Recently, I received a message in our Plays / Drama forum. I thought I would share it with you because it touches upon an issue many directors and drama teachers deal with. Here it is:
"I am currently working on my major production that my drama class is putting on at the end of next month. There are 17 students in the cast, but obviously some have bigger parts than others.
Any suggestions for what I can get those with smaller parts to do while they are not on stage? They are really struggling with just watching the rehearsals (when not involved), and since it's a class, I feel I should be making them do something, since they are also getting a credit for the course. I'm just not sure how to make the best use of these students."
I've been in her place before. Whenever I directed youth theater during the summer, many of the children had smaller roles. Therefore, I had to make certain those children did not waste their time during rehearsals. My goal was not just to put on a great show, but to make certain every performer (no matter how small the part) improved their acting and their knowledge of the theatrical arts.
If you are in a similar situation, then yours is a challenging problem that many teachers and youth theater directors face. If this were a professional production, you would be able to focus your attention on the principal actors. However, as an instructor, you want all of your performers to have a positive educational experience.
Here are some ideas as to what you can do to make the most out of your rehearsals:
Choose Plays to Fit The Cast Size:
This first rule is simple -- but it's important. If you know that you will be directing a cast of twenty or more kids, make certain that you don't choose a play where only three characters have lines and the rest are lingering in the background. Some family-themed shows such as Annie or Oliver have a lot of kids in one or two scenes, and that's it. The rest of the show focuses on only a handful of characters. Therefore, look for scripts that offer a lot of little but juicy roles in additional to the lead characters. that well, most of your students will feel special.
Background Extras Enhance the Setting:
Let's assume it is too late to pick another script. What then? Go through the play and find all of the scenes in which actors can liven up the background. Are there any crowd scenes? Are there scenes that take place in a park? A senior center? A courtroom?
For over ten years, my wife worked on films as an assistant director. It was her job to place the background "extras" -- actors who may simply walk across the scene or play a part in the crowd. Before I watched my wife in action, I figured it was a simple job. But watching her work I realized that there's an artistry to directing background. Characters in the background can help to establish the setting and the energy of the play. If your show has a large cast with several crowd scenes, make the most of it. Create a whole world on the stage. Even if the young actors don't have a single line they can convey a character and enhance the play.
Create Character Outlines:
No matter how big or small the role, every young actor can benefit from character outlines. If you are directing the principals and the ensemble cast members have some downtime, ask them to write about their characters. Ask them to respond to some of these prompts:
- Describe your character's personality.
- What thoughts are going through your character's mind?
- What goals and dreams does your character have?
- What worries or frightens your character?
- Describe your character's most embarrassing moment.
- Describe your character's greatest triumph.
If time allows, the cast members could develop scenes (either written or improvisational) showing these not-so-minor characters in action. And if you have any students that enjoy reading and writing, learn more about creative ways to analyze plays.
Practice Scene Work:
If the students/actors have a lot of downtime during rehearsal, give them sample scenes from other plays to work on. This will allow them to learn more about the diverse world of theater, and it will help them become more versatile performers. Also, this is also an easy way for them to sharpen their acting skills in order to land a larger role in the next production.
Toward the end of rehearsal, make certain you set aside time for the students to perform their scene work to the rest of the cast. If you are able to do this consistently, the students with the smaller roles will still be able to get a great deal of acting experience -- and those who observe the scenes will get a taste of the classic and contemporary pieces you present.
Improv! Improv! Improv!
Yes, whenever the cast is down in the dumps, cheer up your young performers with a quick improvisation exercise. It's a great way to warm up before rehearsal, or a fun way to wrap things up. For more ideas, check out our list of improv activities.
Behind the Scenes:
Oftentimes students sign up for a drama class as an elective, and even though they love the theater, but they aren't yet comfortable being in the spotlight. (Or maybe they just aren't ready yet.) In that case, teach the participants about the technical aspects of theater. They could spend their free time during rehearsals learning lighting design, sound effects, costumes, prop management, and marketing strategies.
During my high school days, I was in several of the school plays. But one of my most memorable experiences took place off stage. I didn't get a part in our school's murder-mystery comedy, but the teacher asked me if I would be interested in assistant directing. More than any other semester, I learned more about the theater (and more about being an actor) just by being behind the scenes.
But however you involve your young actors, make certain you are giving them creative work -- NOT busy work. Give them projects that will challenge them artistically and intellectually. And, above all, show them through example how fun the theater can be.