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Teaching Plays as Plays

Jordan Catapano

I’ve wondered if Shakespeare, Miller, Beckett, and Williams would cringe at the way their plays are presented to students. What would their reaction be if they discovered that their theatrical masterpieces were now delivered to youth not on stages, but in classrooms? Not via practice and performance, but through dry readings? Not with joy and understanding, but with obligation?

Schools have very appropriately focused attention on student reading ability. However, I wonder if one of the casualties of the Common Core is teaching plays. While plays are written down, published, and hand-delivered to students in their desks, this is hardly the medium in which playwrights imagined audiences to receive them. Plays, in fact, are not meant to be read at all, except by actors preparing to deliver performances. Why then, when we are teaching plays to students, do we strip away all aspects of the stage when the medium insists that these are performances, not novels?

While it is essential that we continually emphasize reading skills, there are other highly beneficial aspects of theater that should not be overlooked. If teachers recommit to teaching plays as plays, and not as just another book, then student learning can vastly benefit from the addition of these other focuses.

What Plays Also Offer

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What’s nice about plays is that they allow students to focus on the critical reading skills so core to the curriculum. But they also offer many other opportunities for learning. Here’s what plays can also be used to teach students:

  • Reading fluency
  • Characterization through actions
  • Characterization through dialogue and relationships
  • Verbal and non-verbal communication
  • Visualization
  • Acting
  • Reading and speaking tones
  • Drama conventions
  • Emotions/Pathos
  • Listening skills
  • Performance interpretations
  • Psychology
  • Practice
  • Group work/group performance
  • Use of props/use of staging

This list can be lengthened even further as each individual teacher adapts a play to the specific needs and preferences of their students. Plays provide a vast arena of activity that all cater to one particular skill we all want students to have: Critical thinking. While we definitely instruct students how to read literature well, we can increase their literary comprehension when we teach plays as plays and incorporate a wide array of angles to consider the theatrical story.

Ways to Teach Plays

There is no limit to different ways of incorporating learning methods while teaching a play to students. As you consider the specific play you have, the areas of strength and weakness for your students, the preferences of your class, the goal of your curriculum, and other important pedagogical decisions, you may decide to incorporate several of the following methods for teaching plays. These methods enhance student learning by teaching plays as plays and break outside of the conventionally restricted approach to merely reading them.

  • Read plays aloud. One of the most basic and easiest ways to go through a play is to assign different roles to different students and have them read their parts aloud. Focus on students reading fluidly and with personality.
  • Listen to different performances and interpret. Instead of having students read, find recordings of performances and have students listen to them. What’s especially beneficial is to find different actors performing the same scene. Have students listen to their voices and interpretations, and discuss the interpretive implications of the differences.
  • Watch different performances and interpret. Like listening to different actors, you can find multiple performances of the same scene. Ask students what differences they saw, and what interpretations those differences could lead to.
  • Act out scenes. Get students on their feet by acting out a scene as they read. This can be done with one set of students in front of the class. What could be even more fun is to have students in groups creating performances of the same scene; when each performs their scene, there will be plenty of differences to discuss.
  • Act out the same scene different ways. Have student volunteers in front of the class, performing whatever their classmates suggest. Guide students to interpret a scene one way, then add other actions or tones that get them understanding the scene in a different way.
  • Read to one another several times, trading roles. Have students read lines to one another in small groups. If a scene has two people speaking to one another, have the students read the scene twice: Once as one character and once as the other. You can even increase the number of times they read: the more times they read a scene, the better they understand it.
  • Create a performance as a group and discuss. Have students choose a scene from the play and create a performance to it. Then, after they perform, have them hold a conversation with their classmates about the decisions that made about it.
  • Be a “director” for a scene. Ask each student to select a scene and annotate for stage directions, tones, props, and other directorial decisions.
  • Build a stage, set, scenery, etc. For those hands-on students, they can actually construct the items needed to make an effective performance.
  • Ask lots and lots of questions. Students can take a scene, or even a narrow set of lines, and compose a long list of questions regarding possible ways the scene might be understood, discussed, and performed.
  • Compare different scenes. Examine the structure of a play and discuss, perform, and observe how certain scenes are meant to parallel, contrast, or develop off of one another.

There are, of course, countless methods for creating a rich learning experience with plays. Incorporating several of these based on the needs of your students and curriculum will help plays stand out as unique and truly beneficial aspects of learning. Don’t downplay theater as just another form of literature; genuinely try to harness the unique opportunities it offers!

Have you taught plays in your classes? What are some of the creative and helpful ways you have taught plays to students? Shares your ideas and experiences in the comments below!

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