Most teachers and childcare workers I've spoken to about producing a show with children greet the subject with a shudder (the smaller the children, the bigger the shudder). I can never understand that- I love putting on performances with children!
Being in a show can be a turning point for a child. A good teacher can encourage even the shyest of children to wear a costume, learn simple movements or a song and walk on stage to perform in a group with other kids- and the applause and sense of achievement they get after it's all over creates a boost in self-confidence which is beyond price. For more outgoing or gifted children, a show gives them an opportunity to shine at their own level without disadvantaging other children. For children who come from impoverished backgrounds, a simple show carefully run (to avoid incurring any parental expenses) may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the fun of extra-curricular activities.
So here are some guidelines for putting on a performance with young children, to help prevent this wonderfully rewarding activity from becoming a nightmare.
For a Christmas / end-of-year performance, you need to start thinking in July. Seriously. This is how you avoid overload.
If it's a graduation play for a preschool, start finding out who's leaving at the end of the year to start school (many parents will be undecided, but you'll get a rough idea). Pick a date for your show, and check if any parents are taking their kids on holidays at this time. (Nothing worse than finding at the last minute that your star will be in another state on performance day, as I did one year!) Monitor these lists as the year goes on so you don't get any nasty surprises at the last minute.
Then look at your 'raw materials'. First, who are your stars going to be? Watch their creative play. Who does the most talking and directs others' play? Notice how the children interact with you. Who speaks most clearly, and in the most 'grown-up' fashion? Watch them with the dress-ups. Who has an obsession with a certain type of costume? Watch who sits on the sidelines and rarely speaks up or leads play. What DO they like to do?
You need to go with the flow. If you swim against the tide with small children IT WILL NOT WORK. Know your group.
Pick out a few children who you think may be able to say solo lines (gifted children will often enjoy a challenge like this), and think about the children's favourite roles in play. Who likes being a mum or dad? Who likes being a princess? Who's always pretending to be a monster or a dinosaur? Who doesn't care how they dress up, as long as they're the leader? You don't necessarily have to think along gender lines, either- I had one very masculine little boy who delighted in the role of the Bad Fairy- but if you're trying something like this, check with mum and dad to ensure you don't end up with conflict; you don't need the child to be teased at home (sadly some parents are prehistoric enough to mind about cross-gender roles).
Look at the less outgoing children as a group- possibly divided roughly into boys and girls, along play interest lines- and brainstorm some ideas for how they might like to dress up. Are the girls obsessed with fairies? Princesses? Butterflies? Rainbows? Are the boys into superheroes? Snakes? Sharks? Spiders? Bob the Builder? Trucks and trains? Do you have some girls who like being dinosaurs, and some boys who like being princesses? Don't be too rigid.
If you're working in a preschool setting you also need to consider which children attend on the same days; it's a lot easier to rehearse if most of the kids from the same scene attend on the same day. It's a bit of a juggling act... but you can do it if you start with great preparation!
Choosing a story
Based on the casting brainstorming you've done, start thinking about the children's favourite stories and how you could cast them according to the children's play preferences. The most suitable stories will be based around the children's interests and use repetition of lines or ideas, with small variations.
'Wombat Stew' has lots of animals, and has a series of ingredients added to the pot;
'Sleeping Beauty' has princes, princesses and fairies, and has a series of gifts given to the baby princess;
'Possum Magic' has lots of animals, and a series of foods sampled to try to make Poss visible.
This repetitive structure enables you to make the lines very simple to learn as a group. Meanwhile, you can narrate the story, or choose one or more gifted children to narrate with your help; the other more outgoing children can take the parts that have non-repetitive lines.
So for example, in Wombat Stew you would need a narrator and a dingo who were very capable and outgoing; everyone else could add an ingredient to the pot, alone or in pairs or small groups.
In Sleeping Beauty, you would need a narrator, a king and queen, a good fairy and a bad fairy, a princess and a prince; everyone else could give the baby gifts.
In Possum Magic, you need a narrator, Grandma Poss and Poss; everyone else either brings food for Poss to try, or dresses up as one of the animals Poss plays with when invisible- or you can double them up and have the animals bring Poss the food.
Even very simple stories with only a few characters can be expanded to include a larger group if you feel a bit creative. Most stories can have forest animals, fairies, butterflies, ants and so forth written in with simple lines or actions delivered as a group. For example, The Three Bears really has only five characters, but you could add little groups of mice and butterflies inside the bears' cottage saying things like 'Stop! You're eating his breakfast!' 'Stop! You're breaking his chair!' and so on. If you have some children who you know will only dress up as, say, Spiderman or Ben 10, write that into the script- why can't Spiderman give the baby princess a present, or Ben 10 add something to the stew?
Before you settle on a particular story, think about where you're going to put the play on. You need enough room for the action, including a very simple stage set, plus a holding area each side or behind the 'stage' where other staff can supervise children who aren't 'on stage'. Can you set up what you need for this story in the area you've got? Does it have too many changes of scene? Will you need a backdrop, and where can you hang it up? How?
Also think about props and costumes. What costumes do you have? Are the parents sufficiently resourceful to make costumes, or will you need to supply almost everything? What's your budget? What can you source from op shops? Are any costumes particularly difficult? For example, in Possum Magic you would need to think about how you'll make Poss 'invisible' and how bits of him will gradually appear (we did it with pieces of dark green mosquito netting draped over him).
And who's going to help you? If you decide to be on stage guiding the children and narrating the story, you'll need supervisors behind the scenes to get the kids dressed in their costumes and then keep them settled in their holding area while the play is on. Ask for help now, not at the last minute. Try to use the staff from your own room if they're willing- it makes rehearsing easier. And who will make the costumes? Who will provide the necessary props and sets? Who will do make-up?
And what are you going to do to include that terribly, terribly shy child who would never in a million years wear a costume and get up on the stage? That's your special helper. That's the child who helps you set up the stage and props every rehearsal, and sits by your side while you narrate the show so you can give him little messages to run for you, and make him feel included and important. There will be plenty of little jobs to give him; he may surprise you with previously unknown organisational skills- quiet kids are sometimes the deep thinkers.
Preparing the script, stage directions and props
Don't think you can put this performance on without a formal script- I don't care how well you think the kids know the story! When you're rehearsing it's hard enough organising the children to be in the right places without forgetting where you're up to in the story, or accidentally telling someone to say words that are slightly different from what you told them last time. You need to get on your computer and turn the story into a play.
It's not as hard as it sounds. Go through the original story and highlight the words specific children will say; everything else has to be said by the narrator (you).
Remember to keep the children's words as SIMPLE as possible. About five words at a time is more than enough for the average preschooler to remember (though very clever children will cope with much more than this), and most will have trouble with more than two or three lines altogether. Use the children's real names in the script- make it easy for yourself!- and put the part they play in brackets, like this:
KIERAN (King): It's a girl!
So you will be rewriting much of your story in a simpler form. If the story says 'Late at night in Perth, in the kitchen of the casino, Poss found a Vegemite sandwich', your script might say something like this:
NARRATOR: Next they went to Perth.
MARIA (kangaroo): Try a Vegemite sandwich!
TOMMY (Poss): Yum!
Show your basic script to your helpers and get their feedback; they may pick up problems you haven't noticed. For example, if a child has a lisp it isn't a great idea to give her lots of 's' sounds to say!
Once you've worked out the words, you need to work out the stage directions. This is actually the hardest part of the preparation process, but once you do it, it makes rehearsal SO much easier.
Draw a floor plan of your acting area and holding areas. Draw in the stage sets on your plan, and use colour codes for the different actors and groups- eg green dot where the king stands to say his lines, pink dot for the queen, green dot for the bad fairy and so on. Remember, everyone who is saying a line has to face the front or they won't be heard. If you have a long list of characters coming to say lines in the same place in the repeated sections of your play, dedicate a coloured dot for the whole group. You will probably have to make a few attempts before you get this right.
Walk through the plan with your fingers. Where is each actor coming from? Where do they go when they finish their line, so they don't bump into the next person coming up to speak? Use coloured arrows to and from the holding areas on your plan. KEEP IT SIMPLE.
When you're happy, you put the directions into your script in italics, like this:
NARRATOR: Next they went to Perth.
Enter Maria (kangaroo) from back with Vegemite sandwich.
MARIA (kangaroo): Try a Vegemite sandwich!
She hands it to Tommy, who pretends to eat then tosses it over his shoulder.
TOMMY (Poss): Yum!
Exit Maria to holding area.
Once you have colours and places and entrances and exits organised, make some laminated sheets in the selected colours with the specific child's photo and name on them, or the name of the group and a photo of their character (eg BUTTERFLIES with an appropriate picture). These will be placed on the floor so the children know where to stand.
In your holding areas, you also need to have a dedicated place for each child. Print and laminate place cards with the child's name and photo, decide what's the logical order for them to sit, and tape the cards in lines; when you start rehearsing, put out the lines of place cards and everyone just has to find their photo and sit on it. Use lines of masking tape on the floor to make your flow arrows. When the staff helper 'nudges' them, they follow the 'on' masking tape to their coloured dot, say their lines and follow the 'off' tape back to their holding area spot. IT'S EASY IF YOU TAKE THE TIME TO PREPARE.
Once you've settled any problems, make enough copies of the script for all staff involved to have one, and highlight the sections of the script where you need each staff member's help. So if Yvonne is meant to be prompting the children to enter from the holding area, you would highlight 'Enter Maria (kangaroo)' on Yvonne's script.
The children with non-repetitive lines (and if you like, those with repetitive lines too) will learn their parts better if you do a cut-and-paste of the script and send their lines (and ONLY their lines, with cues- you don't want to spoil the surprise effect of the show for the parents) home with them. The more parental support you have, the better your show will go, so talk to the parents- they will love to know that you think enough of their child to give them a 'special' part. This is also a good time to remind parents of the date of the performance and ask them to check their holiday schedules, as well as outline any costume needs.
You also need to organise the props for each child before you start, and put them in a dedicated box where they won't be removed for general play. 'Make do' props will do for now if you need to make special things; for example, a small beanbag can take the place of Poss' lamington till you make one. Remember to keep all props child-safe- for example, you can make knives, axes or needles for bad fairy magic using heavy cardboard and foil. Props need to be big enough not to get lost and to be seen from a distance.
Rehearsing, painting a backdrop and making sets
If you haven't started rehearsing by the beginning of September, you've left it a bit late and you'll get stressed out. You can't hurry kids. START EARLY. You have to allow for staff and child absences... windy or wet days when the kids are feral... short attention spans... interruptions caused by excursions or special events... days when you are just too tired or overwhelmed to cope with a rehearsal cheerfully. And you MUST be cheerful. You have to wheedle the kids into practising their show, and you have to have enormous energy and enthusiasm yourself to motivate them. If you're not up to it today, or if they aren't, don't do it.
At some stage the children will get to a point in rehearsals where they're 'over it', and you'll need to rest it for a while. Concentrate instead on making the props or the backdrop and come back to rehearsing lines later. Allow for this in your schedule.
How do you start?
I like to start by reading the story in its original form, then reading the script and acting it out with puppets or dolls- telling the children which of them is which doll (ie I tell them what part they're playing a little indirectly- if they argue the point, you need to be diplomatic and explain why it's so important that they be a fairy, not the princess... make them feel special, whatever their part).
Next time around, I ask the children to help me tell the story (while seated) by 'being' their character and repeating the line I've given them while I read the story out, including everyone saying the group lines; they can even operate the puppets or dolls if you like. I can usually get through the whole story like this.
Once the children know who they are going to be, I send their lines home. Some parents help like crazy; some parents seem to have no idea their child is even in a play, despite all the notes and reminders, right up to a week before it's on. Be prepared for this, and keep talking to all the parents about the performance whenever you see them!
For the actual rehearsals, you will need to break your play into sections. If you keep starting from the beginning, the first five minutes will be brilliant and you will never have rehearsed the end. The moment the children start to get restless, you need to stop! This is not a punishment! Keep it fun, and practise every section equally.
To start proper rehearsals, get everyone sitting on their place mats in the holding area- they LOVE having a special mat with their name and photo on it and get very possessive about these! Walk through the script, telling them where they'll get up and sit down again (and getting them to do it), where they walk to, what actions they do- and say their lines for them when they get there. You usually need to separate the physical stuff from the words to start with. The funnier and more entertaining you can be while you do this, the more patient they'll be; the crankier you are, the less they'll co-operate.
Next you put the words and the movements together, in very short sections. Prompt them madly, and praise them madly! Praise those waiting their turn for sitting in their place, and being patient with them- sometimes it's better to grab a few of your 'soloists' and go through some line just with them while the others play.
Say the lines WITH the shy kids. For some, just getting up and walking to the front will be torment- if you've prepared well, you'll have organised for these kids to be in a small group with someone more outgoing who will take their hand and lead them forward. Keep the practices short, and schedule a session of wild free dancing or outdoor chasings to work off the excess energy after each practice- they have been sitting for quite a while.
If some children have days where they really don't want to practise, just practise with the kids who do want to do it. When they start to get jaded, start bringing out costumes to excite them... or the real props... or the face paints (ie kiddy make-up)... or start making the sets and backdrop.
You can buy an old sheet very cheaply from an op shop and turn that into a backdrop; try to choose something either pale and plain enough to paint over easily, or something that has a pattern which suits the play (eg something with green leaves or flowers for a forest). If you draw a rough design on it and peg it to a fence or put it down on the play area outside with plastic sheets under it, then talk about it with the children, they can start to 'colour it in' with poster paints, which I can assure you will NOT stay within the lines and will become a fantastic creative group activity. The kids will get quite possessive about the part they are painting- be warned! I have seen arguments break out! Even at 5, some children feel a sense of creative ownership.
It's up to you whether you're happy to end up with a kids' original abstract for your backdrop or if you want to guide it a bit more. I found that I could let them go for it, then when they were all 'painted out' just re-define the original outlines a little and add a few minor highlights if they figured in the script.
For the sets, you might need to organise some fun craft activities, like making trees out of crepe paper and cardboard tubes. (You can work out a whole educational programme around your show if you're clever.) Try not to make your sets too soon, because you'll have to store them safely until show time.
Don't forget to practise bows for the end of the show. When the play is finished, all the kids should be sitting in their holding places; call them forward one row at a time and prompt them with 'One, two, three- BOW!' They love doing this, and their parents love it too. Send each row to the back of the holding area as the next row comes forward.
It's nice to prepare a simple programme as a memento of the occasion. This needs to record the date of the performance, acknowledge the original author of the story (very important!), list all the kids and their parts (it's lovely to do this with photographs) and acknowledge all the staff and parents who have helped. You can also use the programme in advance as advertising material, to remind parents when the show is on.
Don't forget to thank all your helpers after the show, and get those costumes back before the kids go home! The more times you do this, the more costumes you'll have in store... and the easier your job will be next time round.
A sample script
Here's a script I wrote for 5-year-olds. Yes, you can use it if you want- just give my blog's web address a credit on your programme please! I've left some children's names in the parts instead of role names, to remind you how useful this is. You can print it off and then change the names- ir even change the lines a bit to make them topical and funny for YOUR kids' parents.
This script gives you a good example of using a small, clever child as a narrator (with the teacher's help). I was fortunate to have quite a few children who could cope with more words than average in their lines; knowing your cast is soooo important when writing a script for littlies.
(CHRISTIAN and TEACHER enter together with storybook and sit stage R)
CHRISTIAN (cook): (dressed as cook, to audience) This is the story of Sleeping Beauty.
TEACHER: (opening book labelled 'Politically Correct Fairy Tales') Once upon a time there was a king and a queen. (Ella and Lachie enter from back area, hand in hand, dressed as king and queen)
LACHIE (king): (wave) I'm the king.
ELLA (queen): (wave) I'm the queen.
CHRISTIAN: I'm the cook. Kings and queens are too busy to cook their own food.
TEACHER: They wanted to have a baby so much, and at last they had a little baby girl. (Ella brings baby doll out from under her cloak)(to Christian) What did they do to celebrate?
CHRISTIAN: They had a big party. See you, I've got to do the cooking. (goes to kitchen and starts work)
(all fairies waiting at back)
TEACHER: Every fairy gave the baby princess a special magic present.
(fairies come forward from back area [where helpers 1 and 2 are doing crowd control] two by two, and wave wands over baby)
LEXIE (fairy): You will be beautiful.
GILLIAN (fairy): You will be clever. (music as they walk back)
LYDIA (fairy): You will be kind.
ARAVIS (fairy): You will always share. (music as they walk back)
CHARLI (fairy): You will have pretty dresses.
RUBY (fairy): You will have lots of friends. (music as they walk back)
BILLIE (fairy): You will love books.
CHARLOTTE (fairy): You will always feel happy. (music as they walk back)
PHOENIX (fairy): You will marry a man who makes you coffee in the morning.
(music as she returns to back area)
TEACHER: Even the TV stars and superheroes and monsters gave the baby princess presents.
(superheroes and boy toys come forward from back area in pairs, then return)
PIERCE (B1, banana in pyjamas): You will have lots of teddy bears.
HARRY(Superman): You will rescue your friends. (Bananas in PJS theme)
BEN (Ben10): You will never be late because you've got a magic watch.
KALOB (Spiderman): You will be good at climbing. (music)
JAYDEN (Dragon): You won't be scared of the dark because the monsters will be your friends.
TYLER (Robot): Your computer will never crash. (music)
TEACHER: It was an excellent party, with lots of sometimes foods (Christian holds up plates of sometimes food) and lots of dancing.
(DANCE: Two verses of The Twist, CD player controlled by helper 3, dance led by helpers 1 and 2, keen dancers to front) (end with Ella and Lachie at front)
TEACHER: But the king and queen made a big mistake. What did they forget?
CHRISTIAN: (who has returned to sit with teacher) They forgot to invite the Bad Fairy.
BEAU (Bad Fairy): (runs through audience from doorway, angry) RRRRRRAAAAHHHRRRRR! (all others move slightly back into back area and sit) I wanna come to the party too! I'm a good dancer! (does free dance to third verse of The Twist)
TEACHER: Oh-oh. I think that fairy's angry. What should the king and queen do?
EVERYONE: Say sorry!
ELLA: Sorry, fairy, we should have invited you too.
TEACHER: (to Beau) Are you still angry?
TEACHER: Oh-oh. (to others) What should the Bad Fairy do?
ALL: Take three big breaths! (Beau does it)
TEACHER: And what else do we do when we're angry?
ALL: Fold your arms. (Beau does it)
EVERYONE: (Standing up, doing actions)
If you're angry and you know it, fold your arms, (x 2)
If you're angry and you know it, then be careful how you show it.
If you're angry and you know it, fold your arms. (sit)
TEACHER: But some fairies are just mean. This bad fairy was still cross. What did she do?
CHRISTIAN: She put a bad spell on the baby.
BEAU: (pointing wand at baby doll) You're going to cut your finger and DIE! (laughs and runs off to hide behind lockers)
(ELLA screams NO! and faints, LACHIE bends over her sadly)
TEACHER: Luckily, there was still one fairy who hadn't given the princess her present yet. She was running late for the present-giving because her wand had run out of fairy dust and she had to go and fill it up.
WAYLARD (Good Fairy): (enters from back area) Sorry I'm late. What happened?
ELLA: The Bad Fairy put a spell on Baby Aurora!
LACHIE: She's going to cut her finger and die!
WAYLARD: (hands on hips) That's MEAN!
TEACHER: The fairy thought hard about what spell she could cast to help.
WAYLARD: (waves wand over baby) You won't die, you'll just go to sleep for a hundred years.
CHRISTIAN: (surprised) A HUNDRED YEARS?
WAYLARD: (shrugs) Sorry. (she walks to back)
TEACHER: The Bad Fairy was much stronger than her, you see, and anyway, it's hard to break a bad spell completely. The king tried his best to save his baby by making new rules for the palace.
LACHIE: Throw away all the sharp things.
ELLA: No knives or scissors!
TEACHER: (to Christian) That makes your job a bit hard!
CHRISTIAN: I might have to cheat a bit. (goes to kitchen and starts throwing knives in the bin)
TEACHER: So the cook hid one sharp knife in the cupboard and only used it when nobody was looking. That worked pretty well for a long time. Princess Aurora grew up safely, (INAYA, dressed as princess, walks forward from back area) and one day when she was 18 years old, she said to her mother and father,
INAYA (Aurora): Can I have a TV in my bedroom?
(Ella and Lachie look at each other and nod)
ELLA AND LACHIE: Okay. (They go and sit near Beau near lockers, Inaya sits in bed/shelf and watches TV, Christian returns to seat by teacher)
TEACHER: But that was a really bad idea. Aurora started watching MasterChef every night, and soon she really, really wanted to try some cooking herself. She snuck into the kitchen one day when the cook wasn't there, (Inaya walks into kitchen and opens cupboards) but of course she couldn't find a knife- until the Bad Fairy appeared by magic.
BEAU: (comes out from behind lockers, finds knife) Is this what you're looking for?
INAYA: Yes! OUCH! (cuts finger and falls to floor)
BEAU: HAHAHAHAHA! (runs away through to back area and sits down)
CHRISTIAN: Oh-oh. I'm in trouble.
(All the fairies, superheroes and toys stand up and point at him)
EVERYONE AT BACK: (pointing at CHRISTIAN) You're in time out!
(CHRISTIAN sits down on floor in time out, others sit too)
ELLA: (walking into kitchen, screams) Oh no!
LACHIE: (walks in and bends over INAYA) She's asleep! We'll never see her awake again! (they both start crying)
EVERYONE: (stand up and come forward- during song Inaya creeps into bed again and lies as if asleep)
If you're sad and you know it, tell a friend, (x 2)
If you're sad and you know it, then you really ought to show it,
If you're sad and you know it, tell a friend. (all step back and sit)
TEACHER: But the fairy who was late to the party had been thinking how else she could help Aurora for 18 whole years, and she had an idea. She put everyone in the palace to sleep for a hundred years so they wouldn't be sad.
WAYLARD: Everybody go to sleep. (waves wand, they fall to floor asleep and she does too; Ben is towards back and creeps away out of sight)
CHRISTIAN: (waving hand from on the floor, shouting) Hey! I'm still in time out!
TEACHER: Bad luck, you cheated. Someone might remember to get you out when they wake up. A hundred years later, a huge forest had grown up around the palace. (Green forest-painted curtain is thrown over all sleepers by helpers) Fortunately a handsome prince came along.
BEN (Prince): (still dressed as Ben10, comes out from back, looks at watch) Ah, right on time. One hundred years. (zaps the forest sheet with watch and it gets pulled off sleepers) AWESOME!
CHRISTIAN: (stands up wearing beard) Am I still in time out?
TEACHER: (ignores him other than pointing to floor, he sits down) The handsome prince saw Aurora asleep and thought she was really beautiful. (Ben tiptoes through sleepers to Inaya) He wanted to give her a kiss.
CHRISTIAN: (stands up again, to Ben) You can't just kiss a girl, you have to ask her if it's okay first.
TEACHER: Very good, Christian. You can come out of time out now. (Christian sits back on his chair)
BEN: But I can't ask her, she's asleep!
TEACHER: Come on everyone, let's help him.
EVERYONE: (jumping up) WAKE UP! (INAYA wakes up, yawns, sees Prince)
BEN: Can I kiss you?
INAYA: No, we have to be friends first.
BEN: Oh. (goes over and gets cup from kitchen) Would you like a cup of coffee?
INAYA: Yes please. (drinks coffee) Okay, we're friends now. Let's get married. (They hug and go to the back through crowd with Ella and Lachie as kids get lined up for song and bows)
TEACHER: The king and queen took the TV out of Aurora's bedroom and told her to stop watching reality TV and read all her books instead. The cook taught Aurora how to make guava sorbet and taught the handsome prince how to use a knife without cutting himself, so Aurora wouldn't try to do it and send everyone to sleep again. And the handsome prince and Aurora got married and lived happily ever after, and he did all the housework except the cooking.
EVERYONE: If you're happy and you know it, punch the air- WOOHOO! (x 2)
If you're happy and you know it, then you really ought to show it,
If you're happy and you know it, punch the air. WOOHOO!
Fairies, take a bow!
Monsters and superheroes and TV stars, take a bow!
Kings and queens and princesses, take a bow!
Cook, take a bow!