We need better school plays

Last week marked the sixth anniversary of the original production of my first play, The Glass Street Ghost. 

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I wrote Ghost when I was seventeen. The Head of Drama at my high school had liked a script of mine so much that she asked me to have a crack at writing the middle-school production. By this point, I’d been ‘the writer’ at the school for a couple of years. I always got As for my creative writing projects, and published poems and short fiction in the school magazine. Everyone knew I was writing a book of one kind or another; it was the easiest way to start a conversation with me. I jumped at the chance; two years later, Ghost was published.

Why was this enormous responsibility entrusted to a teenager? Well, the fact is that when it comes to putting on a school play, a director’s choices are woefully limited.

I’ve seen a ton of school plays. I’ve been in six, written three (plus a short one) and have another one in the works. A school play or musical is typically constrained by a couple of factors:

  • Budget – expensive sets and stagecraft tricks (like flying harnesses) are typically off the table
  • Cast size – must be large to accommodate as many students who want to be involved as possible
  • Age-appropriateness – primary school shows must be strictly G-rated; high school shows may contain profanity, drug use or sexual references, but they do so at the risk of parental outrage
  • Running time – while mainstream theatre is becoming shorter (and stranger, sometimes blurring the line between theatre and performance art), a school show should be long enough to justify the involvement of the young players.

This leaves the director (usually a drama or music teacher) with a handful of options:

  1. Critically-acclaimed plays intended for adults

These shows are usually very well-written. They’re often intellectually stimulating, which can be exciting for both the performers and the audience. They’re also written with a small budget in mind. They may even be timeless literature, if the school is ambitious enough to take on Ancient Greek tragedy or Shakespeare. The trouble is, they’re often supposed to be performed by a small cast of paid actors performing multiple roles, leaving most of the kids who want to be involved out of the picture. The director must shoehorn extra characters in. Their plots may also be too contemplative and slow for a cast of kids or teenagers.

2. Broadway (or off-Broadway) musicals

These tend to have large casts and plenty of songs. Though triple-threats usually lead, powerful singers or impressive dancers have a chance to shine. But the biggest problem with these shows is that most of the audience and many of the cast will have seen them done before. Not only do they know the story, but they can’t help comparing it to professional productions. On top of that, many of these shows are outdated, espousing values that are often completely out-of-step with their young cast’s worldviews – shows like Guys and Dolls and My Fair Lady, which should have been permanently retired twenty years ago.

But that’s still not as bad as…

3. Plays by non-writers “for kids”

The first show I was in was one of these, and it was quite good. Our music teacher was a creative genius, who wrote many of the parts specifically for the girls playing them. His wife was the choreographer and dance teacher, and they collaborated to tell the story through both song and dance. They did this every year, always picking a topic that the younger girls in our single-sex school would likely connect to, such as warring fashion designers or fairy princesses on a quest for a magical item. (These girly concepts also spared our fragile pre-teen egos from the ordeal of performing in drag.)

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You can’t tell under all the quasi-Elizabethan finery, but that’s me, circa 2005.

I dodged a hell of a bullet, school-production-wise, in moving to that school. Had I stayed on at my old primary school, I would have been subjected to a more typical example of this category.

The director, a music teacher who screamed and threw microphones when kids didn’t behave, had the incredibly lazy ‘tradition’ of repeating the same six plays over and over for at least fifteen years. Many were dumbed-down versions of public domain works. They invariably had ‘kids’ in the title – Dangerkids, A Kidsummer Night’s Dream (I’m not joking), Kids in Camelot, Kids in Space, Kids in a Lame Production. These were distributed by a company so out-of-touch, their website describes a movie released in 1989 as ‘recently popular’.

While these plays offered plenty of roles, could be produced on a budget, were appropriate for the youngest audience members and ran for a comfortable hour-and-a-bit, they were lacking in almost every other respect. Narrative cliches abounded. The jokes were dire. The references went over the heads of any audience member under sixty-five. The stakes were typically lower than the Dead Sea, and the morals had all the subtlety of an anvil to the skull. Some of them were flat-out racist. I recall one with a very uncomfortable portrayal of Native Americans and another that was centred on a caricature of Pacific Islanders. It was all a bit corny for the twelve-year-old cast.

Why should any of this matter, though? None of the players are professionals. A school musical can’t win any awards and doesn’t really make money. What, you might well wonder, am I complaining about?

Quite simply, young people deserve better.

They deserve better because a production is a chance to discover who you are. When you’re a kid, being in a production can change your life. Being in shows helped me discover my confidence and self-worth. It helped me make friends outside of my social circle and across year levels. Before my first production, I’d never known I could be funny. I’d settled into the role of stuck-up nerd. Countless actors and comedians have found their calling through school plays.

They deserve better because a school production is one of the first experiences many children, particularly those in the audience, will have of theatre. It ought to be exciting. It ought to have that magic of live performance.

They deserve better because they deserve to feel like they matter. They deserve characters they can identify with. They deserve subtexts that are relevant to today. They deserve more diversity. They deserve the chance to tell a story they care about. They deserve not to be treated like infants or idiots.

No amount of money spent, no amount of rehearsal, can hide a passionless show. However young and untrained the players might be, when they care about the story they’re telling, their enthusiasm shines through. Kids ought not to be making the best of bad material when they’re involved in the school production. They should be offered a challenge. What’s more rewarding to attempt – pole-vaulting over a high bar, or hopping over a (badly-written, outdated, racist) ribbon on the floor? Even if you don’t quite pull it off, which is going to be more impressive to the parents in the audience?

We no longer accept ‘it’s for kids’ as an excuse for bad films or literature. It’s time for the school production to be revolutionised.

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