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Using Drama to Help Kids and Parents Communicate

An Interview with Children’s Playwright L.E. McCullough


Published in TIDEWATER PARENT (1998)


Q. Playmaking for families is an intriguing concept. What does it involve?


A. A lot of love and a lot of fun. We're talking about a simple, family-centered activity: creating short dramatic works that can be performed in the house or yard by families or their friends and neighbors. It's easy, it's entertaining, and it brings people together in very positive, very warm ways.

Q. Is Playmaking more than just "charades" or playing "dress-up"?


A. Much more. Playmaking isn't a game, it's a learning tool. It improves literacy and encourages cooperation and responsibility. Everyone has to work together to achieve the goal of making the play "happen", thus, everyone's effort is important. Best of all, Playmaking allows children to express themselves in ways that receive immediate approval, which is vital to nurturing long-lasting self-esteem.


Q. How old should children be to take part?


A. That will vary. But by age four most children have already grasped a lot of the skills necessary for acting; they can memorize, they can mimic, they can dance and sing and easily project themselves into identities outside their own, i.e. "pretend". Even toddlers, if there are older children to guide them, can be incorporated into the action with a "walk-on role" that involves limited speaking.


Q. How do you get started?


A. First, you choose the subject of the play. The children should have first crack at choosing. Maybe it's a fairy tale they've heard, or a scene from a favorite book. Maybe it's an historical event they're learning about in school. Or it could be an incident or legend from the family's history - how Grandpa came to America, the first time Mom took a big trip as a little girl, etc. It's also possible the children may want to dramatize an occurrence in their own lives, such as a family vacation, a school field trip, obtaining a pet, Christmas dinner and so forth. If a subject isn't readily forthcoming, it's time to bring imagination into full swing. The parent can suggest a scenario ... walking through the woods, sailing on the ocean, exploring Jupiter, meeting a talking bear at the bus stop ... and let the children create characters and plot.


Q. What's next? Assigning roles?


A. Not so fast. Once you've outlined the subject, plot and characters, you need to write some minimal dialogue. If you cast before you know what characters are going to say or really be about, you're painting children into a corner, locking them into thinking about just one part of the play when they should be exercising their creative abilities to the max. You want children to share in constructing the heart of the play, and that means shaping the characters according to the way they understand them. If this means you have Kennedy and Khrushchev discussing the Cuban missile crisis from the viewpoint of a six-year-old, well, why not? Maybe that's just as sensible as the way it really happened.


Q. What's an optimum running time?


A. Ten or fifteen minutes usually gives everyone enough to do for a couple weeks; even a five-minute play can be a wonderful experience, if it says what you want to say.


Q. All right, you've got the script and you're ready to begin rehearsals ...


A. The actors should gather and read through what's been put down on paper to that point - several times. Children can try out different roles each time the script is read, and some changes will probably occur as the words begin to take root in reality. A parent can assume the role of director and assign parts. Children will likely memorize their lines, because at this stage in life it's fun and easy, but no one should be pressured to perform like a professional thespian. In fact, the parent will want to have a script in hand to make sure actors don't get lost. It's very important that a parent supervise the first couple rehearsals, helping the children perceive the flow of the action and assisting with word pronunciation. Once you get the process rolling, encourage the children to rehearse on their own. You'll be surprised at how quickly they start imprinting their own interpretation on things.


Q. What about costumes and props?


A. Follow "the UYI rule": Use Your Imagination. Playmaking can be a great opportunity for the family to share time teaching each other skills, such as sewing, painting, calligraphy, handcrafts, mask making, song writing and music composing, etc. Children will come up with all kinds of ideas for costumes and props ... the parent will have to exercise judgment on what's practical and what isn't in terms of time, cost and materials. The plays my family and friends put on when I was a child had no costumes or scenery whatever, but our sense of wonder and enjoyment was never diminished. And in my play books, I keep technical requirements to an absolute minimum, because I think every Playmaking group should exercise maximum creativity toward making the play their own. Preparing for the play is usually as much fun as actually doing it, sometimes more.


Q. And finally, showtime!


A. You'll want to start small, maybe performing just for your immediate family. The children will want to do it again, and then you could invite some relatives, a few friends and neighbors and perform at your next social function. Other parents might become interested, and then you're talking about the Big Time — Cub Scouts and Brownies or even a church group or senior citizen center. You'd be amazed at how enthusiastically people welcome free entertainment.


Q. This sounds great, and I'm sure most parents would be pleased their children did something besides watch television. But how much parental effort does Playmaking demand?


A. How much effort does good parenting demand? As much as you want to put into it, I guess. Playmaking offers so many positive benefits. Parents and children achieve a "good goal" together. Parents get to see their children at their most vibrant and creative. Children get to excel for their parents, and they become more self-motivated and self-reliant, especially in terms of socializing with other children.


By going through the process of creating and interpreting a play for an audience — even if the audience is only the family — parents and children learn to listen to each other better.


Playmaking allows families to "act out" their feelings, their problems, their issues in a forthright manner that is non-threatening because it is a play, and as such can be examined from a safe emotional distance. Writing a play about a problem may not resolve the problem, but it does get people talking, and that's the first step toward a solution.

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Photo:  Richard Finkelstein

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