So, you want to write a show for young actors, eh?

So, you want to write a youth theatre play, eh?

The writer, always with notebook in hand!
Photo Credit: Malcolm Miller, March 2011

I’ve written two shows for young actors, and trust me… it’s not the easiest thing to do!  Young actors want to be challenged with juicy acting roles… and they all want the most lines.  They want to do shows with catchy titles… that aren’t babyish or boring.  What’s a playwright to do?

Well, before you even put pen to paper, here are some ideas for those of you who are just at the early stages of even considering writing a show for young actors.  Consider this Part Zero… the “just thinking about it” phase.

First, figure out what kind of show you want to write, and who you’re writing for.  Play or musical?  Or what about a play with music?  (There’s a difference!)  Drama or comedy?  Do you want a write a show for youth to perform in, or do you want to write a show to be performed for youth, by adults?  (Again, HUGE difference!)

Second, get specific.  Let’s assume you’re writing a show for youth to perform in.  What age level are you aiming to write for?  There is a big difference between what a 10 year old and a 16 year old will find to be cool.  Heck, there is a big difference between what one 10 year old and another 10 year old will find to be cool!  So why not go straight to the source?  When I worked at the LYTE at the Palace summer program, I found it really useful to just ask the kids what kind of shows they wanted to do!  One summer they decided they wanted a mystery, which sparked the creation of Inspector Noble and the Figure in Black.  The next summer, I did a “pick your brain” session with the Session 3 kids (13-16 year olds) and we had a brainstorming circle, where every kid gave ideas about what they thought was cool, no holds barred, and we wrote everything down.  That was even more useful, because it was specific.  Be prepared to get a weird and wonderful list of topics that may have absolutely no apparent links to any of the other topics listed!

Third, consider the “tendencies.”  Youth theatre companies tend to have larger casts, and more girls than boys.  Obviously you cannot write a show with 20 starring roles (even though parents everywhere are wishing it could happen).  However, try to consider writing shows with parts that can be expanded (multiple best friends, a group of police officers, etc), or subplots with featured roles.  As well, create some characters that can be played by either gender, either by using gender-neutral names (Sam, Jamie, Jordan) or providing alternate names for gender switches (Harry/Heather, George/Georgina, Jeff/Jenny).  Try to avoid girls having to play boys.  Many are willing to do so, but most would prefer to play girls!  Another type of show to consider is an ensemble show, with many characters all contributing to the main plot.  Musicals are especially good for this, but it can work for plays as well.  Think about television shows like Glee, which features lots of characters, or a soap opera.

Have you written a show for young actors?  What are some tips you’d like to share?  Leave a comment below!

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One thought on “So, you want to write a show for young actors, eh?

  1. Hello, Kerry!

    I’m a professional children’s playwright and drama director, and I believe you have some sound advice here on playwriting. I adore writing shows, particularly for middle school age kids. There is something almost magical about the process because inspiration can strike from anywhere!

    As you mentioned, oftentimes the very best ideas will come from the kids who will be performing the show. I was asked to write a holiday show for a school a few years ago, and I knew I needed something to jumpstart a plot. I asked the middle schoolers to brainstorm a list of possible titles featuring Christmas characters, and they came up with dozens of possibilities. There were silly suggestions, of course, and others that were completely confusing, but then a gem emerged: The Naughtiest Kid on the List. I loved it, and almost immediately, my brain shifted into high gear with a possible plot idea. Sometimes, just a clever title will get your imagination rolling!

    I’m also a big believer in writing what you know. I married into a rather hilarious Italian family whose members love good food and a good argument in equal measure. So naturally, a couple of years ago, I wrote a mystery dinner show comedy called “The Secret of the Spoon” all about–you guessed it–a passionate, argumentative Italian family! And it was one of the easiest scripts I’ve ever written. Personal experience–your childhood, jobs you’ve held, memorable people in your life–is fantastic material for anyone wanting to write a play.

    Finally, I have some encouraging words for anyone struggling to begin writing a full length play. I don’t believe it’s necessary to have every part of the plot figured out before you start. Just begin! I have written plenty of plays in which I had no idea how things would wrap up in the final scene until I was mid-way through the script…or even working on the last few pages! If you’ve written characters that you know and feel attached to, they’ll be there in your head, telling you how the story should end. Have faith.

    My plays can be found at this web address: https://funmiddleschoolplays.com. I hope you have a few minutes to check them out!

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