Success Story – Dinner Theatre

Jennifer DesLauriers produced Much Ado High School as a dinner theatre. When she told me about the experience, I knew it was something we had to share! Here are her thoughts on the production, and doing a dinner theatre.

Have you done Dinner Theatre before at your school? If so, what do you like about dinner theatre? If not, what made you go this route?

This was the first time we tried Dinner Theatre. I have always loved the mix of improv and scripted scenes and used to think my dream job would be to work in Dinner Theatre myself. I have taken a group of students to a local professional Dinner Theatre each June for the past few years and two years ago acted in an amateur production of one in my town. What is more fun than eating and attending theatre at the same time!

I decided to try two separate productions this year, one in the fall and one in the spring. We were looking for a way to attract a good audience both as a money maker and with participatory feedback. It also gave us a chance to include some music without having to cast singers as actors, the way we had it organized anyway. We are trying to develop a culture of theatre at our school, and this seemed a good way to bring in a crowd to see how much fun our product could be.

What was your greatest success?

It was wonderful how the audience got into the performances! The cast was having a great time and the feeling was contagious. We had a full house each night, even had to let some people come in to watch only as our meals were sold out.Another thing was watching the progress of the actors and the band. I always get pumped seeing things come to life but this time I got to rejoice with every song learned by the band, as well as every costume, dance move, set design, and character development.

And of course I can’t forget that we actually made money on this one, both for our Drama program and for our Breakfast program, who got the profits on the meal side of things. Having a full house brings in revenue and hopefully fans for our next show.

What was your biggest challenge?

Getting everything together on time. It always takes me much more of everything than I anticipate and even though I had some other teachers helping with publicity, front of house, and meal preparation, I was the only one for directing, stage-management, and music/choreography. I had to make sure I set aside enough time for each of those and then to get the band to rehearse with the whole cast. It was something new for them as well. Some days I wished I could cut myself in two!

Co-ordinating the meal was a little difficult as we had never tried something like this before at my school. We didn’t know what we should cook, how much to prepare, and exactly how or even from where we would serve it. I had hoped to have lots of students involved in every aspect of the show, but this proved to stretch much of our resources, and people didn’t realize the logistics of ordering food etc in advance. The other teachers though were a great help and everyone worked together to make it a success.

How did you organize the dinner around the play?

I wanted to have a few opportunities for the actors to interact with the audience, so I decided we should have a salad, main course, and desert break. The first and final sections of the play were the longest at about 20 min with the two middle parts only about 10 each. The salad and desert breaks were the shortest to serve and eat, about 10 minutes each with about 20 for the dinner. I had to think about where it could break that the actors would have something to talk about with the audience. There seemed to be a few natural breaks in the script, and we had all characters exit for each one. The actors cleaned up dishes and tables as they went. Besides serving food and tea/coffee/juice, they carried on with the people at their assigned tables, bringing them up to dance at the end. We also had a group of Entrepreneurship students with a snack kiosk at the back of the room.

Why did you choose Much Ado High School for your dinner theatre?

I like doing something with a hint of “real theatre” trying to help my audience get more comfortable with the themes and stories of Shakespeare or mythology in case we ever want to do something a little more serious. Much Ado lent itself very well to a group of high school students so they could easily maintain character even under close inspection while serving the food. The length was also workable once we added the music, dancing and eating it was almost 2 hours long. It was a good mix of watching, eating, and interacting.

For a Dinner Theatre I didn’t want a large cast as I wanted them to be able to use their characters in the audience. Much Ado High School fit that bill as well.

Students can relate to Lindsay’s scripts. They had a great time developing characters right down to the nerdy Dogberry and Verges. On a personal note, my grandson was in a Sackville NB production of Much Ado About Nothing this past summer. The family of course attending our production and discussed the similarities and differences.

You set the play in the fifties – what inspired you to make that choice?

In the intro it mentioned the fifties and I thought it would be fun in terms of music, costume and dance. We chose six songs from that era for which we had rights from our school dances and a 5 piece band (drums, keyboard, bass, 2 guitars and a sax solo) of students who worked on them but with a slightly modern twist. We played it as though it were a High School “Retro” Dance, which worked well in our space and also meant we didn’t have to be perfect in period costume, etc. One of the students had the right dresses as her mother had been involved in community dance. I teach dance as well and my students were eager to learn how to jive old school. It also meant many parents in the audience could relate and enjoy the nostalgia. We had many of them up dancing in the final number.

What advice would you give to a school wanting to put on a dinner theatre?

Dinner Theatre is a lot of fun. I’m pretty sure I will continue to do them at my school, maybe it will become a tradition that continues after I retire in a few years. It has a blend of music, dance, improv and script as I said. It can take a little time to pick just the right one. There do not seem to be many out there already written , so you are gong to have to adapt something. (or write your own) For me the key elements were: a small enough cast, a place to put in some music, characters that could be maintained off script, and of course, a way to interact with the audience. Personally, I prefer to have singers/band separate from my acting cast, but that just means I can give them some time off while another group practices. Students definitely need that.

Get lots of help. The meal should be a different crew from the stage/ actors. They have tons to do. You might try getting a service group to cater who has some experience in that. Often they’ll donate some of the proceeds back to your organization.

Work a lot on character development. If the actors know their characters well, they can interact with the audience as those people, off-script. In rehearsal they need to be reminded of what their characters actually know/think at the breaks and how things change, maybe give them suggestions of what they might say.

But my advice mostly, try it, you’ll like it.

About the author

Lindsay Price