Don’t Sell Melodramas Short!

Today we welcome a guest post by John Donald O’Shea. Don is the author of Little Nell and the Mortgage Foreclosure, the lone Theatrefolk melodrama.

Why do I like melodramas? Why do I write melodramas? Why do I strongly recommend them to teachers of Junior High Drama? Why do I think that it is a serious mistake for Junior High Directors to eschew doing a melodrama every three or four years?

When you direct at the Junior High level, you immediately notice that some kids are natural actors. Unfortunately, others, aren’t. Anybody can direct a natural actor. As a junior high director, it’s your job to take those kids that aren’t “naturals,” and to teach them to become fine actors.

I never was on stage until after law school. The first time I auditioned I was cast as the tenor in “The King and I” – even though I was a baritone! And even though I had had no prior stage experience! Once, the director “blocked” the show, however, I was “on my own.” He expected me to know how to act – to be a “natural.” I was cast opposite a young woman who later went on to have a professional career in grand opera. As a singer, I held my own. But one critic thought my acting was “wooden.” And it probably was.

For the next 15 years, I continued to do leading roles in musical comedy and light opera. The drill was always the same. You were cast, you were blocked, and you were on your own.

Nevertheless, over that 15 year period, I learned to act. I learned by watching the other actors. From those that were good, I learned how to become proficient. From those that were bad, I learned what to avoid. Here are two things that I learned in the process.

  1. It is not enough for an actor to deliver lines. He must react to what the others on stage are saying and doing.
  2. He must deliver his lines in a way that keeps the interest of the audience. There are four ways to vary the lines to keep them interesting: (a) the actor can raise or lower the pitch of his voice; (b) he can raise or lower the volume of his voice; (c) he can change the pace of the lines, by saying them faster or slower, and (d) he can interject emotion into his lines, such a laughter, anger, menace, etc.

I am convinced that there is no better vehicle than a melodrama to teach kids who are not natural actors to react, and to bring life to their lines.

Except for the born “hams,” getting on stage can be a traumatic event for junior high students – especially for boys. No student wants to be seen as being “boring,” “nerdish” or “un-cool.” As such, I have come to believe kids, the first few times that they are on the stage, are far more comfortable playing a role which does not resemble their real life person. It is one thing to play a “nerd” on stage in a role that clearly demands that the actor be a “nerd.” It is an entirely different thing to end up accidentally looking like a “nerd,” in a play about normal junior high kids.

Melodrama, by definition, calls for overly broad presentations. The characters are not everyday high school kids. They are caricatures. Old fashioned or “stock” gestures are expected. Overly broad reactions are part of the convention. The director can teach these broad gestures and reactions “by the numbers.”

Kids instinctively seem to understand that when they play a “Wiley Whiplash” villain’s role, or a “Little Nell” hapless victim’s role, that they are better off “overacting” rather than “underrating.”

My experience in directing kids, is that it is easier to “tone them down” as actors. Getting them to be louder and more confident is harder. But melodrama by its very nature encourages the kids to “cut loose.” When the villain says, “You shall rue the day, my proud and haughty beauty,” any boy is going to quickly recognize that he is not playing himself, and that he can fearlessly “let it rip.”

My suggestion is this: take a bunch of kids who are not natural hams. Do a melodrama. Then contrast the confidence that those kids had before the production, with the confidence they have developed by the end of the production. When you do, you too will become a strong advocate of doing the occasional melodrama. Had I done a few melodramas in high school or junior high, I probably would not have needed 15 years to get comfortable as an actor.

Interested in a great melodrama for Middle Schools and High Schools? Check out Don’s wonderful Little Nell and the Mortgage Foreclosure.

About the author

Craig Mason