Theatrefolk - The Drama Teacher Resource Company

The “What If” Game

Last semester, one of my classes consisted of a group of students who had little theatrical experience. Most of these particular students had never performed onstage before. They were eager and enthusiastic, but as we got closer to our final showcase performance, the nerves really started setting in, and their anxieties came flooding out in the form of what seemed like a million “what if” questions. During one class, it seemed like every student’s fears came bursting out, all at the same time:

“What if I got sick and had to miss the showcase?”

“What if I fell and broke my leg before showcase?”

“What if I get to showcase and I forget all my lines?”

“What if my scene partner is sick on showcase?”

“What if I forget my costume shirt?”

“What if I throw up during the showcase?”

I had to laugh a little, because the questions came at me so quickly and fervently. At that moment, my poor students looked like they were going to faint from worry about all these hypothetical, but in their eyes, catastrophic events that might occur. And it almost seemed like my students were making a game of the “what if” questions, trying to “one-up” each other by describing increasingly distressing scenarios: “What if one of us was hit by a bus on the way to the showcase?” “What if one of us DIES before the showcase?!” (In that extremely unlikely case, we’d have much bigger issues to deal with.)

It took some quick thinking, but I was able to help my students with their fears to the “what if” problem with a five-part solution, as follows. Feel free to try these ideas with your students, if you see or hear nerves taking over!

1. Introduce and/or remind students of the concept, “THE SHOW MUST GO ON.”

Aside from “break a leg,” “the show must go on” is probably the most common theatrical motto. It means that no matter what happens, the show will be performed in some fashion. The cast and crew must bond together, assess the situation, come up with a solution, and take steps to enact that solution, while remaining calm at all times.

2. Brainstorm possible solutions.

Next, turn the questions around on the students by asking them, “What do you think we might do in this situation?” Have students brainstorm ideas that might help solve the hypothetical problem at hand. For example, “What happens if someone gets sick before the showcase?” The absolute worst-case scenario would be to cancel the show, so eliminate that as an option right away. Possible solutions might include:

  • Seeing how sick the student is just before the show and see if they can perform anyway.
  • Having an understudy in place.
  • If the role is double-cast, sending the alternate actor onstage.
  • Having a member of the ensemble play the role “on book” or “with book in hand” (aka going onstage with a script).
  • Planning out who will cover the missing student’s transitions as a group before the show.
  • If the student’s illness is that they have laryngitis or have lost their voice, having someone sing/speak their lines backstage while the student mimes the role onstage.
  • An assistant stage manager or member of the staff plays the role.
  • Starting the show a few minutes late if the student is feeling better.

Right there, are eight possible solutions for the hypothetical sick student. Your students will have even more ideas.

3. Act out possible solutions.

Once your students have brainstormed some different solutions, have students get into small groups of 4-5. Each group will receive a “what if” situation, and the groups will create two brief (1-1:30 minute) scenes. The first scene will be a silly, over-the-top solution, with the purpose of trying to make the class laugh. The second scene will be a more realistic, practical solution, that could actually be enacted should the situation actually occur. Each group will present their scenes to the class. If time allows, encourage discussion of the solutions afterwards. What solutions were the most practical? What solutions would be the easiest to enact?

4. Share some of your own stories.

I think every director has had some sort of “horror story” that has happened to them during their time in the theatre. For example, I have experienced not one, but two power outages during two different shows. Fortunately, both had happy endings with the show going on in the end. For one show, we brought in emergency floodlights from the wood shop and were able to finish the show, and for the other, since it was a nice summer day, we planned to perform outside of the theatre in the courtyard–but then the power came back on, and we were able to perform in the theatre (albeit two hours behind schedule, but the show still happened!).

Share these stories with your students and particularly focus on the creative solutions you and your cast/crew employed to keep the show going.

5. Encourage positive thoughts and healthy habits.

It doesn’t do to dwell on the negatives, and remind your students of that. Yes, it’s normal to have worries, but by focusing on all the “what ifs” that might happen, students can’t truly engage in the process. Encourage students to journal about their worries if they still occur, but to also come up with ideas on how to overcome the hypothetical situations.

As well, encourage your students to take up healthy habits, such as getting enough sleep, eating well, using their planners to keep their schedules in order (which helps avoid stress and double-booking), avoiding situations such as participating in extreme sports or screaming their guts out at concerts right before the show, getting their acting bags/costumes organized ahead of time, and drinking lots of fresh water. Focusing on self-care can help to ward off stress, illness, and injuries. Healthy students = a more successful show! Good luck!

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