Teens Tread the Boards: Here’s What Happened
November 30, 2015
Donna Block, Niles Public Library District; Jennifer Cottrill, Midlothian Public Library; Joe Marcantonio, Plainfield Public Library District
Whether teens act, write scripts, direct, construct sets, or design costumes, library theater clubs build capacity for
creative expression and help develop leadership skills. Working with adults and peers on a common project, teens learn to collaborate, appreciate the value of each individual’s contribution, and take pride in a job well done. One great beauty of library teen theater programs is their scalability. They can be run with five kids or fifty, on a generous budget or a shoestring. They can take place on a year-round, seasonal, or one-time basis. Plays can be student-written or professionally published, fifteen minutes in length or an hour. Sets, props, and costumes can be elaborate or minimal.
Niles Public Library District’s Project Playbill brings together teens in grades 7-12 for Project Playbill, the library’s summer theater program. It draws fifteen to thirty participating teens from the surrounding neighborhoods each year, and although teens audition, no one is ever turned away. Project Playbill runs for five weeks, meeting three days a week for two hours each session. The teens work together to write an original thirty-minute play, construct props and costumes, and put on the show. Older participants help by leading warm-up exercises, mentoring younger members, and editing the script. One or two are chosen to serve as directors and run rehearsals, make casting decisions, block each scene, and set the sound and lighting cues. I act mainly as facilitator, making suggestions throughout the process and guiding the teens through dilemmas like: How do we stage the fire in scene seven? (The solution: lots of shiny gold streamers!)
Costumes, props, and sets are modest. The cost of rehearsal snacks, refreshments for the performance, and pizza for the cast party is almost equal to the actual production. Materials that the library would otherwise discard (like cardboard boxes) are used, saving the budget for items like paint, duct tape, lighting equipment, and wigs. Most costumes come from items gathered at home, but a trip to the local thrift shop is usually necessary for a few items (like a blue pinstriped suit … yes, it had to be pinstriped). The library purchased several sewing machines just in time to sew a few costume pieces this summer.
Project Playbill tends to attract a lot of creative, misfit kids who don’t have many outlets to express themselves, and they grow from awkward middle schoolers into confident writers, actors, and artists, working together to accomplish a common goal and make lasting friendships. Some go on to study theater in college, while others are just happy to find a place where they belong. The audience has grown from thirty or forty at the beginning to seventy or eighty the past few years. Hearing their first wave of laughter roll across the room always gives me a thrill.
Midlothian Public Library’s Teens in Theatre (TNT) is an ethnically mixed group, drawing almost equal numbers of African American, Caucasian, and Latino teens in grades 7-12, including homeschoolers and students from several different junior high and high schools serving Midlothian and the surrounding communities. Our production schedule has evolved to include three plays a year: Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and in the summer. The Halloween and Valentine’s Day plays are small-scale affairs, performed in our meeting room during library hours to an audience of about forty people. Sets, props, and costumes are simple and low budget, and students put in about ten two-hour evening rehearsals. The summer play is the crown jewel of the TNT year, performed after-hours in the main library space to an audience of about a hundred. Sets and costumes are more elaborate, but still low budget, with more rehearsal time.
TNT’s Halloween and Valentine’s Day are usually student written, while the summer play usually has a professionally written script. All of TNT’s plays are student-directed, one to two directors per production in charge of running auditions and rehearsals under adult supervision. But the artistic vision for the play belongs to the student directors, and the sense of responsibility, authority, and ownership developed by the student directors gets passed on to the entire cast and crew. The shared commitment to the production generated by the cultivation of student leadership is one of TNT’s greatest strengths.
Plainfield Public Library District’s Teen Drama Group runs monthly for grades 6-12, and each summer we put on a full-scale production. The program has evolved significantly since its inception and has grown to become one of the most popular programs offered for teens. Nine years ago, as the first teen librarian in Plainfield, I inherited the annual Murder Mystery from the adults that had botched the play so badly that management believed the teens had to be able to do a better job. I had zero play experience prior to running my first show, but like any good teen librarian: you fake it till you make it. I would adapt the adult murder mysteries for teens, basically taking out all the sexual innuendos. The teens were my biggest asset and helped me learn the ropes rather quickly, plus the parents that attended the performance loved it regardless of quality because they love their kids.
A chance encounter four years ago led to enlisting a part-time children’s theater director, who became the director of our summer play and took it to an entirely new level—more elaborate sets, costumes, and dialogue instead of monologues. She then took over the monthly improv group and turned it into a drama club, which helped the teens to hone their skills, thus improving their abilities for the annual summer performance.
We went from contacting teens and begging them to be in our play to holding auditions of fifty teens for about fifteen roles. Attendance went from being just parents and friends to standing-room-only crowds. This summer’s play was our best yet. Using the iREAD theme Read to the Rhythm, we performed a musical with a script purchased from Pioneer Drama. A bake sale run in conjunction with the play donates the proceeds to the library foundation, and our donor wall includes “Annual Play Cast and Crew” dating back to 2008. Returning actors come in and find their year on the donor wall and proudly say, “I was part of that performance.”
There are many ways to engage teens in theater in public libraries. Design a program that works for your setting, your teens, and the adults who are committed to guiding and nurturing them. Library theater clubs give teens an opportunity to discover, develop, and take pride in their unique abilities as they learn to collaborate with others—above, beyond, and outside of the confines of what generally takes place in schools, creating experiential learning that lasts a lifetime.