First of all, don't panic. Christmas is a stressful time for everyone, and a school environment is no exception.
Think about your audience. Remember who the play will be performed to. If you are unlucky enough to teach at a school that falls into the catchment area for the children of theatre critics and distinguished actors, then you may feel slightly apprehensive. But usually, Christmas shows are watched by pupils' peers and family. It is a supportive environment full of people hanging on to every word of their children's small part in it.
Stretch that support too far, though, and you will alienate your audience. It is not a time to showcase your Brechtian influences.
What play should you choose? The Nativity has long been the norm, but has been done so often that even the innkeeper is considering refusing Mary and Joseph entry to the stable in the hope of igniting a sense of originality.
Luckily for teachers, some writers have developed nativities that use different perspectives, such as animals, to give the story a fresh approach. If you want to steer clear of the Nativity altogether, think about themes you associate with Christmas such as friendship, love and caring.
Once you have agreed on a play and a date, it is time to get down to the nitty-gritty - so here are some practical pointers:
- Keep it short. Long shows too often cause unrest and boredom for those performing and watching.
- Do not complicate the story. Have a clear beginning, middle and end.
- Keep your rehearsals short and frequent. Separate them into two types: full-cast rehearsals for full-cast scenes, songs and final runs, and scene rehearsals just for pupils involved in that scene.
- Keep lines easy for the pupils to learn. Short, simple lines can be given to all performers, not just the strongest ones.
- Use music and songs to break up the action. This allows the audience to join in too, and can be a good way to change scenes and backdrops.
- Narration is a good way of keeping the right pace. It also allows a clear narrative for the audience to follow.
- Really sell the show and send out invitations early so that parents or carers have time to make arrangements to get to it. Consider holding a matinee and an evening show.
- A cameo appearance by other staff members can inspire the performers. If the pupils see they are committed, they will be too.
- Keep sets and props simple and within your limits. Involving less confident pupils in set design and costumes will help them feel a part of the event.
- When thinking about staging, don't feel that pupils have to be hidden from view during a performance. Having performers on stage (possibly on benches) means you need less time for scene changes and entrances. These pupils can play supporting casts in scenes or act as the choruschoir for songs or narration.
- Finally, make it fun for the cast members and the staff. When the process becomes a chore for you both, then problems will arise
Philip Goss is a director of 2engage, a performing arts company based in Chester that pioneers engaging content for all audiences. www.2engage.co.uk.