In the week following the play, I held a "post mortem" with each class. We discussed the success of the play, and also the trials and tribulations of the process that led up to the successful performance. With each class, I began by mentioning that I had received a great deal of positive feedback about the play, and that one of the best things I had heard, from parents and teachers alike, was, "I really think we learned something about the Oregon Trail from this play." Why, I asked the students, do you think this play was different from other class plays you have seen? What made it so successful? Why did people feel they had learned so much? When I use questioning in this way I try not to cheat and supply the answers to my own questions, and I didn't have to. The boys were remarkably quick to pick out important qualities of the plays. Generally, each class came up with some variation of the following list:
All of the actors spoke loudly and clearly, and could be heard. By the fourth grade, the boys have seen enough "class plays" to know that this is usually not the case. But they were also observant enough to realize that it wasn't only their careful projection and diction: the boys in the audience had been more quiet and attentive than usual. When we discussed why this might be, we concluded that other aspects of the play, listed below, had made it more interesting and easier to follow than most "assemblies," which in turn made the boys in the audience want to listen.
The performers were carefully blocked so that they could be seen and the characters could be told apart. We spent quite a bit of time on this in rehearsal, and I was careful always to explain why I wanted a boy to stand in a particular place or move in a particular way. The performers were able to sense the added focus this gave to their performance.
The story moved logically from episode to episode. The boys understood the way that the "Old Timer" had functioned to connect the scenes, and clarify the action.
The story was told through action rather than narration. The boys were able to see that, compared with most "class plays" our story was told through natural dialogue and action of the principal characters in each scene, rather than by narration. They were not really sure why that should make the story easier to understand, but they clearly saw that it made the story more interesting and compelling.
There were fewer people onstage at a time. In the typical "class play," at least in this school, a whole class, or even a whole grade, is onstage at once, usually in a curving line stretching across the stage, and speakers step forward (or don't) as their lines come up. Even if, as in many of the plays I do, the "characters" perform representational action, the rest of the class is present behind them, and most students function only as narrators. The fourth-grade boys were able to recognize that having only a small number onstage at once made it easier for the audience to tell who was speaking, to tell the characters apart, and to focus on the important action in each scene. And we all agreed that even though everyone had less "stage time" as a result of this arrangement, everyone also had more real "acting time."
The actors remained focused. The boys were able to sense that they had fidgeted less, and had been more focused on the important action than is usually the case in our "assemblies." We discussed this further and decided there were several reasons for it. First, nearly everyone felt that they had taken the project more seriously--in the end--than they usually did, because the hard work we had done made it more special. Second, because at any given moment, everyone on stage was involved in the current action, there was less temptation to fidget. Third, since they had written the scenes themselves, every actor really understood what was happening in a given scene, which made it easier to focus on the right things.
I was extremely pleased by the depth of understanding the boys reached when discussing the qualities of the play that had made it so successful. Even more encouraging was their understanding of the process that had led us to that success. I had an inkling of this before our "post mortems." Parents--several of them--had come up to me and said what astonished them most was that when they asked their sons how they had written the play, the boys were able to give them very detailed and clear descriptions of what they had done. That is by no means always the case in a project of this kind. So when I asked the boys to talk about the process, I was not really surprised by what I heard. We agreed that it had not always been easy, and not always fun. I talked honestly about the way I had felt when the classroom teachers said things like, "I can't have my boys perform this," and when I felt that my students had taken advantage of my trust. I mentioned individual boys (not by name) whose "big scenes" had been cut during the editing process. The boys brought up some questions about particular editorial decisions, and I tried to answer them frankly and completely. Then I brought up the idea that professional playwrights usually go through the same kinds of trials and setbacks in their own writing, and that we had actually learned a lot about the real process of writing a play.
Our Upper School theatre department produces at least one production of Theatre for Young Audiences every year, and twice we have done one of my own plays. Since most of the boys had seen the more recent of these productions, I was able to talk to them about my own process in a way that they could understand. I told them (which was perfectly true) that Ernie's Place had been through around forty drafts. I talked about the time I cut more than a third of the play in one fell swoop. They were really interested, because they could compare their own experiences to mine. It is often difficult for me to get a whole class to hold a give-and-take conversation without it developing into chaos, but that time it worked with all three groups. The conversation moved freely, the boys were interested and contributing intelligently, and we all learned something.
Despite the mistakes and the occasional panic and frustration, I think this project was one of the most successful I have tried. If I were to do it again, I would certainly make changes. Most importantly, I would try much harder to maintain the chains of communication between all of the teachers involved. That this didn't happen in this case was the result of faults on all sides, but let's face it--I should have made sure it did. I have discovered (not only at this school) that while classroom teachers and others are usually willing to be as helpful as the drama teachers needs them to be, they have other things on their minds besides the drama project, and it just makes better sense for the drama teacher to take the responsibility for keeping everything up and running. (In other words, don't wait for someone to ask what's going on, if you think they ought to know.) Also, I would be much more vigilant about what the boys were writing, right from the beginning of the project. Even though I think the experience of rewriting and editing was educational, I don't think anyone really needs a repeat of the recriminations that accompanied the discovery that the students had deviated from the facts as they had been taught them. All in all, though, I was very pleased with the way the project worked, and I encourage other teachers to try similar exercises with your students. Good luck.