Tips for putting on a play with younger kids
Updated: May 26, 2022
Prompts, lines, character, focus, repetition, rehearsals... it's difficult to put on a play with young children. Here are some ideas to get an engaging and flowing performance while keeping it fun!
Putting on a play with younger children can be tough (but so rewarding when you see how much they enjoy performing for their friends and family). Here are some tips for play rehearsals and performance...
Younger children (and teens for that matter) can get bored very quickly during performance rehearsal. There are a combination of factors - having to drill certain parts, over rehearsing and general focus.
Tip: don't just rehearse the play! This one is really important. You should always start with a warm-up and I like to do a warm-up that is unrelated and just fun. You should always end the class with enough time to do a few activities or play a few games as well!
Expect things to take longer than expected
What may seem like a short script when you read it, will take longer than you think to rehearse and perform.
Incorporate parts of the play into other activities
If you have chorus scenes or parts where the actors ad-lib (where the actors talk freely off script but in a rehearsed and directed way) - introduce these elements of the play through other activities. I really like to use drama lesson activities to build up the skills and rehearse elements of the play which can be dropped into the performance. It's added practice but it is not in the rehearsal format (which can get boring very quickly for younger students). You can also explore character and get better performances if you approach the play by rehearsing it in different ways - that is, through different activities. You can also explore themes of the play through different drama activities and it will enhance the overall performance and students will pick the parts of the play up more quickly - it is not a waste of time or a deviation from the goal. Make up some fun drama warm-ups or break lines down into small group or partner activities.
I have done this in the Jack and the Beanstalk Drama Unit which you can find HERE! The Drama Unit includes drama activities that build up acting skills for the performance of a whole class performance script (included) for your drama kids to perform as a whole class play for an audience. When it comes to rehearsing the script, they have already started and can draw on the things they did in the drama activities. This is also good for confidence. Students like to feel confident in what they are doing, that is, know what they are doing.
Good casting is absolutely vital and there are multiple considerations. Lead roles should be played by students who can act the part but can also remember more lines and remember cues. It can be easy to want to cast louder students in the main roles but sometimes a larger than life student in the lead role can actually detract from the whole performance but putting a larger than life student in a character role has a great result. These students are also fantastic to give lines to before or after chorus lines or ad-libbing. Consider the quieter more serious mannered and reserved students (in my view) for lead roles. See them come out of their shells!
One of the best roles I ever played had no lines whatsoever and I like to tell older teen students this particularly but also primary aged children. I like to challenge students with roles as well - casting is a fine art and there are multiple considerations.
Cast for the character and not the actor. It is difficult because it is easy to choose a student for the lead who you know will do a good performance and has done so in the past - but cast for the character and prepare to be surprised. That said, and particularly with young children the lead role needs to be played by a student who is confident enough in line delivery (they need to be able to project well and consistently), remembers lines and is good with cues. I once cast my most unruly student in the lead role (late primary) and he stepped up to the challenge magnificently (and was a star student after that as well).
Lines are easier to learn if they are fun to deliver. I go through each line with an example first of performing the line. Lines are easier to learn if there is good vocal inflection and action accompanied with them. Remember the student when showing line inflection - that is, adapt inflection for the student. If a student is having trouble with a line, look at the cue coming into the line or think about an interesting gesture. Pace can be a problem and that can mean to slow as well. Line inflection is important for getting line delivery that is not too fast but not to slow. Louder delivery is often accompanied by a slowing down and slowing down is good for theatre but I find that things can slow down too much so I keep that in mind with line inflection.
I think that teachers should sit or stand at the front when young children are performing plays. That way you can prompt them and they are still looking forwards. I like to have gesture cues as well ("look out to the audience" "larger voices" "big faces") and I practice these - practicing the cues in rehearsal. Rehearse the play sitting or standing where you will stand for the actual performance and rehearse the cues as if you have an audience (that way they will be used to your gesturing and waving at them before the actual performance).
I like to prompt first with just the start of the line and I don't like to use names of students when I am prompting. I like to prompt with the start of the line slowly while looking at the student who I am prompting but I will start by just looking at them and mouthing the start of the line to give them a chance to remember. When rehearsing it is useful to look at students who have lines and I like to look at the next student who has a line before they start their line. It becomes a visual cue that they are used to seeing and I like to acknowledge students performing their line with a nod or smile but look towards the next student who will speak just at the end of the student speaking before them.
Re-rehearse difficult cues. If there is a difficult cue, I like to drill it but make it fun and game like. If there are multiple difficult cues you can make this into its own activity. That is, rehearse the cues separately in a block.
Line allocation - utilising stage blocking for better prompting
Blocking cannot be underestimated when it comes to line prompting for younger students (and older students). That is, where they are standing on stage should be considered when allocating lines of dialogue. Particularly, less confident students who may miss prompts. You will find that they remember their prompt better if they are standing nearer to the person who has the line before them.
Line allocation - give difficult lines to more confident students
It is very important for a teacher to go through and determine from the script which lines will be more difficult (whether its more difficult dialogue, a longer line, a difficult cue or a line that requires a loud and confident voice). Give these lines to more confident students. It can also be useful to give a line to a less confident student that follows a more confident student.
Line allocation - less confident students
All students want to feel like they are adding to and doing a great acting performance and it is important to keep less confident students engaged (particularly if they have less lines of dialogue in the play or smaller parts). Line allocation and placement is vital and should be well thought out. Give less confident students or students that have trouble remembering lines or cues funny short lines (if you can) with an easy cue. That way, the line is easier to learn and the place to come in will be easier but they will get a strong reaction from the line so they won't feel disheartened at having a smaller part. It's really important that smaller parts are nurtured and that all of the students have a moment to shine. This will make them more engaged for the entire performance (it doesn't matter how good your lead is if the students in the background aren't engaged - they will draw focus).
Lift the energy with chorus lines
Chorus lines are a great way to lift the energy in plays for younger students (and teens) but they can be difficult and come out robotic. I don't like long chorus lines that go on for sentences and sentences without being broken up. They will end up being robotic and its a difficult thing for timing (some students will steam ahead loudly). I like to break up chorus parts with singular lines in between and to focus on vocal inflection. That is, to make sure that the chorus lines are sharp and snappy and don't drag - that pauses and vocal inflections are used. I also like to have strong actions, gestures or facial expressions with chorus lines - otherwise they can be very boring.
Chorus lines are difficult to cue as well and I like to drill the difficult cues. I will drill a difficult cue over and over again. Make it fun and make the drilling quick. If there is a chorus line that is difficult to cue, consider the line before the chorus line. That is, add something to the line before the chorus line (a sound or gesture).
There is such a thing as over-rehearsing. You don't need to get all of the parts perfect before moving onto the next rehearsal stage. It's important to keep things moving as young children (and teens) can get bored rehearsing the same part over and over. It is better to come back to some parts and if there is a part that is difficult (blocking or lines or something else) move on and come back to it next rehearsal when the class is fresh.
Keep the students occupied
It may be the case that a certain part of the play needs to be rehearsed with only a few of the actors. Give the other students something to do. Don't make them stand on stage for ages waiting and watching a part if they don't need to be there. Let them help each other with their lines or rehearse parts in small groups. Have them write up a props list or come up with ideas for their costumes.
The importance of every role
I like to tell students that when their families or friends come to see their play they will be watching them. That is, they should stay in character the whole time and even if they are not speaking, they should stay in character in the background. I like to focus individually on this during rehearsals - if a student does an interesting action or gesture or facial expression in the background, I will always point it out and comment on exactly what they did (I don't just say good - I like to explain exactly what they did that was good and I find that other students listen to this and then try things out themselves). Students should be engaged the whole time on stage and I like to give students in the background interesting things and actions to do at all times (without it being distracting).
My favourite line is to tell students that a theatre is large and when there are a lot of people in a theatre coming to see their play, they need to be even louder. They shouldn't yell (because that will hurt their voice - I like to give an example of how their voice will be husky if they yell and hurt their voice) but they need to speak in a big, loud and clear voice so that the little old lady who has trouble hearing and is sitting right at the back of the theatre can hear them clearly. Students should project their voices to the back of the theatre and they should also look up and out. Practice this with them.
Fast delivery is a big issue for all performers (even adults - I am constantly noticing this even from professional actors in big movies). It usually affects the middle of a line where a line is more than one sentence or a lengthy sentence. Words gets lost in the middle because it is too fast. It is important to break sentences up and use pauses and inflection. I like to tell students that the audience has never heard the line or the story before so it is important that the whole line is very clear. Pauses and inflection, pauses and inflection. A pause means a breath and that is good to slow down. I also like to remind myself of this - because it can be forgotten when you are used to hearing a line.
Warm up before the performance
It's important to do a warm up and I prefer silly physical warm ups that get their bodies shaking. This helps them work out some of their nerves while keeping it fun. I also like to do a vocal warm up and once they are warmed up I like to run right to the back of the theatre and get them to give me some of their lines and test their projection. You can download free PDF's of drama, theatre, improv games that I like to play with primary and elementary children HERE!
Waving at friends and family
Young children will always look out for where their friends and family are and they also like to look and wave at them even during a performance (it is so exciting when the audience comes in). I think its a good idea for younger children to have the opportunity to spot their friends and family in the audience before the play starts and to wave at them (even if the play starts with an empty stage - I would start with all of them on stage to spot and wave to their friends and family). Let them enjoy their moment and then get their focus solely on you. I don't start until the entire class is focused on me. I like to go through this with the class just before the performance. I talk to them about how exciting it is going to be when everyone comes in and I practice the opening focus and cue.
There is a saying in theatre - bad dress rehearsal, great performance! This is not as true for younger students but don't worry too much if you get to the dress rehearsal and the students forget lines and forget where they are meant to stand on stage etc. Young students will be very nervous and very excited and it's important that they can get these feelings out in the dress rehearsal before the show. Go over difficult cues again and the opening cue again right at the end and just before the audience comes in. The most important thing is that they have fun and that is what shines on stage.
Children absolutely love costumes and expect to need extra time getting ready to start as they all excitedly show off their costumes to one another. Expect the dress rehearsal to take longer than expected as students can get distracted by their costumes. That is why it is always a good idea to have a dress rehearsal so they are used to performing in their costumes (and not just on the day of the performance) and so that any costume issues can be sorted out. If students are bringing costumes from home - always have spare costume parts ready to go. Children are very happy in simple costumes as well (they don't need to be elaborate) but they thoroughly enjoy dressing up in character.
Practice coming into the theatre, sitting on the stage, waving at friends and family, getting in their first positions, bowing at the end of the play, sitting down at the end of the play. The children will be really excited to be in their costumes and when their friends and family come into the theatre. Practicing the small things (even once) helps everything run smoothly. This will help focus in the performance.
Don't stress too much
It can be stressful to put on a play with children in a short period (it never feels like there is enough rehearsal time) and to feel the pressure of an impending audience! But the truth is that parents and caregivers are there to see their children having a good time and enjoying the performance. There will always be a line forgotten or something that goes wrong - and these things usually turn out to be very funny. Young children will be excited by the atmosphere of an audience and eager to show their play to their friends and family - and they will just enjoy being there. It's hard to know who will forget their line or spend the entire time waving or smiling at their friends or family - so do your best and have fun with it! In the end it really is all about having fun putting on a performance! The show will go on!
Looking for acting scripts for kids and teens?
I have a couple of resources that include different acting scripts (for kids and teens) including whole class short scripts for elementary (year 4+) perfect for a school drama performance. All of the scripts are printable and come in pdf. You can check out some of my resources that include acting scripts HERE! I also have drama circle scripts which are fantastic for on-the-spot reader's theatre and to practice acting out a script (the class stand in a circle and read out allocated lines with instructions for actions and additional whole class parts) which you can find out more about HERE!
Happy drama teaching!