Portrait of Thornton Wilder, as Mr. Antrobus in "The Skin of Your Teeth," by Carl Van Vechten (August 18, 1948).
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
I'm grown up. I love you all, everything.—I can't look at everything hard enough."
(Emily, Act III, Our Town)
When we ask students to read plays, we should also be reminding them that the words on the page are only a part of the whole. A play is also its use of stage space: its set and props, its bodies on the stage, and the drama of those bodies interacting physically and emotionally. Letting students stage a production foregrounds all those extra-literary components. Similarly, this project can reinforce the full experience of a play by having students create their own play, or a few scenes of their own, out of theatrical elements of their device. Students pause at various intervals in their study of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, to develop their own settings, characters, and conflicts.
At the end of this lesson students will be able to
A brief sense of the time and place about which Wilder is writing may help students appreciate more of the play's particulars, as well as flesh out students' worksheets and journal entries. You will find a wealth of visual materials—historical documents, photographs, artwork, and films—at EDSITEment-approved sites American Memory and Picturing Modern America, 1880-1920, where you will also find some advice on how to read these images and documents most effectively. At American Centuries: View from New England, students will find a collection of historic artifacts and documents specifically from that part of the country—and the location of Wilder's play—and some straightforward historical context can be found at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
A 1939 radio performance of Our Town, with Orson Welles as the Stage Manager, can be heard at The Mercury Theatre on the Air, available via the EDSITEment-reviewed website, American Studies at the University of Virginia. A very brief biography of Thornton Wilder can be found at the American Memory Project. Additional information on Wilder and Our Town can be found on the PBS American Masters website, available via the Internet Public Library.
When students are engaged in their own scene writing, you may want to consult The Kennedy Center's ArtsEdge website: Filmmaking: Creating and Organizing the Story is a lesson plan that offers excellent suggestions for encouraging students to think visually; and Five Easy Drama Games for the Early Elementary Classroom can be adapted for middle school students (particularly the section titled "Different Voices, Different Occasions"), for some playful exercises to break up the reading and writing aspects of this project and possibly to influence students' own development of characters and scenes.
Basic dramatic terminology can be found on EDSITEment's glossary of literary terms.
Student portfolios would probably be the best way to keep their work organized for this project. If they do their journal writing on the computer, they can print out their work in stages, or they can work in actual hardcopy journals.
As designed, this project would likely require a couple of weeks of class time. If you want to commit a little less time, you can omit from Activity 1 (Stage Set) consideration of the contributions of music and other sounds to the play, and instead of inviting students to do their own historical research, you can present that material to them, omit it altogether, or possibly even engage a history teacher for that piece of the project. Activity 2 (Role Call) can be shortened by selecting for the students which characters to keep track of (possibly just the members of the Webb and Gibbs families). Activities 3, 4, and 5 can be minimized by being selective about what questions to offer for discussion.
Consider beginning by listening to some of the play, so that students can hear some of Wilder's intended tone. Alternatively, the teacher could read the Stage Manager's first few pages—or you can enlist a particularly talented student to do so—though then the reading aloud should probably be taken over by the students. Allow an entire class session or two for this task alone, using a little time at the end of the period to make a list together of how the theatrical genre differs from poetry or fiction. Ask students how their participation is different. You may be able to stimulate their understanding by reminding them that when they read, they often do so in silence and stillness. Ideally, the list you all create will include mention of voice, tone, expression, movement, a physical stage set, a range of sounds, play with light and darkness, and so on.
Next, you can ask the students to get started in small groups on their Activity 1 worksheets. Once they have had some time to work on them without the teacher's participation, the class as a whole can discuss what the playwright asks the audience to see and hear on the stage. Note references both in the stage directions and the Stage Manager's descriptions. (Our Town makes particular use of sound, from clanking milk bottles to hymns.) What is the effect of these sights and sounds? What themes do they immediately suggest? Students should keep track of those aspects of spectacle that strike them as meaningful, and suggest why in a few sentences. Worksheets can be added to throughout the reading of the play.
This would also be a good time to note anything the playwright imparts about time and place more generally. Where are we? At what point in history? What do students know about that time or that place? What can they add via a little Internet research?
At this point, students should pause to set their own stages. Ask them to choose a place that really interests them, whether it's a place they've been and loved (or hated), a place whose details they know well (a family's kitchen, a friend's basement, a business they frequent), or someplace they would like to know better. They should write out (informally for now) everything they can about that space. Remind them that the more details, the better, and that their goal is to help readers see and hear as much as possible. They should then choose a time when at least a couple of people might occupy that space. Choosing a particular event—a holiday, a party, a funeral, a meeting—might work well, but so might a more ordinary time, like when everyone first gets up in the morning, or when the store closes in the evening. Advise students not to worry for now about what might happen there.
At the end of the first reading or listening to Act 1, students can begin their work on the Activity 2 worksheets, again in small groups before turning to a class-wide discussion. Students should keep a list of all the potentially significant information they can gather about those characters that seem most important or interesting (or, if you are looking to use less time, students should be told which characters to track). Physical and biographical details should be noted, as well as anything they can discern about their beliefs, motivations, emotions, and behaviors. As students get further into Our Town, they may decide a character that initially seems secondary comes to seem primary; they will also learn more about a character as the play advances, so they should be reminded to keep working on these lists.
At an opportune moment—maybe between the reading of Acts 1 and 2 or 2 and 3—students can choose some characters to inhabit their own stages. Invite them to consider modeling characters off of people they know well to help them get into as much detail as possible. They should provide lists for these characters that offer the same kind of identifying features as the lists they have constructed for the cast of characters in Our Town.
As students listen (in their minds' ears, at least) to the characters interact, they will likely get a sense that they have some conflicts between them, some points of disagreement that the characters might not be directly asserting. Some or all of them might be struggling with some outside forces or with personal problems or difficult emotions. Is something going on elsewhere, offstage—a fire, a flood, poverty, prejudice—that is affecting them onstage? These questions may overlap a bit, but in journals, in small group discussions and eventually in class-wide discussion, students can try to answer any or all of them. (As for Activities 1 and 2, Activity 3 should be ongoing.) Journal entries can be organized around these questions:
A plot is essentially the sequence of events. Every action and event in the play is a piece of its plot. Invite students to choose a few scenes they find especially interesting and use the Activity 4 Worksheet to map them out.
All of the charts, journal entries, and lists students have produced can now lead to a class-wide substantial discussion of these questions (you could consider assigning some of these topics for students to work on in pairs or small groups first):
To help students bring some of their observations about tension and conflict to their own scene-writing, ask them to read through their journal lists from Activity 3 and circle those conflicts that interest them most, including those they have experienced in their own lives. They can then choose one of those points of conflict between the characters in Our Town to project onto their own characters. If, for example, they have noted tension in Our Town between what is expected by the family or community of a character and what he or she expects of him or herself, let them consider ways of having their characters struggle with a similar concern.
Whether students will eventually write an entire play, their current goal is to write a scene. (As a kind of practice session, you might invite students first to rewrite a scene from Our Town itself, by altering the course of events—having a new character step in, changing a decision, bringing on to the stage a provocative new prop, and so on. This could be done in small groups and performed for the class as a whole.) They have already determined time and place, the characters, and the conflict, and now they should shape it with a bit of story or plot. They can sketch out some ideas before making any final selections. While reminding them to keep in mind the conflict or tension they want to explore, let them play around with different starting points. Some suggestions:
And now, let them write their scenes.
You can collect the students' work as a portfolio and assess based on the level of engagement. You might provide descriptors beforehand.
Students can revise their scenes, concentrating on editing out exposition and perhaps adding in more action. They can also be asked to use the proper format for dramatic texts. For more extensive projects, students can develop their scenes into a full one-act play. Students can also cast one another in their scenes and perform them.
5-10 class periods