Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Laughing Stock the Perfect Middle School Play

[Photo:"Mime" after show; "Psychic" behind]
Bradley Hayward's one-act comedy Laughing Stock is listed in Brooklyn Publishers' catalogue as 45 minutes long with flexible cast "from 24 to 72," making it very appealing to a middle school teacher with a drama club of around 24 mostly younger members.  After our performance last week, a mother said it gave lots of kids lots of chances to get laughs, and "just enough" bathroom humor to keep the boys interested.  It has a moral, "Life is only as boring as you make it."  She called it "the perfect middle school play."

I'd had my doubts.  Was it funny, or just "middle school funny?"  Would parents be shocked to hear the word "sucks" five times on the first page, or to hear a stereotyped rapper  say "dayum?"  Two-thirds of the script pass before our protagonist's life story advances beyond "I was born...."  But now I'm a believer.

"Michael" enters a black stage empty except for a stool, a cube, and a pair of smiley-styled drama masks for a backdrop.  To graduate, he must perform a play made from his own life story, but nothing's prepared.  "I don't even know any jokes," he apologizes.  A Writer from the audience -- in our production, played by a pert young woman -- offers to "spice up" his "humdrum life" with stock characters:  pirate, gunslinger, femme fatale, elves, cheerleaders, a pop star, psychic, lawyer, hillbilly, mime, mad scientist.... For the next forty minutes, twenty-some actors make grand entrances in colorful costumes, do their bits, and run back to the dressing room to prepare for their next entrances.   

Rehearsals were frustrating for the leads until the day that I dismissed the rest of the cast early.  I had Michael and Writer rehearse just their dialogue without the madcap interruptions.  We found a kind of "boy meets girl" drama:   Boy welcomes Writer's help, Boy begins to doubt the Writer's shallow approach to drama, Boy opposes Writer with help from William Shakespeare -- a young woman in our production, sporting a Shakespeare tee-shirt.  Our leads found new energy in each segment:  Michael's hopefulness at the start, Michael's swelling self-confidence with Writer's encouragement, then growing mutual hostility.

Just when the arrival of new stock characters begins to look like a formula, Hayward introduces the "Greek Chorus."  Enthusiastic sixth and seventh graders played "follow-the-leader" with their lines, experimenting with inflection and movement.  Over a few weeks, we rehearsed the chorus alone for over two hours to perform a bit that, in the end, lasted around three minutes.  The boost in energy and laughs made the chorus worth the time.

I came away pleased with what had happened offstage, too.  With so many kids, costume changes, and props, the show was virtually guaranteed to have distracting hubbub backstage and flubbed entrances.  We did have both during the last two weeks of rehearsal. But, without adult direction, the kids pulled their acts together and missed not one cue in the final performance (not counting curtain call:  no one wanted to be first one out, and they all piled up at the door).  This show made pros of them!

1 comment:

Bradley said...

I was so thrilled to happen upon your blog entry this morning! I am delighted to hear that your middle schools students had such a positive experience with Laughing Stock. I am especially proud that you were able to use this play to inspire such a young cast and crew. Hopefully with your guidance and enthusiasm, they will continue with the arts, both in school and beyond. Your students are clearly very fortunate to have you!

Best wishes,
Bradley Hayward