How to Produce a Play on a Shoestring Budget

If you don’t have the funding to put on a show with costumes and big sets, you can still create a memorable performance.

July 15, 2022
vgajic / iStock

My final performance of the year as a K–8 performing arts teacher was with my enthusiastic grade six class. As they were studying The Odyssey in their Literature and Language class, I wanted to continue the interdisciplinary model of my program by using a story of similar classical origin. So I proposed “The 12 Labors of Hercules.”

We started by reading an outline of the legend featuring Hercules, son of Zeus. The queen of the gods, Hera, enchants Hercules so that he kills his own family. She is upset that her husband, Zeus, conceived Hercules with a mortal woman. Hercules is then condemned to perform a series of seemingly impossible labors to atone for his crime. These labors involve killing or subduing a range of mythical monsters and terrible animals plaguing the world. The students were immediately hooked.

How to Cope With a Tight Budget

I envisioned a modern adaptation with Hercules being a 21st-century teenager engaged in relatable trials: conquering insurmountable essays, tidying up apocalyptically messy bedrooms, confronting tyrannical parents, etc. As student voice and choice is essential, I included my idea in a list of others from the students, all given equal weight. We then voted. The winner by a clear majority was setting the play in the original time and context. 

This presented an immediate problem: With only a tiny budget of $500 for the whole program (11 grade levels, including pre-K and preschool), we couldn’t afford to represent that era with appropriate costumes and props. Three 50-minute lessons a week would be barely enough to devise and rehearse the show, let alone set aside time for student-created costumes—the ideal scenario. Then two things saved the day: Monty Python and the students’ creativity. The film Monty Python and the Holy Grail was made on a small budget. No money for horses? Use coconuts instead. This was my initial inspiration for what we might do in my class.

Make Script Development a Group Effort

The biggest breakthrough came when I shared this dilemma with the students and encouraged them in the following process:

  • Students were placed into groups and given a copy of the plot outline.
  • For each “labor,” the students had to use just their bodies and dialogue to create their own interpretation. 
  • Each group presented to the class, and we agreed on what elements we liked best.
  • I noted these agreements so they could be compiled into a script. 

At the end of the process, the students all said how this was their favorite part, along with the actual performances.

Cast Expansively and Embrace Student Creativity

This being a big class, we had an A/B cast with gender-neutral casting and six students playing Hercules. The large number of monsters meant that the ensemble cast could feature students repeatedly onstage, playing bronze birds one minute and Amazonian warriors the next. Some examples of student creativity were as follows:

  • The creation of a character called Arrow, a talking weapon for Hercules to interact with.
  • Students put their heads together—literally—to play multiheaded beasts, giants, and underworld dogs. 
  • Two students created a recurring door character that enjoyed tricking Hercules.
  • Students played bronze birds that rapped.
  • The characters Zeus and Hera commented from the side like sports presenters.
  • The play included numerous puns, quips, and middle school humor.

The flexible nature of this production led to opportunities to give advanced performers opportunities to extend themselves. For example, we stretched out the role of the helpful nephew Iolaus so that he was in every scene and had the most lines, perfect for a student desiring a big role. For another very able but easily bored student, we allowed him to be Hercules in one cast and part of the ensemble in another, which he relished.

Focus on Rehearsals and Enjoy the Performances

I typed up the script using all the scenes and dialogue (and jokes) we had previously all agreed on. Ideally, script writing should be a shared process, but with the end of the year approaching, I knew we needed to focus on rehearsal. That said, we reviewed the script together and the students signed off on their roles, making adjustments.

The hard work was in the rehearsal: planning exits and entrances, making the stage combat look realistic but safe; making sure that students who were monsters entered fully embodied in their role; helping the actors playing Hercules be physically confident, etc. All the while, we were focusing on communication and social skills: physical and verbal expression, clear diction, comic timing, and collaborative problem-solving. The dress code was a theatrical standard: black, unadorned clothing. Zeus and Hera sat offstage on raised chairs and spoke their lines into microphones to help give them more of an aloof sensibility. And yes, we had coconuts for the horses. 

The resulting shows were arguably the best of the entire year. We didn’t spend a single dollar—the coconuts were donated by a parent. The performances were enjoyed by all the classes that came to rehearsals. Parents and teachers expressed delight in the students’ ability to act and communicate so well, noting the strength of the collaboration and the transferable skills—the wider goal of the program. Our shows took place on a newly acquired mobile stage at one end of our common-room space that was also our lunch room. A stage certainly helped make the show feel more theatrical, but we had done all the first-semester shows without it, so the absence of a stage doesn’t have to be a barrier.

In my grade three class, we were working on sequencing and retelling. I used their last six lessons so that the students could have fun retelling the story that they had watched grade six perform. I was amazed at how many lines these younger students remembered and how much fun they had. Two students who had been particularly reluctant performers in their own show to the school community now took lead roles. Clearly this ancient classic could still inspire over two and a half thousand years after it was first told.

I truly learned the meaning of an old adage: Adversity breeds creativity. Now, I wouldn’t be at all concerned by a low or zero budget. In fact, I would welcome it.  

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