This is a near-and-dear subject for me. Over the past ten years, I have written many plays for children. I highly recommend this emotionally rewarding writing experience. To start you on your journey into youth theatre writing, I humbly offer the following advice:
Write What You Love
This is true for any genre, whether its poetry, prose, or drama. A writer should create characters he cares about, plots that captivate him, and resolutions that move him. A playwright should be his own toughest critic and his own biggest fan. So, remember, choose topics and issues that generate passion within you. That way, your enthusiasm will cross over to your audience.
Write What Kids Love Too
Sadly, if you absolutely love the politics of 18th century Europe or doing your income tax, or talking about home equity loans, that passion may not translate into the realm of Kid-dom. Make certain that your play connects with children. In some cases that might mean to add a dash of fantasy, or to unleash your comic side. Think of how J.M. Barrie's classic musical, Peter Pan enraptured a generation of children with its magic and mayhem. However, a children’s play can take place in the “real world” too, with down to earth characters. Anne of Green Gables and A Christmas Story are fine examples of this.
Know Your Market
There is a popular demand for youth theatre plays. High schools, elementary schools, drama clubs, and community theaters are constantly looking for new material. Publishers are anxious to find scripts that have compelling characters, clever dialogue, and easy-to-create sets.
Ask yourself: Do you want to sell your play? Or produce it yourself? Where would you like your play to be performed? At a school? Church? Regional theater? Broadway? All of them are possibilities, though some are easier goals than others. Check out the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market. They list over 50 publishers and producers.
Also, contact the artistic director of your local playhouse. They might be looking for a new show for kids!
Know Your CastThere are really two types of children’s plays. Some scripts are written to be performed by children. These are plays that are bought by publishers and then sold to schools and drama clubs.
Boys often shy away from drama. To increase your chances of success, create plays with a large number of female characters. Plays with an abundance of male leads don’t sell as well. Also, avoid extremely controversial topics such as suicide, drugs, violence, or sexuality.
If you create a children’s show to be performed by adults, your best market will be theaters that cater to families. Create plays with a small, energetic cast, and a very limited number of props and set pieces. Make it as easy for the troupe to stage your production.
Use the Right Words
A playwright's vocabulary should depend on the anticipated age of the audience. For example, if you want to create a play to be viewed by fourth graders, research age-appropriate vocabulary and spelling lists. This is not to say that you should completely avoid more sophisticated words. On the contrary, when a student hears a new word in the context of a story, she can increase her lexicon. (That’s a fancy word for one's personal vocabulary.)
Play adaptations of Alice in Wonderland are a good example of writing that speaks to children using words they can understand. Yet the dialogue sporadically incorporates elevated language without losing its connection with the young audience.
Offer Lessons, but Don't Preach
Give your audience a positive, inspirational experience complete with a subtle yet uplifting message.
The play adaptation of The Little Prince is an excellent example of how important lessons can be infused into a script. As the main character travels from one whimsical planet to the next, the audience learns the value of trust, imagination, and friendship. The messages subtly unfold.
If the script becomes too preachy it may feel as though you are talking down to your audience. Do not forget, children are very perceptive (and often brutally honest). If your script generates laughter and thunderous applause, then you will have connected with one of the most demanding yet appreciative crowds on the planet: an audience filled with kids.