Guest blogger John Higgins recommends the plays he used successfully during his 35-year career as a high school drama teacher.
He directed over 70 full-length high school productions and probably twice that many One Acts. He was the 1995 Massachusetts Drama Educator of the Year and the recipient of the International Thespian State Director’s Award in 1996. John also taught for eight summers in the Catholic University Drama Department’s High School Drama Institute.
As theatre teachers anticipate their upcoming classes and seasons, his ideas may prove quite helpful. On behalf of the nation’s young theatre teachers, thank you for sharing the plays that worked for you, Mr. Higgins!
“Let’s start with Alan Haehnel. Every drama teacher should know The Chronicles of Jane, but Haehnel also has a huge number of plays—all, I think, published by Playscripts. His works are all appropriate for a classroom, with flexible casts and large numbers. Some of his later plays may not be as compelling as his earlier ones, but they are worth a look. I would recommend The Education of Janet O’Mally, Meeting Sam, High Stakes, Honor Bright, and Wendy’ Tale. The last three are published under an umbrella title called Testing, Testing.
Tom Stoppard is a playwright that I have had success with. The 15 minute Hamlet is a riot! It does Hamlet in a very funny, cut version in 15 minutes and then does a 90 second encore. Also from him is Dogg’s Hamlet, a very sophisticated One Act for an older experienced group, and The Real Inspector Hound, a spoof of English murder mysteries and of theater critics. This is for an older, more sophisticated group as well. The full length runs about 75 minutes but I have seen it cut quite successfully to about 40 minutes.
Take a look at A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a series of adaptations called 90 Minute Shakespeare (a Smith and Kraus book). Diane Timmerman did the adaptation, and it is the best cutting of Midsummer that I have ever found. It actually runs about 75 minutes, so I added back some dialogue that she had cut. This cutting uses only Shakespeare’s dialogue with no narration or other device to forward the plot. It is just very well cut.
Neil Simon’s Fools is a great script for high school. I have done it as a full-length and have cut it for a very effective One Act. The Good Doctor is Simon’s tribute to Checkov. The play is 8 or 9 short scenes based on Checkov short stories. It can be done as a full evening or you can do two or three of the scenes as a One Act.
Tom Jones adapted by David Rogers (Dramatic Publishing) is a funny and tame version for high school.
All in the Timing is a great book of small cast, quirky one-acts. They are all very funny. Some are more sophisticated than others. My favorite is Sure Thing, about a man trying to pick up a girl in a restaurant. He keeps saying the wrong thing, but a bell keeps going off, and each time the bell goes off he gets to go back and try again. It is very funny. The script is for two people, but a careful look at the dialogue will tell you that it can be split up into 4 couples in a restaurant at the same time with all of the men trying unsuccessfully to “say the right thing.” In that 4 couples version, every time the bell goes off, the focus shifts to another couple.
The following is a group of classics that I have used with success. They are oldies but goodies: Checkov’s The Marriage Proposal, Lucille Fletcher’s Sorry Wrong Number, and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy (the last one, of course, with the great idea of reversing light and darkness.). Add to this list The Lottery, based on the Shirley Jackson story anddramatized by Brainerd Duffield.A. A Milne’s The Man in the Bowler Hat and The Ugly Duckling are both wry and funny in the charming way that Milne has.
The Dining Room by the American playwright A. R. Gurney is excellent for school theatre. Its eight or nine scenes, all of which take place in a dining room at different periods over the past 100 years or so, could be done as a full-length or, by picking and choosing a few scenes to present, as a One Act. The play contains some juicy acting roles.
A Thurber Carnival is a full-length play based on the cartoons and stories of James Thurber. About half of it seems pretty dated, but about half of it is universal and that content makes for a great One Act. Two of my favorite stories in this collection are The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, about a nebbish of a man who has fantasies of himself as a hero, and Take Her Up Tenderly, about a group of well-meaning people who have decided to re-write the endings of great literature when they feel an ending is too sad. For instance, they take the poem Barbara Frietchie which goes “Up rose Barbara Frietchie then, bowed down by her four score years and ten” and re-write it: “There stood Barbara at the door, blond and only twenty-four!” etc., etc.
Story Theater and More Story Theater by Paul Sills are the classics of the genre, but another good one in that style is Lion and Mouse Plays by Colleen Neuman
Definitely take a look at Ernie’s Incredible Illucinations by Alan Ayckbourn. Set in England, it’s the story of a boy who leads a dull life, has fantasies, and they come true! Very funny. Actually one of my favorite comic One Acts!
A very funny One Act spoof of spy stories with a young girl as the hero is The Everyday Adventures of Harriet Handleman, Super Genius by Greg Atkins. Warning—there is a politically incorrect scene in the middle of the play. You might have to consider how you want to deal with that.
This is a Test by Stephen Gregg is a classic comic nightmare One Act about taking an impossible test. The Zero Sum Mindis another play by Stephen Gregg. After a nuclear accident, our minds only have a finite amount of space. Every time we learn one thing, we forget something else. People try desperately to NOT learn things!
Competition Piece, a One Act by John Wells, is about three very different schools competing in a drama festival. It spoofs the festival atmosphere wickedly. (This might not be as effective for a group who had never been to a drama festival.)
Epic Proportions by Larry Coen and David Crane is a full-length play (about 75 minutes, which can be cut to 40 minutes). It tells the story of an epic 1930s movie, a la Cecil B. DeMille, from the point of view of two of the extras. The play is meant to be done by an ensemble of six playing multiple roles, but I just cast each of the roles separately and made it a big cast show.
The Laramie Project is a fabulous play, and very timely. It is also meant to be done by a small ensemble playing multiple roles, but I cast them separately to create a big cast. Schools nationwide have produced the play and turned it into a major community event by connecting with the school GSA and the local LGBT community. I did the same thing in my high school to very positive effect.
I’m going end with a plug for an old war-horse, Our Town. I know it is an oldie, but it it’s such a wonderful play, with great acting roles and wonderful themes!”
What plays would you add? Please leave a comment and share the titles and playwrights with other drama teachers!
John Higgins and Rosalind Flynn celebrate 75 Dramatic Years of CUA Drama in April 2013.
You might also like:
Scene Transitions and Cue-To-Cue Run-Throughs: Don’t Leave Rehearsals without Them!