Joey Stocks: First of all, what is an “educational play?”
Barry Bradford: In a broad sense, I suppose any play could be considered “educational” in one way or another. A stricter definition might be a play that is written specifically as an educational tool.
Mindy Mayer: Of course, many aspects of plays can be intrinsically educational, but to me, an education-based script is one that the playwright develops with learning as a key objective. Produced alone or as part of a larger presentation, the play also may be created for a specific age group or type of audience.
Joey Stocks: How did you get started writing educational plays?
Eric Alter: My full-time job is the director of a private school for students with learning disabilities. Being around young people all the time and seeing what high school kids go through, I like to write about those kind of issues. I feel like anyone who ever went to school has struggled with some of these issues, so many people can relate.
Mindy Mayer: In 2005, I was asked by the Louisiana SPCA to write a short play about compassion for animals for the closing assembly of a New Orleans high school where students had engaged in on-campus animal cruelty. The LA/SPCA spent a semester providing immersive humane education at the school, and for the final assembly some of the students performed the play. None of them had ever been on a stage before. It was a profound experience, and I loved it. I quickly realized that by partnering with schools and nonprofit organizations in this region, I could combine four things that are important to me: playwriting, education, children, and community service.
Barry Bradford: In 1995, we were living in Chattanooga and my wife worked for Family and Children Services there (now Partnership for Families, Children and Adults). This organization produced issue-oriented one act plays on various topics—spouse abuse, challenges faced by the elderly, sexual harassment in the workplace, etc.—which were done by arrangement with Plays for Living in New York. One of the women who worked closely with Family and Children’s Services had a daughter with bulimia and wanted a play done about eating disorders. Plays for Living had no such play. My wife suggested to her boss Helen Smith, who produced the plays for FCS, that they apply for a grant and commission me to write one. At the time I had only written some one-acts and a short story. But, based on that Helen decided to go ahead and I got the job.
Joey Stocks: Which play of yours was most challenging to write?
Barry Bradford: The most challenging was a play called Crossing the Line. The issue being dealt with was acquaintance rape. Our target audience included high schoolers. Creating situations and dialogue that dealt frankly with sex and violence but could still be taken into schools, was not easy. Fortunately, I had a task force of professionals who helped me make sure the information in the play was accurate and the message of the play was correct. On the one hand we had to make sure women were mindful of their surroundings and aware of warning signs, i.e., not allow themselves to be caught in situations where they could become a victim. On the other hand, we had to make sure they understood that if they became a victim it was not their fault. We had to create situations in which women wore provocative clothing, were drinking, allowed themselves to be isolated etc. Then had to make sure that the message was clear that even if they wore provocative clothing, were drinking or let themselves become isolated, it was not their fault that they were raped, but absolutely the fault of the rapist. Another challenge was to present as many scenarios as possible which involved acquaintance rape. We had a scene where a trusted coach took advantage of a student. Another scene involved a young woman being taken by a young man to an isolated house where there was supposed to be a party, but when they arrived, they were alone. The young man then threatened to leave her if she didn’t do what he wanted. There was a party scene where a guy slipped a drug into a girl’s drink. And there was a scene in which a young man was raped (by another male). We felt we had to cover a lot of ground and show a lot of situations where rape could happen, so the actors had to play many roles.
Crossing the Line has brought me the greatest satisfaction I have felt as a playwright. A woman in her forties called Family and Children’s Services after seeing the play. She left a message on the answering machine in which she sobbed and said how glad she was that she had seen it. “After all these years,” she said, “I finally see that it wasn’t my fault.” To play a part in helping someone like that, well, that’s reason we become writers—to make a positive impact in the world.
Mindy Mayer: The script that I contemplated the longest is on bullying, a topic I care about deeply. For years I waited and watched as research findings, media coverage, and public awareness increased, all the while considering how to appropriately approach a topic of such magnitude—literally a matter of life or death for some children.
Plays about bullying began to emerge nationwide, and I wondered how I could effectively contribute. Noting that the scripts I learned about targeted students from third grade through high school, I finally found my way into the subject. Years earlier, I had been shocked to witness playground bullying among preschoolers, so I created a play for the youngest students, through second grade, to help them understand what bullying looks like, sounds like, and feels like, and what they can do to help stop it. Designed for middle and high school students to present to these young audiences, the play serves as a reminder to the performers, as well.
Eric Alter: I would have to say two of them come to mind. One is called Mirror, Mirror and it is a play about overeating and anorexia. It’s the story about two girls who live in different states who both think they are ugly and have low self-esteem all and resort to either overeating or not eating enough. It was difficult to write because unfortunately I feel like I see a lot of this with teenage girls (and older) and how they view themselves.
The other play was called Too Old for Archie, which is about teenage suicide. This was a tough play to write because it’s a play we can all relate to. We all know how going to high school can be so difficult. It’s the story of two boys—one is a jock, the other a sort of geek—who share one thing in common: they have wanted to end their lives at some point. As I wrote both plays, I felt the characters' pain, both the women and the men.
Joey Stocks: What are some of the production challenges when creating educational plays?
Eric Alter: Production challenges…there are always tons of them. I write the plays for children and young actors and if I can get them, I use them, but it’s very tough. Many times, I cast young adults in their twenties and just hope the audience buys it with the dialogue. Ideally, I find it best to use children when writing for children if at all possible. I use non-Equity actors for my shows, but I have worked with Equity actors in the past. Most of my plays run around fifteen to 30 minutes for the educational pieces, though I have written some full-length plays as well.
Mindy Mayer: For non-student productions, I always hire adult theatre professionals—director, costume designer, and actors—and I secure grants for their fees and other production costs. Some of my projects could be considered “museum theatre,” in which a theatrical performance offers “a different point of entry” to an exhibit at a museum, aquarium, or zoo. Some are outreaches, taking a ten-minute play and educators into school classrooms. To keep costs and logistics manageable, and because performance spaces can be wildly unpredictable, the scripts for these traveling presentations have no more than three characters and no set. All of these programs are offered to schools at no charge, with Title 1 schools a priority.
The scripts I write for schools and student actors can have more variability in length, cast size, and set requirements. Past projects range from a fifteen-minute, five-character play about female lighthouse keepers—for middle school girls to read for their class when visiting a historic lighthouse/museum—to a one-hour musical (created with partners), based on true stories from an animal shelter, with twelve characters and a completely flexible chorus.
Barry Bradford: In New Orleans, Family Services used professional actors. In Chattanooga, we used community theatre actors. I always wrote for teen and adult actors. None of my educational plays had characters who were children.
The ideal run time for the plays was 30 minutes (so about 30 pages in length). The concept was—with both Plays for Living and Springboard Productions—that the play was “Act I” and the follow-up discussion led by a professional was “Act II”. There always had to be a discussion afterwards as the plays were deliberately left open-ended so that the audience would be encouraged to discuss what the characters did. A study guide was provided to facilitate discussion.
The plays incorporated simple set pieces and props. This was necessary as we were going into very, very different spaces. Sometimes you’d be in a classroom with moderate space. Then you might do a show in a long, narrow room. The next show might be in a huge conference room. You used whatever tables and chairs [were available]. When I was an actor in Cross Currents (a Plays for Living show) in New Orleans, I remember having to use TV tables one day, then a massive conference table the next. You had to be flexible. It was the same for the plays I wrote for Springboard. I had to make sure the props and set pieces were simple because these were traveling shows that went into a variety of spaces.
Production costs were low. A grant covered my commission fee. The main cost with my Springboard plays was the director who was paid for rehearsal and performances. These costs were covered by a fee charged by Springboard to bring the show to the school, classroom, etc. Many times, if the organization could not pay, the fee was waived.
Joey Stocks: Do you have any advice for dramatists interested in writing educational plays?
Mindy Mayer: The capacity of theatre to enhance learning is limitless. Bring respect for the subject matter, a passion for education, willingness to consult with experts, the ability to thrive in a collaborative environment, and the tenacity to problem-solve. Oh, and if you don’t have 501(c)(3) status, you may need a fiscal agent for your grants!
Eric Alter: I think if you’re going to write educational plays, you need to keep up with the issues of young people today. Talk to young people. Find out what they think and feel, find out what their experiences are. Being around young people and seeing these issues first-hand is a great way to start. If you can’t do that, then of course you can draw on your own experiences, but speaking to young people who have been pregnant, bullied, raped, picked on, thought about suicide…helps you develop your story. It helps you learn about them and, hopefully, helps you write a play in which you can help and educate others. That’s our purpose when writing an educational play—to help and educate as many as we can.
Barry Bradford: I would recommend that the playwright contact Plays for Living* in New York City. In the past, they have engaged playwrights to write for them. They’ve been around since 1942 and are the pioneers in creating educational theatre. Also, contact local social welfare agencies. These agencies are not only helping people in crises (victims of rape, spouse abuse, etc.), but are very much interested in educating the public about the issues with which they are concerned, and letting people know that the agency is there to help. These agencies can apply for grants to pay the playwright’s commission. Local community theatres can also be a source of help in getting educational plays produced, providing actors, directors, costumes, props, etc. And businesses will sometimes provide funds to produce educational plays, particularly if the company, or someone in the company, has an interest in a particular issue. In Chattanooga a company funded an entire season of my play Who Am I? (about eating disorders) because the president of the company had a daughter who had suffered from anorexia. Contacting foundations and organizations that provide grants can be fruitful, but often they are more interested in partnering with another organization (a theatre or social agency) that would then engage the playwright. I think it’s important that the playwright network with such agencies, theatres and businesses.
Before writing the play, even if the playwright has a good deal of first-hand knowledge about the issue, I strongly recommend they do thorough research. Professionals in the field should be involved so that the playwright can be absolutely sure that the information in the play is accurate and current. Doctors, psychiatrists, social workers, counselors, teachers, etc., can provide a wealth of knowledge, and steer the playwright towards books, DVDs and other resources. Interviewing people who have first-hand experience with the issue is important as well. I found case studies to be one of the very best sources of information. Stories told by people who were in the situations being written about are extremely valuable.
Finally, when the play is performed, I think it is vital to have a professional on hand to facilitate discussion. The plays written for Plays for Living and Springboard Productions were always open-ended, allowing the audience to decide how it would end. This made discussion of the play easier. A professional knows the right questions to ask, and the right answers to give. This kind of collaboration can make a real difference in people’s lives.
* Since this article’s original publication, it appears Plays for Living is no longer in business.
ERIC ALTER is a screenwriter, TV writer and playwright. He is the author of 143 plays which have been performed and produced all over the world. He is the founder of Apricot Sky Productions (www.apricotskyproductions.com) a film/tv/theater company based in NJ. He recently wrote a TV pilot called 180 Days about the perils of Junior High School.
BARRY BRADFORD has been writing plays since 1990. He is a three-time winner of the Southern Playwrights Competition for Was, Conquistadors, and Dead Towns of Alabama. Other plays include The Face in the Courthouse Window, Who Am I?, Crossing the Line, and It’s Love, Isn’t It? He is the director of the Tangipahoa Parish Library system and lives in Hammond, LA with his actress/director wife, Becki Davis.
MINDY MAYER’s monologues and plays have been produced nationwide in theaters and on the radio. They have won or placed in national competitions, including the Paul T. Nolan One-Act Play Award of the Deep South Writers Conference, the Tennessee Williams Festival One-Act Play Competition, the Paul Green Playwrights Prize of the North Carolina Writers Network, the Theatre Oxford Ten-Minute Play Contest, and the DramaRama Contest of the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco. Ms. Mayer also develops and implements collaborative educational theater programs, collaborating with schools, museums, and other nonprofit organizations. In addition to the Dramatists Guild, Ms. Mayer is a member of Theatre Communications Group, Inc., Educational Theatre Association, and International Museum Theatre Alliance (IMTAL).