Devising a Play with Children and Teenagers

Devising a Play with Children and Teenagers By: Sam Marsden

Doing a retelling

If you are short on rehearsal time, I recommend devising a re-telling of a famous story. This way the characters and structure are already in place. Once I did re-telling of Cinderella with a group of teenagers. It was a modern day version where Prince Charming was a football player, Cinderella was a tomboy who wanted to go to the football match, and the glass slipper was replaced with a football boot. Retellings work well and you’ll find students will not be short of creative ideas. You can experiment with re-telling fairy tales, Shakespeare’s work, the Brothers Grimm, or even popular books and movies. 

Devising from Scratch 

Devising from scratch takes a lot of time, patience, and energy. Although it’s hard work it is also extremely re-warding. Who knows, maybe you and your group will write an award-winning script! Here’s my step-by-step guide on how to devise a play from scratch.

Decide on a theme – As a group, brainstorm ideas for themes then vote on which theme the group will use. Bad writers lead with plot, great writers lead with a theme; and it’s your responsibility as the teacher to give your students the opportunity to be great writers. A theme is not a single word, ‘love,’ ‘friendship,’ or ‘War.’ It is a question or statement that resonates deeply with a wide range of people. Here are some examples…

  • Are people essentially good or essentially evil?
  • Hatred destroys.
  • Love conquers evil.
  • Crime doesn’t pay.
  • Better to die a pauper than unloved.
  •  Freedom comes from within.
  • Revenge is a dish best served cold.
  • What does it mean to grow up?
  • How much should one sacrifice for love?

Decide on ONE theme. Do not be tempted by two. The theme of your play should run under all the scenes you devise later on. Having an underlying theme will give deeper meaning to your story. Once you’ve come up with your theme, make sure to remind students of it at the start of every rehearsal.

Decide on a main character – Nearly every good story has a protagonist (a main character that the audience root for). Ask the group to put forward ideas for the protagonist and then perhaps hot seat them as the protagonist they’ve imagined. Ask the group to vote for the character they’d like for the protagonist of their story. You may discover some excellent supporting characters during this process too.

Brainstorm – Split people into groups of three or four people, give them large sheets of paper and felt tip pens, and ask them to write down scene ideas that fit with your theme and main character.

Devise – In groups of threes and fours ask students to devise a short scene that could be used for the play.

The three act structure – As a group write down a skeleton for your story. You should decide on the characters, the journey the protagonist will go on, and how the story will end. Make sure the protagonist goes through some meaningful change and that there is plenty of scope for dramatic action.

Divide the story into three acts. The first act should establish the main characters, their relationships and the world they live in. In act one you should have an inciting incident that throws your main character’s life out of balance, for example perhaps a teenage boy meets the love of his life: another teenage boy. Or a tornado lifts up a young girl’s house with her in it and takes her to Oz.

In Act Two there should be rising action where the protagonist is trying to solve a problem only to find themselves in worsening situations. The protagonist needs to develop and change through these challenges.

In Act Three there should be a resolution of the protagonist’s story and the sub plots.

When you create the skeleton of your three act structure, forget details and just sketch out the backbone of the story. Details will come later in the devising of the scenes. If story structure interests you there are many great books written on it. My favourites include ‘Story,’ by Robert McKee and ‘Save the Cat,’ by Blake Snyder.

Keep devising and brainstorming – Spend five to eight weeks brainstorming and devising scenes to fit into the structure you’ve come up with.

Choose – Select which scenes to use and which ones not to.  For the chosen scenes ask the students who devised them to transcribe them.

Write it up – Either the teacher or a very enthusiastic student should now type these scenes up into the play.

Hand out the scripts – Once the scripts have handed out to all the students no further changes should be made. Too many devised projects fail because changes keep being made - sometimes right up until the final rehearsals. Once the scripts have been given out, your cast now need to focus on the acting and not the writing.

Rehearse - Drama groups often only give themselves a few weeks to rehearse a devised play as they spent too much of the rehearsal time devising. The students’ writing deserves more respect than a few weeks of rehearsal time. You should give yourself twice the rehearsal time for a devised project than for one that is already scripted. If the process of devising is given the time and thought it deserves, it may well be one of the most exciting and life-changing projects you and your students will work on. Be brave and good luck!

Recommended reading:

‘Story,’ by Robert McKee

‘Save the Cat,’ by Blake Snyder

‘Impro for Story Tellers,’ by Keith Johnson

‘Drama Games for Devising,’ by Jessica Swale