Two events prompted me to write about Theme Theatre in today’s post. The first is that one of my students in the CUA Master of Arts in Theatre Education program did Theme Theatre as her final project for her Masters degree. I went to the performance given by her cast of 30 5th and 6th graders last week and it was so enjoyable. The kids clearly had such a good time and the audience loved the style and the simplicity of the production. Several parents went out of their way to tell me what an excellent job my student had done throughout the rehearsal process and how much their children loved the experience.
It was all so familiar to me—the stage in the school cafeteria, excited young performers in their show T-shirts, proud parents in the rows of metal folding chairs—because I directed many such shows back in the 1900s. And that fact ties into the second event prompting me to choose this blog topic—Via Facebook, I read that the lead role in Hairspray at a nearby professional theatre was going to be played by a young woman whose name was familiar to me. I responded to a wall post asking if she was the student I directed in Theme Theatre productions back in elementary school. She responded that she was!
So—what do I mean by Theme Theatre? Here’s a basic overview:
Theme Theatre is one dramatic production that features a variety of scripted pieces that share a common theme. These pieces may be poems, short scenes, songs or song lyrics, monologues, scenes based on children’s picture books, jokes, or quotations. Themes such as “friendship,” “school days,” “growing up,” “heroes,” or “wishes and dreams” work well and offer many possibilities for scripted pieces. Schools can often request a particular theme to build a production around.
A production’s theme is determined by the purpose and content of the performance. Theme theater performances can focus on holidays (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, Christmas), historical events (The Civil War, The U.S. Westward Movement), groups of people (Influential American Women, Famous Writers), science (Butterflies, Space Travel), foreign countries (Japan, Ghana), ideas (Cooperation, Perseverance, Character Education), and many other topics.
Once a theme has been chosen, the director collects a variety of pieces, puts them in order, determines solo and group lines, and produces the printed script. To tie the pieces together in rehearsals, the director implements theatrical techniques used in educational drama and professional youth theater productions.
There are many resources to explore when seeking performable material. A performance may be comprised of published pieces, student-written pieces, or a combination of both.
Because Theme Theatre does not limit student actors to the specified number of roles in a script, it can accommodate large numbers of students—20, 30, 40, even 50 cast members.
Cast size will, of course, depend on a number of factors: the size of the performance space, the number of grade levels invited to participate in the production, the wishes of the director, the availability of adult help during rehearsals, etc.
One reason why Theme Theatre is an effective educational theatre choice because most published play scripts do not accommodate large casts and those that do may not suit the needs of a school. Theme Theatre productions can feature many students in brief solo roles and all students as active members of the ensemble. There are no “stars” or “leads.”
Another reason is that Theme Theatre production costs are low. The recommended costumes are show T-shirts worn with blue jeans or black or white pants/shorts. The set pieces generally consist of choral risers, simple boxes or benches, or chairs and tables. The set decorations, if desired, can be large solid pieces of draped fabric or a “backdrop” painted in art class.
Family audiences love Theme Theatre because they get to see their children perform frequently throughout the show. They enjoy the ensemble nature of the production—the chance to see a lot of student actors perform, as opposed to the few that have large speaking roles. They also enjoy attending a performance that is short in length and strong in theatrical quality.
The target length of the production is 30 – 45 minutes. This brief performance length allows the rehearsal time required to produce a tight, strong, effective performance. The director coaches the student actors in the acting skills of concentration and cooperation (ensemble playing). The actors rehearse to achieve vocal volume and expression; they are required to memorize their lines and know their cues and blocking (stage movement). Stage presence, performance energy, characterization, and focus are all emphasized in Theme Theatre.
Students typically do not audition to participate in Theme Theatre. All students who wish to perform are welcome to join the cast. Rehearsals begin with group theatre exercises and ensemble pieces. The director casts solo roles as rehearsals progress. The director bases casting choices on students’ willingness, capabilities, readiness, and attendance. The director’s goal is to distribute parts to a wide variety of student actors, but—as in all theatrical productions—some students will have bigger parts or a greater number of lines than others.
If anyone reading this wants more information about Theme Theatre, please leave a comment or send me an e-mail.