1.) Introduction / 2.) Idea / 3.) Preparation / 4.) Playwriting / 5.) Rehearsal / 6.) Performance / 7.) Post Mortem / Appendix 1--Brainstorms / Appendix 2--The Play

"Post Mortem"

In the week following the play, I held a "post mortem" with each class.  We discussed the success of the play, and also the trials and tribulations of the process that led up to the successful performance.  With each class, I began by mentioning that I had received a great deal of positive feedback about the play, and that one of the best things I had heard, from parents and teachers alike, was, "I really think we learned something about the Oregon Trail from this play."  Why, I asked the students, do you think this play was different from other class plays you have seen?  What made it so successful?  Why did people feel they had learned so much?  When I use questioning in this way I try not to cheat and supply the answers to my own questions, and I didn't have to.  The boys were remarkably quick to pick out important qualities of the plays.  Generally, each class came up with some variation of the following list:
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I was extremely pleased by the depth of understanding the boys reached when discussing the qualities of the play that had made it so successful. Even more encouraging was their understanding of the process that had led us to that success.  I had an inkling of this before our "post mortems."  Parents--several of them--had come up to me and said what astonished them most was that when they asked their sons how they had written the play, the boys were able to give them very detailed and clear descriptions of what they had done.  That is by no means always the case in a project of this kind.  So when I asked the boys to talk about the process, I was not really surprised by what I heard.  We agreed that it had not always been easy, and not always fun.  I talked honestly about the way I had felt when the classroom teachers said things like, "I can't have my boys perform this," and when I learned that my students had taken advantage of my trust.  I mentioned individual boys (not by name) whose "big scenes" had been cut during the editing process.  The boys brought up some questions about particular editorial decisions, and I tried to answer them frankly and completely.  Then I brought up the idea that professional playwrights usually go through the same kinds of trials and setbacks in their own writing, and that we had actually learned a lot about the real process of writing a play.
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Our Upper School theatre department produces at least one production of Theatre for Young Audiences every year, and twice we have done one of my own plays.  Since most of the boys had seen the more recent of these productions, I was able to talk to them about my own process in a way that they could understand.  I told them (which was perfectly true) that Ernie's Place had been through around forty drafts.  I talked about the time I cut more than a third of the play in one fell swoop.  They were really interested, because they could compare their own experiences to mine.  It is often difficult for me to get a whole class to hold a give-and-take conversation without it developing into chaos, but that time it worked with all three groups.  The conversation moved freely, the boys were interested and contributing intelligently, and we all learned something.
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Despite the mistakes and the occasional panic and frustration, I think this project was one of the most successful I have tried.  If I were to do it again, I would certainly make changes.  Most importantly, I would try much harder to maintain the chains of communication between all of the teachers involved. That this didn't happen in this case was the result of faults on all sides, but let's face it--I should have made sure it did.  I have discovered (not only at this school) that while classroom teachers and others are usually willing to be as helpful as the drama teachers needs them to be, they have other things on their minds besides the drama project, and it just makes better sense for the drama teacher to take the responsibility for keeping everything up and running.  (In other words, don't wait for someone to ask what's going on, if you think they ought to know.)  Also, I would be much more vigilant about what the boys were writing, right from the beginning of the project.  Even though I think the experience of rewriting and editing was educational, I don't think anyone really needs a repeat of the recriminations that accompanied the discovery that the students had deviated from the facts as they had been taught them.  All in all, though, I was very pleased with the way the project worked, and I encourage other teachers to try similar exercises with your students.  Good luck.

APPENDIX

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