TIPS FOR BACKYARD PLAYS
Backyard plays are a great opportunity to make memories with your kids. It provides them with an acting experience without a huge time commitment. For the last 14 years I have written and produced a backyard play. I’ve listed some tips for producing your own back yard play. It’s an enjoyable experience that can be a little intimidating to take on but is well worth the effort.
Here is my tried and true method:
- Each play is based on a well known classic story that is modernized. A current event is usually depicted somewhere in the script and music is used liberally throughout. For instance for the last Cinderella play we started by the Prince performing a rap about Cinderella inspired by Alexander Hamilton’s Rap Song. We often play a clip of Another One Bites the Dust by Queen when a character dies. Our plays are always lighthearted fun.
- About a month before the play I try to have the outline of the play written and then work on filling in the details. If any of the middle school age performers are interested, they review the draft and provide suggestions. Reasonable suggestions are discussed and a first draft is produced. For the last two years the kids selected a play that was performed years ago (before they were born). By re-using an old script I am able to greatly truncate the writing process to one weeks’ time.
- I try to keep each script to about 15 pages using 14 point font. The ideal time for a play is about 35 to 40 minutes with no intermission. Most plays have 6 scenes.
- Since we only rehearse for one week, it is best to give the script to the leads the week before rehearsals start. Practices are Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 9:00am to 11:00am with a full dress rehearsal on Wednesday. The play is always on Thursday at 6:00pm with Friday as the rain date. By keeping the rehearsals and performance to the same week we are able to keep the audience’s expectations low and not lose performers due to scheduling conflicts.
- The play is held in my postage stamp back yard incorporating the tree house in some fashion. To make the “stage”, I use black king size flat sheets (from Walmart) that I hang from a supported pvc pipe that separates my yard from the neighbors. The neighbors’ yard is backstage. Usually the kids will work on some props the week of the play and usually we will make something interesting. For instance, the year we did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory we had the winch hooked up to the tree house fire poll and used clear shower curtains to make a “tube” around the fire pole so that the Augustus Gloop character could appear to be sucked up the tube after he fell into the chocolate river. It was a slow “sucking” but was hysterical!
- Since year two we have a speaker system so that the audience can actually hear the performers. We have graduated to wireless microphones but have used wired mics in the past. It makes the experience so much more enjoyable! There are a lot of inexpensive microphone systems on the market.
- I always use a narrator who sets up most of the scenes. It’s an easy way to keep the audience informed about what is about to happen. The narrator is usually one of the middle school kids who I will station near me so we can easily communicate if adjustments need to be made. A young participant will carry the scene signs as we prepare the set for the next scene. I like to use an outgoing 4 year old for this job as they often need to kill a little time. The cuter the better!
- We always start by two performers welcoming the crowd, letting them know how long the play will be and inviting them for cookies and lemonade in my other neighbors’ yard. (I’m lucky that I have great neighbors on each side of my lot).
- We always tell the back story of the lead characters which often involves the mother dying. Proof that the classic stories were often written by fathers not mothers. It’s also a good way to include more characters thus increasing the number of roles.
- Scenes from a classic movies are often incorporated into the plays. For instance, in last year’s Beauty and the Beast, the Better Version, before Gaston stormed the castle he hired Vazzini of Princess Bride to free Belle from the castle. The Vizzini character challenged the Beast to a battle of the wits using the dialogue from the movie.
- We invite the entire neighborhood to attend by placing a black board announcing the play on the front sidewalk for the week before the play.
- All good mannered children are welcome to join the cast. The typical ages are from 4 years old to 8th I usually don’t know the number of kids that I will have in the play until the first rehearsal. I often divide up some lines if we get more kids than anticipated or write extra lines. The biggest cast I ever had was 50 for Snow White and the Many, Many Dwarfs. A cast of 20 is ideal.
- We never charge any admission to attend.
- The first rehearsal is called the read through where final cast decisions are made. Usually the leads are selected before but sometimes they are selected on Monday. The kids will suggest edits or additions to their lines. Performers love saying lines that they have written. I will often leave blanks in the play until Monday morning so they can help me add some lines. On the flip side, something will usually be cut down as there is nothing like a child reading the lines you have carefully crafted to help you decide what makes sense and what doesn’t.
- If there is a dance number or some theatrical choreographed element we will start practicing that on Monday. For instance in The Little Mermaid, Ariel and the mermaids performed The Cup Song when Ariel left the ocean. We have had good success using choreography intended for another purpose. As long as the child who knows the dance is in the front the others will be able to learn the number and participate.
- On Tuesday we start moving when we do the lines and practice moving on the set which is usually still imaginary at this point. We usually have some props we can use as place markers to help the kids know where to go. The curtain separating my yard from back stage is always up by this point making the yard look like a stage. I also usually take the seats of the swing set so kids aren’t accidentally kicked by swingers – a common back yard tragedy.
- All the kids are responsible for doing their own costumes and they bring these on Wednesday for the full dress rehearsal. Usually there is at least one parent in every group that goes all out and makes an amazing costume. It really does make a difference. I have a lot of old costumes that I keep and are reused every year.
- Thursday is the day that my husband and I set everything up in the back yard. We get the speaker system ready, set up the props and chairs and blankets for the audience. I have a table set up near the stage area where I have the script and the computer with the cut music ready which is hooked up to a speaker.
- My husband cuts the music for me using garage band. I use a lot of classics, popular songs and sound effects. Music is a good way to keep the energy of the performers up and make everything fun.
- An hour before the performance starts I have all of the kids back to the basement to do the last read through with the music. They all then put their additional costumes in the back stage areas on tables that I have set up and marked for each performer.
- I never require kids to memorize their lines. They each have a script and I tell them that it’s fine if they need to read from the script. Most of the leads will learn their lines and it does make the play run smoother. I am always on hand to whisper lines if needed.
- The key to the whole play is that the audience is filled with the friends and family of the performers who are happy with whatever happens.
- I don’t give much acting advice (since I really don’t know much about real acting) other than the actors need to face the audience and speak slow enough to be understood. I also tell them to remember to smile.
- Plays with fake fight scenes are always popular. To control the level of violence I always have music playing. Pirates of the Caribbean, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars have a lot of great fight music. A slow motion fight works best with the Chariots of Fire theme music.
- Most of the performers perform barefoot with minimal costuming.
- Other parents will often help with the props and I keep a lot on hand that can be re-purposed.
- Every play that I have ever written ends with the same lines. The narrator will say, “and they all lived” and every performer will then yell “happily ever after” and then I play some dance music and all the performers do a short celebratory dance.
I’m attaching the script from last year’s Beauty and the Beast with some photos. Please feel free to use this script for your own backyard play. I plan to write an e-book with other scripts that I have developed including: Snow White and the Many, Many Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beasty Boys, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, Snow White and Cinderella.