Putting Together a Drama Class Adaptation Project

Episode 181: Putting Together A Drama Class Adaptation Project

Middle school teacher Shelby Steege takes us through step by step of the adaptation project she does with her students. Listen in to catch the details so that you can do it for your own drama classroom.  Hint! Casting happens before the script is written.

Show Notes

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Drama Teacher Podcast brought to you by Theatrefolk – the Drama teacher resource company.

I’m Lindsay Price.

Hello! I hope you’re well. Thanks for listening!

This is Episode 181 and you can find any links to this episode in the show notes which are at Theatrefolk.com/episode181.

Today, we are talking about a specific project for the classroom. That’s right! We’re doing a little case study here on an adaptation project. Our guest is going to take us step-by-step through this project which she does with her students.

So, grab a pen, open up a note app on your phone, listen in to catch the details so that you can use it in your classroom. I’m going to give you a little hint about what’s to come – for this project, casting happens before the script is even written. Isn’t that nice? I like that! It’s very exciting!

Okay, let’s get to it!

LINDSAY: Hello, everybody! I am today speaking with Shelby Steege.

Hello, Shelby!

SHELBY: Hello!

LINDSAY: Tell everybody where in the world you are.

SHELBY: Well, I live in Louisville, Kentucky. But the school I teach at is in Taylorsville, Kentucky – about 45 minutes outside of Louisville.

LINDSAY: Awesome. I’m really intrigued about today’s conversation because we’re going to talk about a specific project that you do with your students with adaptation. But, first of all, I want to start with you. How long have you been a teacher?

SHELBY: This is my 16th year teaching here at the school I’m at. I did also a couple of years teaching with children’s theatres in Kentucky.

LINDSAY: What was it that made you want to teach theatre as opposed to perform or anything else? When did you start getting interested in theatre?

SHELBY: I started really getting interested in theatre when I was in middle school. Loved it. Took classes in high school. I didn’t go to a school that did a lot of theatre in school but I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They have a great children’s theatre there. I was involved very heavily in their theatre academies and I decided to go into teaching theatre. I kind of think I always knew that’s what I would end up doing with my love of theatre because I always loved working with kids – always loved little kids, older kids. So, that really was the way I could meld the two things I was passionate about into a career and it’s worked out pretty well so far!

LINDSAY: 16 years! What is it that you think makes drama important? Why do students need to take it?

SHELBY: Well, most importantly – and it might sound cheesy – drama changes kids’ lives. I have seen it numerous times. It truly changes who they are. They gain confidence. Whether it’s onstage or backstage, the skills that they learn participating in theatre are skills that they will use for the rest of their lives. I just really think that it also is inclusive of everyone. I tell kids, if they want to get involved in something, I can find a place for them in theatre. They don’t ever have to step foot onstage but we can get them a place where then they feel like they’re part of something bigger than them – feel like they have a community and a family that they connect to.

LINDSAY: I don’t think that’s cheesy at all. It’s interesting that you used the word “community” because that’s the first thing that popped into my head when you were talking about how important that is and I think, in the 21st Century, as we have all these conversations now about devices and our students pouring themselves into their devices and the whole idea about how students seem to be really worried about perfection and not failing, it’s important that they have a place they can go to with other people, right?

SHELBY: Absolutely. If they fail trying something, it’s not the end of the world. There is still a place for them. There is a way for them to correct it. They can change it. You know, at rehearsal, something doesn’t work, that’s fine! Great! You tried something. Let’s try this now. Compared to only having one opportunity to do something right. And then, that support that they get from each other and sharing ideas, to me, it’s just the most amazing thing.

LINDSAY: Okay. So, we’re talking about an adaptation project. Why do you think adaptation is a good thing to have your students tackle?

SHELBY: Well, I have my advanced drama students tackle it. I like it because I feel like – at least the way I approach it – it involves every aspect of the theatre process, including the playwriting aspect. So, I get all those aspects into a project and the kids then don’t have to think about what the story itself is – just how we’re going to bring that to life onstage.

LINDSAY: You know what? I think that is a really important point because what I find, when working with students, the creation of the idea that, when they have to look at that blank page, that is sometimes the most terrifying step and that’s the step where they go, “Oh, I can’t do this,” because it’s a blank page. “I can’t put anything on it.” To actually have that step sort of taken away because you have the source material that they can then work with, do you find that it’s an easier door to get them into writing? Maybe? Maybe not?

SHELBY: Absolutely! The way I approach it is, for me, this is my eighth-grade drama kids, their final big project. I want them to have as much ownership in it as humanly possible – including picking the stories we’re going to use. Already it’s something that they’re excited and passionate about and it’s something that they know the audience that they’re intending to perform it for is going to be excited about because we perform it for our students.

And so, they know what they’re interested in and it’s a great way to incorporate that other curriculums into what I’m doing – not that language arts isn’t everything that we do, but it’s very specific. I can identify, “Look, we’re reading this novel and we’re taking it and we’re moving it on to the next step,” which fits a lot of those language arts criterion that we’re always being pushed to incorporate other contents into our content. It’s a really easy way to show, “Hey, I’m doing this along with meeting the needs of my theatre kids.”

LINDSAY: You’re getting your social proof out there. You’re like, “Look! We’re important!”

SHELBY: Exactly!

LINDSAY: I just want to step back a little bit. When they’re doing this final project, they have to pick the source material. Is this something that the whole group works on together or is it smaller groups who come up with different things or is it everybody has to work – again, as a community – to transform the source material?

SHELBY: It is everybody involved – the entire class. We choose one book and I give them some specifications. It’s got to be appropriate for fourth and fifth-graders because we also like to invite our elementary school kids over to perform it and I make them think about like, “Can it technically be done by you all as a class? Does it have enough characters that a lot of people can perform in it?” We look at those kinds of aspects but the kids are responsible for the whole performance as a whole. They don’t just take the script and adapt it but they also do all the technical designs and building those designs and making the whole process come together. I put it all on them and I kind of try and feel they’re more of a producer than director and idea maker, if that makes sense.

LINDSAY: Oh, no, totally. Well, it’s their project!

When they’re choosing the source material, is there something they fill out or is it a group discussion? Do you sort of lay out the questions they have to answer?

SHELBY: Well, it’s a group discussion and the thing is this is the seventh year, I think – maybe eighth year – that we’ve done it. So, they’ve been looking forward to this project since they were in sixth grade. They maybe came and saw it when they were fifth graders and they’ve seen it every year since.

They come into the discussion with a pretty good idea of what the project is already, but we do talk about those requirements about having some cast size and thinking technically what would be appropriate and content appropriateness for performing on a school stage – those kinds of things. And then, kids just start sharing their ideas.

They brainstorm. We have a whole class discussion. We make a list. From that, we vote on the list. I give every child a voice and so they all get to vote. And so, we’ve narrowed it down to the piece that we want to focus on. I think that’s great because they all get that opportunity to say, “Hey! This is what I’m interested in. This is my vote.” Then, we don’t have very much discussion afterwards about, “Why are we doing this? This is stupid,” because they’ve all been given that opportunity.

LINDSAY: Great thing for you that they’re coming into this project with pre-knowledge. They’ve seen it. They’ve seen what it looks like. They know that it’s coming. Then, they get to actually be the ones who do it. It probably just gives a little bit of the weight of selling the project to them off your shoulders.

SHELBY: Absolutely. I feel like I don’t sell it anymore now. They come in, first day of class, even though we don’t focus on it until second semester, they’re like, “Okay, this is my idea for the show. This is what I want to do.” They’re already so hyped up about getting to do it that there’s very little selling it to people anymore – for sure.

LINDSAY: So, you have the source material. How long do your students work on the adaptation?

SHELBY: It depends on the story but pretty much it takes most of my second semester because I have kids daily but I only get them for what ends up being 40 minutes a day. The class reaches 45 minutes but, by the time you get all the attendance and all that taken care of, it ends up being about 40 minutes a day.

Through the whole process, we’re just finishing up reading the book that we’re using now. Then, we’ll go into casting the show. From there, we’ll go into the actual production part where the students who were performing in the scenes, they kind of adapt their scene. We look at the script and we adapt that as part of the rehearsal process. We sit down, we look at what we think the scenes should say, all the dialogue, and then we stage it there so we can see how that’s flowing.

Now, while those kids are working, every other kid has a technical theatre responsibility. They’re either working on their costume crew or their set crew or they’re my stage managers who I jokingly call my narcs because their job is to go around and check with each group multiple times and write down exactly what they’re accomplishing. So, even if I’m not directly with that group, I have people checking on them, letting me know this is what they accomplish.

It’s kind of a slow process – getting everything set up; working for 30 minutes, 35 minutes; and then cleaning up and then moving on for the next day. I hope that answered the question.

LINDSAY: Yeah, totally! I want to actually circle back because you identified something very interesting. You cast first. How does that process work? Do you have a student director? How does the decision happen? Who’s going to be what character?

SHELBY: Again, like I said – and this is an unusual thing; some teachers probably wouldn’t do this.

LINDSAY: That’s why we’re talking about that’s why I like that it’s different. It’s like, “Here, look, here is a possibility and the fact that you’re just approaching this process in a different manner. There’s not one way to tell a story or to create a story.”

SHELBY: Absolutely. What we do is we identify within the book all the characters that we’re going to need and the kids, we do a little activity that kind of works as their audition. Every kid has to do an audition – some improvised scene of some sort, usually relating to the story. While they’re performing that, I have all the kids kind of take notes on each of the actors in the scene, what their strengths are, their areas that need improvement, and any ideas of the type of character they think that they’d be good at.

Once we have that list, kids can volunteer to put their name up. “Oh, I want to play this part. I want to play Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.” We have maybe six people whose names are up there and then I literally let the class vote. “This is the kid that we think should play it.” It gives all of the control to the students but I think that’s a good thing.

The first couple of years, they chose kids that were maybe, “Oh, you’re popular! I want you to play this part.” But, now it doesn’t happen like that. They really choose the people that they think would be really strong for the part and it also pushes some kids who maybe normally wouldn’t get cast by me just because, you know, what my vision would be, the kids have their own vision of what that character should be. And so, we’ve had some really creative casting and – knock on wood – so far, we haven’t had any major disasters with them choosing someone that can’t handle the role. That kid, even if I’m a little apprehensive, ends up stepping up because they know the other kids, their peers saw them as that role which is kind of a good experience.

LINDSAY: Yeah. Do you ever have to have sort of a pre-conversation about what happens when you don’t get the role that you want?

SHELBY: We haven’t had a lot of that. I guess because a lot of these kids do our afterschool program so they are kind of used to that you don’t always get the part that you want. We haven’t had a lot of that also because, if we go with the bigger characters first and then go down and I encourage every kid to have a part in the play in some way, shape, or form.

There are some kids who really wanted a bigger part and ended up with a smaller part. But, if they end up with a smaller part, then they get a bigger technical responsibility. Actually, a lot of kids who maybe initially were disappointed that they didn’t get a bigger part fell in love with the technical aspect that they had no idea they were going to really be passionate about. I think they tend to be pretty open-minded as well.

LINDSAY: Isn’t it nice when it works out that way?

SHELBY: It is!

LINDSAY: Cool. And then, they’re cast. So, you divvy up the actual adaptation of the source material in that every student in a particular scene, they’re responsible for transforming their own scene?

SHELBY: Exactly. Most years, I have a student director. But it’s another director from an eighth-grade class. I’m lucky that, in my district, they let high school senior coop with me. So, some of my kids who are seniors in high school – because I work in my afterschool program both middle school and high school kids – they bring over or one of them comes over and works with my advanced drama kids so I let them take on the role of director for this project. They get that opportunity too to have maybe a different leadership role than they normally would in class. But, if I didn’t have a student director in the couple of years I didn’t, I did fill in that role as director – just because I feel like that one role does need to have someone that has a little bit more maturity and experience. But maybe someday I’ll have a middle schooler that I trust to do that job!

LINDSAY: Well, you never know!

SHELBY: You never know!

LINDSAY: How do you find that the students work? Because I’m going to assume that groups work at different speeds, groups have different instincts. How does the whole adaptation of the source material come together to be unified as different voices are working on their own scenes?

SHELBY: Well, the way I kind of structured the week is we have kind of a plan on Monday – this is what we’re going to work on so we’re going to work on the scenes in Chapter 3 of the book and each of the tech areas have kind of what they’re going to work on.

And then, on Friday, it’s a sharing day. I call it a production meeting day – you know, kind of like a production meeting. We show the scenes that we’re worked on that week. Since we don’t have a script necessarily for the kids to look at for costumes and scenery and sound and all that, they have that then that they can take notes from.

And then, each of the technical groups present what they’ve worked on that week and what their goals are for the following week. And then, we discuss them. If there was something in a scene that felt off – like, it didn’t fit with what we’ve been doing with the rest of the scenes, we can have a discussion about that and how to fix that.

But we also have, because we do have that student director that ends up working with each of the groups on their scenes that they’re responsible for, they also kind of help keep that through line and we have an assistant director who’s a student in the class and we’ll have stage managers so they also help to keep that consistency throughout the whole piece.

LINDSAY: Well, I think that’s the key part right there – there is accountability for students to work because, every Friday, they have to present what they’ve done. If they haven’t done anything, you know…

SHELBY: Exactly. And then, it’s clear. We also, like I said, we have our stage managers who have a daily rehearsal report. They go around to each group at least twice throughout the day and check with them and see what they’re working on, what they need, and they fill out the rehearsal report. They always come to me if they say, “Okay, props have been working on the same project for the last week and it doesn’t look like they have anything done.” That lets me know, “Okay, tomorrow, I need to sit down with props and maybe help them schedule their time better.” Instead of me having to put out all the fires, I know which ones are the most crucial.

A lot of times too, those stage managers will take on that responsibility to help them figure out what they need to work on before they even get me involved which is pretty cool, too.

LINDSAY: Yeah, it’s just learning skills, right? Instead of you’re the one telling everybody what to do, they are working together, they’re managing themselves. What I like about the way that you’ve set this up is that what happens when I hear when teachers talk about putting on a play in their class, it’s that old thing about, well, when the actors are rehearsing, what is everybody else doing? It just seems like the way this process is set up, nobody should be sitting around. Everybody has jobs to do and responsibilities.

SHELBY: Absolutely! Like you said, they’re accountable – not only are they accountable at the end of the process to have a show that they’re going to perform for their peers, there’s that accountability there too because they want to have the best show possible, but each day and each week, they have things that hold them accountable where I’m not necessarily following them around because that’s challenging as the only teacher in the room but the students are keeping each other accountable and they really respond well to it.

Sometimes, the only downfall I tend to have a couple of times throughout the process, I have to pull either my stage managers or the kids that we’ve identified as the head of that technical area. Sometimes, we have to have a little pow-wow about different management styles and not yelling at people or treating people kindly – those kinds of things – because they are still middle schoolers so they are trying to figure out what the best way is to lead a group.

But, almost always, those are just discussions that we can have with those few people or maybe with that technical group to air their frustrations and really just like what will happen at a staff meeting if something is happening that a number of the people of the staff don’t like. You know, you have that same kind of discussion there. For me, it’s all about treating them with respect that, you know, they have been given this responsibility and so we need to figure out how they’re going to fix whatever problem has come up. Again, not me just going in right away and solving the problem or pulling that kid out of their leadership role just because it’s not as successful the first time they try and lead their group.

LINDSAY: I think too that just the way it’s set up, I mean, you’re using it in middle school, this could easily be translated into a high school production. I think, in that case, you would definitely have a student director who is a peer as opposed to someone who has a little bit more maturity. How long do the plays usually run? The length of time that you’re looking for?

SHELBY: The production itself?


SHELBY: They usually tend to be somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour usually. When you’re taking a middle school or upper elementary school level text, that works out about right no matter what text we’ve used. It’s gotten to be about, yeah, I’d say an hour is more average than 45 minutes – closer to an hour.

LINDSAY: So, they put it all together and they perform it and I imagine the pride that goes into this finished product must be off the charts.

SHELBY: It’s awesome. It is so cool because they are performing for their peers and then kids are coming up to them afterwards and talking to them. You know, they become sort of mini-celebrities around the school which is super cute and it’s an opportunity because, although we do afterschool performances, a lot of students – because we’re in a more rural area – it’s not necessarily easy for them to get back to watch those performances.

So, the kids too look forward to seeing these because it’s an opportunity for them to see that live theatre that (1) they don’t have to pay for and (2) is there for them. You know, it’s not like they have to go somewhere to perform it. So, it ends up being something that, really, in a lot of ways, the whole school looks forward to watching.

LINDSAY: As we sort of rind up here, it’s a well-oiled machine, it’s seven years down the road, can you think back to when you first started this and what were a couple of the struggles that you faced just starting a project like this?

SHELBY: Let’s see. I’m thinking. Our first one that we ever did, we took Midsummer Night’s Dream and we modernized it which was super cool. But I think it’s really developing that accountability piece and that took a few years to develop to the point where it is now – making sure kids are working all the time, making sure we don’t have kids goofing off. Those are definitely some things that I had to struggle with.

Also, at first, kids not taking it as seriously. I had my core group that participated a lot after school but my advanced class doesn’t just have those kids. So, the first couple of years, getting those kids who maybe this is their first play ever to perform in front of people, getting them to realize the commitment of, “Yey, you have to learn your lines. Hey, you have to be at school for rehearsal because, if you’re not here, then we don’t get to rehearse your scene and you might put us behind.” But a lot of those things I think have worked out through time, like I said, because kids are watching them and then look forward to it. that’s what they get to do as eighth graders now. And so, some of those kinds of kids not fulfilling their roles has kind of fallen away because they know what to expect.

LINDSAY: Yeah, and I think that’s a good piece of advice for teachers who might be thinking about this is that there might be a couple of years of growing pains to get to that point where it becomes something that they look forward to. That’s something that can’t be sort of instant.

SHELBY: Absolutely. This is just my philosophy is lots of student ownership in their work. I want them to kind of develop what they’re doing and solve their own problems and things like that. That’s important to me. But that can be scary at first to not tell the kids, “Oh, I want this costume and this costume and this costume,” but letting them bring to you their ideas.

So, being open to that and now, you know, we did one show once that wasn’t working quite as well as we wanted and we ended up doing a 15-minute version of Alice in Wonderland – it was the year we were working on that – instead of doing a full hour-long play. It’s just that’s the way it went with that particular group. But they were still excited and loved what they performed. It was just in a kind of a different situation. So, as a teacher, when you’re doing something like this, you have to be just as adaptable as the kids have to be.

LINDSAY: Well, I think that is an awesome kind of note to end on!

Shelby, I really appreciate you coming on and sharing this. This is exactly the kind of thing we want to share with our teachers just to sort of give a little insight into something (a) theatrical but (b) skill-building and something that an entire class can do.

Thank you so much for talking to me today!

SHELBY: Oh, no problem! Thank you!

LINDSAY: Thank you, Shelby!

Before we go, let’s do some THEATREFOLK NEWS.

It’s a play feature! It’s a play feature! It’s time to feature a play!

Today, I want to talk about Frankenstein, goo, and chemistry.

Yes, these are the things and characters involved with Treanor Baring’s play, Frankenstein versus the Horrendous Goo. This is a fabulous middle school play that actually has Frankenstein as a character and Horrendous Goo as a thing that characters react to.

A mix-up in the chemistry club creates a horrendous goo that takes over John Dalton School. Students, administrators, and even parents get “goo-ed” by this mysterious green slime with a mind of its own.

Who is behind the attack of the mutant polymer? Can the students disentangle the clues from what they’ve learned in chemistry, theatre, and psychology? And, why, why on earth is Frankenstein brought in to save the day? And why is he writing love notes?

Middle school actors and your audience will love this fast-paced, action-packed comedy and the goo is easy, easy-peasy to stage. I think that the characters in this play are delight. This is what sold us on it and so is the story.

You will want to read Frankenstein versus the Horrendous Goo. You can go to our website – Theatrefolk.com – to download your copy now or you can go to the link in the show notes – Theatrefolk.com/episode181.

Before I go, listen, are you doing one of our plays? We want a picture! Send it to us!

Are you working on one of our monologues? You know what I’m going to say. Take a picture! Send it to us!

Rehearsal videos, 30 seconds. Show us what you’re doing in rehearsal in the classroom.

We want to brag about you!

Send it to us: help@theatrefolk.com.

And, finally, finally, where, oh, where can you find this podcast? We post new episodes every second Tuesday at theatrefolk.com and on our Facebook page and Twitter. You can find us on youtube.com/theatrefolk and on the Stitcher app. You can subscribe to The Drama Teacher Podcast on iTunes. All you have to do is search for the word: “Theatrefolk.”

And that’s where we’re going to end. Take care, my friends. Take care.

Music credit:”Ave” by Alex (feat. Morusque) is licensed under a Creative Commons license.

Products referenced in this post: Frankenstein vs the Horrendous Goo
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