Putting on a festive play is often the highlight of the year in any pre-school setting – at least that’s what parents say! But anyone who has ever organised any kind of performance knows that behind every slick recital is a lot of hard work, time and dedication. So here are some top tips to help with this year’s offering.
Aim for inclusivity instead of perfection
A lot of children naturally love dressing up and performing when they are young and don’t have the performance inhibitions that can sometimes develop as we grow older. Remember this in your planning and let the overriding goal be a celebration of your children’s abilities rather than something that resembles a perfect audition for a TV talent show. Consider the special attributes of each child in your setting and respect that. Celebrate diversity and difference and play to the strengths of the children you have, giving each child a chance to shine in their own way. Your children’s parents will love seeing their little ones ‘moment of glory’ and remember that at this age, it really is the taking part that matters.
2. Get the adults involved – model things you want the children to do
Children love to copy and will find it much easier to remember the moves and the words if they have someone to follow, so get your staff involved by positioning them at the side of the stage or in front of the children (like a mirror), to lead the actions. This will help the children focus and allow parents to really see what they can do, albeit with an onstage prompt.
3. Use narration to lead the story
If you are not using a bought-in script, you can create a strong performance by using a narrator. Have an adult narrate your story and show the scenes in a series of freeze frames or still images as you go. You could use a piece of special music or a sound effect to remind the children to ‘freeze’ like statues and ‘unfreeze’ at certain points. You can also give spoken lines to the characters if you want to, and prompt them using the narration. For example, your narrator could say, “All the shepherds complained about how tired and cold they were”, and use this as the prompt to have the shepherds moan about being cold etc. This usually works well with younger children who can often remember what to say, but not necessarily when to say it.
4. Think of a different angle to tell the story
Not all stories have to be told from the 3rd person narrative. Sometimes, it’s more interesting to have a different angle on a story. For example, in a nativity, you could use a device such as a news report as a framework, and have ‘reporters at the scene’ sending their reports back to a newscaster in an imaginary TV studio. You could even add in some humour with a crazy weather report or a ‘Sky at Night’-type report on an unusual star. Other ideas include telling the story from the perspective of a minor character, such as a shepherd, innkeeper or animal rather than the traditional main protagonists.
5. Use some festive poems or stories
There are lots of traditional festive poems and some fun new ones that you can use as the basis for a performance too. “’Twas The Night Before Christmas” is a traditional favourite which is written in rhyme which children find easier to remember. Consider an evening of simple Christmas poems and get the children to perform them in small groups. The internet is full of simple festive poems which are fun to act out and easy to remember, and using actions helps too. Why not consider teaching the children some Makaton signing to go with some of their songs too?
6. Use a screen for the words
Use a large computer monitor or TV screen to display the words for the songs and or poems. If you are using some of the many readily available scripts, they often come with PowerPoints or videos with the words highlighted on the screen like a karaoke track.
7. Consider telling a sensory story
Why not make your festive play a sensory story this year and add that 4D element to the fun? Go through your story and work out if there are smells, sensations or sound effects that could add to the atmosphere or audience experience. It could be something simple, like a ‘gentle rain’ where you add a gentle water spray in the air above the audience or use some material to mimic the coat of the donkey or use a room spray to evoke the smell of incense. Depending on the space you have, also think about creating a more promenade-style performance which has the audience move around from one scene to the next (or room to room) rather than having the actors move on and off stage.
8. Practice but be aware of children’s attention spans
Most pre-schoolers find it difficult to sit still – it’s in their nature to move and to explore, so be aware that if you’re asking them to sit still with nothing to do for long periods of time (and remember that we are talking of relative pre-schooler time here), then don’t be surprised if some children can’t do it. Instead, give them something to do or focus on or some actions to make during the story to hold their attention.
9. Keep costumes, sets and props simple
Even with the best stage management team in the world, if you want to make your show run smoothly, the best way is to keep costumes, sets and props as simple as possible. Take the time to think about how you can stage the different scenes on one cleverly-designed set and be creative about how you do things. If you have Mary and Joseph travelling through different lands, could you use the children to represent different physical landscapes such as trees, sand dunes or mountains for example? They are usually easier to move on and off, and it will give them something extra to do. Microphones can be useful to amplify small voices but practice with them so the children know what to expect.
10. Enjoy it!
Remember that your show is really about showcasing the children’s talents and celebrating the festive season, so don’t stress too much. Enjoy it!