My first foray into playwriting: lessons learned about writing and directing plays for kids

As I mentioned last week in passing, I spent a good chunk of time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur preparing a play for the kids at my synagogue. The topic: the story of Jonah, which is read during the afternoon of Yom Kippur.

Jonah sheltered by the vine

Yonah waiting to see if Nineveh gets destroyed. He’s kinda hoping it does. How’s that for schadenfreude?

Now, I’ve always thought this story was packed with humor. I mean, G-d singles Jonah out for a little tete-a-tete and he hops on a boat headed in the opposite direction as the mission G-d sent him on? Then he sleeps through the ginormous storm that has everyone else aboard freaking out and get swallowed by a giant fish. Come on!

And when Jonah finally makes it to Nineveh, it gets even wackier. The citizens not only fast and wear sackcloth, but so does their king–who commands that they make their animals fast too. And don’t even get me started about Jonah’s little sukkah and the Kikayon vine and the worm…

Anyway, I added even more jokes, simplified and modernized the play so kids could read all the parts. We performed “The Story of Yonah” for the kids at 11:30-ish on the morning of Yom Kippur. The actors and actresses seemed to have fun, but the audience was very small, and one of the pint-size performers wandered off (thank G-d for understudies!).

A few lessons I learned about writing and directing plays for children:

  • Lesson #1: Always plan several non-speaking roles. Some of the kids will be afraid to read the script, or won’t be able to read (either due to age or disability). Others have a soft voice and can’t project. Let them be included, too, by planning some active roles that have no lines. In “The Story of Yonah” I planned a couple natural non-speaking parts, then added a third: the wind/storm that tosses the ship to-and-fro, the hot sun beating down on Jonah, and the Kikayon vine (most likely a winter squash, with those wide leaves).
  • Lesson#2: Pick your venue carefully. I didn’t. Oops. The room I used was loud, with babies and toddlers at the back making lots of noise. The audience had trouble hearing at least some of the actors, alas. If I had planned better, this could have been avoided. There actually were better, quieter spots in the synagogue for the stage.
  • Lesson #3: Child actors are temperamental. Just because it’s age-appropriate doesn’t mean it’s convenient. One of our youngest actresses really didn’t understand that she’d have to wait at least 10 minutes to appear on stage, so she wandered off. Thank G-d, an older actor (on stage earlier as the big fish) made a great Kikayon at the last minute. And another girl cried when she didn’t get the part she wanted (we found a mutually-satisfactory compromise, thank G-d).
  • Lesson #4: A captive audience is useful. Because I didn’t want to impose on anyone, I invited the kids in the synagogue’s babysitting to come watch if they wanted. Most chose to play ball/play cards/hang out instead. I could have requested ahead of time that the babysitters to round everyone up before curtain time and make them watch. Really. Putting on the play was less fun for the performers because the audience was small.
  • Lesson #5: Writing a play is very different than writing a story. You can’t introduce the setting with long expository paragraphs or description. Instead, you need at least minimal scenery or a narrator to fill things in. You have to explain who’s looking at whom and such through stage direction. You have to fill in the exposition, inner thoughts, and the like within dialogue, asides, or the narration. Thank G-d, I’d read enough plays to get the gist of what needed to be done, but it was definitely an adjustment.

So, there you have it, folks, my first experience as a playwright.

I enjoyed it very much, even if it was accomplished on short noticed on a day that involved no eating or drinking, and I want to do it again. I might start by adapting one of my short stories to the stage and seeing if there’s interest in producing it among the day school or after-school programs.

Have any of you out there put on a play with kids? What did you learn about writing, about directing, and so on? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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