Tag Archives: musicals

How to… 1: Writing for children to perform on stage

I thought I’d start a new category (for myself) on this blog. Basically it’s called “How”. What it amounts to is not a great deal, but over the past seventy years or so I’ve done the occasional thing and possibly learnt something from the experience.

Writing down these things is probably more for myself reflecting on life than wishing to pass on potentially useless information. Anyway, here goes… Today’s “How” is about writing for children to perform on stage.

I don’t know how many children’s plays and musicals I’ve written over the years – thirty or forty maybe. I’ve also directed quite a few productions. The biggest cast had 1500 children; the smallest cast was 8. So here’s my thoughts in the order they come into my head:

1. Who is the audience? If you write a children’s book the audience is primarily children. It frequently is read aloud by an adult, but basically the writing is for children either reading themselves or being read to. When it comes to writing for the stage, it’s the opposite: you’re writing to entertain adults. Children perform for their parents and grandparents and aunties and uncles. Sure, there are siblings in the audience, but if Mum and Dad are bored so are the kids. If Grandma and Grandpa are laughing hysterically so are the kids in the audience. So here, you’re writing a double-pronged fork: children on stage must perform with an understanding on one level, and adults must be entertained with understanding on another level.

It’s not really as highfaluting as it sounds. An example: the very plain fir tree and the poinsettia are sad because they don’t have pretty flowers like many of the other plants. The fir tree cries, and the poinsettia sings “My heart bleeds for my best friend, red, red.” Children in the audience see a Christmas tree being decorated and the poinsettia turning red (the adults see it too) but the adults better relate to the feelings of rejection portrayed by the fir and poinsettia. While the children are going WOW! the adults are dabbing their eyes. In short, write for the audience not for the performers.

2. Your play is not going to make it big on Broadway or West End. In all likelihood it’s not going to be given a slot at the Sydney Opera House or in Milan. So stop hoping it will. Next time you attend a children’s concert take a peek at the audience. Jesus can be rising from the dead centre stage and Hiroshima can be bombed on stage right. All cameras and phones will be pointed at Betsy in the third line of the chorus or Johnny in the second row. Parents have come to see their kid on stage, not to be gobsmacked by a production of Phantom of the Opera.

So – put every kid on stage and LEAVE THEM THERE. I (nearly always) put bleaches up on both sides of the stage. Children can go up and down onto the stage as required. Or stand and sing where they are. The only thing to practise avoiding is long waits while children move about. Work it so that they will appear almost instantaneously without upstaging while getting into position.

This idea of having everyone on bleaches does away with teaches backstage saying “Shh children! Shh children!” There’s no one out the back, except for a couple of stage hands.

3. No one cares if the teachers are sitting with their students on stage, especially with the littlest children. If the youngest children have to dance around dressed as snowflakes then why not have their teacher in a snowflake hat directing their arm-waving and skipping and singing?

4. If there are songs, solos are of course sung solo, but when it comes to a particular chorus on stage there’s no reason why everyone in the bleaches can’t be singing along too. Besides, if there’s a chorus say of hens and roosters, it’s a lot easier for them to mess around and scratch with their masks on if they don’t have to worry too much about singing.

5. Regarding the learning of songs… Many a time have I been invited to a school to “introduce” their musical; “and while you’re here could you teach them the songs”. I never minded that. But what always got to me were the teachers who thought the first run-through should produce a finished product. “We’ll just run through that again children.” And again. And again…

I used to teach a song line by line, put the lines altogether, and move on to the next song. They would basically know all the songs and words after a good night’s sleep when they came back to school in the morning!

6. Regarding leads and soloists. Turn single characters into a bunch of people. For example, instead of one wise sage have a chorus of ten. They can all wear long beards. Working as a group increases confidence.

I am older than time
Wiser than the wind
Colder than the winter snow.

If you’re writing for a group, write with a rhythm. It doesn’t have to be rap – in fact that could become monotonous. Short sentences recited rhythmically are a lot more decipherable for the audience than long complex sentences. Besides – a chorus of ten wise sages with long beards is much more fun than a single sage!

7. Nothing bores an audience more than being too long. In fact, the shorter the better. If it’s good they’ll want more; if it’s bad they’ll be relieved. Be short. Twenty to forty minutes is fine.

8. Stick them in a costume. Teens might be more comfy in their street gear, but younger kids like to dress up. Ten old bedsheets with holes cut into them will cover maybe fifty snowflakes. Kids are generally not experienced enough to play naturalistically, that is, to play themselves. They’re much better at acting at being something else. Dress them up and have them play dragons.

9. Accommodate to let teachers use the talents available – maybe (if you’re lucky) there’ll be one good singer amongst the students, or the school has a Taiwanese Club so have a Taiwanese dance, or rappers, or…

10. Remember as a playwright that you’re the dregs in the process. The teachers and performers will receive all the accolades. They’re so excited about what they’ve done. Your name will more often than not NOT appear on the programme. Sometimes, you might get some money – but usually not. Teachers are the biggest photocopying-breaking-copyright people in town. You are nothing in the process – although teachers will be very quick to point out improvements to your script and even condemn it outright. I had one teacher screw up the script and throw it at me as “Utter rubbish” and then use it as her own!

11. Workshopping from ideas. Again, cynically, but it’s generally true… Time and time again people will say, “I suppose you workshopped these ideas with the students and incorporated their ideas into the play”. And of course you’ll say, “Oh yes!” But the truth is that generally speaking they don’t have a great many ideas, and most of them are really boring. The aim is to let them think that they thought it up. So they think it’s their play, and you’re really grateful for all they’ve contributed. A great friend of mine – sadly deceased – was masterful at “workshopping”. She was so successful with her youth plays that when she died the city named their main theatre after her!

12. Music. Don’t presume that young people like one particular type of music and nothing else. I had a group of wonderful fourteen year old boys who were fabulous break-dancers. They were in a play about endangered species. I said “Come back with music you’d like to dance to.” They came back with extracts from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé! It’s the only time I’ve had a twenty minute standing ovation!

13. Themes. Don’t ram ideas down the audience’s throat. I know we should be Green, and not drink and drive, and wear a permanent condom, and all that – but the audience are there to be entertained not preached at. I find it the strangest question in literature class: what is the moral of this novel? Oh for goodness sake! I read the novel because of the story. So don’t preach; tell a rollicking yarn.

Well now, I’ve gone on for long enough. These are just haphazard general thoughts. Maybe, if this verbal diarrhoea is appreciated I’ll give some more pointers about things further down the track. In the meantime, all I’ve been trying to say is, when writing for children on stage, try not to be a pretentious arsehole or a boring old fart. The school play is simply a thing for kids to do for their parents.

1550. Where angels fear to tread

In the “old days” – like a year or so ago – when I was new to blogging, I would excitedly celebrate each 50 stories with a glimmer of revelation into my REAL life. It could be a wander through my garden for example, or a posting about the cat. Once I even endeavoured to show photos of my crockery! Today is Story 1550, and since old habits die hard, I thought I would tell of a particular event.

About forty years ago, when I had a ponytail and torn jeans (because I thought it was cool), and went around in bare feet (because I thought it was cool and you can still do that in New Zealand), I earned just enough to live on by writing to every primary school in the country and announcing that I had a brand-new short children’s musical they could use at their end-of-school-year celebration/event. It was not copyrighted. It was a photocopy. Teachers could make as many copies as they wished and change what they wanted. The only thing they couldn’t do was pass the manuscript on to another school. Each musical cost a mere ten dollars. It came with a tape.

At the time there were roughly two and a half thousand primary schools in the country. Although the letter itself was photocopied, I signed each one personally, and then addressed each envelope by hand and licked each individual postage stamp. Getting a hand addressed envelope with a postage stamp on it was more likely to be opened and noticed than getting a printed envelope with “POSTAGE PAID” slapped coldly in the corner. About 70% of the schools purchased and used these musicals. Towards the end of the school year I could grab any local paper in the country and there would be a photograph or two of the local school rehearsing or performing MY musical!

I did this for about ten years. Many schools used a different musical for each of the ten years. Then other people cottoned on to the idea. Suddenly there were about twenty other writers. They ran seminars on it! Teacher Resource Centres started advertising their own home-written end-of-school-year musicals. I was shut out, usually by cunning and corrupt Resource Centres pretending they wanted to do the advertising for me. My little empire collapsed and died. The last gasp was when a publishing company in America wrote and said they were suing me for pinching their title and idea for a musical. I explained that my musical was quite a few years older than theirs. I had written it years ago for a school of eight pupils and no electricity on Pitt Island to perform in candle light!

So where is Pitt Island?

At the height of such commercial success (one year I made around $14,000 – think about it) I thought I needed a logo! I began to knock on a few doors. There were Graphic Designers galore in the telephone books. The first Graphic Designer was down a dark alley. It had a doorbell. I pressed it. An inside contraption played Für Elise, rather like the electronic music one hears on a phone when put on hold. I fled.

The second Graphic Designer was in a large messy attic. Two women were sitting in armchairs sipping coffee. They stood and excitedly exclaimed: “Oh God! We have our first customer!” I told them I was sorry to disappoint, but I was looking for directions!

This went on all day. I had about two hundred dollars to spend on my logo. I didn’t want riff-raff ruining the opportunity.

It was then, near the centre of town, that I espied a Graphic Designer with a decent billboard and signage, in a rather nice skyscraper. I went in and explained that I wanted a logo for “MUSICALS FOR SCHOOLS”.

I was ushered into a luxurious reception room. My ponytail, torn jeans, and bare feet felt a little out of place. On the coffee table was a brochure advertising logos they had designed. Here was the header for a resort hotel’s restaurant menu that had cost a mere $94,000. Here was a logo for a hotel chain that a President of the United States had stayed at while playing golf. A mere $140,000 had been paid for the logo. The logos were certainly attractive but I thought “I gotta get the hell outta here!”

A woman suddenly appeared. She was smartly dressed and meant business. “How may I help?”

I splurted out about the Für Elise doorbell and the “Oh God! We have our first customer!” She laughed. “And now, here I am in a place that’s thousands of times out of my league. And all I wanted was a simple logo for my MUSICALS FOR SCHOOLS.”

Well, would you believe? The woman wasn’t the receptionist or the undersecretary’s secretary. She owned the company. It was a multinational company. It was the largest company of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. I explained how silly I felt.

“You give me $50,” said the woman, “and I’ll tell you what we’ll do. I’ll run a competition this week among all the company’s graphic designers. For a bonus of $50, a winner will be selected for the best logo submitted for MUSICALS FOR SCHOOLS. Come back in a week and we’ll make the selection.”

I came back in a week. She had dozens of designs. Can I take the lot? No! You must pick one. I picked one. “That’s the very one I would’ve picked,” she said. I was given copies of the logo in all sizes and colours. There must have been several hundred lasered variations.

A few months later I bumped into that lady in the street. She asked me how things were going. She was enthusiastic about MUSICALS FOR SCHOOLS. I couldn’t shut her up! She was off to buy something to congratulate the grandchildren. They were in an end-of-school-year production and she was so excited. Would I mind if the school used the logo on the program?

And that is how I got a $140,000 logo for a few bucks.