Back in September 2020 when the kids were studying the Victorian era, and against a backdrop of my daughter’s love for all things thespian (but with very little going on thanks to Covid), I thought it would be a fun idea to start working on performing a play from this time period with their friends. We chose the excellent book Dodger by Terry Pratchett (one of Harry’s favourite authors), which has been brilliantly adapted into a play by Stephen Briggs for Oxford Playscripts.
It turned out to be the absolute favourite part of their homeschool studies.
After a year and a half of hard work learning lines, rehearsing, getting into character, a lockdown, planning costumes, props, another lockdown, music and lighting schedules, a big group of family and friends gathered to watch their final performance.
None of us knew what to expect as the whole project was entirely child-led. Our involvement was limited to arranging times for them to meet.
On Saturday night, we were blown away by their performance – they far surpassed all our expectations. It was a superb show, which, in parts, had us in stitches (love Mr Pratchett’s writing).
The play was long – over two hours in length – with some complex monologues for them to learn. In addition, many of them were playing several different roles. Given that most of them had no acting experience – although a bucket load of enthusiasm – I thought it would be a real achievement for them just to be able to recite their lines. Acting might not necessarily come into the equation.
But how wrong was I! These children threw their hearts and souls into this project, putting on a range of different accents, mannerisms and affectations to breathe life into each and every character. They also creatively used the space, lighting and (often self-made) props to bring the story alive, for example by moving close to the audience to have “whispered conversations” whilst the crowd milled around in the background. Or pretending to move through the sewers with lanterns in dimmed lighting.
And the costumes, oh the costumes, the hairstyles (some of which were, quite frankly, works of art) and all the tiny little details, like signs for Sweeny Todd’s barber shop, were carefully thought through and well-constructed.
There were obviously some problems, around speed between scenes – they could have done with some backstage assistance – and lighting – they hadn’t practised it in the dark and their poor gaffer couldn’t see which light switch to press at times (we got him a head torch for the second half!). But learning from your mistakes is all part of the process and will, I’m sure, be resolved for the next play they’re very keen to put on.
If you’re interested in putting on your own homeschool play, I’d highly recommend it. Not only did they all have a huge amount of fun, but they also learned a great deal throughout the process. Below I’ll briefly explain what we did, and what I believe they learned.
Rehearsing the Play
Initially, we gathered a group of ten 8-15-year-old friends and each family involved purchased their own Dodger playscript to read with their children in preparation for the first session. Having a script was a good call as it gave them all a clear focus. Before they started, Rosie and I went through the play and cut out a few non-essential scenes and reduced some of the lines (with hindsight, we could have cut them down even further).
If you’re interested in doing something similar, Oxford Playscripts have adapted a whole range of classic books into thought-provoking but accessible plays, from Frankenstein to A Christmas Carol to The Three Musketeers.
The books give an overview on staging the play, clear stage directions and a summary of costumes and props required for each scene, as well as, in the case of Dodger, character biographies of the key characters since many of them were based on real Victorian people. Understanding these characters allowed them to submerse themselves in and better understand the Victorian world. For example, Sir Joseph Bazalgette – a renowned Victorian civil engineer who redesigned London’s sewer systems – appears in the play, keen to follow Dodger into the sewer system to investigate. Following their performance, our little group are going on a trip together to Abbey Mills pumping station to see some of Bazalgette’s architecture for themselves.
From the first session onwards, the children took charge completely.
All we parents needed to do was to arrange a day, about once a month, for the children to dedicate to the venture. As hosts, before each session, the kids and I emptied our biggest room of anything breakable, set up some toys for the younger siblings in a different room and waited for the arrival of eight other very excited home educators!
Although I was not involved in any of the sessions (which felt liberating and at the same time a little unnerving…), I’m led to understand that the first session was spent with the children auditioning for each of the roles and negotiating amongst themselves as to who was to play each character.
Initially, as two girls wanted the leading lady role of Simplicity, they decided to share the role and do half the play each as this character, which seemed to suit everyone. But later, as the play progressed, one of them decided to let the other take on the full role of Simplicity, and instead she created an excellent portrayal of Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts – a Victorian philanthropist and social reformer.
Once roles were agreed, the children were tasked with learning the lines for about five scenes at a time. Rosie, with the most acting experience, took on a directing role, and for each session, she first had them “block” each scene, which basically meant deciding where on the “stage” (our front room) they would be positioned and how they would move around during each scene. At this stage (no pun intended!), the focus was not to be completely “off book” but instead to remember where they needed to be. The boys were particularly engaged with the blocking of the fight scenes!
As soon as they’d blocked the whole play, they practised more scenes at a time during each session, working on their interactions, their accents, movements and involvement with any props. At this point, they were encouraged to be “off book” as much as possible.
One of the younger children, who was less keen on acting, was appointed as the props and lighting man, whilst also being involved in the crowd for the party scenes. Most of them are musical and wanted to include some form of musical interlude. There was much discussion about this, but in the end, they opted for recording Ava playing her trumpet, to be used in the performance; Reuben playing the piano in the party scene, and Harry playing his electric guitar at the end to introduce each of the actors/actresses for their bow (inspired by the Marlowe Theatre panto!).
By the end, they were covering half the scenes in each rehearsal and then the full play. For the last couple of sessions, they asked one of the mums to act as a line prompter. This also helped with focus! We organised for the dress rehearsal to be the day before the performance. Logistically this worked well. Rosie and Harry had used large blocks to separate our other room into ten sections, so each performer had their own space for costumes and props and to get changed. Excitement levels in this room were at fever pitch throughout!
Finally, their big day came, and they got their chance to put everything they’d learned into action! Here’s a little snippet from the play:
So, what did they learn? Aside from understanding more about the history of the time period and developing their memorisation ability through the very large number of lines that needed to be learned, there were a raft of other skills developed. Even though to them, they were just having fun.
Working as Part of a Team/Leadership
As there was very minimal adult involvement, all the many decisions from who to play what role, how scenes should be presented, to what props to use, were all discussed and agreed upon by the children. In the process, they learned how to negotiate with and influence others; be confident in expressing their opinion whilst also listening to and considering others’.
These debates were always a positive experience. According to the children, everyone got a chance to have their say and there were no disagreements. We adults certainly never needed to intervene.
Additionally, Rosie had a much-appreciated opportunity to practise some leadership skills as their director. She made sure everyone was happy with their roles; ensured each role was substantial enough, extending where needed; kept people focused and the sessions on track (ably assisted by her friend Reuben and possibly hindered slightly by her brother…); encouraged them; communicated how the rehearsals could be run and what else they needed to do. She also made sure all the little details were picked up, including writing out a prop schedule for each scene for use backstage and a lighting plan for the gaffer.
She was absolutely thrilled to receive a huge bouquet of flowers for her efforts from the other mums. It made her night 😊
Confidence in Presenting
Let’s face it, there are many jobs which require good and confident presentation skills. Whether it be in a business capacity, pitching an idea; in a classroom teaching; giving expert talks; or even in a court room, the ability to speak clearly, at a speed people can understand, and with good projection is essential. And if you can do this with poise and self-assurance, it will be that much more effective.
Learning these skills in a safe and supportive environment is the best way. Particularly when they reach an age where they become more self-aware, it is easy for children’s confidence to be severely knocked. And, from personal experience, that can have a profound impact long term.
When I was younger, I loved to act, and I remember feeling very confident standing up and talking in front of others. And then the school entered me and two friends into a public speaking competition but failed to give us any guidance or support.
We turned up to a place crowded with highly competitive children who clearly had a great deal of public speaking experience. These guys were polished and so very capable. We stood up for our turn and as I turned to face the crowd feeling utterly unprepared, I just froze. And promptly ran out of the room… It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life. I did pull myself together, return to the room and complete the speech. But from then on in, I have hated public speaking.
In their Dodger play, there were, of course, a couple of forgotten lines, but with a little prompting from their friends and one of the parents, the moments of fear were passed over and they continued to put on fantastic performances. And it happened in front of such a friendly, supportive audience, who were willing everyone to succeed, that it just wasn’t an issue, and they all came off with huge smiles on their faces.
The excitement of the play – being together, in costume, and seeing all their work come to fruition – seemed to instil an inner self-confidence in the children. When attempted accents and mannerisms were being thoroughly appreciated by the audience, you could see them feel this and exaggerate them even more, relishing their moment in the spotlight! Furthermore, as a group they’d worked very hard on projecting their voices, so that on the night, even though ordinarily some of the children are quietly spoken, every single one of them could clearly be heard.
This play was their baby, a child-led project to manage independently from adult interference. Together, they unwittingly practised all sorts of project management skills from communication, to how to solve problems, to how to manage their time effectively. A huge amount of effort was given by everyone and there was a real sense of pride at pulling it all off on the night.
There were many opportunities for their creativity to shine both on stage and in the preparation, proving them to be both resourceful and imaginative. The outfits were one such example – they looked awesome with their homemade top hats, smart shirts and bow ties, elegant dresses and a dirty “tosher” look. Personally, I loved Reuben’s enormous bosom for his Mrs Sharples role! The hair was another triumph – one of the girls’ aunties researched Victorian hairstyles to create a stunning Queen Victoria look for her niece. They had to get inventive with the props too and there were many of them – we’re still finding them around the house week later!
And on the stage, even though the script gives stage directions, they still needed to be creative with how they could use the given space, entrances and lighting. And last but by no means least, their imaginative side came alive in the creation of the characters. We had German accents, posh ones, an East End twang, an old lady’s shaky voice and many others – and some that even evolved over time… Mannerisms and affectations too were carefully woven in to create engaging and often very amusing performances.
So, not only was this a chance to have a great time with their friends, but they also clearly learned a lot along the way.
Looking forward to the next play and watching them grow further!