Among the various jobs I’ve held in the strange adventure that is my life is youth theater instructor. Like many of the best things we experience, I came to it by accident.
I was working as the Sales and Marketing Director at a community theater, which had a vibrant and growing youth education program. One particular camp, they were short instructors. I’d been acting and working backstage there for several years, so the Youth Education Director, who was also a friend, asked if I’d step in and help.
That was the start of my career as Mr. John. I’d worked with youth before, coaching high school swing choir and music directing a production of Fiddler on the Roof at my alma mater. And I found that working with young people was a lot of fun — particularly elementary school kids, who haven’t yet realized they can take high school and community theater too seriously.
Somewhat to my surprise, I was popular with the kids, and it was gratifying to see some of my former students go on to volunteer in the program as teachers, earn roles in the theater’s mainstage productions, and go to college as confident public speakers. Shaping youth through the arts is an incredibly rewarding experience.
So when I was working on a novel set in middle school, it was perhaps only natural that one of the subplots would concern the school play.
Little Red Riding Hoodie: A Modern Fairy Tale features an ambitious sixth-grade English teacher, who has both the courage and the insanity to not only teach Romeo and Juliet to 11- and 12-year-olds, but to attempt to stage it. He’s young, and no one has told him you can’t do that yet.
Romeo and Juliet sits at the center of the action of LRRH. My protagonist, Sally, auditions and wins the part of Juliet, beating out the school bully, who already didn’t like her. She’s cast opposite the cutest boy in the entire grade, which further infuriates the bullies and sets up romantic tension between Sally and her co-star.
But the play isn’t just a plot device. It’s a vehicle that brings the characters together, reveals who they are, and strengthens their relationships. Consider this exchange between Sally and her Romeo, Brian.
“So, Brian, what’s up?” Sally said, trying to change the subject.
“Oh,” he said. “I almost forgot. I was wondering if you could help me with the play.”
She cocked her head quizzically. Alison shot her a suggestive look. Sally ignored it.
“How,” she asked.
“Well, I’m having trouble with some of the lines, and since you seem to be pretty smart about Shakespeare and all, I thought you could help.”
Sally blushed. The only person who had ever asked her for help with homework before was Alison.
“Sure,” Sally said. “When did you want to get together?”
“Well, final bell is at 2:45,” he said. “Play practice doesn’t start ’til three. Do you want to meet in the auditorium right after school?”
“Um, sure,” Sally said. “I can do that.”
“Cool,” he said. He smiled broadly. “Okay, well, see you, Red.”
He looked at her for another moment, as if trying to think of something else to say. Then he sauntered off, looking back over his shoulder once as he went.
“He liiiikes you,” Alison drawled.
“Shut up,” Sally said, blushing.
“He totally likes you. You’re gonna be in the auditorium making out after school.”
“Shut up!” Sally said, grinning. “He doesn’t like me. He just wants help with the play.”
On the surface, the scene is about the play, but it reveals a lot about Sally and Brian. Brian confirms what Alison has told Sally earlier in the novel (and what her being cast as Juliet illuminates) — she’s good at understanding Shakespeare. Brian asking for help reaffirms Alison isn’t just telling Sally she is good. Someone else believes it too.
It also demonstrates his budding romantic interest in Sally. He could have asked the teacher for help, but he asks Sally instead. And he’s clearly at a loss for words on how to end the interaction — a classic sign of a boy trying to stay cool and not admit how much he likes a girl.
Alison underscores that fact by teasing Sally about it after Brian leaves, and Sally reveals she doesn’t believe in herself, because Brian is really cute, and she figures there is no way he would be interested in her.
It’s a short exchange, but there is a lot of material packed into it. Romeo and Juliet is a subplot in the novel, but it also reveals a lot about the characters as the story unfolds.
It also is a means for the characters, particularly Sally, to self-actualize. When the novel opens, she lacks confidence. Alison has to force her to audition, and Sally is convinced she will never be cast, regardless of how talented she is. Good things happen to other people, not to her. But in this scene in Chapter Two, she begins a transformation into someone different.
Deliberately, she tried to convince herself that there was no way a girl like her could be in a play as special as Romeo and Juliet. She was ugly. She was nothing. She was the dumb girl, who couldn’t pass a social studies quiz. Mr. Pipich wouldn’t want someone like her in the most amazing play ever.
She willed her mind back to the defeatist attitude she had had prior to reading yesterday. If she believed she didn’t deserve this, couldn’t hope to ever get it, she would not be disappointed when she did not. It would hurt less than if she got her hopes up. Hoping to get Juliet was like hoping for Mom to come home.
At last, the crowd parted enough for her to reach the front. Sally closed her eyes. She drew in a deep breath and steeled herself for disappointment. Then she opened her eyes and read the cast list.
And there it was in black ink:
JULIET CAPULET — SALLY PRESCOTT
Her heart stopped. She couldn’t possibly have read that. She read it again. It hadn’t changed. She, Sally Prescott, had gotten what she wanted; she’d been cast as Juliet.
A lump came up in the back of her throat. Then a freight train of emotion crashed through her. She began weeping. Tears streamed down her face as the sheer joy of her accomplishment overwhelmed her. For the first time in her life, she understood what it was to cry from happiness.
Getting Juliet starts Sally on a path of self-discovery, wherein she learns to believe in herself. Prior to auditioning, she can’t envision getting anything she wants. But afterwards, she starts to think maybe she is better than she believed.
As a youth theater instructor, I saw this happen so many times. Kids discover they can do things they didn’t believe possible. Some of them start out terrified of getting up in front of others and transform into loud, clear speakers, floored by the praise they receive.
Some of them are naturals, who take to drama like the proverbial fish to water, but grow when you challenge them with more difficult roles and to hone their craft.
But they all learn to be more than they imagined. Under the direction of caring instructors, they actualize into amazing people.
So when I was writing a novel about a young woman who is forced to grow up quickly and save her family, it seemed both natural and obvious to me that theater would be a vehicle for her to learn self-confidence.
Little Red Riding Hoodie: A Modern Fairy Tale is part of the Kindle Scout program, which uses crowd-sourcing to help determine new books for Amazon to publish under its imprint. You can help me bring its messages — including the benefits of drama — to young readers by nominating it for publication. Follow the link below to learn more and to vote for Little Red Riding Hoodie.
Thanks for your support, and don’t forget the words of Mr. John to his students before every opening — “Remember: It’s called a ‘play’ for a reason; it’s supposed to be fun.”