Step One--Analysis  |  Step Two--Improvising  |  Step Three--Dialogue  |  Stage Directions/Narrators


Group Playwriting Project

This plan assumes that the STORY of the play has been predetermined. The STORY can be a familiar or new folktale or fairy story ("The Three Little Pigs"), a simple true historical narrative with which students are conversant (the story of the Great Compromise), or a story taken from a picture or storybook. (Caution is advised when using books protected by copyright, however. While it is perfectly permissible to use such books for classroom exercises, performance of copyrighted material is a reserved right, and, contrary to popular belief, the legal definition of "performance" does not depend on whether admission is charged or profit is made, and there is no mention anywhere in copyright law of "educational purposes."  Any "public" exhibition of the story counts. In practice, as long as the audience is solely an invited one, no admission is charged and the performance is not advertised to the public, you are unlikely to have problems, particularly since performances of this type are exceedingly common in schools, but technically even then you're in violation of the law.) Sometimes I begin this project by leading the students to create their own original story, but that is another project dealt with elsewhere.  (See Group Story.)  This project is all about making a play out of an existing story. It takes several class sessions to write the play, even before any "rehearsing" takes place, and I do not always follow the writing of a play with a performance, although this is often great fun. One thing I always do is to present the students at the end of the project (and sometimes several times during it) with a professional-looking script, properly formatted and typeset, and bearing the names of all of the members of the class (NOT simply a legend like "Miss Clark's Class") on the first page in the author's space. (I think this is an important point. It gives all the students ownership in the work, and gives them a really impressive artifact to take home and display or save, and at the same time helps to educate them about proper formatting, the importance of editing, and the way a play works.) Inevitably a group will want to "put on" the play they have written, even if only in class, but I spend the bulk of my time on the writing because it is both more creative and more inclusive (since everyone can't play the lead) than the production of the play.


I use the blackboard (actually in my classroom it's a marker board) throughout this project, although I have tried to get my school to spring for the equipment that would allow me to use my laptop instead, projected onto a large screen. Either way works, but if you have the technology I think there are two advantages to using the computer--one for you and one for your students. For the students, the use of technology makes the project seem more important and more exciting. For the teacher, it saves time, particularly if you are teaching a number of different classes every day. Since I cannot just leave the material on the board from lesson to lesson (since I need the board for other classes in the interim), I must frantically type everything into my computer (of course writing it on paper would work too, but I type faster than I write) at the end of each class, to save it for next time. This is often a major pain because our school schedule does not include flex time in between periods, so I am generally faced with ushering one group in just as the last is leaving. Also, although I have no way to really test this theory, my students are always telling me (with appropriate sense of wonder) that I write "really, really fast" on the board. If it is true that I write measurably faster than most teachers, then I may have designed a lesson plan that works only for me, because even I am constantly aware that the time it takes to write on the board is slowing me down. In any case, I think the project works perfectly well with a board, but if the technology is available to you, I heartily suggest you take advantage of it. In any case everything must eventually find its way into your computer if you are to print out the professional-looking script I like to end the project with.


Note:  Like many of the lesson plans on this site, this one was developed while I was working at a boys' school, which is reflected in the nouns and pronouns in the narrative.  This should not be taken to imply that it will only work with boys.


Step One-Analysis

Having become familiar with the story, we start out by brainstorming several lists on the board:


Who are the CHARACTERS in the story? (Three Pigs, Wolf, Mother Pig)


What are the SETTINGS? (The woods.)


What are the EVENTS in the story. (The point here is to come up with a brief outline of the plot.)


The first two lists are easy, but the third needs some explanation. With first-graders, for example, you can't just ask, "What are the events in the story?" If you get anything at all, it will probably not be a narrative list of plot points. What I do is to start by saying, "What is the FIRST THING THAT HAPPENS in our story?"" And I write it down. (Mother Pig tells the Three Pigs they have to move out.) "Okay, good. Now, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?" At this point you will get a large variation of what I call "degrees of next." Some will say, "They don't want to go," (which I think is too specific--it's really part of the first event) while others will say, "They all build houses," (which I think is too general--it's really several events). I try to respect every response, while gently coaching the students to come up with responses of an appropriate order of magnitude. (There are an infinite number of "right" responses, naturally. One might be, "the first pig makes a house of straw.") I try not to have a specific idea of how the outline should go.  In this example, for instance, it's up in the air whether the next event is the building of the second house or the destruction of the first.  It depends on the version of the story you've internalized.   But a principle I hold is that just because there is no one "right" answer to a question does not necessarily mean that every answer is right. If we have agreed as a class that we're telling the story of "The Three Little Pigs," I won't allow space aliens. (On the other hand, we could choose to do a story like that.) The point is that this project is about making a play from a story, not about making up the story. Throughout the project, once we have settled and agreed upon a detail as a class, I won't allow the group to change that detail. This may seem harsh, and some teachers might ignore it with great success, but I have found that, at least with my particular boys, it is important to keep moving forward if the project is going to come to a successful conclusion. (This is especially important if we are writing a play to be performed at an already scheduled assembly, and therefore have a deadline.) If I don't sit on them, the boys are perfectly capable of becoming mired forever in re-thinking and re-doing the previous steps of the process, rather than focusing on the current one. HOWEVER, and this is paramount, I never disparage or belittle that impulse. I try to value it by saying something like, "You could write another version of the story yourself, and try out your idea, because it's a good one. It's just not what we agreed upon for this version."


Step one usually takes up a whole class period, and results in a list of characters, a list of settings (this one's not always necessary) and a rough outline of the plot. More importantly, though, it results in a class full of kids who have really thought about the mechanics of the story, often in ways they never have before.


Step Two-Improvising

We begin to deal with just one item from our outline at a time. Usually I start with the first one, but not necessarily.

I write it on the board. Scene One: Mother Pig tells the Three Pigs they have to move out.


Then I choose the requisite number of students (in this case four) and ask them to act out the scene. I might do this several times with different groups, trying to involve as many students as possible.


Important note: the biggest problem I have at this stage is that students think that being asked to "play" a particular character in an improvisation somehow means they will "get" or "have" to play that character in the performance. I have to continually remind the class that what we are doing is WRITING A PLAY, and that it has nothing to do with the eventual performance of that play. I don't know if all groups will have that problem, but it's best to nip it in the bud.


As the groups perform, the whole class brainstorms ways to refine the plot. (At first you'll probably get a very short scene consisting of Mother Pig saying, "You have to move out," and the other three shuffling out in silence.) I coach the group with questions like, "Is she just going to come out with it like that?" "How do you think the pigs feel now?" "Do you think they should say anything?" When possible, I like to give students who are not currently "performing" first crack at questions like these. What is aimed for is a model in which the seated students are coaching the performers themselves.


It is important to note that while dialogue will surely result at this point, I don't write it down yet. This step in the process if for cataloging the fine points of the outline. What ends up on the board will be something like the following:


Scene One: Mother Pig tells the Three Pigs they have to move out

Mother Pig has the little pigs sit down.

She tells them that they're all grown up now, and they have to move out.

The first and second pig complain bitterly, but Mother Pig is firm.

The third pig is confident.

The three pigs leave to go make houses for themselves.


I repeat this process for each event in the outline. This can take several class periods if the story is long.


Step Three-Dialogue

Before this step I try to do a fair amount of preparation. If possible, I like to have a draft "script" printed up with copies for the students. This script looks exactly like a professional acting script, except that there is no dialogue and the stage directions are overwritten. Where I think dialogue should go, I write DIALOGUE. The stage directions are written by me, but I try to mirror the language used in our group outline. Part of the script from our example might look like this:



By Tommy Hilfiger, Mike Doonesbury, Freddie Kruger, etc.


Cast of Characters

Mother Pig

First Little Pig

Second Little Pig

Third Little Pig

Big Bad Wolf


Scene One


(The forest, inside Mother Pig's house. Mother Pig has called her three children together.  They sit listening to her.  She means to tell them it's time they set out on their own.)




(Two of the Little Pigs really don't want to go.)



(The Three Little Pigs leave the house forever.)


Scene Two



There is no title yet, because I usually tell my students it is best to make up the title last, since that way you know exactly what it is naming. (In the same way a puppy's name is more likely to be appropriate if you wait until you actually see the puppy to name him.) The reason for the over-written stage directions will become apparent later.


I hand out the scripts and we read them together. I explain what is meant by "DIALOGUE"--a process that takes more or less effort depending on the sophistication of the students. (If they're fifth-graders I don't really need to explain.) I also take the opportunity at this point to make sure there are no errors or deletions in the names of the playwrights. That way when we're all finished, I can present the students with a finished script that will not have such errors.


Once again we take the scenes one at a time.


Each time we come to DIALOGUE, the class brainstorms who speaks and what, exactly, they should say. I coach them as much as necessary and as little as possible. All the dialogue is written on the board, and changed or adjusted as we fine-tune it. If we encounter a scene that is hard to write, we might ask a few students to act it out, and try out different lines, to see if we like them.


Always once we're "finished" with a scene, I have a few students act it out (in the style of a staged reading, with me reading the stage directions out loud) to make sure the lines work in context and "flow" well. Often further fine-tuning results.


We do this with every scene. It can take several periods. Then we make up a title.



Stage Directions/Narrators

One thing you have probably noticed is that there are only five roles in the example play. That's because there are only that many characters in the story, and it would be difficult to add enough characters for a whole class to play a role without seriously altering the story.* This doesn't necessarily bother me, because the point of the exercise is really the creative work of writing the play--not about any performance.  If the project is not leading to a public performance, I simply have the students perform for each other several times, until everyone has had a chance. The fact is that even those plays with "roles for everyone" tend to have one or two big roles and a dozen tiny ones. There is really no way to avoid the problem that some students get more stage time than others. What's great about this project is that even students who don't play a big acting role can feel justifiably proud of their contribution, because they wrote the play. When they hear another student performing a line they wrote, the thrill is just as big as if they were performing a line written by someone else.


HOWEVER, I am frequently placed in a position of needing to give everyone an individual line. In public performances, when the audience consists largely of the parents of the class, this is a political necessity. Often I solve this problem by creating large numbers of NARRATORS. I would be considerably less comfortable doing this if the play were not written by the class, but I have found that I almost never run into hurt feelings, because of the ownership everyone takes in the project. (Also, of course, I take every available opportunity in production to give the students non-speaking action and to involve them in set-making, etc.) Now you know why the stage directions above are overwritten--t makes them easier to turn into narration lines. Usually all I have to do is change the tense from present to past. (Naturally I could just write them that way to begin with, but when they are formatted as stage directions, I want them to be correctly expressed as stage directions.  I try always to model correct format and presentation in any writing exercise.)  The resultant script might look something like this:



By Tommy Hilfiger, Mike Doonesbury, Freddie Kruger, etc.


Cast of Characters

Mother Pig

First Little Pig

Second Little Pig

Third Little Pig

Big Bad Wolf


Scene One


(The forest, inside Mother Pig's house.  Mother Pig has called her three children together.  They sit listening to her.)



One day, Mother Pig called her three children together.



She wanted to tell them it was time they left home.



Now, boys, you know you're grown up now. It's time you set out on your own. And you'll have to make your own houses.



Two of the Little Pigs really didn't want to go.



We don't wanna!



Awe, Mom, do we have to?



But the Third Little Pig understood.



Mom's right, guys. Let's go.


(The Three Little Pigs leave the house forever.)


Scene Two



(Now, as a professional playwright I would never write a play this way--narrators are almost never a good stylistic choice, and in the above example they're not even needed, since the existing dialogue tells us all we really need to know.   That's why I only add narrators this way if I'm required to come up with a part for everyone.  But it solves the problem fairly neatly, and God knows the parents are used to plays written this way, from all the hideous pre-written, royalty-free plays their children's previous classes have put on.)


*There's nothing wrong with taking a classic story and reworking it so that it has more characters.  I do it myself sometimes, since I principally write plays intended for production by young people--a genre which, in sharp contrast to plays intended to be performed by professional actors, prefers large casts with plenty of roles to go around.  However, that's an exercise that seems to me to be outside the scope of this project, so I tend to prefer to stick to the plot of the source material.


AUTHOR'S NOTE:  Funnily enough, during my most recent update of this site, I discovered this project and the made-up example play above, and about fell out of my chair laughing.  I'd completely forgotten that I'd used "The Three Little Pigs" as an example when writing up this project all those years ago.  The reason it's funny is that one of my most popular new plays (written at least ten years after this lesson plan) is the musical One Smart Pig--even the title is the same--which tells the story of the Three Pigs but expands it to involve many more characters and ideas.  For example, it gives Mother Pig--in the musical she's called "Mother Sow"--a motivation for kicking her young out--she's overheard the farmer and his wife discussing the fact that they're getting almost big enough to be turned into pork chops (which makes Mother Sow a more sympathetic character and adds two extra roles--the farmer and his wife).  It also has a large collection of forest animals who help the pigs and give advice (that two of them ignore) about survival.  So when I was reviewing this page and came to my remark that it would be difficult to add a large cast to "The Three Little Pigs," I had to laugh--especially since I really didn't alter the plot much at all to achieve it.  I still agree with my original conclusion, though, that it's best not to do that in this project.


Real Examples

Just to show you that this project really works, I've included links below to two plays that were actually generated through this project.  (The only difference between the examples linked to here and the plays the children took home with them--and, in one case, performed--is that those scripts had all of the playwrights listed under the title, rather than simply "by Ms. Rose's Class."  I took the names out here for the sake of the students' privacy.)