Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 16 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 200 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, a humorous essay collection called "HOW TO TELL IF YOURCO-WORKERS ARE FROM MARS & Other Tales of the Workplace," is available at www.zeus-publications.com
Inklings: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month -- THE PLAY'S THE THING:How to Write Scripts for Children & TeensIf you're going to write theater for young people, there are 3 "R's" you can't afford to forget: Relevance, Resources, and Responsibility. Before you sit down and type "Act I," though, there's something else you need to answer first: Do you like kids? Do you remember being one?
It was 1960 and auditions for the 3rd grade play were announced. The cast: one princess, nine suitors, and one poor but humble peasant boy. As one of the best readers in class, I was determined to nail the role of Her Highness. You can thus imagine my disappointment when the teacher skipped the necessity of try-outs for Princess Eleanor by simply casting Mary Louise on the basis of looks: blond, blue-eyed and dumb as a rock. "If I ever write a play," I grumbled, "things will be different." Forty years and ninety-eight plays later, it's a promise I'm still keeping.
It's nonetheless disturbing how many aspiring playwrights perceive this market as a stepping-stone to writing for adults, their assumption being that it requires less work. To the contrary! To craft a production that will challenge the performers, delight the audiences, and stay within budget calls for an awareness of what kids today find entertaining. This can be gleaned, of course, from the combination of paying attention to the young people around you and reading/attending plays already written for the age-group you want to reach. It also helps to have a long memory of the sound of applause and the magic that transpires whenever houselights dim and curtains rise...
For almost half my playwriting years, the editors at Plays (now owned by Kalmbach Publishing) and Eldridge Publishing have taught me what sells, what doesn't, and--most of all--what their subscribers consider an enduring story. While their respective script needs are divergent, they share a common quest of making the live theater experience a vital part of growing up. (It should be added, too, that their ongoing commitment to discover new talent has prompted them to pen some of the nicest--and most helpful--rejection letters in the industry!)
For a play to "work", it must be one that participants and spectators alike can relate to. For lower/middle grades, this usually takes the form of popular fairy tales or familiar characters in updated settings; i.e., Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel at a beauty salon. For teenage thespians, the ability to follow more complicated plots opens the door to mysteries, light romance, parodies, and "issue" plays that celebrate history, self-esteem, and cultural diversity. Says Elizabeth Preston, Plays' Managing Editor, "While we appreciate the value of imparting guidance through the medium of stage, our mission is to entertain young people, not depress them. To this end, we don't publish material on topics such as drug/alcohol abuse, teen sex/pregnancy, domestic violence, or severe emotional problems. Although many of our plays certainly have a message that could serve as a jumping-off point for in-class discussion, it is a message conveyed in a subtle, not heavy-handed way." A recent script, for example, explores the theme of peer acceptance by using the backdrop of a lunchroom during a Vietnamese student's first day at a new school.
Nancy Vorhis, Eldridge's Senior Editor, reflects on how her own company's needs have changed since the 70's. "Previously we'd only publish "G-rated" material. And we still do in our Youth Theatre offerings. But for junior and senior high one-acts, we're willing to be bolder and offer issue-oriented plays...anything from drinking and driving, to AIDS, to suicide, to date rape, etc. Drama can be a safe way to explore such problems, allowing teens to think about how they might avoid a situation or how they'd handle it if they do confront it." She adds, however, that such subjects are a fine balancing act between what teens want and what parents and school administrators will allow. "That's why we limit these subjects to one-acts and we're very clear about their content in their catalog descriptions."
Unlike Plays, which publishes a monthly magazine format of one-acts and skits for elementary through high school, the Eldridge inventory includes full-length plays, musicals, and religious programs. Both houses are open to submissions from new playwrights; guidelines are available for the cost of a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
If there's one lesson I learned about playwriting during my years as director of a touring theater, it's a well-honed sense of economy. "If it can't fit in the car, it's not going" sprang from the reality of a shoestring budget and the need for props and sets that could pull double-duty. That same prudence has bearing on productions for schools and churches, which frequently find themselves the victims of artistic downsizing; the concept of "less is more" makes a huge difference in whether a script gets produced.
Multiple sets, period furniture, excessive props and lavish costumes are an instant red flag for cost-conscious theater companies. Likewise, insurance liability in the presence of any safety hazards--multi-level platforms, ladders, sharp objects or dangerous stunts--can factor into the marketability equation. While such constraints may dissuade the submission of Shakespearean spoofs or high-tech dramas, the secret to acceptance is Minimalist Illusion--the ability to create ambiance without endangering the actors or depleting the troupe's treasury.
The subject of limited resources also applies to the potential talent pool. Ideally, a cast calling for an equal number of boys and girls will sell better than--oh, say, a script that has one princess and ten little prince wannabees. Even better is a storyline that allows either sex to play certain roles. Wise, too, is the playwright who recognizes that the ethnic composition of our country's classrooms has changed dramatically in recent years. A parody of The Three Bears, for instance, could star an Asian father, a Latina mother, a Russian offspring, and a Goldilocks whose tresses are ebony cornrows.
While I often lament that writing scripts for young people doesn't pay as much as novels or film, there's no denying that the satisfaction level is priceless. How many future actors, directors or playwrights, I wonder, will someday credit their love of the genre to a walk-on they once had in the fifth-grade pageant? As such, writers have a responsibility to not just craft stories that encourage creativity and self-confidence but concurrently reinforce the positive message that integrity, tenacity and responsible actions will prevail against the darker sides of human nature.
Plots that promote rebellion, vulgarity, discrimination or cruelty to others have no place in this market. While it's an unfortunate commentary that today's youth are losing their innocence--both physically and emotionally--at a much younger age, the fact that live theater still exists amidst this confusion attests to its value as an educational arena in which anything--and everything--is possible.
Therein also lies a challenge to develop plays which not only engage the imaginations of this generation but those that follow. "The Statue Speaks" by Bernard Reines is a fine example of theatrical longevity. First published in Plays' premier issue of 1941, the premise revolves around a young boy and girl's visit to Ellis Island and a magical conversation with Lady Liberty. Nearly 60 years later, the script's re-release--updated to reflect time's passage--still evokes Reines' original sentiments of patriotism and childhood hope.
SAVVY SCRIPT TIPS
The pages of WRITER'S MARKET are replete with publishers and theaters hungry for new material. A word of advice: they are absolute sticklers about what they want. For instance, if the guidelines cite a requirement for "previously-staged contemporary comedies with all-girl ensembles not to exceed 5," do not send them the first draft of your mixed-cast musical revue of "Beowulf." Likewise, there's a differentiation in the term "children's theater" among producers, depending on whether young people actually perform in the show or comprise the primary audience.
Payments and rights widely vary from outright purchase to a percentage of ongoing royalties. Even if a local school wants to launch your play but can only pay you in front-row tickets, don't turn it down; it's a valuable chance to see if anyone besides your relatives will laugh in the right places.
Typical reasons for a script's rejection include formatting errors, lack of conflict, predictability, and not enough action. "Sometimes," Preston explains, "a play starts out promising enough but simply loses energy, slows down, and drops focus." Adds Jeffrey Smart, Eldridge's Acquisitions Editor, many writers seriously underestimate younger audiences, thinking, "Any old play will do, no matter how badly constructed and illogical. Children are more mature than people think. A play written for them has to be every bit as well constructed, imaginative, and gripping as any other play."
What makes a script durable? Replies Preston, "Our authors write plays with interesting, timeless, well-paced plots, strong, believable characters, and an element of surprise or a well-timed twist. We also like to believe our favorite writers are pretty young-at-heart..."
Have a question, a comment, or a topic for a future column? The mailbox is open at InkView@cswebmail.com.