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21 Tips on How to Dramatize Any Story for Theater

Andrew is a drama teacher with over ten years of experience. He has a teaching degree from Huddersfield University in the UK.

Dramatize your story!

Dramatize your story!

What Is Dramatizing?

One of the most fulfilling ways to bring any story to life is to dramatize it. Dramatizing a story means creating a play based on the story. Bringing to life a text, or adding real life character to a narration, can transform a story and help enthuse audiences and classes.

Whether you are a teacher, a dramatist, a member of a theatre group or just interested in the process of transforming stories into action I hope these tips and suggestions can be of use.

  • Though it is primarily aimed at educators, this article will be useful to anyone involved in putting on a play or using drama to enhance study and understanding of a story.

There's nothing quite like the thrill of putting on a show or production for others. Getting everything organized is nerve-wracking, scary, hard work and enormous fun. Dramatizing a story is deeply rewarding. I wish you well in your venture.

Table of Contents

  1. Choose A Suitable Tale or Story
  2. Make a Story Map
  3. What Style of Play Best Suits the Story?
  4. How To Turn A Story
  5. Audience or No Audience?
  6. Organise A Meeting
  7. Resources
  8. First Rehearsal
  9. Warm Ups
  10. Tweaking the Script
  11. Getting into Character
  12. Spotlight on the Lead Roles
  13. Props and Objects
  14. Costume
  15. Music
  16. Lighting
  17. Scenery
  18. Rehearsal Without Script
  19. Dress Rehearsal
  20. Performance
  21. Feedback

1. Choose a Suitable Tale or Story

You want to hit the ground running with your drama group or class, so it's important to make a wise choice when it comes to the tale or story you plan to adapt. You want to present your group with a story that has a full and interesting 'landscape'; one that will challenge and inspire.

  • But what kind of story have you in mind? Do you want to tackle a modern theme? Are you inspired to have a go at a biography? How about a classic fairy tale? A myth? A novel?
  • Think carefully about the people in your class or group. How many people are you working with? What is their age range, gender makeup, ability level, experience with acting?

If you're already in education, the story may be an integral part of your curriculum, in which case you'll have to focus on the syllabus and achievement targets. Outside of grade school or college you may have freedom of choice, but you still have to consider the dynamics within your group. Focus on the individuals in the group and you won't go far wrong.

2. Make a Story Map

  • Create a story map for for the piece you want to adapt.
  • Get as many people as possible involved in the story map.
  • Write down the basics of the story. Include sections for the characters, scenes, events, props, time span, etc.
  • A blackboard or whiteboard works best for large groups.
  • Make sure everyone gets a part.
  • A story map allows you to see a clear path forward.

3. What Style of Play Best Suits the Story?

Will you perform a puppet show, a mime, a shadow puppet play, a masked show, a musical, or simply attempt a live-action version of the source material? You will have to take into account the needs of your group as well as the level of talent.

If you are working with a group of complete beginners, you'll want to keep everything simple. Use a short story with a narrator that includes very few spoken parts. An experienced group may want to have a go at something topical or controversial. Whatever you decide, try hard to stretch and challenge every individual taking part and try to get everyone, or as many as possible, on board with your idea.

Once upon a time there lived a man called Humphrey.

Once upon a time there lived a man called Humphrey.

4. How to Turn a Story

To "turn" a story, you have to adapt it. This means working on the plot, structure and dialogue in order to make it make sense in play format.

  • Read through the whole story and make notes as you go along. Edit the parts appropriately. If the story is too long, you will need to cut it down in size without losing vital material.
  • Make a note of all characters, scenes, props, objects, sounds and ideas for costumes. If you have a class, you can easily create lesson plans around this topic and give your students the chance to participate directly.
  • Consider splitting them up into groups and let each group concentrate on a specific element of the story.

5. Audience or No Audience?

Is the play to be performed in front of an audience or performed solely for the benefit and experience of the participants?

Before you start any rehearsals, make up your mind one way or the other. Playing in front of an audience is not an easy challenge for some people, and you will need to assess all the individuals in your group very carefully, should you want to perform for others.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both. If you decide to perform for an audience, you'll need to arrange dates, a venue, invites, tickets, and seating.

6. Organize a Meeting

You'll need to:

  • Hold the first meeting where you'll appoint (if applicable) a director, actors, stagehands, musicians, lighting engineers, and narrator.
  • Create scenes in your play. This simplifies the storyline, brings ease of understanding and allows the group to manage a beginning, middle and end, which helps at rehearsal times.
  • Write down the characters. Decide on lead and all other roles by democratic means if possible, holding a 'character auction' or straightforward audition.
  • Be sensitive and flexible. There may be those in the group who prefer not to play a solo or speaking role but still want to be in on the act. Invent or allow extras to be part of the play, according to individual wishes.
20-best-tips-for-dramatizing-any-story

7. Resources

For a full play, you have to organize a rehearsal and performance space. You'll also need to decide what to do about scenery, costumes, lighting, props, musical instruments, and writing equipment. And don't forget makeup! Teachers usually have everything they need, but voluntary groups may have to rent space or find suitable premises for regular rehearsals and performances. Sharing resources with other like-minded people/clubs/theatre groups is a cost-effective way of going about it.

8. First Rehearsal

First rehearsal should include:

  • Several warm-ups relating directly to the play.
  • A short introduction and summary of the play.
  • A read through of the first few scenes (depending on time and deadlines).
  • One or two examples of dialogue with action.
  • Adequate feedback time.
The Firebird escapes from Prince Ivan

The Firebird escapes from Prince Ivan

9. Warm-Ups

Before your first rehearsal, the group may benefit from some simple warm-ups, which will allow them to loosen up and relax. You could include brief warm-ups before every rehearsal if the group is willing. They are an excellent way of easing people into a storyline, but they have to be tailored correctly or chaos can ensue!

  1. Consider trying these basic warm-ups.
  2. The Firebird (a Russian tale) is also a great example story with basic warm-up ideas for the whole group to practice. It includes themes of family love, quest, deception, danger, tragedy, magic, and reconciliation.
  3. Do an emotional roleplay involving brother, sister, father and mother.
  4. Do a body movement roleplay of a bird, a wolf, a wizard, and an old lady.
  5. Do an expressive roleplay mimicking the emotions of honesty, wonder, curiosity, fear, frustration, love, and redemption.

10. Tweaking the Script

If you are the scriptwriter don't be afraid to 'tweak' or alter the script here and there if you find parts of it clunky or disjointed. It is better to do this at the earliest possible time in rehearsals, before the actors become too embedded in their characters. If you have to consult with the scriptwriter, make sure you do it in time and point out the dialogue you wish to change or adapt. Discuss changes with the creator! Make certain there are no copyright issues.

11. Getting Into Character

As rehearsals progress, you should go deeper into the characters of the play. For example, if a certain scene demands a confrontation between two characters (one telling the truth, the other being deceptive), how do you allow the scene to unfold? As director, do you intervene during the dialogue/interaction or allow the action to run its course, then jump in with advice and suggestions?

The answer is both, and sometimes neither! It depends on your relationship with the actors involved and their relationship to one another. They will often want you to sort things out, but occasionally they will do it themselves. Play it by ear. If you are a teacher, the dynamics are somewhat different, but the principles are the same; you keep control by allowing the storyline to remain the most important thing.

If you have students, you may want them to do some research into their characters and build up a portfolio that includes photographs (video CD), examples of dialogue, a reflective essay, quotes, a personal opinion, and so on.

This guide can help your actors learn their lines, which is an essential part of getting into character.

20-best-tips-for-dramatizing-any-story

12. Spotlight on the Lead Roles

Most stories that turn into plays tend to have leading roles. Embrace the opportunities lead roles bring because, in my experience, they are the 'heads of the comet' and carry the tail as it streaks away. Working together, the leads usually make one spectacular whole! Don't be afraid to put the spotlight on individuals from time to time as you rehearse, just don't forget to praise the rest.

13. Props & Objects

Props are the useful things that actors need to help them create a scene. Props might include walking sticks, books, jugs of wine, food, and other objects. Objects are most often part of the background scenery rather than the action, but sometimes items like a sword are crucial to move a scene forward.

  • It is vital to get the right sort of props for your play.
  • Build up local contacts if you are short of resources and keep an eye out for bargain basement or free materials that would otherwise go to waste. Gradually introduce the group to props and objects as you work out space, movement and timing.
Mad March Hare from Alice in Wonderland.

Mad March Hare from Alice in Wonderland.

14. Costume

Before any rehearsals start, you should be sure of two things:

  1. You have enough costumes for all of the cast.
  2. The costumes fit.

Arrange a costume meeting and get everyone to try on their outfits. If some costumes don't fit, or you're short of certain items, this will give you sufficient time for adjustments and new purchases/loans.

Your first few rehearsals can be without a costume, unless you have very good reasons to introduce them at an earlier stage. If your schedule is say, 11 weeks rehearsal time, 12th-week performance, then rehearsal 5 or 6 should be the last, sans costume. In week 7, introduce the cast to their costumes. Because you know they now fit, all they have to do is get used to wearing them. Take photographs and let them know they look a million dollars!

15. Music

I like to introduce music at an early stage, as it seems to pull everyone together and inspire some to go the extra mile. There's no doubt that the right music at the right time can really add to a scene or piece of action. A few bars of piano here, a low drum there; it's amazing how much the atmosphere is affected.

I've had musicians play guitar (acoustic and electric), fiddle, cello, drum, glockenspiel, wooden tappers from Africa, marimba; lots and lots of different instruments for different productions.

As a teacher, I like to involve as many students as I can in the actual acting, but some individuals are so talented musically that I let them join the musicians.

16. Lighting

To further enhance your production, you should consider special forms of lighting. Coloured stage lights are well worth investing in. They can provide that extra professional touch, creating atmosphere and amplifying emotion and feeling. Using coloured lights is a bit like painting a picture:

  • Red and yellows for warm exotic daytime scenes.
  • Blues, purples and greens for cold, scary scenes.
  • White lights for dawn/twilight.
  • Spotlights to focus on individuals.

17. Scenery

If time is on your side, you may want to take the plunge and create some scenery of your own with your class or group. Keep the project under control, however, and do not commit too much time to scenery production, or you may find you have no time or energy for quality rehearsals. Ideally, any special backdrops or stage furniture should be made by competent amateurs (or professionals if your budget stretches that far) and delivered to you within good time of the performance dates.

20-best-tips-for-dramatizing-any-story

18. Rehearsal Without Script

There will come a time when you have to say to the actors 'without scripts please' and some of the looks and replies you'll get are well worth documenting. The more confident individuals will just get on with it, but others might rebel and even refuse. Treat these gently at first and allow them the odd peek at the script. It's worth being lenient at this stage and not upsetting the whole applecart with too strict an approach. Give them a definite deadline, however, and work hard to enforce it. Better they learn without the comfort of the script. They'll appreciate you for it.

20-best-tips-for-dramatizing-any-story

19. Dress Rehearsal

Dress rehearsal time is bound to create bundles of excitement and loads of nervous energy. This is the time when weeks of rehearsals come to a head. The actors will be thinking of the first performance to come and all the weeks of blood, sweat, and tears they've left behind! It's your task to channel these conflicting energies into one wholesome run-through. The less you intervene the better, though there will be times when you have to stop proceedings and interject. Dress rehearsals always include tension, but also bring to bear a tremendous force for good as the actors strive to get the best out of themselves and each other.

Don't worry too much if the dress rehearsal is a flop! If it's so bad you're compelled to drag your group back for extra time, then be diplomatic but firm. This will be an absolute last resort!

20. Performance Time

On the day of performance, make sure all members of the cast know when to arrive and where to go to change and prepare. Allocate changing areas and ensure that all costumes are clean and ready. Be around for any last-minute nerves with a ready smile, a spare script, and meaningful bits of advice. If you're really organized, you'll have an understudy ready in case of sickness, and you'll have someone who knows the script backstage or in front acting as a prompt (for those who forget their lines!).

Pay attention to superstitions and be positive at all times. Give praise no matter what the outcome.

21. Feedback to the Cast

When all the performances are over, give the cast a few hours to wind down and celebrate. Take them out for a meal and a drink and let them know how much you appreciated their efforts. Try to focus on each individual in turn and give them a confidence boost with a snippet of praise or a re-run of something funny that happened in the play.

If you must be critical, be constructive and upbeat. For more serious concerns and issues, speak to the person in private. It's always best.

Then it's back to work to find another story to dramatize!

© 2012 Andrew Spacey