Lights, Curtain, Cue Lines
How do you use theater and drama in youth ministry?
In the summer of 2008, I directed a local community theater adaptation of the story of “Robin Hood.” It was a multi-aged, incredibly talented, thirty-plus cast, with a production budget of nearly…well, next to nothing. At the same time, in the midst of all this chaos, I also planned my August wedding. That’s right. Chaos. The wedding was a cast of hundreds with a budget only a little bigger than next to nothing. I smile now. My father called me one day and said, “How are you? Is the wedding getting to be stressful?” I said honestly, “No. It’s actually…,” and I paused with realization. “It’s actually like directing a play.” And it was, and it really, really is.
Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to discredit our wedding day by comparing it to a play or a skit. Our wedding wasn’t a production in the sense that it was fake. It was a blessed, true day because of what God does in marriage and what marriage represents in the Church. But, let me tell you the truth. The details, the planning, the directing…it’s all very much the same thing. Not everything happens according to plan. Not everybody remembers their cues. Not everybody’s “costumes” look good. Not everybody comes, and yet we very work hard to make the day very special. We know that the reason for the logistics, the financial investment, and the cooperation is only to ensure that everybody involved can and will spend the celebration focused on one thing: on the fact that God has and is doing wonderful, holy things in the lives of this newly unified couple. The goal of using theater and drama in youth ministry is different, but the people involved have a similar purpose: to do everything possible to remove distractions to ensure that the audience focuses on and hears the Gospel. It takes strategic, creative, and grace-filled planning.
So, how do we use theater and drama in youth ministry (especially without getting extremely frustrated, highly anxious, and an ulcer), and how can we avoid the pitfalls before they happen? It all boils down to effectively utilizing these three steps:
- Selecting a theologically-sound script and assembling a cohesive and responsible cast and crew.
- Planning and outlining your flexible rehearsal schedule.
- Forgetting (and not forgetting) the details.
It’s a lot to take in, I know. So, let’s unwrap these critical steps together.
Select a theologically-sound script.
As I said in my previous article, “Theater & Drama in Ministry: With Them For Them,” there are fundamental reasons we use theater (the activity of acting in, producing, directing or writing plays) and drama (an exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events) in youth ministry. Ultimately, it is important to keep Biblical education a priority. Combat the world, which is fighting to belittle and invalidate the Law and Gospel. Speak louder than some of those opposing voices so that the youth will be equipped with Truth when they set out into the world that hates and fears Jesus. The theology of your plays and skits is important. The majority of “Christian” resources online are shallow and Scripture-less. As I said in my previous article, “wisely assess the materials you find, seek close and trusted resources with or in fellowship with your church body, and critically examine what you already have with colleagues whenever possible…when the theology of the cross becomes convoluted, when it leaves the young person (or any audience member) questioning grace, the validity of Jesus’ message, and the eternal life He offers through His death and resurrection, we have failed to do what we set out to do: to teach young people about Jesus and about the salvation that is theirs through Christ alone. Don’t sacrifice quality for hype. Teach first. Always teach.”
Assemble your cast and crew.
When you’ve chosen a script (whether it be a full-length play to highlight a part of the church season, or a simple skit used to illustrate a Sunday School lesson or lectionary text), begin to assemble your cast and crew. Never be afraid to ask anybody. Sometimes, individuals don’t even know that this kind of opportunity is available, and sometimes shy congregants need to be told that they are capable of doing something new. Choose a mix of experienced and inexperienced. If everyone is inexperienced, use this opportunity to encourage the group to learn together by trial and error. Nobody is perfect. No character in a play is perfect, unless intended to be. Remind your cast (and crew, as it’s just as vital for them to understand) that theater is seen as just another way of interpreting real life, real people, real circumstances, real sin, and real grace on stage! They already know how to be people, so encourage your actors to be different people in different circumstances with different goals. The crew and technicians might already know how to do their task (run the soundboard, the lights, etc.) but now is their chance to help best tell the story using the gifts that God has given to them. As a beginner, cast or crew, there really is no wrong way to begin. Standing up in front of a group of even two or more with a script in hand, or flipping an overhead light on and off for dramatic effect, is theater and drama. There are so many possibilities!
Plan, outline, and be flexible with your rehearsal schedule.
If you intend to produce a short skit for a Sunday School lesson, it is still important to rehearse. If you are intending to produce a full-length, large-cast Christmas production, than it’s absolutely necessary to rehearse more than a day or two. Most of the stress that comes from directing a production (and even those small, seemingly uninvolved skits) comes from the fear that nobody will be ready. How will you know that everybody is absolutely ready? How can you be certain that the show will do well? Actually, you can’t be certain. It’s just not possible. In fact, the sooner you dismiss that idea, the calmer you’ll be on opening night. Encourage, be patient, and then trust.
Look at the size of your script. If it’s a simple 2 to 3 page skit and you don’t need your actors to be memorized (as in, they’ll be reading from the script in front of a Sunday School class), then meeting an hour before Sunday School is sufficient to run the lines, manage some blocking (this is the “map” the actors will follow when they say certain lines or do certain things), and run the skit two or three times. That’s about as prepared as you can get. Over-rehearsing something like this won’t necessarily hinder your purpose, but it could take the fun out of the process for your volunteers.
If you have a larger project to direct, like a full-length Christmas production, don’t overestimate the amount of time you’ll need and don’t underestimate your volunteers. Plan about 4 weeks of rehearsals (about 2 days a week) with at least one evening prior to opening night for two full run-throughs (dress rehearsal night) or two evenings of dress rehearsal with one full run-through each. Select an option according to the ages and attention spans of your actors and crew members. Always end rehearsals before 10:00 p.m. and always end on time, or early. Actors and crew members return for additional productions if they can trust what you say about their allotted time commitments.
Ultimately, it is the actor’s jobs to be prepared. It is the crew members’ jobs to know his or her lighting and sound cues and to know how to respond to technical emergencies. They are the show. As a director, the ultimate goal is to sit back on dress rehearsal night with a hot, hand-delivered latte (yes, I do politely and humbly assign a parent or a stage manager this very important task) and watch the show! By this point everybody should know what to do. By this point, you should have enough hands backstage and in front of the stage to be able to handle emergencies, technical issues, costume malfunctions, misplaced props, broken set pieces, missing people, and nervous and nauseated lead actors to allow you the rest of the night off. This is not intended to be done out of selfishness. This actually communicates trust to your capable and dedicated cast and crew. It shows them that you believe that they are able to do the things you’ve asked them to do. This speaks volumes, and I promise it’ll bring them back for more. It also trains your volunteers to self-evaluate. Allow them to see their mishaps, their missed cues, their mess-ups. Following any rehearsal you have the opportunity to ask them to tell you what needs to be fixed. Helping them direct themselves is a sign of a proficient and efficient theater and drama director.
Don’t and do forget the details.
This doesn’t make sense at first glance, but allow me to explain. I have seen some weary directors and teachers so concerned about little details that children are no longer having fun. Volunteers quit when the stress level gets to be too high for silly, disorganized reasons. In fact, the return rate of volunteers plummets when directors get worked up over minute issues. Nobody likes to be spoon-fed lines, emotions, or creative interpretation. No one likes a shouting director. No one trusts a nervous guide. Nobody comes back to a person that makes them feel like their contribution is only useful when contributing to someone else’s ego. Allow your volunteers the freedom to take part in the telling of the message by contributing parts of who they are, by listening and even using some of their own personal suggestions, and by giving them responsibilities. Be a director by making those final, critical decisions, but be a teacher, too, by praising their gifts and giving them chances to use those gifts for the glory of God our Father.
At the same time, don’t forget the important details. There are a number of details that make each director unique to themselves, and this is a chance for you to share a little bit of you and your love for your volunteers. Think about their needs. Think about their job, and what it must be like to try to accomplish it. Provide ways for them to do that job even better by making obstacles disappear. For example: I was shooting an independent film the summer of 2015. We were scheduled to be on location for a week. Hours of behind-the-scenes work, hours of shooting, hours of fatigue. I knew, as I organized and scheduled and planned, that a part of my pre-production responsibilities would need to include scheduling nourishment. Food is vital. The health and stamina of volunteers should always be a priority. So, I assigned a trusted and intentional friend the job of living on site with us for the week who would then take provided funds and feed us. That’s it. Her job was to have breakfast hot, lunch delivered, and dinner whenever our late-afternoon, messed-up shooting schedule would allow for it. She was absolutely vital in seeing this project through to the end, and she made it easier for everybody involved to focus on their tasks.
On that note, take every opportunity to thank your volunteers.
Leave them notes of encouragement or buy them flowers for opening night. Gift a small token of your gratitude to the entire cast and crew if you are producing a show around Christmas time. Love and love and love on them some more, and don’t forget to thank the parents for their support. Plan snacks for the dressing rooms, provide dinner for long rehearsal evenings. When directing skits, provide specialized binders for their scripts with their names on them, or bless them with a hot, morning coffee from the local coffee shop. In all these things, the goal is to bless and love and show gratitude. You are unique, and you have a unique way of showing your love to others. Explore that and bless them!
With all these things, it is absolutely essential to remember to pray.
We often get so caught up in our preparations that we forget why we do what we do. We love Jesus so much, but our excitement for the product and the people and the production often throw us off balance, and perfection becomes our god. Pray for peace, first. Pray for wisdom and physical health and vision. Pray for your volunteers. Pray for the project. Pray for your church, the audience, and your community. There is so much more to a play or a skit than just the act of putting it together. Pray that the message of Jesus Christ, his sacrifice and redeeming love, His resurrection, and His offer of eternal life would be first and foremost at the front of everybody’s hearts and minds. And, at the end of every production, lead your cast and crew in praying and proclaiming a glorious truth: to God be the glory! Amen!
Photo by andrebog at Morguefile.com