A New Play for Halloween

Back a hundred years ago, ghoulishness was captured in short stories rather than comic books. Writers like Poe, Shelley, and Stevenson creeped out their audiences with dark tales of superstition, mystery, and insanity. The Gothic themes they created have been permeating literature, television, and cinema ever since. Case in point, for the last couple of years I’ve been not-quite-binge watching episodes of Dark Shadows, the Gothic TV show about Barnabas Collins—arguably the world’s second-most famous vampire (Step aside, Edward). The show’s witches, werewolves, and headless dudes had me mesmerized when it originally aired back in the 1960’s. Now, viewing the rather campy soap through adult eyes, I’m recognizing that all its creepiness came from classic short stories like The Cask of AmontilladoFrankenstein, and The Headless Horseman. They’re all in there! Go figure.

Your students know these themes, too. They’ve seen them on the Simpsons and Family Guy, in Goosebumps and Marvel Comics. But do they know from whence they come?  Though the archaic language and complex structures of these classic tales present barriers for most middle grade readers, you can make the stories more accessible by pairing them with reader’s theater. And what better a time to do it than Halloween?

So what if your students are mesmerized by Venom and Doctor Octopus? There are plenty of mangled monsters and the criminally insane in W.W. Jacob’s classic, The Monkey’s Paw, Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and Hawthorne’s The Birthmark. They’ll also find that familiar ol’ headless horseman in Sleepy Hollow, and a hapless ghost in Twain’s A Ghost Story. Finally, I’ve just released my version of Rappaccini’s Daughter.  No, your kids won’t find it Pennywise-creepy or Slenderman-scary, but its chemical concoctions and mad scientists make it very nearly as engaging. Most certainly, it’s a key to unlocking the original’s subtleties and complexities.    

All these plays are available on my TeachersPayTeachersEtsy, and Amazon storefronts. They’re critically-acclaimed. They’re cheap. And they each come with a comprehension exercise. Suitable for reader’s theater, podcast radio drama, or full stage production, they’re perfect for fifth graders and up— but get started early to have them well-rehearsed by Halloween.

Happy directing!

Just in Time for Halloween!

The Tell-Tale Heart Read Aloud PlayHaving recently reclaimed my publishing rights from Scholastic for a bank of my classic short story plays, I’m very pleased to offer Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart to my readers. This script was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Storyworks, but it was so well-received that it was quickly reprinted in Scope magazine, then in Scholastic News, and then finally included in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories. The play’s unique text formatting helps middle grade and early high school readers comprehend the unreliable narrator’s insanity, but what really sets this play apart is the clever way we’ve made it appropriate for the classroom. After all, Poe’s story is about murder. It’s violent. It makes administrators cringe. But teachers who’ve used this script like the way it remains true to the gruesome original despite only implying the gory details. The package also includes a comprehension worksheet, the original text (also formatted to make it more accessible to kids), and a mock trial activity in which “the villainous narrator” must stand before a jury of his peers. It’s a great way to make Poe’s work accessible to your students. Be sure also to contrast it to its partner play, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, which tells the same story but involves crimes against an annoying cell phone rather than an old man. My 5th graders love it when one play group presents the traditional version while a second group presents the cell phone version. Your students will too. Happy directing!

And the Oscar for Best Comedic Performance Goes to…

Yup, the last weeks of the school year can be rough. The end is near, and the kids (and teachers) all know it. What to do? Well, this time of year is a great time to let your students funnel all that extra energy and excitement into some dramatic roles. There’s no reason to assess anything. You can take your hands off the reins, let the kids direct, and just sit back and enjoy their giggles, forgotten lines, and silly grins.

Here are six play scripts that’ll keep your kids engaged until the very end (and there are dozens more at my TpT storefront):
Fly Me to the Moon Reader's Theater Script Jackie Robinson Reader's Theater Script Cyclops reader's theater scriptFly Me to the Moon re-enacts the Apollo moon landing including such famous lines as “The Eagle has landed” and “One small step….” The story is told from the perspective of a young girl who dreams of the stars while following the event via television—itself a feat of innovation. In my classroom, we made an old-fashioned television set out of a cardboard box (complete with tin foil rabbit ears) and stuck a kid inside it to play Walter Cronkite. It’s not a comedy—in fact, it’s a historically-accurate bit of drama—but it’ll have everyone laughing while simultaneously learning a bit of history.

It’s baseball season! Jackie Robinson’s contribution to the civil rights struggle is profound, but why read about it in a text book? In this play, vendor at a modern day Yankee’s game interact with the audience, telling Jackie’s story while hawking hot dogs and flinging bags of peanuts (I like to use real bags). It’s another important bit of history told in a fun way.

There’s a monster and kids get eaten. What could be better? Cyclops: The Monster in the Cave depicts Homer’s classic in all its vomitous glory. Your students will have a blast with this one.

Peter Rabbit reader's theater The Newsies reader's theater script Poe reader's theater script Over the years, few plays have rivaled my Peter Rabbit adaption for gut busting guffaws. It’s not necessarily supposed to be that way, but fifth graders have a natural aptitude for slapstick. These days, thanks to the motion picture, your kids may want to make some adaptions of their own. Should be a kick!

The Newsies tells the story of a young immigrant girl who goes to work selling newspapers just before the 1899 New York City newsboy strike in which kids stood up to millionaire publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. In this play, kids get to talk in a heavy Bronx dialect, stage a protest, and throw newspapers over the side of the Brooklyn Bridge! Sounds jus’ like da end a da school year, don’t it?

Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone is a modernized version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In this version, the protagonist is driven to madness by her best friend’s annoying cell phone. After smashing it to smithereens, she hides it in the depths of her desks only to later be driven to confess by the phone’s perturbing and inexplicable ringtone. It’s my best-selling play, but not everyone has liked it. “Too Weird,” said one reviewer. Well of course it is, it’s Poe! And that makes it ideal for the chaos of late May and early June!

Happy directing!

Eerie Reader’s Theater for Halloween

Harry_Clarke_The_Tell-Tale_HeartFairies waving candied wands… Goblins drooling chocolate malt… Halloween has such a bizarre place in our classrooms. In my school it’s been informally “banned,” though the kinders still get to parade through the school in their costumes, and the rest of the student body gets to have an afternoon “party” that presumably has nothing to do with ghouls and ghosts. Personally, I like “Monte Carlo Day,” a party in which kids set-up, run, and risk candy tokens at a variety of “probability games” such as Roulette, 21, and the Shell Game. The kids still get their candy fix, but at least there’s a bit of math involved.

An even better approach to Halloween is to replace your parades and parties with a collection of play performances. Kids still get to dress up, you can serve treats at the performance, and it’s not only academically valid, but a fine way to satisfy standards. A trio of plays takes a few weeks to prepare and an afternoon to perform. You can also invite other classes to attend, thereby helping your colleagues with their Halloween alternatives.

I have a number of Read Aloud Play titles that are perfect for Halloween. The Birth-mark, which is a classic short-story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, tells the story of a mad scientist who, in his quest to make his already beautiful bride “perfect,” kills her instead. The Monkey’s Paw is W.W. Jacobs’ classic Gothic tale about getting three wishes. The disturbing result will stay with your students long after Halloween has passed. The well-known Legend of Sleepy Hollow is available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (you can purchase and download it instantly at Scholastic Teacher Express). Pair it with YouTubeThe Birthmark scope cover page segments from the original Disney flick. You’ll also find Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart in the same book, which can be paired with my modernized version, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone. (At least one of my reader’s has commented that it’s “too strange,” which I think makes it a lot of fun for Halloween.) Finally, A Piece of String has a ghostly conclusion and Cyclops has a ferocious monster. All of these plays were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Scope and Storyworks, so you know they’re up to snuff, and they all come with reproduction and performance rights.

Ready to give it a try but unsure how to start? Download my free guide to teaching with plays. It’ll give you tips and ideas on how to use plays to make your language arts block the best section of the day. But get to it right away…those ghouls and goblins are already knocking at your door.

Happy Halloween and happy directing!