Youngest celebrated his sixth birthday this weekend, and when I asked him what he wanted to do for his party, he said, “Put on a play with my friends.”
A full three years ago, Middlest had chosen to do a play for HIS sixth birthday, a fact that I had all but forgotten. So what was surprising about Youngest’s request was not so much that he wanted to put on a play but that he remembered that such a thing could be done with friends at a birthday party.
I guided Youngest to the theme of medieval knights and castles because he loves to dress up and do sword fights, but also because I had a dozen copies of Castles: How They Work on hand from a previous party! The book has since gone out of print, so I had to shop for the rest of the books that would go into the guests’ loot bag. I found Marcia Williams’s retelling of the stories of King Arthur, which was perfect, but I couldn’t get enough copies of that book, either, so I also picked up her retelling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Now, The Canterbury Tales are not exactly every child’s cup of tea, so I read Williams’s version to make sure that this book would be a good pick to send home with the kids at the end of the party. Not only was it a great pick, it became the foundation of the three plays that the kids performed on the day.
Youngest is mightily fond of farts. Honestly, I have never met a boy who delights in the gas we pass more than he does. The Canterbury Tales is well-stocked with stories with farts, but I stayed well away from those for the plays. Instead, I adapted The Nuns’ Priest’s Tale, The Franklin’s Tale, and The Knight’s Tale to be performed by 6-10 kids in a 10-minute performance. Thirty kids; three plays; thirty minutes. That means stripping the story to its bare bones, making sure that there is plenty of action for the kids to perform, and including as much humour and audience participation as possible.
I learned this technique of performing plays with young kids from their fabulous playschool teacher, who regularly works with the kids to perform plays as part of her playschool programming. Briefly, here’s how it works: the Narrator tells the story, and the kids act it out. It’s that simple. In this way, the Narrator has (theoretical) control of the action (this came in handy during the sword fighting scene), and the kids have close guidance of what to do and say. The kids can create their own characters and story, which is what I did for the party three years ago, or you can narrate a story that you have prepared.
Here is how I stripped down and adapted The Nuns’ Priest’s Tale:
Chantecleer the Rockstar Rooster
Pertelote the Rockstar Hen
In the courtyard of a castle there lived a rooster, Chantecleer, his wife Pertelote, and a brood of happy chickens. Chantecleer was very proud of his very fine voice, and the whole castle depended on his morning call. He and Pertelote would greet each day in perfect harmony, and at the end of the day, all of the birds would curl up to sleep.
One morning, before the sun rose, Chantecleer began to moan and groan in his sleep. The noise woke Pertelote, who then shook him awake. He had had a very bad dream. He dreamed that an orange monster with pointy ears, a long, pointy nose, white, sharp teeth and a bushy tail had chased him around and around and tried to eat him!
Ask Audience: What could it be?
He was sure that the dream had a meaning and that it meant that he should not sing his beautiful song that day.
Pertelote told him that was nonsense. She said his bad dream was because he had eaten too much the night before. She told him not to worry and to hurry up and get ready for their morning song. She gave him his microphone, and they both got ready to sing.
Ask Audience: Are you ready for their song? What will it sound like? Sing along if you know the words.
PLAY first verse and chorus of “What Does the Fox Say?” (heh heh) Chickens dance and sing.
Well, the Fox did NOT like this song, not one little bit. So he hid behind a bush to watch for his chance to eat Chantecleer and put an end to this nonsense.
Chantecleer saw the fox hiding and was very afraid. Pertelote was afraid. The happy chickens were afraid, and they all crowded together. Chantecleer began to run away, but the clever Fox said,
He told him he had come to make friends and to hear his singing, which was famous even all the way to the forest. Chantecleer was very proud of his voice, so he was easily tricked into trusting the fox. The fox said that his voice would sound even better if he did one special trick. The Fox showed him exactly what to do: close his eyes and stretch his neck way, way up. So Chantecleer closed his eyes and stretched his neck way, way up.
And the Fox snapped him up and carried him off to the forest. He ran this way and that. The chickens ran after him, trying to save Chantecleer, but they could not keep up. They stopped to catch their breath.
Oh! Poor Chantecleer! It looked like his goose was cooked, but Chantecleer was not just any pretty chicken. He had brains and he planned to use them.
He said, “Stop, Fox! You have outrun them now. You can slow down and tell the chickens that they might as well go home.” The Fox, who was not the sharpest crayon in the box, was quite happy to boast of his success and he opened his mouth to reply.
Ask audience: what will happen next?
Chantecleer flew free and flew to the top of a tree.
Poor Fox. He tried to flatter the rooster back to ground, but Chantecleer was older and wiser now, and crowed triumphantly at the monster from his dream.
Actors take a bow.
Beautiful literature, it is not. However, it was a whole lot of fun to rehearse and perform this story with a group of 4-6 year-olds.
Here is what we did to prepare:
1. Invite guests to attend the party in costume and tell them that they will have a chance to perform in a play. Have extra costumes on hand. (We have years’ worth of Halloween costumes.) Lots of knights and princesses came to this party. One child came as a dragon, so I added a dragon to one of the plays. I needed a brood of chickens, so Youngest and I made chicken masks from egg cartons ahead of time. All of the chickens wore princess dresses. No problem. The play is large; it can contain multitudes.
2. After all the guests arrive, gather them in a circle and tell them, very briefly, the story for each play. Then ask for volunteers for the roles. Kids can also choose to just watch the plays. The first stage of casting is done.
3. Work with groups of 6-10 kids at a time. Rehearse in a space separate from the rest of the kids so that there are no distractions and so that the final production will be new to the kids in the audience. Tell the story briefly again, and finish assigning the roles.
4. Now begin rehearsing. The Narrator stands “on stage” with the kids and narrates the action of the play from downstage, nearly in the wings; the kids act out what is being narrated. As you go, elicit what their characters would say. Some kids will be eager to say lines. Some will not. You can narrate for the kids who would prefer not to speak. Some kids will decide that they don’t like the role they chose. Switch roles. Some kids will decide they don’t want to perform. That’s fine, too.
5. Rehearse each play separately, then assemble all the kids for the Final Performance. I invited parents to return for the last hour of the party to watch the plays. Each group takes a turn performing its play.
6. Have fun. Expect hiccups. Roll with it.
The party was a three-hour whirlwind, and while I rehearsed with the kids, my husband and the parents who had stayed for the party supervised those who were not rehearsing. They grazed at the food table, they played, they did not kill or maim each other with their toy swords. I knew we would not have time for cake, so after the performance, we sang “Happy Birthday,” then each guest went home with a book, a bookmark made by the birthday boy, and a birthday cookie made by the amazingly talented Christy at DolceDesserts.
And then I sat down and did not get up for a good, long time.