by Hanna Vock
I assume that you work in a kindergarten, that is, that you are one of my colleagues. That is why I would like to start off with a collegial „you“ 〈Du〉. All men and women from other professions may forgive me for this.
I now really enjoy doing theatre with kindergarten children. In the past, I had mixed feelings about it. And it never quite worked out to my and some children’s satisfaction.
I wrote this article in 1998 during my 10 years as a kindergarten teacher, which explains why the style differs from the rest of the manual.
The article is divided into the following sections:
- Deciding to do theatre.
- Choosing the story.
- Drafting the script.
- Acting without speaking – the trick with the narrator role.
- And then just start!
- The distribution of roles.
- The project develops.
- And afterwards?
Since this is not directly about promoting giftedness,
please also read Theatre Play with Gifted Children.
In the meantime I have „turned grey in my profession“, but I still work full of enthusiasm in a kindergarten.
For my way of working in the kindergarten see also:
An „Old“ Conception in Full Length.
Maybe my experiences will help you to discover the fun of theatre earlier than me. But maybe you have a lot of experience yourself, which I would be very interested in…
The decision to do theatre
If you want to make the decision to start a theatre project with the children (for the first time?), a few preliminary considerations are helpful:
Do I like to play theatre myself?
If you often feel a kind of spontaneous desire to role-play, an important prerequisite has already been met.
If, however, you feel defensive, embarrassed or reluctant, for example, when someone suggests playing charades in a friendly group or when you are asked to take part in a role play during a training session, then it is better to leave it alone. The children would quickly sense your blockades and also withdraw themselves.
Your own desire to play (theatre) is also a necessary prerequisite because, in my experience, it is important that you play yourself again and again in the course of the project.
Which colleague will participate?
It is good if you have a colleague who will work on the whole project with you and with whom you can exchange your observations and thoughts.
You don’t have to be together all the time, but in some phases it is helpful.
It is great if you are both keen to act, but this is not essential, as one of you should take on the role of narrator (see below). Of course, the narrator should be able to read aloud well.
What should the children get out of the theatre project?
A theatre project over several weeks can be a real adventure for everyone.
- The children have the (now rare) opportunity to really get to grips with a story in depth, to discover ever new connections and details. The impressions do not just flit across the surface, but can „sink to the depths of the mind“.
- The children experience how simple, improvised beginnings become complex events (a work of art) because everyone works together and everyone reliably plays their part. In this way they experience the sense of disciplined, coordinated cooperation. Even the smallest role is important because it belongs to the whole.
- They experience more precisely and more deeply what theatre is than if they only consume theatre as spectators.
- Especially the children who play a leading role acquire a sense of achievement that strengthens their self-confidence.
- The younger children and those playing small supporting roles get to enjoy the theatre as spectators at every rehearsal. The fascination and concentration do not diminish from time to time, but rather increase when the kindergarten teacher, as director, knows how to clearly state requirements and progress.
It is always the same story, but the project develops from rehearsal to rehearsal, so there is always something new for the audience to observe.
- When improvisation is good, that is, when no one is bothered by the fact that the costumes or the sets are far from finished, that is an important experience for the children. The same goes for when a building block quickly has to replace a piece of bread.
- And last but not least, the children have the chance to discover and develop their expressive abilities in theatre.
Balance between fun and seriousness
Playing theatre with young children is a balancing act: the balance between fun and seriousness.
Both are important: without fun, well, it’s no fun – and who wants that? The children would eventually abandon the project if you approach theatre too seriously and dryly.
Nevertheless, a satisfying result is important, otherwise it’s not theatre but carnival.
The result does not have to be a final performance in front of an audience. The decision whether there will be an „official“ final performance at all should not be made at the beginning of the project. This question remains open for the time being.
More on this below in the paragraph: Performance Yes or No?
How far do I want to tolerate disruptive behaviour?
It seems important to me to start with a small group of three to four children. This is especially important if you are incorporating drama into your methodology for the first time and want to gain some experience with it.
These children should be particularly motivated and perhaps also talented, because they „make their mark“ for the children who follow.
Disruptive behaviour of individual children can hardly be avoided if the group is already too large at the beginning and there are waiting times for the individuals – or if there are already children who are not motivated from the start.
In the beginning, it is important to consistently respond to disruptive behaviour of children. This could look like admonishing them not to disturb the other children and that in the (first!) case of repetition they have to leave the place of action. It is much easier to put this into practice in a small group.
It is amazing how quickly the motivated children adopt the rule „disturbance leads to exclusion“ and go along with it. The motive here is not to exclude or punish a child, but to be able to work in peace themselves.
When the decision is made that disruptive behaviour will not be tolerated, it is important that the team stands behind this decision and the theatre project in general. Then you will find a taker for currently disruptive children.
(Danger: The colleagues could perceive such a way of working as your privilege; this is even quite likely with insufficient staffing and if small group work is not firmly anchored as a method in your kindergarten.
In a larger kindergarten with several groups and perhaps even an open method of working, this will be quite possible. I work in a small kindergarten with only one group, and our supplementary worker took over the „remaining group“ during the first rehearsals.
As always, when it came to „sending them away“, it worked well if it was done as a matter of course, before our stress levels had risen too much – and if it was accompanied by a succinct explanation that went something like this: „What you’re doing is too disruptive here, please go over to Sandra’s.“
Our first theatre project („Hansel and Gretel“) gained fascination for all the children in this way, so that later disruptions were almost non-existent. Also a great experience!
Choosing the story
There are many stories that can be played well. It is worth looking through the available picture books for this.
Easy to implement – and therefore well suited for the first attempts – are stories that take place in the same place from beginning to end, have a clear plot structure and manage without interlacing and flashbacks.
Such simple stories are, for example, „Die Raupe Nimmersatt“ 〈the gluttonous caterpillar〉 (by Eric Carle) or „Der Regenbogenfisch“ 〈the rainbow fish〉 (by Marcus Pfister) or „Die Vogelhochzeit“ 〈the bird wedding〉 (folk song).
The Caterpillar story is simple in structure and can be staged to great visual effect if kindergarten teachers and children put some effort into an imaginative stage set and the design of the edibles. With the music to go with it, an all-round atmospheric theatre can be created with the children.
The actual theatre play then consists of the children appearing at the right time with the right „food“ (strawberry, tartlet, etc. made of cardboard, each with a hole to slip through) and letting the caterpillar crawl through. This is a task that can also be mastered by theatre beginners and smaller children.
No demands are made on the children’s mimic expressiveness. Only the caterpillar can express mimically or verbally that it is hungry and „still not full“.
There is a clear lead role and some supporting roles for extras.
The main role (caterpillar) can be shared by two children: One child crawls out of the egg, eats its way through and then disappears into the cocoon. The other child sits (hidden) in the cocoon from the beginning, then appears at the right time as a beautiful butterfly and plays the rest of the role.
If you and your group do not have any experience with theatre, a comparatively simple story like this is recommended.
If you want to tackle something more complicated – how about „Hansel and Gretel“?
I want to show what I learned from playing theatre in kindergarten with this fairy tale as an example. The experiences can be transferred to other stories.
The story has to be right.
First I thought: Why this fairy tale in particular? It had been one of my favourite fairy tales for a long time. Before I wanted to offer it to the children to play in the theatre, I had to be clear about what I liked about the fairy tale. My colleague didn’t think it was so great, especially too cruel.
But it was important that the story was right and coherent for both of us. So I took a closer look at the content and the messages of the fairy tale.
The strong sides of the story:
- Two children stick together, comfort and help each other.
They experience fear and threat, but they are strong and have good ideas.
- They are confronted with evil in the world, first in the form of the wicked stepmother who abandons them cold and heartless in the forest.
They experience cowardice and weakness in the form of the father who does not protect his children.
- And when Hansel and Gretel have already suffered fear, hunger and abandonment, the witch’s house appears to them as a rescue from all distress. The witch pretends to be friendly – and now they experience evil in its very mean form. But even now they show strength and courage and defeat the evil.
- Two children stick together, comfort and help each other.
The weak sides of the story:
- The children return to their father, even though he abandoned them when it was a matter of life and death.
- The idea that Hansel should be roasted and eaten by the witch, although it shows the evil in an overly clear way and is a dramatic increase to the action of the wicked stepmother, seemed too gruesome for our children today and for our own sensibilities.
- As opponents of the death penalty, we were also unable to come to terms with the witch’s end. Gretel does act in self-defence when she locks the witch in the hot oven – but we didn’t want to tell and play it that way.
- The roles of girl and boy are traditionally drawn in such a way that Hansel both times sneaks outside the house at night and tries to save the two of them. Both times Gretel is the clueless and passive one. We didn’t want to leave that as it was.
Stories can be changed.
Nowhere is it written that everything has to remain as it is. Even the fairy tales have changed again and again before and after they were written down. They were adapted to the changing living conditions, the spirit of the times and the respective modern language.
Certainly, there were storytellers who kept as faithfully as possible to the guidelines, but just as certainly there were always those who played with the stories and invented new versions. And sometimes a new version prevailed in a region because people liked it better.
In our kindergarten, we already have a long tradition of rewriting songs – so why shouldn’t we also rewrite „Hansel and Gretel“ in our own way? And that’s what we did.
First, Gretel’s role was enhanced: When the children had found their way back home with the help of the glowing pebbles, the parents decide for the second time to abandon the children in the forest. This time, in our version, Gretel is awake, hears everything and bravely wants to sneak out of the house.
When she finds the door locked, she doesn’t despair but has an idea of her own and takes the leftover bread. She had noticed where the stepmother had hidden the bread.
Then we decided that Hansel and Gretel, having survived the dangers and demonstrated so much independence, would not return home but stay happily in the witch’s house, where there are still plenty of gingerbread to nibble on and the witch has piled up her treasures. Later, the children of our theatre group had the idea that Hansel and Gretel could invite their friends to a big party at the end.
We dropped the part about feeding the fat and being roasted. Hansel is locked in a cage by the witch so that the children can’t play together. Gretel has to work all day and the witch is unkind and scolds and shouts at her. Hansel has to watch this and cannot help his sister. All this together seemed bad enough and closer to the imagination of our children today.
The witch is not killed in the end, but she disappears forever with howls and thunder and lightning. Gretel brings about this disappearance by peering into a forbidden pot. She has to summon up all her courage to do this, too, because the wicked witch has strictly forbidden her to touch the pot. So in order to save herself and her brother, Gretel must divine the witch’s vulnerable spot. She must, even though the witch is nearby, transgress a prohibition and break a taboo in order to defeat evil. It reminded us of the concept of moral courage….
Introducing the children to the story.
First, we looked extensively at a Hansel and Gretel picture book, especially with the younger children, and introduced them to the story as it is told in the picture book. The older children knew the fairy tale, it was enough to tell it to them again. Then we could get into the discussion about the content of our changes. We had the impression that some children immediately grasped the meaning of the changes and agreed with them.
Others were reluctant to express their opinions. We interpreted this to mean that these children did not really imagine the new version. They had not yet internalised the story so far, perhaps they did not yet have the mental agility and maturity to make changes in a story in their minds.
We hoped that the content and its facets would become more and more accessible to them – as it did to the younger children – in the course of the play.
And so it happened: at the end of the project, most of the four to six year old children were able to jump back and forth mentally in the story. From this experience, we also consider it a good mental training. Our six three-year-olds couldn’t do that to the same extent, of course, but they benefited in other ways.
There is another, perhaps better way, but we didn’t go down that path in this project because we wanted to get to playing quickly: Of course, you can also look for changes in content together with the children. Then you only ask the older children the questions that you yourself have about the content, for example: „Is the father actually a good father? – Should Hansel and Gretel go back to him or stay in the witch’s house?“
Maybe a completely different ending than the one we designed will come out when the children think about the question: „How can Hansel and Gretel defeat the witch without her dying?“
Now that the story was clear, I set about typing it into the computer.
The whole project time was spent tinkering with the script. It was only finished when the project was almost finished. New ideas were added as we tried them out. Some of the first ideas did not work out in practice and were discarded.
You can see the result here: The Theatre Play „Hansel and Gretel“.
It contains the division into pictures (scenes), the wording of the story and the stage directions.
Since our children already had basic experience with theatre play, we were able to gradually involve the whole group of 20 children. In addition to the main roles known from the fairy tale (Hansel, Gretel, father, stepmother and witch), other roles were invented: Sun, Moon, Black Cat, Eagle Owl, Squirrel, several little birds, a Scared Rabbit and Snowflakes.
These roles varied in size. The eagle owl, for example, only fluttered through the picture once, making eagle owl sounds. For the little boy for whom we invented the role, it was very important and it was his personal approach to theatre.
The audience has an important role. All the children in the group who are not performing in the current picture or who do not yet have a role are spectators if they want to be. It is important for the acting children to have a counterpart and to experience the reactions of the audience.
Acting without speaking – the trick with the narrator role
It is difficult for young children to pay attention to all levels of the play at the same time: Performing at the right moment, moving sensibly on stage, adapting facial expressions to what is happening, paying attention to the other actors – and then also remembering lines and speaking?
The easiest way is to refrain from speaking. This may or may not develop in the course of rehearsals. Children who are confident enough can then speak individual sentences.
Otherwise, speaking is the task of the narrator. The trick with the narrator role is: she tells the story, does the speaking and at the same time gives the children orientation in the story: the children act out what they hear.
And then just start
Now you can start rehearsing the first scene.
If you want to follow my script, all you need is a table, 4 chairs, 1 jug of water, 4 glasses and the beds for Hansel and Gretel.
Four children can play (Hansel, Gretel, stepmother, father). Let all four children try out all four roles. Take your time and observe how the children act. Try out how the children move in relation to each other and to the audience. Can the audience see everything well?
Children who like to watch take on the important role of the audience.
At the end of these rehearsals of the first scene, it makes sense to introduce the curtain. It clearly separates the stage from the auditorium and marks the beginning and the end of the scene. Only when it is closed do the actors leave the stage and the scene is changed.
Of course, a fabric curtain that can be opened and closed is nice. As long as it is not there, improvisation can take place.
For example, four children could take responsibility for opening and closing the curtain. They carry two blankets or sheets from both sides of the stage to the curtain line, which can be marked beforehand with chalk or tape.
They also need their rehearsal so that they can practise raising and lowering the curtain evenly.
Once there were no suitable blankets available. (I was with a children’s theatre class in a room at the adult education centre). So we fished a daily newspaper out of the waste paper basket and held the unfolded newspaper pages in front of the stage as a curtain. It didn’t look bad at all!
At the beginning and also later on in more complicated parts, it can be helpful if you (the director) take over one of the roles every now and then. This has two advantages: Firstly, you can give an example of how the role can be designed (as a suggestion, not as a template!). You can pick up good elements that the children have already shown and reinforce them.
Secondly, it helps the children in their play if there is already someone who is confident in the sequence of the scene.
The distribution of roles
The aim should be that all interested and capable children are able to play all the roles they want to play.
This presupposes that there is enough time to rehearse lively in all possible constellations.
The spectator role becomes more interesting when it can be observed how different children solve the tasks and fill the roles.
The longer the play (in the sense of rehearsal), the more children dare to try something. But some are totally satisfied with the spectator role, and others are suspicious of all the theatre stuff and stay out of it altogether. They will have their good reasons and then that is to be respected.
The exchange among the children about what can be done best and how is also promoted by the frequent change of roles. In my experience, with such a way of working, the theatre group recognises over time who plays which role particularly well.
This does not mean that each individual child recognises that someone else plays the role better than they do, but the group does have a regulating effect.
It becomes difficult when a performance is planned at the end. Because then a decision has to be made. The roles have to be distributed, and that is not without frustration – just like in real theatre life.
It is possible to have a double cast and two performances, but that is not always a satisfactory solution for everyone if three or four great Gretels also want to be in a performance.
So if theatre doesn’t happen that often in the kindergarten and you can’t put off the disappointed ones to a new leading role soon, you really have to consider whether you should plan a performance at all…
The problem of the „bad“ roles and the loser roles
In a Hansel and Gretel project, not a single child wanted to play the witch, not even a little bit at all. Everyone wanted the witch to exist and to be evil – but no child wanted to take on that role.
So I myself could really let off steam. All the children found it eerily beautiful when the witch acted, but two three-year-olds carefully kept their distance from me in the lesson after the first rehearsal with the witch, until they were quite sure that I was now behaving like Hanna again. This happened again later when we rehearsed with costumes and make-up.
In „Little Red Riding Hood“ three six-year-old boys wanted to be the wolf, they competed for the role – but that he should fall into the well at the end, they thought was right and coherent for the wolf in his role, but for them personally it made the role uncomfortable. It is ultimately a loser role. Two of the three then thought about whether they would rather be the hunter, but then left it to younger people. They found a solution for themselves: they made falling into the well more and more acrobatic.
The Hansel and Gretel project develops
The more the children grew into the story and the roles, the more they brought in their own ideas.
Little by little, the supporting roles were rehearsed in more detail, which meant that younger children got more involved and even children who seemed shy at the beginning thawed out. The supporting roles were: Sun, moon, black cat, eagle owl, squirrel, several little birds, a scaredy-cat and snowflakes.
Working groups were formed for the scenery, the costume and prop procurement expanded so that a prop master was needed, as well as a lighting technician to dim the floor lamps according to the scene.
All the children were gripped by theatre fever.
Fortunately, towards the end of the project, the children peacefully agreed on a fixed distribution of roles. So we could actually crown the many rehearsals with two performances: the first for parents and siblings, and the second for grandparents, who participated in large numbers.
It would have been a shame to cut off the learning process here. The children could build on this in the next project. The way of working was familiar to them and they had enjoyed it so much! They had also experienced a lot of recognition.
So it was clear, it must go on. The special acting talents could unfold in further „productions“. But technical talents and talents for directing work also showed up.
I still have three scripts and am happy to make them available:
Please also note the Quiz Questions on Hansel and Gretel
There are of course other good approaches to theatre play, see under:
Date of publication in German: April 2017
Copyright © Hanna Vock, see imprint.