It's a situation many of us are familiar with: you've finally chosen a show, secured a venue, set the dates, even procured a cast -- but now the production is looming, and you have to figure out how to advertise the thing. Problem is, there's no budget, little time, and you're not what anyone would call a graphic designer.
As a designer myself, I'm here to tell you that you don't need a lot of time, money, or a graphic design degree to create effective publicity designs for your show. What you do need is a solid grounding in the principles of design, and an idea of what choices will save you money -- and this post is a quick lesson in both!
There are five main principles of design: balance, alignment, repetition, contrast, and hierarchy (B.A.R.C.H.). They all work together to create something pleasing to the eye and effective from a communication standpoint.
Balance provides stability and structure to a design. You can think of it as various elements on the page having different visual "weights." If you distribute them evenly, or in a way that creates some tension (leading your eye from one point to another), then you've used balance.
Alignment creates a sharper, more unified design, creating invisible connections between elements on the page.
Repetition strengthens a design by tying together otherwise separate parts and creating association. You can think beyond repetition of content into repetition of font styles, layout styles, colors, etc.
Contrast is the most effective way to create emphasis and impact with your design, and should be obvious: big/small, classic/modern, thick/thin, cool/warm, smooth/rough.
Hierarchy creates organization, guiding the reader through the reading process. It visually identifies and ranks the importance of the information you're presenting.
Balance: The large type on top is balanced by the smaller but more condensed type on the bottom.
Alignment: There's a clear vertical line that starts with the "l" in "long" and leads the eye down to the production information.
Repetition: The same typeface (Futura) is used throughout the poster, and the words in the title share a common motif (the sinking letters).
Contrast: The black/yellow makes for easy visibility, and the size difference between the title and the rest of the text makes the title pop.
Hierarchy: The more important the text, the bigger (and/or more bold) I made it. This is a simple and effective way to create hierarchy.
Now you've basically got a degree in design principles. Congratulations! You can also try putting yourself into a designer mindset: pretend that your production is a client, and you've been hired. Think about the audience, the message, the motivation for your publicity campaign -- what do you want to communicate about the play? What do you want people who see your design to do after they see it (buy tickets, I hope!)?
Above all, know the play. Know your intent. And, from a practical standpoint, make a list of everything that needs to go on your poster/program/what-have-you. Otherwise, inevitably, you'll forget something important. Or misspell someone's name.
When you're sketching out ideas for your new publicity designs, make sure to keep B.A.R.C.H. in mind, as well as what's appropriate for the play and your audience -- and don't be afraid to make lots of little thumbnail sketches! They don't cost anything and they'll help more than you think in formulating ideas and layouts.
What's that? You have a design idea, but you still don't have any money, and you're freaking out? Deep breaths! Here are some simple tips to keep costs low:
- Keep your design black and white if you can. Consider printing on various colored papers to add interest.
- If you must use color, create a design that also works in black and white. Being able to print both versions saves some money.
- Create your own imagery to avoid copyright infringement or having to pay for image rights.
- Consider hand illustration/lettering (or find an artistic student or teacher who will volunteer). This is an easy way to create instantly interesting and unique designs. Just make sure it will copy/print well!
- Make your designs part of a campaign. Spread digital versions of your poster art / fliers via Facebook and Twitter. You can also go viral in an old-school way by asking local businesses to post fliers.
- Need to boost your budget? Leave ad space on your design for the program and sell some ads.
Here are some examples of super-cheap fliers for events I organized in college. They were all hand-drawn with black marker and copied onto colored paper stocks. They stood out because of their unique aesthetic, but they could not have been any cheaper to make.
If hand-drawing and hand-lettering isn't really your thing, but you don't have access to design programs like Photoshop or InDesign, never fear! You can use standard programs like Word and Powerpoint to create publicity designs. Here are some technical tips for digital design:
- Make sure your design is sized to fit standard-size paper stocks. (8.5 by 11, 8.5 by 14, 11 by 17)
- Watch your margins! If you don't leave enough space, information will get cut off.
- Make sure your design looks good printed at 100% size (and not just zoomed in on the computer). Is your type all legible?
- In Word, the "format" menu is your friend! Use this especially for text format. The most important fields are indents and spacing.
- Also in Word, right-click on images to open the format menu for them. This will allow you to control how text fits around, in front of, or behind the image.
- Powerpoint can sometimes be a better layout tool than Word.
- For a great deal more control over image and text layout, consider downloading Gimp (http://getgimp.com/) for free. It's Windows-only, and has similar capabilities to Photoshop.
- Always save your files as PDFs for printing as opposed to Word or Powerpoint files. This ensures that you won't have any issues with fonts being changed from computer to computer.
Examples I've made using Word:
And here's one using Powerpoint:
See? It's totally possible! Just remember the design principles, keep things simple, and soon you'll have a publicity design that looks great, fills seats, and won't break the bank. Good luck!
I was in a supermarket the other day and was shocked to learn that once again, I was not named People magazine’s sexiest man alive. How many times do I have to go through this? In any event, I plan to use this snub to fuel my creative process for years until that magazine comes to their senses and realizes that my sultry brown eyes and prominent forehead are every bit as attractive as that guy from The Hangover.
I’ve failed a lot in my life. A lot.
Anyone who tries to do something artistic, or something difficult, or something challenging, is going to face a lot of failure. If it were easy, everyone would do it. And the people who succeed are the people who allow failure to fuel them, rather than destroy them.
At this point, it’s easy to wander off into clichés. Such as:
Never give up. Ever. Even after you are dead. Especially not then.
I think we can all take a page from Hamlet’s father and realize that if he had given up after he had been poisoned and buried, he never would have gotten his hollow revenge from beyond the grave.
But clichés become clichés because they’re often true.
There are so many examples from my own life – here are a few:
- In college, I signed up to be in a short story writing class, and I was not even allowed to be enrolled in the class because my story was deemed to be too bad. (Who knew that a story about a talking bagel being attacked by a pigeon wouldn’t strike the fancy of the professor?) Now, I am a creative writing professor and I yearn for the day when someone writes a talking bagel story for me.
- I got rejected from every grad school I applied to. (except one.) In fact, one day I received a rejection letter from a school I really wanted to go to, and when I set it down, I realized I had also gotten a second rejection letter at the same time. I was so upset that I threw the opened letter as hard as I could against the wall. (Do you know what happens when you try to throw paper really hard? Yeah. A whole lot of stupid.)
- Every year my college gave out an award for the best humorous writing to a graduating senior. The year I entered, for the first time in a decade, no award was given because “no one was deemed worthy.” Yeah. That one stung.
I could go on and on. Now it’s not like I think about these perceived slights every day (only most days), but because the artistic life is so difficult, you need something to keep you going. And believe me, the desire to “show `em” is a pretty strong motivator. I still fantasize about those people who rejected me looking in the newspaper and cursing themselves as I win my fourth-consecutive Pulitzer Prize and, almost unimaginably, my second Nobel. Hopefully, they’ll all still be alive and will have just enough faculties left to rend their hair and wail piteously as I make yet another acceptance speech.
I want to make one other point, one that is perhaps less clichéd than my first point. Most of the time, the reason you fail isn’t because of other people not believing in you, it’s because you simply aren’t good enough at what you’re doing. I probably didn’t get into that short story writing class because my story was actually pretty bad, and I didn’t get into grad schools because my play wasn’t very good.
Happily for me, I got better. And the reason I got better is that instead of blaming everyone else (I blamed them a little bit), I also blamed myself. And while that can lead to lots of sad nights, it can also help you learn and improve. You can’t learn anything if you give up.
So – embrace failure. Learn from it. And show `em.
Darn you Bradley Cooper and your piercing blue eyes and boyish grin! (Notice, however, that we have an equal amount of scruff. Hmm.)
Visit Don's website: http://www.donzolidis.com/
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For the uninitiated, here are the basics of Texas' public high school one-act play contests, as administered by the University Interscholastic League. According to the U.I.L.'s website, "The League's One-Act Play Contest, founded in 1927, is the largest high school play production contest or play festival in the world. More than 14,000 Texas high school students in more than 1,000 plays participate in 300 plus contests, which take place from the beginning of March through the three-day, 40-production State Meet One-Act Play Contest in May."
The U.I.L. was created by The University of Texas at Austin in 1910 and it exists to provide educational extracurricular academic, athletic, and music contests. The U.I.L. has grown into the largest inter-school organization of its kind in the world.
Here is how it works: Every public high school is categorized by size, (1A schools are the smallest and 5A schools are the largest, with student populations at or above 3,500 students, in grades 9-12). Then, schools in each classification are grouped into "districts" based on location. If you are teaching in a 3A school in Houston, for example, you will be placed in a "district" with other 3A schools in the Houston area. Districts usually contain 6 or 7 schools. Districts with 8 schools are broken into two "zones". Each school prepares a 40-minute minute one-act play to be presented at the district or zone contest. To attempt to level the playing field, schools are limited to a simple unit set of gray cubes, columns, flats, ramps and stairs. The plays are performed back-to-back on the day of the contest, and a judge declares a winner and an alternate who then advances to the "area" contest. "Area" winners advance to the "Region" contest and "Region" winners advance to the “State Finals” where a state champion is crowned in each of the five size classifications.
What does this mean to the Playscripts author? Simply put, each year over 14,000 Texas high schools are looking for a 40-minute play to use in this competition. In my experience, the kinds of plays that are normally done at this contest include 40-minute cuttings of well-known and/or classic plays. A list of last year's plays from the state contest can be found on the U.I.L. website. Once a play has appeared at the state contest, it becomes a popular choice for teachers the following year. So, if a school has success with your play, it could lead to dozens more production around the state. If you have a play that can be cut to 40 minutes, I recommend doing it yourself. Teachers can ask for permission to cut, but your play is much more marketable if it is already in a format that can be used in this contest. The contest rules are rigid, and any school that exceeds the 40-minute running time is disqualified. So, teachers are looking for plays that have an established production history in the 40-minute format. Also, the U.I.L. has a list of approved publishers, including Playscripts, and a list of pre-approved plays, but the U.I.L. must approve each script submitted. Teachers sometimes must cast their one-act play from a class whose roster is not flexible. So, a teacher may need a 40-minute show with three boys and fourteen girls, for example. If your play fits those requirements it immediately gets to the top of that teacher’s reading list. Playscripts’ powerful search tool allows teachers to search by cast size, so be sure your plays are listed in every possible casting scenario. If it is possible to do your play with fewer actors (by doubling roles) or with more (by un-doubling roles) be sure your description on the Playscripts website reflect this.
The U.I.L. one-act play contest offers a unique opportunity for a playwright to have his or her work showcased at one of the largest contests of its kind in the world.
After nearly a decade’s steady diet of university theater productions in which at least one actor if not dozens required aging via makeup and mounds of gray hairspray, I got it into my head to write a play where no such tricks were required––where young actors could play people their own age. The result was Acts of God (now published by Playscripts, Inc.), in which a dozen high schoolers cope with the emotional detritus of an F-3 tornado strike.
My dislike of forcing young actors to “play age” has not diminished. Since the advent of Acts, I have penned four full-length efforts where adults, “Peanuts”-style, are largely left out. My considerations in tackling these scripts are quite different than when I conjure plays for “grown up” theaters. To wit:
1) When writing for a professional company, economics necessitates a small cast. When writing a play intended for college or school groups, the exact opposite is true. How will we train our next generation of stage artists if we only write one- and two-handers?
2) When designing plays to be produced by cash-strapped schools, I have to consider the possibility that the producing venue might have a very limited budget. Thus, it behooves me to rely heavily on props, the kind that can be found at garage and rummage sales. The sets I devise (or should devise) are flexible, dependent not on great big flats or slamming doors but on negative space, the clever use of lighting and sound, and scenarios sufficiently powerful to lift an audience (I hope) out of its natural state of cultivated disbelief.
3) When thinking about young actors and casting, it seems to be an ongoing fact that more girls than boys are ready to audition. It’s my job, then, to write a play that’s easy to cast––or, as my mentor Chris Kazan once said, “Write parts that actors want to play”––girls included.
4) When writing for school systems, I must consider the possibility that they have no lighting grid other than a table lamp, no sound system besides a boom box, and no control over their environment beyond, perhaps, the closing of doors. So what can I offer? Challenging material, first of all, with strong emotional stakes. The play has to be about the situation and what its characters stand to lose, not about technological gimmickry which, let’s face it, can be outdone any day of the week by Hollywood (or even, most days, by the worst app on my iPhone).
5) Make ‘em laugh.
Now that I’ve laid down the law, here’s how my post-Acts efforts break the above rules. (Not that I had any choice; the muses made me do it.)
Nightjars, with a large cast of seventeen, quickly found a production slot at the Y.E.S. Festival (Northern Kentucky University, 2009), but has failed to find a publisher or a second home. I cannot entirely account for this. It contains what to me is the finest scene I have ever written, one that I cannot read without crying.
These Lonely Daughters of Liberty has gone nowhere except back into a bottom drawer where it will hopefully never again be read by man, woman or beast. It’s an attempt to tell the story of a high school girl whose father is an Aryan Nations survivalist, but it’s a bad play. With a cast of seven (one adult, six teens) it should have worked like gangbusters. It didn’t. It doesn’t.
Two much newer efforts remain largely untested. Ten Red Kings deals with on-line gaming addiction, and its collegiate heroine, Margot, is sent in short order to a wilderness-style rehab camp. No phones. No computers. No iPods. Margot, a skilled World of Warcraft player, is so close to her on-line avatar that said avatar, Nightwatch, becomes part of the on-stage action (along with several trolls and a smitten wizard who thinks Nightwatch is the hottest thing since butter). By story’s end, Margot is back at home and ready to put the brakes on gaming, but Nightwatch, unsurprisingly, has other ideas.
So here’s a story that speaks, I hope, to young people’s actual experience. The subject is certainly ripe for hilarity, but it’s also quite serious, and I have made no attempt to provide a pat ending. Margot, just like an alcoholic waging an ongoing tug-of-war with drink, is engaged in a battle that will last a lifetime. Is this appropriate for teen drama? Absolutely. Teens, like most savvy adults, know that the really hard questions don’t come with ready-made answers, and they are rightly suspicious of those who provide them.
Not that the close of Ten Red Kings is grim. It isn’t. Negativity isn’t any more useful in theater than is Pollyanna optimism.
What else does Ten Red Kings offer? A flexible set designed around a few primitive benches, a “window,” a campfire circle, and a computer hutch or desk. The play also requires computers and peripherals, several fairly specific masks, and, to top it all off, a lethal-looking sword. I have rationalized my inclusion of these items as being A) artistically necessary, and B) less expensive, even in aggregate, than a “kitchen sink” set.
That takes us to My United Nations. Like Ten Red Kings, the play features a female lead and a mid-size cast (eleven). One character is intended to be played by a real adult, not a student; the rest play high schoolers. Samantha (Sam) Morgan is having trouble keeping her facts straight. Is she the Secretary General of the United Nations, or is she simply the Secretary General for her school’s Model United Nations, an involved but ultimately “pretend” after-school club? Either way, her classmates are behaving very strangely, as is her assistant, and there’s a voice in her head urging her to do some very scary things. Act Two begins on a quieter note, with Sam admitting to her in-hospital psychiatrist that she understands she is a schizophrenic, and that at least half of what she’s been experiencing is delusional. The question becomes, will continuing her United Nations scenario put her fantasies to rest, or will they send her permanently over the edge?
With My United Nations, I have shucked off my rule about solid sets. The play requires a realistic interior––half classroom, half hospital ward––together with one window and two firmly emplaced doors, one to be used by those who inhabit Sam’s fantasies, the other by those who are undeniably real (her physician, et al.).
Further, to really make the set successful, Sam should have a hospital bed. An impossible build for a high school, yes, but not so hard to rent (from a medical supply company). Is the play appropriately cheap to produce? Overall, probably still. At least it’s not a “costume drama,” requiring rentals of everything from ballroom gowns to top hats and bustles. But I have clearly strayed from the straight and narrow of my own precious playbook. (Wretched muses. It’s all their fault!)
So, in terms of sensible playwright behavior, I’ll give myself a B+ (or a C- if we count These Lonely Daughters…, which I do not). And of course I’m hoping that the dramatic merits of each piece outweigh any and all set-related, cost-related or cast-related drawbacks. Ten Red Kings has drawn serious consideration from two colleges so far, but is not yet set in stone for anyone’s season. My United Nations is too new to have reached beyond my basement office, although its first concert reading will be scheduled shortly (relying, as I always do, on the perennially talented performance majors at the University of Evansville).
Will either play follow in the footsteps of Acts of God, and appear under the auspices of either Playscripts, Inc. or some other publisher? Perhaps. But the Catch-22 of theater remains firmly in place: To get published, a play must first be produced. And to be produced, a play must first be published.
Now, if anyone would care to step forward and break that fateful chain, please, give me a shout. That’s how Acts of God got going. Two venues, the Evansville Civic Theatre (Evansville, IN), and Thomas Worthington High School (Worthington, OH) agreed to produce Acts despite its newness and despite my, at the time, marginal track record. (Thank you, Chris Tyner, and thank you, Bronwynn Hopton!)
Time now for me to get back to work. A grown-up piece, my current project, all of ten minutes long, featuring a state-employed arborist attempting to measure a whopper of an oak. Will it be good? Or, more to the point, will it have a cast of thousands, or require an on-stage tree the size of a house? I surely hope not.
Until next time, dream hard. Write harder.
--by Mark Rigney
Mark Rigney is the author of Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet U. Press), some thirty-five published stories and numerous plays including Acts of God, Cavers, Roots in a Grey Garden, Bears and Burning Mona Lisa in the Reptile House (winner of the 2004 Panowski Playwriting Contest).
Visit Mark's website: http://www.markrigney.net
I think it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’ve done a lot of stupid things over the years. I’m going to limit this to my experiences as a director of my own work, though, to narrow it down.
To start with, I’ll admit that I’m not a great director. I’m decent enough at getting good performances out of actors, but I made a lot of mistakes in my first years. Here’s a few of them.
1. Use plastic chairs to stand in for your set. At the middle school, I didn’t have a shop. I didn’t even have a hint of a shop. There was no wood. So, if I needed a bed, I put three plastic chairs next to each other and draped them in a blanket. Problem solved. If I needed a coffee table, I tipped one of the plastic chairs over and put it in front of the couch, (which was also made of three plastic chairs next to each other.) The only thing I didn’t use plastic chairs for were walls, which I conveniently left off.
2. Tell kids to "find their own costume". Another facet of having no budget was having no costume budget. Our "costume closet" was really an underground space where someone left a pair of sweatpants once. Incidentally, that pair of sweatpants appeared on stage frequently. Of course, I hoped that kids would be able to find their own costumes and bring in amazing things. As you can imagine, results varied widely. Sometimes parents would spend hours and hours carefully crafting a tapeworm costume, (not kidding), or other times kids would bring in a pair of jeans to play Santa Claus. Some of my first shows looked pretty darn ugly.
3. Don’t practice lights and sound. I was lucky enough to have a light board – which was connected by a cable to backstage, so I could operate the lights by standing to the side of the stage. We had six areas we could use and no colored lights. If I turned all the lights out, the entire theatre went pitch black (which caused two things to happen simultaneously: 1. The middle school audience starts to scream "ooooh!" with the teachers threatening to send everyone to the office, and 2. One of the actors trips over a plastic chair thereby destroying the entire set and making a lot of noise.) My “sound system” was a boombox that I placed in front of the stage. Again, without practicing this, (and since I was both light op, sound op, director, and playwright), I made quite a few gaffes.
4. Don’t time your show. Our plays were normally performed during the school day, which meant they had to fit into a 50-minute class period. It usually took nearly twenty minutes to get three or four hundred middle school kids seated, so realistically, our plays needed to be thirty minutes or less. Well, since we were just finishing shows right before performances, I never had the time to actually see how long they really were. Most performances I kept one eye on the boombox, one eye on the light board, and one eye on the clock. I was never worried we were going to forget our lines; I was terrified that the bell was going to cut us off. (Because once that bell rings, it doesn’t matter if someone is saying, "and the killer is –" the kids are going to charge out of the theatre like a rampaging herd of water buffalo.
I didn’t make all of these mistakes for every show. In fact, I got a lot better at things. I started paying attention to costumes. I started finding ingenious ways to build sets – (I made an entire forest out of nine Christmas trees one year) – I managed to get some band kids to run light and sound (band kids are trustworthy, and they’re usually passing all of their classes, so you can pull them out to run the show.)
Eventually, I even figured out how to relax during the play. A little bit. Just remember: even if you have a great script (which I always did, thank you very much) and even if you’ve got a bunch of great actors (which I always did), mood and atmosphere are crucial to a truly exceptional show.
--by Don Zolidis
Visit Don's website: http://www.donzolidis.com/
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Playwrights, it's hard to deny the lure of the adaptation. Taking existing content that you already know works and adapting it for the stage seems so much faster than writing something from scratch. An adaptation also makes your job that much easier when it comes to promotion. If your source material already has fans, they'll seek out your content on the strength of the original name even if they've never heard of you. Sounds great, right?
Nearly all adaptations can be boiled down into two types:
- Format shifts: Taking a movie, short story, novel, life story, video game, comic book, etc... and converting it into a stage play. ("Based on the bestselling novel...")
- Reboots: Taking an existing stage play and adding your own twist, such as modernization, style changes , etc. ("It's Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet... but with zombies!")
But writing an adaptation comes with its own host of writing challenges. Here are 5 things you should consider if you're thinking of tackling an adaptation:
1. What's the history of the source material? Are there already adaptations of the material you were planning to adapt? What makes your take on it stand out if the marketplace is already crowded? Do you have a fresh perspective that hasn't been explored before? Have others tried to adapt this material before and failed? How will you combat the issues that stalled their attempts? If no one has ever attempted to adapt this before, why? Are there known problems? You get the idea. Before you try to re-invent any work, do your homework on the source material so you'll know both what you're in for and whether doing an adaptation is worth your time. When I started The Love of Three Oranges in 2002, it was already an adaptation of an adaptation but I saw a need for a version that was more accessible to modern audiences and wrote accordingly.
2. Can you secure the rights to the material you want to adapt? You may have an amazing vision for Twilight: The Musical but unless you can secure the rights (usually held by the publisher or creator depending on the content), you can't do an adaptation. If the work you want to adapt is in the public domain, you're free to adapt it at will but copyright is an important thing to consider for most content. Content with an active copyright is still a viable source for adaptations, it just may involve some prep work or a financial commitment for permission.
3. Can you stay true to the source material while still putting your own spin on it? Almost immediately upon starting an adaptation, your inner writer will start to chafe. You can feel restricted or confined by the original story you've committed to sticking to, especially if you're used to writing your own content from scratch. How much of your own touches can you put on the adaptation to satisfy your muse without violating the core of the story you're adapting? It's a delicate balance. The source material is your silent co-writer and you need to find your own path to telling the original story the way you want to tell it.
4. Who are you writing this adaptation for? Why are you writing this adaptation? Will the finished product be of interest to anyone outside of yourself? You need to know the answers before you begin and let it inform your adaptation as you write. The Love of Three Oranges dates back over 375 years ago. Ten years ago, there hadn't been a version that was targeted toward actual production and not just academic study in the last 240 years. The play's only audience was scholars and term papers. Heck, I didn't even want to stage any of the versions out there and I loved the show. But I knew, with a little tweaking, the show had the potential to be that perfect marriage of fun and educational that would make theatre groups and schools actually want to stage it again. Fast forward to today when it's one of the most popular full length plays for high schools at Playscripts, Inc. If you write with a clear audience in mind, you're setting yourself up for a greater chance of success.
5. Do you truly have a passion for what you're adapting? You're going to be getting up close and personal with your source material while writing an adaptation and for years afterwards while promoting it. It's very easy to get sick of what once caught your interest and to start to hate the content you used to love. It's tempting to start an adaptation because it seems like an easy sell but if you don't truly feel passionately about the source material and your decision to adapt it, you'll never make it through the process with your sanity intact. In many ways, adaptation is always part labor of love and it can feel like a marriage from which there is no exit. Before you start adapting, make sure the content is something you're willing to tie your destiny to.
What do you think the best adaptations have in common?
Hillary DePiano is a fiction and non-fiction author best known for her play, The Love of Three Oranges which has been performed in theatres around the world. For her other plays, books, and published works, please visit HillaryDePiano.com.
In Texas, we have four seasons: Almost Summer, Summer, Late Summer, and Christmas. Christmas seems to begin earlier and earlier each year, and I’ve noticed that lately some stores are sneaking their Christmas stuff out before Halloween, which causes more than a few problems.
When you’re teaching theatre in Texas, there’s an unwritten expectation that you’re supposed to do a Christmas show. For some reason, parents want to see their kids perform in something. And although I’d spend at least a month or two happily playing improv games with my students, sooner or later I’d have to get down to figuring out what we were going to do in December.
Before I got to my middle school, the theatre classes had performed A Christmas Carol for ten years in a row. I think there’s a law that once you begin producing A Christmas Carol, you’re never allowed to stop. I don’t know what happens if you only perform it once and then try to do something the following year, perhaps a mob of Scrooge and Tiny Tim-lovers storm your theatre and perform it by memory anyway.
In any event, I wanted to do something different. And since I knew I’d have to do a Christmas show every year, I wanted to do something different every year. There was only one problem: I simply didn’t have enough ideas. So I came up with a plan: Make the kids come up with the ideas.
We ran the class like a television studio; I was the head writer, and I made all the students become the staff writers. They would come up with their best Christmas ideas, and then “pitch” them to me. I’d pepper them with questions, ask them how we could portray elf zombies or vampire reindeer, and then I’d either approve or deny their ideas. Once we had a good selection of possible ideas, the class would vote on which play they wanted to perform, and then I’d go home, drink a whole lot of caffeine and (hopefully) bring in a script the next day.
As you can imagine, I heard a lot of crazy ideas for Christmas plays. More than a few of them involved Santa going crazy and flying an F-22 into a skirmish with renegade reindeer who were building a nuclear bomb. (Remember: I was asking 7th grade boys for their ideas.) There were Santa zombies, Santa robots, Santa serial killers (don’t ask), and a whole lot of other things that would probably get me fired. But I did manage to work some of the more gruesome ideas in there, (my favorite is probably Frosty the Snowman dying a slow, horrible death due to global warming) which made the boys in class extremely happy.
What was great about those shows was not how ridiculous they all were (and most of them were ridiculous), but that the class owned the play. We came up with the ideas together, we debated their merits, and ultimately the class chose what they wanted to do. They were our plays.
And we never did A Christmas Carol (although we did make fun of it almost every year).
Hellestern Middle School’s production of Santa-Napped, in which Santa is kidnapped by the CIA for violating a no fly zone and various pyromaniac elves conspire to save him with the help of a killer robot, (one guess if a boy or a girl came up with this idea).
--by Don Zolidis
Visit Don's website: http://www.donzolidis.com/
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For a complete listing of Playscripts' Christmas/Holiday plays, visit playscripts.com/christmas
When it comes to theatre, especially high school theatre, sometimes the syllabus and maybe even the whole season looks like a trip through the graveyard. Shakespeare. Moliere. Chekov. Rodgers and Hammerstein. You know. The usual suspects. They've got some phenomenal plays between them, sure, but they're not exactly the liveliest bunch around. Mostly because they died decades ago.
I was the president of my high school drama club so I know this feeling first hand. It's easy to get in the habit of assuming everything your teacher hands you was written by someone who's currently moldering. It has a tendency to make even the best material seem... well... dead.
But when you're looking for a way to reanimate your theatre season or lesson plans, sometimes the best thing you can do is to remember that there are thousands of wonderful plays out there whose authors are still alive. Hi, I'm Hillary DePiano, author of The Love of Three Oranges. On behalf of myself and the hundreds of other living playwrights in the Playscripts catalog, I wanted to remind you, in the spirit of Monty Python, that we're not quite dead yet!
Here's some tips for taking advantage of working with a living playwright:
- Drop us a line! "Fan Mail" always sounds a little intimidating but it doesn't have to be. Many teachers and directors think to reach out to the playwright with questions or other comments but why not encourage the actors and students to do the same? One of my high school teachers devoted a class to having us write letters to the living author of our choice whose book we were studying that semester and, when some actually wrote us back, even the most jaded teen amongst us was tickled pink. Knowing a real human being was behind the words we were studying and that we had actually communicated with him/her made the material come alive in a whole new way. While some authors are still only reachable by snail mail, a large majority of us have email so it's faster and easier than ever to reach out to a writer. Especially since...
- Many of us are on just about all the social networks. (You can find me on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/hdepiano and Twitter http://www.twitter.com/hillarydepiano.) OK, maybe a whole email or letter is asking too much of the txt message generation. But a Facebook post or tweet on Twitter is only a sentence or two. Even if students aren't interested in writing to the author, they can still follow their updates on the social network of their choice. If the playwright posts something relevant to the play you're studying that morning, suddenly that day's lesson takes on a new freshness and immediacy. And if immediacy is what you're after...
- We're available to come to stuff! This will vary from author to author, obviously, but most of us are available for events. If we're local, invite us to your production to talk to the cast after the show. Get your school or local library to invite us down for a talk or other event. I've been to many productions over the years and, even if I'm unable to attend, I love being asked even if it's a production across the world. I get notes from the students I've met in person even years after we met telling me what a thrill it was. Not because I'm anything all that great, because I'm not, but because of the novelty of getting to meet the author of the content you're studying in person. (In case you're wondering, some authors do charge for appearances but those are mostly the big dogs. Most of us are available free of charge, though we wouldn't say no to maybe being fed or having expenses paid if it's a costly trip.) And if your playwright isn't available for an in-person event...
- Don't forget about online chats and video conferences! With the power of the internet, even being across the world from an author isn't an issue. I've done text chats, Twitter chats, and even video chats with classrooms and productions all over the world. Imagine what it's like to be a student actor and be able to actually ask the person who wrote the play about a character's motivation. Or to be able to ask the author if the symbolism they're studying was intentional. Video chats are especially great because it gives everyone the feeling that they've really "met" the author. Software such as Skype or even the new Google Plus is free and easy to use in the classroom. We have webcams and we know how to use them.
Overall, whenever contacting an author, remember to be polite and go into it with the understanding that everyone is different. We're all at different levels of tech savvy and even the most willing author may have a busy month or two when they aren't available. But don't ever be shy about contacting us or encouraging your students or actors to contact us. The worst we'll say is no.
Have you had an encounter with a living playwright? Playwrights, have you had a connection with a class or production you'd like to share? Leave a comment below!
You know, in a way, I feel bad for Shakespeare. He'll never know what a thrill it is to have a school across the country blowing up his Facebook wall the day after a production.
See you online!
Hillary DePiano is a fiction and non-fiction author best known for her play, The Love of Three Oranges which has been performed in theatres around the world. For her other plays, books, and published works, please visit HillaryDePiano.com.
For the past few months, we have been diligently assembling our annual catalog, and it's finally done! This catalog reflects our newest and most popular plays and musicals for middle and high school theater programs or competitions. The plays range from one-acts to full lengths and include works by some of our most popular playwrights such as Ed Monk, Jon Jory, Alan Haehnel, Jonathan Rand, Don Zolidis, Jonathan Dorf, and Ian McWethy.
New and popular musicals in the catalog include works by Peter Bloedel, Sam Willmott, Nick Blaemire, Jodi Picoult, Mark Baron and Jeffrey Jackson.
Also included in this selection are our best paperback collections for schools, such as our monologue books, our scene book, and our newest paperback collection "Random Acts of Comedy: 15 Hit One-Act Plays for Student Actors".
If you would like a copy of the catalog, you can request one here: http://www.playscripts.com/mailcat. But remember, if you want the most complete and up-to-date selection, visit our online catalog at playscripts.com.