Being a part of a school production could be one of the most exciting events in a student’s life but with it may also come a big bag of stress.
For tweens or teens, the drama that happens in the play can easily spill out beyond the stage into the other areas of life. After all, it’s a developmental stage when hills can feel like a mountain! Add COVID to the mix, and it can have the makings of a perfect storm.
On the flip side, being a part of the show can also build-up a child’s confidence, consolidate a growth mindset, resilience, and expand their friendship circle; therefore, becoming the tide that lifts all boats.
Wherever their emotional ship might sail, how we weave social emotional learning into the production process can help young cast members feel seen, heard, and supported. Plus, choosing a piece that resonates with the actors and audience can create a meaningful impact in the community.
Here are the eight ways that we wove SEL in the middle school production at the International School of Beijing.
1. Choose material that connects with SEL themes that students can relate to.
(Because of COVID restrictions, consider the production elements and allow for flexibility in case the show needs to move online.)
China has a ‘dynamic zero’ COVID policy. Thus, there were many factors that I had to consider in choosing a piece for this year’s drama production.
“What if we had to go online?
What if parents cannot watch the show?
What if ASAs (after school activities) and therefore, rehearsals are cancelled?””
Despite these uncertain thoughts, we planned and hoped that a show would happen and thankfully, it did.
“The Audition” by Dan Zolidis (rights and materials from Playscript, Inc) was the timely choice. It was a behind the scenes look at the joys and challenges of auditioning and the students who brave the process to get a part.
I chose The Audition because:
The themes of the play connected with the ISB SEL framework through relatable characters that resonated with both the actors and the audience.
The fun factor always matters in middle school.
2. Schedule the show during the school day.
Having the show during the school day guarantees a sold-out audience, therefore removing the marketing and promotional responsibilities from the drama teacher with the pressure of filling seats for a performance during uncertain COVID times.
Plus, it was a big boost to get kids interested in drama and the performing arts.
Honestly, I wish I thought about this sooner!
3. Analyze the script using a clear SEL framework.
As the director, I divided the play into small bits and mapped-out the scenes onto a big whiteboard for our creative team to see and analyze.
We then used the ISB SEL framework to identify the specific theme/s for each scene.
Our stage manager, Bec Taylor, then facilitated a workshop that led the cast to analyze their scenes and characters using the same framework.
This process gave the whole team clarity on what the scenes and the show was about.
4. Invite a counselor to a rehearsal for a stress management workshop.
Being a part of the production is a big commitment for students as they try to juggle rehearsals with their academic load, sports, other after school activities, home expectations, and their social life.
The grade 8 counselor, Kara Haines, gave a stress management workshop to the cast where she asked kids to identify the things that they needed to do whenever they start to feel overwhelmed. The cast brainstormed strategies that they can use to deal with stressful situations and how to support each other through it.
5. Build community through joyful and challenging experiences in the rehearsal process.
Build community through regular check-ins, pep talks, warm-ups, and games that are embedded in the ritual of the rehearsal process.
Also, asking for a parent to volunteer to coordinate with the other parents was helpful in organizing some of the special experiences surrounding production time.
Our ISB Admissions Director, Nicole Washko, volunteered to be our parent coordinator and she communicated with the parents of the cast and crew to organize a luncheon for everyone during the performance days.
The parents also invited wrote letters that they gave on opening night and organized a cast party, after the final performance. They loved being involved in celebrating the success of their children.
6. Create a mentoring lesson or a check-in inspired by the show, that teachers can use in their mentoring class to unpack the themes, scenes, and issues in the play.
I collaborated with our assistant principal, Ruth Paulsen, to create a mentoring session that all teachers can use to unpack the play with their class. The students dug into how theater became a window, mirror, and sliding door into their lives, and helped them make connections with the characters.
The art teacher, Steve Northcott, created a check-in inspired by the characters in the play.
7. Ask for audience feedback and share it with the cast.
The mentoring lesson invited students to respond to the show by writing a note to the cast.
For example, Grace wrote: “Thanks for preparing the show; it was great! I feel like there is at least one aspect of each character that are alive in all of us.” The cast and crew heard and read how their performance impacted others, making them realize the power of theater.
8. Celebrate the show by watching the show recording and wrap it up with a gratitude circle.
Every step of the production process can be a teachable moment. From the audition, audition workshop, casting, rehearsal, dress-tech, performance, cast party and even, after the curtain ends, the learning can continue.
Taking time to celebrate and recognize what the students have accomplished - the hard things they faced and overcame, the growth they have made, and the friendships they built along the way - is a valuable step to reflect on their theatrical journey.
We did this through a movie screening of the play followed by a gratitude circle, so that we could cement the experience in their young hearts and minds.
Seventh grader, Andrew, shared:
“Drama has made me step into a brand new world. I still remembered in 6th Grade Drama, I was that shy guy that did not want to express himself. I was afraid of other’s comments and thoughts, I was afraid I would get judged, and I was afraid that I didn’t do my best. Look at now, the moment “The Audition” ended, I felt like a completely different person. It’s like magic. Poof. My fears were all gone. I became myself, and the person I always wanted to be. This journey was not easy. At the start of the production, I was not pleased by the role I got and I felt that I didn’t give enough. I wanted to quit but I didn’t. But the moment I stepped on stage and gave it a shot, I felt that I have already succeeded on doing something only a few can do. It was also incredibly amazing to become friends with the ones that had the same interests as me. We all laughed, cried, and sunk into deep thoughts throughout these months. I couldn’t have made it through without all the help of all my friends and team members.”
“The play has not only opened up new experiences for me but has also changed me as a person for the better. I am more confident and I get to express myself in ways I never thought I could. I remember the first time stepping onto the stage and seeing hundreds of people. Some people might freak out and run off the stage; but for me, it was the best feeling in the world. I love drama.”
Weaving SEL into the production process paves the way for a transformative impact that could last longer after the curtains closes; so much so that eight grader Sixing concluded that, “There’s a maxim in China: “One minute on stage, ten years backstage.” Although exaggerated, it does seem to apply to my theatre experience. I dedicate a full season of the school year to the annual production. While I always feel the euphoria from performing live and making many friends each year, I have never been prouder of myself than when I recently performed in The Audition...Middle School Productions changes lives.”
Photo Credit: Zhibang Liu and Steve Northcott
Photos published with permission from the MS cast parents (International School of Beijing)
"The Audition" by Don Zolidis was performed with permission from Playscripts, Inc.