National Writing Project

Book Review: Literary Ideas and Scripts for Young Playwrights, by Lisa Kaniut Cobb

By: Nancy McCorkle
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4
Date: 2004

Summary: Nancy McCorkle reviews this book for teachers of third through eighth grade, which shows how to use familiar poetry, fairy tales, and historical events as the basis for students to write and perform their own plays.


In my years of teaching, I have found that most children love to act out stories. That why the title of Lisa Cobb's book, Literary Ideas and Scripts for Young Playwrights, caught my eye. I work with young children, and although this book is geared for students in the third through eighth grades, I believe that those of us who work with early primary kids will be able to simplify some of the exercises Cobb mentions to make them work with our students.

Cobb's basic method is to use familiar poetry, fairy tales, and historical events to show her students how to read a story as a writer, and then, through a series of creative writing exercises, apply this knowledge to their own writing. The book presents a learning sequence that begins with adaptations of poems that are developed into choral readings and moves through familiar fairy tales, story joke plays (that is, plays that have as their basis a joke the students know), poetry plays, historical plays, cultural myth plays, and original plays. Because she first introduces students to literary models, Cobb is able to guide students into writing their own adaptations and then their own plays—a process that encourages problem solving and develops good observation and listening skills.

Cobb describes how she works with students. After students review the plot of a fairy tale, they engage in prewriting discussions about the setting and the scenes. Then students go to work on a group play. Following this experience, students are prepared to choose a fairy tale of their own, using the script planning sheet that Cobb provides for classroom use. The students write a short paragraph on the play's theme, name the characters, and establish the setting and the time period. They plan a design for the stage, pick costumes and props, and outline jobs for stagehands.

Cobb spotlights many examples of student creativity. In one such example, The Three Billy Goats Gruff is adapted, becoming Three Snapping Turtles, which is first presented as readers' theater and then turned into a play. Cobb calls attention to the differences between a readers' theater treatment and a play, either of which is a viable option for teachers working with Cobb's methods. Unlike a play, readers' theater usually has a narrator who moves the story along and characters who read the dialogue. The characters generally use few physical props; instead, they make use of imaginary ones as needed to clarify the story.

Through their subtle and clever changes, the student playwrights bring new life to well-known plays. Cobb's students take the familiar tale of Hansel and Gretel and change the setting and time to modern day. Instead of the children coming from a poor family, for example, the students imagined they come from a rich one. In making this kind of change, the script adaptation sheet is key. On this sheet, students list the story elements and the characters and then note the revised elements and new characters. A summary of the new story follows, supplemented by a description of stage design and props. Sometimes students set their adaptation in another culture. Cobb explains the value of this shift:

Using the bones or plot of a fairy tale and placing it within [another culture] forces students to consider the effects of the differences they find while realizing that some things are still the same (73).

As students work their way through Cobb's creative and demanding activities, the author provides necessary scaffolding. She gives many suggestions for guiding students, suggesting changes, and asking questions about the characters that lead to insights as to how these characters could be changed. She offers another script adaptation sheet that serves as an excellent guide for students when they rewrite the play. She asks her students to listen as a script is read and then to describe the characters.

Cobb emphasizes the importance of dialogue in script writing. She wants her students to understand that dialogue is one of the only ways a playwright can illustrate a character's personality. Using student examples throughout the book, Cobb proves the students are quick to catch on. When her students begin writing dialogue for Hansel and Gretel, for example, the stepmother's attitude toward the children is clear as she responds to Gretel's offer to carry a blanket:

Well, I should think so! I'm certainly not carrying everything. Come along children! Quit dawdling! We don't have all day, you know.

Turning story jokes into plays is an appealing way to encourage young writers who love humor. For teachers of older students, the book includes chapters that focus on exercises that will lead students to write historical plays, mythological plays, and poetry plays. Cobb suggests that teachers use historical plays during a specific unit on history and incorporate poetry plays into a poetry unit. Each chapter provides suggestions for sets, props, costumes, and characters.

The book's last chapter deals with a culminating activity that helps evaluate what the students have learned from adapting plays and writing original plays. Cobb now wants students to write a group play. She suggests questions to guide them in developing this play:

  1. Who is the main character? What is his or her occupation?
  2. Where will the play take place? Be specific.
  3. What time period is the play? Is it modern, historical, or futuristic?
  4. What will be the conflict? (157)

Once these specifics are decided, students outline the story together without writing the ending. The goal is for each student to write his or her own ending.

Literary Ideas and Scripts for Young Playwrights is an excellent resource for a teacher who wants to expose students to a variety of literary genres while at the same time immersing them in creative writing. Cobb's critique guidelines and play evaluation rubric help students develop a well-written play. By adapting poems, fairy tales, and more, and turning these into plays, students use familiar material to create character-revealing dialogue. They then are better prepared to experiment with their own creativity in writing an original play.

With younger children, I believe nursery rhymes and simple picture books can be adapted into plays as students develop dialogue guided by their teacher. This exercise will help students working in these simple forms to better understand how characters act and feel.

At the root of Cobb's method, of course, is a notion that is at the heart of good teaching at all levels. Skilled teachers build on the familiar, introduce new but related concepts, and then allow students the freedom to experiment with what they have learned. In this regard, we can all learn from Lisa Kaniut Cobb.

About the Author Nancy McCorkle is a retired special-education teacher who works part-time with the Savannah Chatham Public Schools. She is a teacher-consultant with the Coastal Georgia Writing Project, Georgia.

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