How to Stage a Shakespearean Play for High School Students in 10 Easy Steps
In many circles, Shakespeare has gotten bad press as boring, pointless, and completely unrelated to modern teenagers and the issues that are important to them. That, however, could not be further from the truth. Shakespeare does not have to be more difficult than any other author or playwright, and the issues he wrote about 400 years ago are still relevant to today’s children, teens, and adults. But to fully appreciate Shakespeare, it’s best to get him off the page and onto the stage! Here are 10 easy steps to staging a Shakespearean play for high school students. With preparation and a great deal of enthusiasm on your part, this can be one of the most rewarding projects you or your students will ever be a part of.
1) Decide which play you are going to perform. Makes sense, right? You need to choose a play. But not just any play. It is crucially important that you consider a number of factors. First, you are going to be working with this script...a lot. You will read the play, over and over again, in order to be able to teach it to your students. You will possibly be cutting down some of the longer speeches, depending on how many lines your students can memorize. You may even want to compare the punctuation in various editions in order to get the right effect for the lines. Because of this in-depth scrutiny, be sure to pick a play that you like. There’s nothing worse than plowing through a work that bores you to tears, then having to show enthusiasm for the material to your students. That requires greater acting skills than most professional actors possess! So choose a play that you are excited about and share that excitement with your students.
Consider, too, what will appeal to your students. Just because you think Henry VI, Part 2 is the greatest play ever written doesn’t necessarily mean that your students will, especially if they’re not familiar with English history. Remember that most teenagers do better with comedy than with tragedy. Their life experiences, for the most part, do not reflect many of the tragic themes that Shakespeare explores in plays like Titus Andronicus, King Lear, and Othello. That doesn’t mean they can’t do tragedy, but they may have more fun with one of his light-hearted comedies, such as Much Ado About Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, or The Comedy of Errors.
2) Figure out a budget. Despite the fact that we would like to simply be artists and make stage magic with our students, we do have to consider the financial realities that accompany any stage production. If you are not the best at finances, it’s a good idea to recruit someone to help you create a realistic budget that you can stick to. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amateur Theatricals by John Kenrick is a wonderful resource for all aspects of play producing and directing, and gives great insight into creating a workable budget. Be sure to check with your school administrators to see what they can contribute to your production. Staging a Shakespearean play is not only good for you and your students: it’s great press for your school and school district, so be sure to let the powers-that-be know that funding for a project like this will pay off in the long run.
3) Hold auditions and create your cast. It is helpful to write out a list of the characters you will need, including extras, as well as a description of each character. Be aware of any physical traits that are mentioned in the text. For example, when I held auditions for Much Ado About Nothing, I had to be sure that my “Hero” was on the short side because of Benedick’s line referring to “Leonato’s short daughter” (yes, the line could be edited if you really have your heart set on a tall girl for that role, but remember that the text of Shakespeare is there for a reason. Hero is a meek, modest young girl, and having her played by a towering, strong, athletic girl might not work, with or without the reference to her height). Give your students copies of the character list and, if possible, a copy of the play to read. They will have far more fun and get into the audition process if they know what the play is about and which part they might like to try out for.
Some directors prefer that the students come with something to present for their audition—a poem, a song, a monologue, or dialogue (with a partner) from a play or movie. You can also give interested students copies of what you would like to see them do, maybe two to three weeks in advance, so they have time to work through the language and even get with you for additional help (this will show you who is really willing to work on the production). They shouldn’t be expected to memorize the lines, although if they do and do it well, that is great. Another possibility is having an excerpt from something (your play or something different) that everyone cold-reads (no preparation) for the audition. There are pros and cons to all of these, but ultimately, I would say do what works best for you.
Once your auditions are finished, give yourself some time to really think. Don’t cave to pressure to make a snap decision. You are the one who will have to work with these students for two to four months, so you should be allowed to take as long as you need (within reason, of course, knowing that there will be a great deal of nail-biting following the auditions) to reach a solid decision. Then get your scripts ready and announce your cast!
Be prepared for some tears, some frustration from kids who “just knew they would be perfect as [fill in the blank].” I let everyone know that they all did well, but that a director is going to have a feel for what will work and what won’t. And there are sometimes physical traits that I have to go with: I couldn’t have my Desdemona towering over a much younger, much shorter Othello, for example. But the experience people get in whatever roles they are chosen for, and the work ethic and team spirit they show throughout the project, will definitely help them be considered for possibly bigger roles in the future.
4) Set a rehearsal schedule...but always be ready to change it. You will definitely need to set up some sort of rehearsal schedule and the dates and times for your performances, probably after polling your cast to see what times/days work best for them, as well as checking with the venue you are planning to use. Starting with two rehearsals per week, two to three hours per rehearsal, is a good beginning, but you may want to add additional rehearsals as you get closer to performances. But be sure that you make it very clear to your cast that the rehearsal schedule is never set in stone. In fact, it is best to put some kind of a disclaimer on it, something along the lines of “All schedules can be revised at the director’s discretion.” You simply won’t know until you’re in the thick of the schedule if it’s really working or not, and for the sake of your production, you do not want to stick with a schedule that is not working. Make it very clear to your actors and their families that you may need to revise the rehearsal schedule, but that you will do your best to give them plenty of notice when this happens.
Whatever venue you decide on for your performance, be sure to get it booked well in advance. This also goes for rehearsals you plan to have there, especially dress rehearsals. If you have a gym/theater in your school, then you’re set as long as you get your group on the schedule. If you plan to use a park, a local theater, or something else, just be sure you understand everything that is involved with using their space (especially the cost involved).
Also determine when you will require your actors to be “off-book,” or have all of their lines memorized with no prompting allowed. Be flexible with this, though, if this is your first production. You may think they should be off-book in three weeks, but then you realize later that they really need more time. Be willing to help them a bit with prompting, but there will come a point when they simply have to have their lines memorized. It is very difficult to block scenes (arrange precise locations for furniture, actors’ entrances and exits...all stage business) with actors who are still staring at their lines. Help them as much as you can, but be firm when the time has come for them to give up their security blankets (scripts).
5) Get yourself a stage manager. I cannot stress this enough. Before you do anything else, find someone who is trustworthy, punctual, militant without being cruel, very organized, and someone your actors will all listen to and respect. Because once your job is done (and it’s done when you go sit in the audience opening night), you need to know that you have someone backstage who will keep everything flowing smoothly. This must also be someone who sees your vision for this production. Choose wisely, but get one now!
6) Begin with the text. Because Shakespeare was an actor first, he was the perfect playwright to create plays and scripts that were actor friendly. Now, I know when you tell your students that, they’re going to look at you like you grew antlers out of your head. But it is true! Everything actors and directors need to know about performing and producing Shakespeare is in the text....you just have to dig for it sometimes. There are some great books out there that will help you in your quest for the text. I highly recommend that you invest in these three, in this order:
- Clues to Acting Shakespeare (by Wesley Van Tassel)
- Will Power: How to Act Shakespeare in 21 Days (by John Basil)
- Speaking Shakespeare (by Patsy Rodenburg)
What you will discover in these three books is that scansion of the text—understanding the rhyme and meter, the allusions, the enjambments, the elisions, everything about the words themselves—is the first and most critical step to acting Shakespeare. Once the students understand the text and can begin memorizing it, then you can approach interpretation. This is quite different from the method acting that most modern actors are familiar with, but in order to do justice to the play itself, and to help your audience truly understand what’s happening in your play, you have to follow this process. If you can only buy one book, I suggest the Van Tassel. It is very readable and gives you some great steps to follow in bringing the text alive for your students.
Plan to have your first two or three rehearsals be read-throughs, where the cast gets together in a comfortable environment (serve snacks!) and just reads through the entire play. You may want to divide the play in half and spend two separate rehearsals reading through the text. However, one very important part of this is teaching your cast about the scansion of the text and how to read Shakespeare. This will go a long way toward helping them understand and memorize their lines. Another book that will be helpful in this step is Shakespeare’s Words by David Crystal and Ben Crystal. It is a dictionary of the words Shakespeare used, giving the meanings of the words as they were in the sixteenth century. It is also a great resource for information on the many classical allusions that are in the plays. Definitely worth the investment!
7) Costumes, set, vision...Figure it out! This may be a step that occurs earlier in the process, or it may be something that you discover as you begin working with your actors and the text. But at some point, you will need to determine if your Shakespearean play is going to look Elizabethan or if it’s going to be something different. One of the important things to consider in this step is who will do your costumes. If you are blessed with someone who loves to sew elaborate historical costumes, then that opens up a possibility for having a “Shakespearean-look” to your production. If you don’t have someone like that on hand, however, you may need to consider a different setting. Remember the budget I mentioned earlier? Consider how much money you have set aside for costumes. If it’s on the low side, you may want to consider a modern setting (great clothing and props are available at various thrift stores), or even jeans and matching t-shirts for your kids. When we do our school’s Shakespeare Festival, we have one t-shirt design for the year, but each class gets to choose which color shirt they will have. This is a very fun way to get the idea of costumes and unity across to your audience without spending a fortune on fancy material.
These ideas also pertain to your set design. If you are going for an elaborate sixteenth-century Italian look for The Merchant of Venice, then you need to have a few things lined up: a creative set designer who can bring your vision to life; a team of artists who can help your set designer with the work that is involved; money in your budget to pay for it. It is also possible to do Shakespeare with a minimum of set design and props, so don’t feel like you have to invest tons of money into this part of your play. Shakespeare is about the words and the story, and as long as you focus on your students learning their lines and the text, you will have a fabulous production to be proud of.
8) Publicize, publicize, publicize. With computers today, it is possible to make very inexpensive flyers and posters, so get someone you trust to make some and get them posted in your community. Your cast is perfect for visiting local businesses and asking if they will put up flyers in their windows. Businesses love to help schools...and really hate to say no to those bright, smiling faces that come in with stacks of posters. Also type up a press release and send it to your local radio stations, television stations, and newspapers.
Be sure to have the following information on your flyers and press releases:
- Group name and sponsoring organization
- Title of play and playwright’s name
- Dates and times of performances
- Location of performances
- Cost of tickets
- Contact name and number (or email) for questions
9) Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Rehearsals can be wonderful, energetic, and fun...but they can also be quite boring, especially for cast members waiting around for their turn on stage, doing nothing. Keep everyone busy at your rehearsals. If you are working on one scene, but you’ve called your entire cast there, just be sure you have the people off stage working on something. There is a variety of acting exercises they can do together (the books mentioned in Step 6 give suggestions for acting exercises) that will not only build their acting skills, but will also help encourage team unity. Unity is going to be critical for your production. Just like a sports team, your cast and crew need to feel like they are a team, working toward an end goal. It should never be about one person or even a few people (never let a prima donna ruin your cast’s momentum or unity). It should always be about what’s best for the team. So have some fun exercises for them to work on together, and also think about prizes and treats. Rehearsals in the hot summer sun can be much more fun if a kind parent provides popsicles or cold drinks. Prize drawings are fun, too, if you can find some inexpensive prizes (think candy bars and dollar-store goodies).
Rehearsals should also have rules. Although that may sound antithetical to having fun, everyone in your cast and crew will have a better experience if you lay some ground rules at the beginning and stick to them. Mine have included the following:
- No gum chewing (no one can speak lines clearly with gum in his or her mouth).
- Food can only be eaten at designated breaks and in designated places (to keep it away from costumes, sets, and props).
- No wearing hats or sunglasses (unless it’s part of a costume—you need to be able to see actors’ faces and expressions to help them rehearse, and eyes especially are critical to expression).
- Bring water bottles to every rehearsal (stay hydrated!).
- Do NOT be late for rehearsals. That is disrespectful of your director’s time and your fellow cast members’ time.
10) When it’s time to let go... After weeks (maybe months) of rehearsing, you will discover that your cast has grown into a company of players. They, along with their crew, have become a team, ready to wow their family and friends who are eagerly awaiting opening night. Your job is nearly done, whether you’re ready for it to be finished or not. Your stage manager, if you have trained him/her correctly, should be ready to manage each performance while you sit in the audience like a proud parent, watching your child graduate, move out of the house, and head off to college. And that is precisely where you need to be—in the audience. Don’t hover backstage, because you will only make your cast nervous. It is too late to teach at this point...your teaching was finished at dress rehearsals.
Before you become an audience member, gather your cast into a circle backstage and let them know how very proud you are of all they have accomplished. Let them know they’ve done something special by learning a play by William Shakespeare.