Last spring, my coworker Andy and I realized there was a script-sized hole in the English department’s plans for 2020 Fall semester. At the time, Covid was on everyone’s mind here because we were all wearing masks to school, washing our hands as if it were going out of style, and wiping down surfaces with alcohol every 50 minutes. The fall Readers Theater competition in Taichung may have had a theme, but we stuck with the struggle with coronavirus.
The Readers Theater format calls for a script with 8 speakers with passages spoken solo and in unison. We bumbled around a bit and came up with a pair of protagonists, Tomo, an exchange student who recently returned to Japan, and Cindy, her homestay sister in Taichung. Social Media has played a pretty large role in the spread of information and bad advice, so we needed to bring them into the mix, and invented 3 platforms: Foolbook, for spreading news that wasn’t that well-thought-out, Twister, sometimes more reputable news, but still, be careful, and Life, a messaging app so the heroes could chat with each other and we could add additional characters that popped up if needed. Most RT scripts we’ve seen have had a narrator or two, and rather than calling them N1 & N2, we opted to call back to the traditions of Greek theater and invoke a couple of Muses, namely Thalia and Melpomene, whose jobs it would be to spread joyful news and the straight dope, respectively. That left one vacancy. 2020 is not the sort of year that blunders through on a single antagonist. Our shortest actress was going to split her role in five, like a Horcrux, only less. The Antagonist switched up her role over five scenes from Chance, to Virus, to Quarantine, to Epidemic, and finally Pandemic.
Andy and I wrote the first draft script in about two weeks and then spent a month waiting on approval to move on with casting, staging, & coaching. The students we selected came from a larger pool of past performers and up and comers who had shown interest in developing acting or public speaking skills. We got most of that taken care of in the maskless hot summer months. This meant that in September and October we could concentrate on teaching the kids to speak with dynamics and feeling. I have been fortunate over the years to work with a lot of really talented people at Tunghai, but this group of students was goal-focused and team-oriented. And they delivered in rehearsal after rehearsal, putting up with my nitpicking over stress, intonation, and Silence.
The script itself was a bit of a departure from what our school has staged in the past. Whereas previous groups have gone with time travel and stuck pretty close to the proscribed anti-bullying tropes, we took our topic by the ears, stared death straight in the eye, lost a character, and very nearly lost another, until she was granted a last-minute reprieve by our colleague who reminded us that this was readers theater, not Macbeth. We were writing within the constraints of a four-and-a-half-minute time-limit, and that meant that we had to cut out a lot of material that we hadn’t actually considered “extra” whilst writing.
It’s a lexically challenging piece, but our readers tackled the task with verve. We landed a couple quiet kids in the mix, and with whips and chains managed to get them to speak up while also putting on a happy face (when appropriate.)
The big day came, the students left in a couple of vans to the venue. I stayed at school to teach, but about noon got the message that our kids had come in first place. There had been a drought, not a terribly long one, but a win was pretty welcome nonetheless. In their closing comments, the judges singled the script for its writing and the dramatic reading by the characters. For junior high school students to talk about death without being melodramatic is quite an accomplishment.
End result, first place in the city for Readers Theater. Better than a sharp stick in the eye.