by Pam Wardell
This guide aims to help you to make dramas out of picture books, which children at any stage of primary school can develop into a presentation for an audience of their own choosing – invited guests, another class or younger pupils. The step-by-step suggestions aim to inspire you to try this approach with a whole host of picture books and to lead your children towards reading for real pleasure!
1. Choosing a picture book
Find a story with plenty of action/movement sequences which the children will enjoy playing out again and again. Don’t worry if there are only a limited number of characters. There are lots of ways of taking part so that everyone is involved in the final production. Consider the impact of the language in the story. How will it sound? Does it suggest different ways for children to use their voices? Look for stories in rhyme, stories with simple dialogue which is often repeated, and stories with opportunities for vivid narration.
2. Enjoy reading the story aloud
You don’t have to be an actor to present a story well. But you do need to use your voice expressively, bringing the words to life and letting the children see the pictures of the characters and events as you read. Read the story right through as you turn the pages and show the pictures, so that the children have the pleasure of hearing and seeing the ‘shape’ of the whole story. Sometimes if you stop and start your reading, to ask questions or elaborate the text, the flow of the story as written by the author is lost, and the children’s concentration and pleasure in the story is diminished.
3. Have fun trying out the action
Let everyone experiment with the movement of the characters in the story. Use music or percussion instruments to accompany this movement. Organize the children in pairs or small groups to try out different ideas. Give each pair or group the chance to demonstrate their ideas to the others.
4. Experiment with narration and dialogue
Think of how the narration and dialogue can be shared between more than one speaker. It is possible to have two or more narrators ‘reading’ the dialogue, while others move as the characters through the events. With younger non-readers you can narrate, and encourage the children to join in repeated lines or phrases. Encourage the children to play with the sound of the words. Let them try different voices for different characters.
5. Provide simple costumes or props or puppets to stimulate participation
There is no need for these to be elaborate or entirely representative. A hat, coloured scarf or simple headband is all that is required to denote characters. A simple prop/piece of costume/homemade puppet for each character will often entice even the most reluctant child to take part.
6. Create the setting for the action of the story
Set any furniture you need first. Set starting points/places for each character: use hoops or mats or signs to indicate where the characters begin their own action. Organize the actors –you can decide to involve groups of children to represent types of character or you can choose one child to represent each character and tell the story several times so that every child has a turn of participating in the drama. Each time the others who are listening and watching can sit in ‘role’ around the acting area, waiting for their turn to join in.
7. Narrate the story as the children participate in the action and dialogue
As you narrate allow time for the action and dialogue to take place. If a child or character does not respond at first you can help by using your voice to repeat the dialogue, or by taking a reluctant participant’s hand and moving with them into the action. Once they know what to do children will – with time - very readily join in as you read the story.
8. Consider what a performance means
Decide who would enjoy seeing this story in action. Discuss numbers in the audience and where they will sit. Do not automatically prepare an end-on acting area, as in traditional theatre. It is more natural for young children to play the action in the round i.e. the audience sits in a large circle to watch the story unfold. Older children could attempt a promenade production between rows of the audience on each side. Or the audience can sit on three sides of the acting area, as for a ‘thrust’ stage. Discuss some of the ‘essentials’ for performing the story: narrator(s), characters, actions, dialogue, props, costumes, setting/scenery, sound effects. Remember that children do not always want to be actors but may be keen to contribute to the presentation in some other practical way.
9. Distribute the roles and jobs you have prepared for your chosen picture book
Make sure that there is an important task for each child to do as you all work together to make the story ‘come alive’:
Narrator(s): highlight the words they say, and encourage them to practise reading aloud. Characters: decide how they move and the voice they will use for their marked dialogue.
‘Sound’ team: select children to play an instrument or make sound effects to accompany the characters/action or switch selected music on/off. (See ‘Sound Effects’ guide.)
Costume/wardrobe department: you might want your character actors to decide/make what they are wearing or you can assign someone special to select items from a collection you provide. Opportunities to experiment with moving in costume are recommended.
Stage-management team: practical tasks such as putting furniture or props in place, or designing and manipulating visual effects, can be given to pairs or small groups to accomplish.
10. Rehearse and present your picture-book drama
When you’ve completed all the preparations (see above) you can make time to run through the sequence of action and words of the story once or twice. It is counterproductive to rehearse this ‘to death’ as the children will become formulaic in the way they move and speak, and lose expression and enthusiasm for the whole project. Before the presentation day just have two special rehearsals:
1. A technical rehearsal – the story is narrated and acted with all props, sound and visual effects in place and working properly.
2. A dress rehearsal – a final run through with costume, props, sound and visual effects, at the end of which you decide on the ‘finale’, which involves everyone coming together to take a bow and receive thunderous applause!