When the School Play Becomes a Faith Experience
About this article
This interesting article reflects on how the dramatic arts can be a powerful faith experience for the entire school community. Edmond Dixon quotes First Corinthians when stating that the school play has a place for everyone's gifts and talents. The value of teamwork can be seen in the entire cast and crew. Finding plays that have Christian themes can be a challenge owing to trite, boring material or expensive copyright fees. The solution Dixon offers is to write original plays. A kit that includes all you need to put together one of these plays, including curriculum materials for integration of the play's content into the curriculum, is available through the author.
As a teacher in a Catholic school, I have always been concerned with trying to demonstrate to my students how, in a practical way, Catholic values and the Christian worldview are relevant to their lives. A Catholic school does not do its job if religion is left solely in the domain of the religion class. The teenagers with whom I work are, first and foremost, creatures who live by emotions and experiences. They are immediately suspicious of any outright moralizing and generally turn right off if they feel they are being "preached at." Sadly for many of them, the Church and religious life are irrelevant.
However, my experience with drama--first as an amateur director and now as a playwright--has convinced me that the dramatic arts are an incredibly powerful means of translating religious beliefs into experiences that young people can identify with. I first began directing school plays because I found it a rewarding way to develop a closer relationship with the students I taught in class.
A Place for Everyone
You see, the school play is often a place where the kid who drives you crazy in class can show you how his natural attention-getting abilities also have a positive side. Indeed, when I put such a student onstage, I invariably found that it helped his behavior in class because it gave him a legitimate venue for displaying his talents.
A school play has a role for almost everyone, whether it be onstage, moving props, in the makeup room, or behind the lights. It is a place where, if properly directed, students realize that everyone is important: the lead character in the play is nothing if no one turns the lights on for her! This recognition can bring about a "teachable moment" in which we can point out to the entire cast and crew what Saint Paul said about how various gifts are given to each person who makes up the Body of Christ. The kids will buy into that because they can see it working. The teamwork, sacrifice, and commitment required by a play help young people understand that by working together, everyone can win.
The Challenge: Finding Christian Themes
As I began to see the potential for evangelization in playmaking, I started to look around for dramatic material with Christian themes. I wanted to involve a lot of kids, so I especially tried to find large-cast plays or musicals. However, the search was quite difficult. Much of the material I found was either trite, boring, overly pious, or condescending. It had a Christian theme, but it wasn't good drama and did not speak to my students' concerns about freedom, self-image, materialism, and love. There was some "Bible story" material, but it too did not seem to show real people struggling with the problems that confront our youth every day. When I tried to locate some popular material that would have the right theme (e.g., Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), I found that the copyright fees were extremely expensive or that some of these productions (e.g., The Sound of Music) have been "done to death" by schools everywhere.
The Solution: Writing Original Plays
Finally, out of desperation, I decided to write something myself. My first play, entitled Kid in the Cradle,is a short Christmas play that focuses on the typical seasonal events that occur at home, at school, and in the department store. In each place, the characters' selfishness and preoccupation with the trappings of Christmas leave them irritable and unhappy. Then, mysteriously, an old crèche containing a baby is discovered in their midst. Through their efforts to help the child, the characters begin to discover what Christmas is all about.
The success of that play led me to write others. To date, I have produced six plays, five of which are full-scale musicals with casts of more than thirty characters. The plays are of a wide variety, ranging from a parody of gangs in schools to dramas involving Roaring Twenties gangsters (and singing nuns!), medieval knights, and the real-life experiences of street kids and runaways. In all the plays, the young people performing them come to understand, almost by osmosis, that there is a purpose to their lives and that God has plans even for those who see themselves as misfits. The plays have now been seen by over fifteen thousand people. The students who perform in the plays love them and are able to easily identify with the moral dilemmas the characters face and the Christian responses that are possible.
Kits for Staging Plays
The success of my plays led me to try to offer them to a wider audience. Being a busy teacher, I asked myself what another teacher would need to re-create one of my plays easily and effectively. I came up with the idea of a kit that would be reasonably priced and contain everything needed to put on the play-- everything except for the kids, the props, and the costumes! The kits I put together include scripts, sheet music, a videotape of the play as I directed it, an audiotape of the kids singing the songs, and a performance tape of fully orchestrated music that allows a school to reproduce the music even if it doesn't have a music department. I also created curriculum materials that can be integrated into different subject areas and used to explore the religious and ethical issues raised in the plays. Finally, I included a booklet that shows beginners (as I was when I started) how to effectively stage plays, create great special effects, and profit from these productions.
If you would like any information about these kits, please contact me at Dixon Drama! 17 Calais Street, Whitby, Ontario, Canada, L1N 5L9; phone 905-666-8386.
Edmond J. Dixonteaches dramatic arts and religion at Monsignor John Pereyma Catholic Secondary School in Oshawa, near Toronto, Ontario.
(Copyright © 2000 by Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for the free use of this article for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the written permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095, or visit our Web site at www.smp.org.)
Published February 1, 1995.