From Page to Stage
To bring the play to life in an English classroom, offer students the opportunity to do dramatic readings, as director James Naughton suggests in Production Notes. The monologues listed below are especially good for that purpose. You can also use them as audition pieces in a drama class.
As you assign different students to tackle these speeches or scenes, allow a variety of interpretations. Don't establish a "right" way to approach the material. Young performers shouldn't be expected to mimic the professional actors they've seen in the film.
Explore different ways to read the monologues, including speed, tone, and the nuances of humor and emotion. You may also want to invite students to try the material just sitting in chairs, reading from music stands, or with minimal scenery such as tables and chairs or stepladders.
Try adding incidental music such as a guitar or piano, live or taped. How does this new element affect the performance?
Producing the Play
Before you produce Our Town, decide whether or not you have a range of students who are capable of filling the roles. Remember that the Stage Manager will have to learn a large number of lines. You may want to team up with an English teacher whose curriculum includes Our Town. His or her English class may make an ideal audience for a special dress-rehearsal performance. You may also want to see if there is a local production that students can see before or after their own production.
Our Town: Case Study
The 7th and 8th grade students at Day Middle School in Newton, Massachusetts, traditionally perform a Shakespeare play each spring. In 2003 the suggestion was made that they try something more contemporary. Drama teacher Jessica Shulman immediately thought of Our Town. Like Shakespeare's work, the play "has so much room for interpretation," she notes. "The language of many current plays [written for middle-school-age actors] is very pedestrian and doesn't challenge the kids as much as it could. Although the language of Our Town is simple, the phrasing isn't, and the play itself is complex." Shulman had been in Our Town when she was in high school, and at the same time the Day Middle School cast was rehearsing their play, a community theater group also performed it, as did several neighboring schools.
Shulman decided to capture the essence of the play in several ways. The students begin the play in regular clothes, off the stage and close to the audience. "This reinforces the idea that 'our town' could be your town," she explains. The actors enter chatting about being cast in the play. The set is bare, with a few stools standing in for tables or chairs. Each time an actor exits, he or she returns wearing an article of old-fashioned clothing: a bonnet, an apron, a hat. By the end of Act I, the students are in full costume and up on the stage.
The Stage Manager, played by Esther Mobley, worked hard at memorizing her lines. Since she appears in every scene, her role is the most demanding. Esther remained undaunted. "I was very excited," she says, "because I had so much material to work with." To prepare, Esther -- like other cast members -- watched previous film versions or saw a live version. She says she wanted to make the Stage Manager "a person with feelings...the director of this play-within-a-play."
The students initially found the play "not the most dramatic." But as they rehearsed it and got further into their roles, they became the citizens of Grover's Corners. Esther explains, "Every time you [rehearsed], there was so much more." Once they started blocking the play, it went from "boring to amazing," recalls Tess Johnson (Miss Soames). To help the students develop their characters, Shulman held weekly "character conferences," in which the actors discussed their roles and asked questions. She was also able to offer them direction on a one-on-one basis. David Sumberg (George) felt that the character was a "wimp" at first, but then was able to better understand him in an early 20th-century context.
The students appreciated the opportunity to do a play that high school or adult actors usually tackle. Looking back, the cast agreed that it was an ensemble effort. Ari Miller (Howie Newsome) says, "It needs every single person for the play to work -- just like Grover's Corners does." Everyone was impressed by their classmates' ability to stay in character.
The play had an impact on many of their friends and family who came to watch the performance. "One of my friends said she cried at the end," Diana Raiselis (Ensemble) commented. Meredith McLaughlin (Ensemble) agrees: "Either you get it or you don't. If you do get it, it's powerful."
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