upon how many weeks you've allowed for rehearsals, you’re nascent plan could now look something like this:
Week one (date) - Read through entire script. Hear all songs. Follow up quiz.
Week four (date)- Repeat quiz.
Week eight (date) - First half run. Work on as necessary.
Week nine (date) - Second half run. Work on as necessary.
Week ten (date) - First full run.
Week eleven (dates) - Off script rehearsal and technical rehearsal.
Week Twelve (dates) - Dress rehearsal & performance
Obviously, you know your own students and how much they can cope with in one go so I’ve not attempted to provide a detailed template for weeks two to seven.
4. Let the students in on your rehearsal plan.
A “rookie” mistake I made early in my school teaching career was to craft a beautiful plan and then keep it to myself! After several years “moonlighting” as a weekend theatre arts tutor, I had become so used to youngsters knowing what to expect in terms of rehearsal and when to have their lines and lyrics “down pat” that I entirely forgot that children who don’t attend such classes are new to all this. Once it occurred to me to share the plan with my pupils, the pace and quality of learning was transformed. I found children, especially boys, really appreciated having a reference copy of the rehearsal plan on the wall and really looked forward to reaching each milestone, especially the challenge of “off-script day” and “technical day.” More of them tended to remember to bring their script copies to rehearsals and lines tended to be somewhat practiced beforehand. So I recommend pinning up copies of your rehearsal schedule in the corridors and in class and drawing attention to them for the first two or three weeks, explaining what is meant by the aforementioned terms and what they should challenge themselves to be able to do as each date arrives.
5. Create visual reminders of the passage of time.
As anyone who works with children knows, they have a very different sense of the passage of time from adults. To them, a week is “ages” and a month might as well be forever. Verbally reminding them of the deadline never worked for me, however loudly or often I repeated it. So, to help my younger pupils keep some sense of the approach of the performance date, I made some very large number cards, indicating how many weeks we still had left to prepare, and pinned them up next to the rehearsal schedule, changing the number on a specific day of the week. This became a super-charged reminder when I appointed “countdown monitors” to change the numbers themselves.
So there you have it, my five simple pointers to a successful end of term show. I really hope it’s helped. I’m always pleased to hear your thoughts on my posts and resources so don’t be shy about responding. It all helps me design better blog posts and materials for you.
As they say in all the best show-business circles, break a leg!
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Tanya Lawrence is an experienced classroom practitioner who has worked in both state and private school settings from Y3 to Y12.