By the end of the 1960s, Dramatics again noted strides in theatre quality at the high school level thanks to an emphasis on greater student access to seeing live productions and more diverse training that included musical theatre, improvisation, and Readers Theatre, among other trends.

HIGH SCHOOL THEATRE today is no longer traditional in that the most poorly written and least demanding plays in the play catalogues are no longer the ones selected for production by the drama teachers or play directors. This can be verified by the quality of plays presented a year ago at the National Dramatic Arts Conference held at Indiana University during the week of June 16-22, 1968.

Through education, mass media, local little theatre, and college productions, high school students are aware of the new trends in drama. They are able to see more live shows than ever before, and they are inspired to do plays that offer a challenge in both characterization and staging. Let us examine some of the ideas which may have brought this about.

The use of improvisation has been a factor. It is used extensively with young children in creative dramatics. It is used in the classroom to teach acting, and it may be used by the director in casting and directing. This method frees the young actor to use his imagination in developing a character. Student actors who have been trained in improvisation find it easier to use their imaginative powers and to understand the modern ideas in the theatre.

Duet acting has become popular with high schools both for class work and tournaments. It is nothing more than a short scene of from 10 to 15 minutes in length for two actors without scenery or properties, but the script is memorized, and the actors use stage business. The scene is acted. A duet scene can be arranged for two actors from any long or short play. The actors, because of some restrictions without a set, should try for a flow between them.

To be successful with duet acting, the student needs to read many plays and have the experience of cutting scenes and writing continuity. As he is encouraged to read plays and attend live performances, his taste in theatre improves and his knowledge in theatre background grows. …

Students from Aurora-Hoyt Lakes High School in Minnesota presented a Readers Theatre workshop at the 1966 National Dramatic Arts Conference.
Students from Aurora-Hoyt Lakes High School in Minnesota presented a Readers Theatre workshop at the 1966 National Dramatic Arts Conference.

Another forward look is Readers Theatre. It is a favorite today not only with professionals and colleges but also with high school drama teachers who find it valuable because it can involve many students, introduce them to the best literature, improve voice and diction, and create a sense of poise in performance that is not easy to accomplish with the shy student. It is a means whereby students can be influenced not only to love good literature but also to become tremendously excited over it and wish to share their enthusiasm with other students, their parents, and friends.

Readers Theatre differs from conventional theatre in that the action does not occur onstage but in the imagination of the audience. Scenery and costumes are used sparingly. Numbers taking part may be from two to 50 or more. Stools, levels, and lecterns are used for grouping; sound effects and music are helpful. A script is usually in evidence whether actually used or not. Dress may be choir robes, uniforms, casual dress, or formal dress. Anyone who has seen a production or listened to a recording of Under Milk WoodThe Hollow CrownJohn Brown’s BodyThe World of Carl Sandburg, or Spoon River Anthology knows how exciting this form can be.

It is not difficult to prepare your own script to fit the occasion and purpose. You may use one novelist, one poet, or a combination of writers on a desired subject. Most high school students are introduced to Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology during their high school attendance. This anthology is delightful for group reading because of the many short poems. As you recall, the scene is “The Hill,” a graveyard, and the voices are those of the different townspeople “sleeping on the hill.”

We recently presented A Different Drummer by Gene McKinney. It is a story of a young man’s rebellion against his environment. The play has two speaking groups; one voices the inner thoughts of the young man; the other, the narrator, voices the thoughts of the townspeople. We recommend it for your consideration. …

The 1968 Bakersfield (Calif.) High School production of The Sound of Music.
The 1968 Bakersfield (Calif.) High School production of The Sound of Music.

During the past few years, musical theatre has swept the secondary dramatic field off its feet. Although some directors feel that this form does harm in developing the young dramatic actor, I believe he experiences so many worthwhile facets of the stage that any harm is offset. He learns about “big productions” and how many talented people it takes to swing a musical. He learns about cooperation, split-second timing, body movement, lighting, space staging, costuming, and makeup; he learns how much fun it can be to be in a production that brings both the actor and the audience pleasure.

We have taken inexperienced actors and done Bye Bye Birdie and Half a Sixpence. The young actors developed much faster than expected. They were doing plays about themselves, and they loved it. For more advanced students, we have presented The Sound of Music and Carnival.

Most musical scores, within the range of the high school student, have a dialogue that is clean and without violence. Half a Sixpence was a big success with parents and patrons, not only because it entertains and the young actors were talented, but also because it moved away from degrading humanity.

Improvisation, duet acting, Readers Theatre, and musical theatre are only a few of the modern methods used to help students discover educational theatre. However, they do have a forward approach, open new vistas, and present the involvement that the high school student is seeking.

This story appeared in the April 1969 print version of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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