Edited by Justin Chanda
“The Bad Room” by Patricia MacLachlan
“The Raven” by Sharon Creech
“The Billionaire and the Bird” by Katherine Paterson
“The Dollop” by Susan Cooper
“Effigy in the Outhouse” by Richard Peck
“Not Seeing is Believing” by Avi
For this collection, editor Justin Chanda persuaded six Newbery Award-winning authors to write a one-act play and asked each to pick a word. All six words had to be incorporated into each play’s dialogue. The word “dollop,” for example, shows up as the name of pet cat; a synonym for contract minutiae, a spoonful of mayonnaise; a titular rock creature; a ghostly substitute teacher’s last name; and an amount of kindness. This unifying device is a bit “gimmicky,” but it’s unobtrusive in most cases. (The word “knuckleball” ends up being an anachronism in “The Effigy in the Outhouse,” but how many people can pinpoint the year of a word’s origin?) In addition, although playwriting is a new genre for four of the authors (Susan Cooper and Richard Peck have screenwriting credits), their experiences in literature for young people results in mostly successful works.
The target reading audience for Acting Out is older elementary and middle school students; I think the target viewing audience is in that age range as well. All six plays can be easily read and produced; they would make a good introduction to dramatic literature in an English or Language Arts class. For a theatre class, each piece has many possibilities: Reader’s Theatre, scene work, in-class production projects, or public performance. The humor and situations are accessible to fluent readers, with some challenging vocabulary.
Older elementary and middle school students, with teacher support, could meet the production requirements for talent, staging, and theater technology. The casts range from 4 (“The Billionaire and The Bird”) to 11+ (“The Effigy in the Outhouse”), with evenly-distributed male and female roles. Students can build most roles from already-familiar territory; nearly all of the characters are children, parents, or teachers. There’s even an unseen voice for the actor who’s not yet ready to show his face in “Not Seeing is Believing.” Sets require basic furniture and a few walls and windows; the two outdoor scenes need only shrubbery (and a gravestone). There are a handful of special effects across the scripts; kids interested in engineering would have fun creating a mechanical bird, a growing rock formation, and moving furniture.
The dialogue and situations should pass all but the strictest scrutiny from parents and administrators. In “Bad Room,” students are in in-school suspension for laughable offenses: bringing a dog to school; not doing homework; labelling a classmate “miscreant;” talking too much in class; not talking at all in class; and “annoying” the teacher. The schoolkids in “Effigy in the Outhouse” pull pranks worthy of the Little Rascals, but they all backfire.
Delightfully, the performance rights page states, “It is the current intention of the applicable rights holders that performance rights for any not-for-profit productions performed in a school will be granted free of charge, provided an official request is made prior to the performance to the appropriate agent.” In short, your school could produce these pieces without paying for performance rights. There are other “royalty-free” play collections written for performance by the same age range, but it’s rare to find one with so many usable pieces. The six plays in Acting Out have recognizable authors, good dialogue, and mostly believable characters, making this collection a must-have for the bookshelves of drama teachers working with elementary school and middle school kids.
Although some of these plays would work with a mixed-age cast, I’d advise against a cast of high school students performing these plays for a younger audience; there’s not enough of a challenge here for teenagers.