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Screen & Stage
Let's Play (Kid's Lit)
By Steve Cross
June, 2006, 10:48

If you write plays for children, be prepared for some exciting and rewarding times.
A
few years ago, I sat at my desk covered with sweat – I couldn't find a play for my drama program. My desperation seemed multiplied by a futile search through a mountain of publishers' catalogues. As I tried to wipe away my concern, it occurred to me that maybe I could write one myself. What would be the perfect play for my drama group?

I preferred a simple play – with just one interior set. I knew that comedy was most popular and more females tried out for plays than males. So, I wrote plays with these parameters and worked up the courage to produce them.

Upon receiving positive feedback from audiences, I had another glance at the possibilities. Going back to that mountain of publishers' catalogues, I picked Brooklyn Publishers – which specializes in providing scripts for schools –and wrote them a query letter. They agreed to read my work. Accepting this first submission, they asked me if I had more. I followed up with a one-act play that they also accepted.

Four years later I am still drawing royalties from script sales as well as performances. A Midsummer Night's Scheme; Haunted Hamlet; Simple Things; Riches, Witches, and Mystical Switches; Lazy Daze Inn; and Summer's Charms were all published by Brooklyn Publishers and are still currently available. In addition, I have two other plays published by Drama Source. These publishers could be a good place for you to start as well.

There are many good market sources, but – as you may well know – one of the best is the FWO-Int'l. As a subscriber to IN, you already know what a great resource the FWO-Int'l is. Have you taken the time to look into its vast database of market sources? There you will find a goldmine.

The next obvious thing is learning your craft. See what's happening in your area so that you can get involved with theatre directly. This is a point I cannot stress enough. The more immersed you are in the theatre environment, the better you will understand how to portray stories for the stage.
           
To be successful with writing plays specifically for children, it is important to realize the differences between plays written for children and those written for adults. Use the acronym SAFE as your guide: Simple, Acceptable, Flexible, and Entertaining.
           
To be clear, simple is not simplistic. Schools, especially smaller ones, often have limited resources. Only one of the schools at which I taught has an auditorium. To gain access to this precious facility, I scheduled around dance recitals, concerts, dinners, and just about everything else.

Many times, there is only the gym to work with. Therefore, the simpler you can make settings and costumes, the better. Do not create the next Lion King if small schools are your target market. The plays that I write for young performers usually have just one interior set. In A Midsummer Night's Scheme, all that's required is a bare stage. Lights, sound effects, and other aspects of a performance also need to be simplified. You are not writing for Broadway.
           
Acceptability is another important consideration. Obviously, you would have trouble on your hands if you filled a play for high school performers with profanity, nudity, and existential diatribes on the meaning of life. Schools want plays to entertain an audience. However, this does not mean that serious plays are off limits.

One of my most successful productions was a presentation of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Do your homework; check out publishers' catalogues and talk to schools to see what they want and need for their drama groups.
           
Flexibility is also important. When writing a play for high school drama programs, offer production alternatives. You hinder your success by writing plays locked into only one method of performance. If a school does not have the facilities needed, you have lost a potential customer. For example, in my plays, Summer's Charms and Riches, Witches, and Mystical Switches, there is a setting that featured an upstairs and a downstairs – a complicated set for a small drama program. In my director's notes, I offer suggestions for alternative sets in each of these plays.

Another important part of flexibility in writing for young performers is casting. I always have characters that can be played by males or females. I also provide opportunities for actors to double up for minor roles. This flexibility is important for schools whose casting needs change year after year.

For example, in my play Shrink males or females can play nearly every character. If schools are considering this play, the flexibility will make it more desirable. Three of the characters do not appear until the last scene. This enables the director either to cast different actors in these parts, or – if there is a shortage of performers – to cast one actor in two parts.

By far, the most important aspect of writing plays for children is that they have to be entertaining. Performing a play involves a group of people who have to work together in close quarters for weeks. Your play must be enjoyable to learn and present.

If you write plays for children, be prepared for some exciting and rewarding times. Also, be prepared for the reaction of your audience. In the words of Richard Toscan, "My experience has been that one thing children share with adults is a love of story. Children are tough critics of story telling. They may not really know how to talk about this in theory, but they know what they don't like (and do like)."

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Steve Cross has been a freelance writer/educator for over 20 years. During his career he has published fiction, poetry, non-fiction and several plays. In 2007, Wings ePress will publish two of his novels, both for middle grade readers. He lives in Arcadia, Missouri, with Jean, his wife; Megan, his daughter (a writer herself); and several pets. Email: thecrosses@gmail.com


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