Alienating Our Audiences Early

Less than ten percent of the American population goes to the theatre. Not award-winning Broadway musical theatre, but regional, not-for-profit theatre. This sad number is not new. We’ve been stagnating here for quite some time, and every year we struggle with: how do we lure in more audience members, and convince people to join us in the dark and listen to our stories?

Honestly, I don’t think that there’s much the theatre community can do to solve this problem because I don’t believe that we are the problem. The problem is that ninety-plus percent of the population loses interest in theatre long before they become part of a target audience demographic. Most Americans get turned off of theatre in high school.

To introduce teens to plays on the page with Shakespeare is akin to teaching calculus to students before they’ve learned algebra, or even multiplication.

Two years ago I started to do an independent study of which plays high school students were reading in their language arts classes. It quickly became clear that the only plays being taught in those classes were classic works, mostly Shakespeare. Every student I surveyed listed at least one, if not three, Shakespeare play. At one school, more than half the kids listed Beowulf as a play. And why wouldn’t they? When the only actual plays they were reading were Shakespeare, why wouldn’t they equate epic poetry with theatre? The most recent works represented at any school were The Crucible, A Raisin in the Sun, and the occasional August Wilson play. When I asked what theatre the students had seen outside of school the answers were inevitably all musicals (plus A Christmas Carol), if indeed they’d ever seen a play outside of school at all.

America’s high school students are being taught that non-musical theatre equals classical theatre, and preliminary results from my study indicate that the vast majority of them don’t like the classics.

  • “I did not enjoy reading the Tempest; I believe it to be one of the most tedious works of fiction ever to exist.”
  • “They are old and boring.”
  • “I was not crazy about Romeo and Juliet due to the fact it was written in old English and kind of hard to understand.”
  • “Shakespeare plays, they are not from our time and difficult to follow/understand.”

Shakespeare was an incredible playwright, but his plays are dense and daunting. Before the Bard idolaters start bellowing “why should it be easy?” let’s take a moment to consider this: Most kids are never asked to read a play before high school; plays are typically not part of the middle school curriculum. To introduce teens to plays on the page with Shakespeare is akin to teaching calculus to students before they’ve learned algebra, or even multiplication. A few students will somehow have a knack for it, and understand it, (and love it)—most of the folks who subscribe to HowlRound likely fall into this category—but the ninety-plus percent of the population that we’re trying to engage have neither the tools nor the patience to dissect Shakespeare. What they learned from their academic experience is that non-musical theatre is boring, difficult, and makes them feel stupid. Very few people are going to grow up and buy a ticket to something they fear will bore them and make them feel stupid.

a group of actors on stage
(L-R) Chuck (Jerry MacKinnon), Jeannie (Carolyn Braver), Zander (JJ Phillips) and Ian (Clancy McCartney) playing video games in Deborah Zoe Laufer's Leveling Up at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

A Troubling Lack of Access
No other form of literature is taught this way; indeed, no other art form is taught this way. Kids are encouraged to read current, popular fiction in school. Perhaps by the time they reach high school their choices are narrowed, but at least by then they’ve been encouraged to read dozens of contemporary books that they love. Students are assigned novels and poetry by living authors, many of whom are—gasp—not white men. Art class is full of hands-on work where the students create while they study masters both new and old. Even music instructors teach jazz and hip hop alongside classical music. But let’s pretend for a moment that they didn’t. Let’s imagine that schools only taught classical music the way they only teach classical theatre. It’s a fairly even comparison since only about 10 percent of the population goes to classical music performances. Even if students were only exposed to classical music in school, even if they hated it, resented it, felt it wasn’t their thing; they wouldn’t be turned off of all music because they have access to other flavors.

The radio is free. Songs on YouTube, Pandora, and Spotify are free if you have an Internet connection. There is no equivalent to the radio, or Pandora for theatre. There’s not much free access for anyone anywhere. I suppose people could go to the library and read some new-ish plays, but what teenager—who has already been turned off by the classroom offerings— is going to seek out a play at the library? What the school system has created is a society that has no idea that theatre is a living, growing art that is still being created every day. People don’t realize that a significant portion of the folks who write their favorite TV shows have also written plays they would like just as much, if not more. They think of playwrights as an extinct species. When I tell people outside of theatre what my profession is, I am often met with a confused stare, as if I told them I was a blacksmith. They’ve heard of playwriting, but they weren’t aware that anyone did it anymore. This is a problem.

Just this past month, I interviewed audience members as part of Triple Play, a national study of audiences for new plays created by Theatre Development Fund and Theatre Bay Area. We were directed to tell our interviewees that we were theatre practitioners, but nothing more specific than that. We spoke to each person for fifty minutes, asking them if they were able to speak to someone working on a production, who they might want to talk to. These semi-regular theatregoers were not interested in talking to playwrights. Indeed, in my group, three people explicitly stated that they thought playwrights would dislike talking to audiences and would only be doing it under duress. They couldn’t quite imagine what they might ask a playwright aside from where their story idea came from. And yet, at the end of the interviews, when I revealed I was a playwright, they were fascinated and full of questions. So it’s not so much that they aren’t interested in living writers, but they aren’t able to picture an interaction with a playwright until they realize they’re already having one.

Creating Access to New Work
If we’re going to increase audiences, we have to figure out how to bring new plays into the high school language arts classroom. We have to create anthologies of new plays (perhaps digital anthologies) that have curriculum tie-ins to historical events, current events, social issues, and science. I know these plays are out there. We need to present these plays to teachers and say, “You can read this play alongside this other book, or these articles.” Teachers don’t have time to look for tie-ins or support materials. We’ll have to provide them. We’ll have to persuade department heads and school boards to let go of Shakespeare and maybe even Arthur Miller. It won’t be easy.

We’re also going to have to provide these anthologies for free to a lot of schools that can’t afford them, but need them most. We’ll have to create new ones every few years so that more voices are heard and the subject matter remains relevant. We’ll also need funding and grant support; again, the plays are already out there. People say that Shakespeare is universal, and anyone can see themselves in a Shakespeare play. Maybe if they try hard enough they can, but girls need more stories about women written by women. People of color need stories about people who look like them, written by people who look like them. The LGBTQIA teen community needs plays that openly acknowledge their existence and their struggles. Shakespeare is not enough. Leave him for senior year, or maybe leave him for college for the truly passionate.

We need to get our plays into these kids’ hands because our plays will engage them; the future of theatre depends on it. Our plays will show them that theatre is alive, that it’s relevant, that it addresses today, that it represents them and their experience, and that they are welcome in our spaces. Once we do that, I have a feeling that more than 10 percent of the population will come to the theatre. We merely have to show people that we’re here, that we exist. Before they’re disenchanted. Before they’re convinced that theatre is dusty and old and only written by dead white men hell-bent on making them feel stupid.

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I'm sorry I'm only now finding this excellent article, which is sharing a soapbox very familiar to my student's ears. I often have them list the novels and short stories they were taught in high school, which are much more modern and multi-cultured than the predominantly ancient and white plays they are exposed to. (Then I flood them with contemporary work.) We also discuss how, for all of film's cultural relevance, they are not exposed to film scripts in high school either. Students have no idea what is even capable in contemporary playwriting, and I've found they are enormously excited once they see what IS expressible. This is an important issue, and not one that is easily broached given the problems you describe. For teachers reading these comments out there, the adaptation of ESPERANZA RISING adapted by Lynne Alvarez would pair nicely with that novel in the classroom. (From Plays for Young Audiences)

I'm an advocate for contemporary work in the classroom, both collegiate and high school. I'd love to edit a compilation like the one you describe. It's definitely past time for one.

I absolutely don't think teaching Shakespeare is wrong. What's wrong they are the only plays we teach. It's not even remotely representative of the art form. And while I understand the argument that plays must be seen or heard aloud to be understood (the latter which is possible in a classroom), many modern plays are much easier to comprehend as works on the page than any of Shakespeare. There are some highly theatrical works that don't read well off the page, but we likely wouldn't include those in any sort of compilation.

I'm a high school English teacher and theatre director, and I'll be the first to admit that my knowledge and familiarity with plays that aren't part of the traditional cannon is very slim. What I was hoping for in this article were suggestions. What plays would you recommend? I want to bring more contemporary works into my classes, both English and theatre, but I'm daunted by the sheer number of plays out there. Also, I'm in a rural area, which contributes to the lack of exposure on my part and the part of my students, so any suggestions are greatly appreciated.

You can start with a book like "The Seagull Book of Plays" (ISBN 978-0-393-63161-6) published by Norton. It's a concise anthology of plays, mostly full-length. It includes one play each by Sophocles and Shakespeare, but seven reasonably current plays are also included:

Henrik Ibsen, A Doll HouseSusan Glaspell, TriflesLorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the SunArthur Miller, Death of a SalesmanAugust Wilson, FencesMargaret Edson, WitQuiara Alegría Hudes, Water by the Spoonful

Older editions are generally available used at a low price, possibly low enough that you could outfit a classroom with them if your budget was tight.

Excellent points, Mia. Stoke their curiosity and passion first. Here's another take, from my 2013 HowlRound essay, "CUI BONO? A Critique of the Conscripted Audience."

I completely disagree with this article. I have been teaching Shakespeare to kids (7-12) for 10 years, I found in my teachings that young students have an incredible capacity to tackle Shakespeare’s themes and characters-partly because they don’t have the fear that adults do! Students are fascinated with plays like A Mid Summer Nights Dream and The Tempest. I think the more important question is; how should Shakespeare be taught? Obviously, students in high school should not be required to learn every aspect of Shakespeare, but having an exposure to it and allowing them to create their own personal meaning is invaluable...

It depresses me (because I am older and I love the classics) but I think you are absolutely right. I also think we HAVE to widen our definition of "theater" to include what is happening on TV and movies. If I were teaching high school theater now, I'd grab up the scripts to the Netflix series BLACK MIRROR. (But-- as others point out here-- I'd probably be fired because of the lack of "safe" content.)

The problem lies in the inadequate design by adults in education and obviously there was little care, concern or understanding of literature and theater history. At the turn of the century there was a large number of ordinary Americans reading Shakespeare. We have made great technological progress but our communication and sociability is sadly degenerating. While I agree that an introduction to theater can be a contemporary play, why would we not extend the development of language skills to include classic work? I would suggest seeing more enlightened programming that maintain and sustain the universal aspects of drama IE: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival for better, more improved valuing of the importance of dramatic works and contemporary performance. The work is there on all levels to behold and understand and relate to with others, no matter if 10% of the population sees it or understands it. The great dumbing down of America continues full force in the absence of art and imagination practiced in the school of Life.

I teach high school students in the after school Drama Club. We've been reading all sorts of plays that might appeal to them - The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon, The Outsiders, The Giver, Almost, Maine... and I was struck when one of the boys said to me, "I didn't know this is how plays could be! I thought they all had fancy language." They love the modern stuff and are fascinated by that which is based on YA lit in particular.

I am a high school theatre teacher and I think about this constantly.

One challenge with newer plays (at least for theatre teachers) is "produce-ability." Most contemporary non musical plays have small casts...and in high school, you need larger casts to get more kids involved.

I want to shout from the rooftops that high school programs need more mature, contemporary, engaging plays for larger casts....but most new large-cast plays targeted at this age range seem to deal with "teen issues" rather than the "meatier" topics that many students want to engage with.

I also realize, however, that the money and publicity is in professional theatre rather than educational theatre.

Actually there's much more money in educational theatre. The people I know who actually make a living at this insane business do it by writing plays that get produced mostly in high schools and colleges. But I'm not talking about plays that should be produced in high schools. I'm literally talking about plays that are read in English classes; the classes that hit the largest segment of the population, because I'm talking about growing an audience base. Theatre artists find their way to theatre. That doesn't seem to be an issue. Finding enough butts to fill the seats is the issue.

I agree whole heartedly; but, I'd like to take it a step further. Plays are meant to be heard and seen, not read on the page. Most people cannot visualize plays when they read them. Certainly, we could teach them to, but the thing that drove me to read plays was seeing them. In an admittedly weak analogy, would we ask students to read music without letting them listen to it?

True. I would also love for more of the options for school outings to be modern plays instead of Shakespeare, though, the Shakespeare lovers are correct, seeing it is better. Still I've known some very educated people for whom English is a second language and they have no patience for Shakespeare. It's just one step too far for them to comprehend in an enjoyable way.

Unfortunately these programs where schools go to a theatre or where theatres go to a school are far more expensive than providing them with texts, so even if we could convince folks to perform plays by living writers, it would still only reach a fraction of the populace. If the texts are in the hands of the students, the likelihood that they will at least have readings of them in class is far greater.

I feel the need to offer that I vehemently disagree with your overall premise, and find many of your component arguments to be flawed. But this is your most problematic statement....

"I don’t think that there’s much the theatre community can do to solve this problem because I don’t believe that we are the problem"

If we are not the problem, we cannot provide the solution, and so what's the point in talking about any of this? Clearly, we are the problem, and we need to be better about reaching out to schools to cultivate the next generation of audiences. As you say, most of these students experience Shakespeare for the first time in English classes, which is part of the problem; English teachers often view plays as a kind of novel and treat them accordingly. Teaching artists can help fill that gap, as well as workshops offered for educators in approaches to teaching plays as performance texts, rather than as texts for private study. Passing the buck to the others -- teachers who have no control over their curricula, especially -- is lazy and unproductive. As the saying goes, be the change.

I would, however urge you to re-consider your personal approach to Shakespeare. if you can't teach Sarah Ruhl, Shelagh Stephenson, Susan Lori Parks, or any other non-white, non-male playwright without denigrating the works of others, you are only doing yourself and the authors you want to teach a disservice. Shakespeare, especially, can be a gateway to a broader love of theatre, and a palatable means to the more conservatively minded of introducing gender fluidity, racial and gender power dynamics, the failings of patriarchal power dynamics, and other pressing topics to students who might otherwise be sheltered from them.

What matters more than any subject is the way in which it is taught, and in the hands of a non-theatrically educated or experienced English teacher, non-straight, non-cis, non-white, and non-male authors are bound to be as boring as any other. And if you are determined to create an adversarial relationship with the plays and playwrights already on the curriculum, you're setting yourself up for failure when approaching teachers or department heads about how you can personally be of assistance.

I realize that in your position with Chicago Dramatists, you have a political and economic incentive to persuade educators to invest in new plays rather than classics, but your current approach is dis-empowering for artists, unhelpful to your clients, and if successful, deleterious to students, whom you would leave ill equipped to participate in the ongoing conversations involving the most produced playwright in America.

Thank you for this, Mia! I have been working on a very similar essay for several years, but you have articulated this dilemma perfectly. I think one of the many reasons Shakespeare is taught is that it is viewed more as literature than theatre. Precisely because of Shakespeare's dense language and wealth of metaphors, it is writing worthy of study and scrutiny. The mindset seems to be that if teenagers can understand a play easily, it can't possibly be worth studying. I know that when I was studying Shakespeare in high school, the notion that these plays were meant to be performed, as opposed to read, was never discussed. Unfortunately, I suspect that Shakespeare will continue to be America's national playwright for generations to come.

This argument suffers from a "category mistake." Shakespeare in high school is mostly taught in "English" class, not in "Theater" class. Theater classes (which are usually an elective) almost always teach modern drama along with the classics. Properly understood in the context of "English" class, teaching Shakespeare makes perfect sense. If we want to argue about classics being taught in school more generally--that we should teach less Homer, Mark Twain, Emily Bronte, Jane Austin, Melville, and all the rest of them, including Shakespeare, in favor of modern writers--then let's have that conversation. But singling out theater pedagogy in this way is unfair.

Why not demand that MORE theater be taught in schools, rather than accept as given that there is only a few weeks of English class that can be dedicated to theater, and then fighting about what should be taught during those few weeks? Let's make room for Shakespeare, August Wilson, and living playwrights, too!

As I said, it's about access and accessibility. It's not likely that theater will be more than an elective at the high school level. If we want the general populace to be aware of anything other than the classics, we have to introduce those plays in English classes. And again, we don't teach calculus before algebra. Let's start with less challenging. less alienating plays, and work our way toward Shakespeare.

I agree with Peter here. As a Theatre Arts teacher of 26 years in a high school, he is spot on. There is a big push in our school system to prepare students for college and career readiness and AP Test prep/SAT prep in English class. There is very little time for reading plays-and if so they are approached as a piece of literature vs. a living breathing thing that must be acted. The elected theatre class is where much of modern plays are read and discovered. The author is correct in her assessment, however, that the majority of students get turned off by Shakespeare and that 'most' people are familiar with popular, catchy musicals.

Your point is well taken. However, herein lies the rub. As Shakespeare is universally seen as the greatest writer in the English language, every kid needs to know who he is in order to be minimally educated. Every kid doesn't need to know who Sarah Ruhl is, much less Albee. So what you are suggesting is generally broadening the arts curriculum from the narrow niche allowed it by standardized testing, state governance and school boards. This is one of the epic struggles facing artists in our age. How to do that?

Amen. Teaching people to love theater by handing them plays is like teaching them to love music by handing them sheets of music. Don't the Beatles & Mozart and Billie Holiday read great? Did you read the latest script for GAME OF THRONES? :-(

Theater is meant to be felt and experienced and instead we give them cryptography lessons, decoding Shakespeare word-by-word like they're trying to break an enemy cipher. Even if they survive the exercise -- and most do not -- the magic is gone.

Chicago Shakespeare has a short Shakespeare where students and adults can actually (gasp!) enjoy Shakespeare as entertainment. THE TEMPEST won play of the year at the Jeffs not because they presented something that was good-for-you but because they created a thrilling work of art. I took an out of town client visiting Chicago to it -- yes, I took them to Shakespeare -- and they loved it.

Moving beyond Shakespeare I'd love to let student see something contemporary like DISGRACED or LUNA GALE & then hear them discuss it afterwards. These plays beg for discussion and afterwards you wouldn't have to explain to them why theater was important. They'd feel it in their hearts, forever.

We should leave the cryptography in the CS classes and teach theater...in the theater. The worst thing that could happen is you might actually have a student who enjoys their English class. ;-)

Great article, Mia. You make some great points that should spark much-needed conversations.

I recently wrote a similar article - publishing in American Theatre magazine, January 2017 - that you may like to read. Though, in my article, I address university/ college students (which are, sadly, in the same boat). Caridad Svich, David Henry Hwang, Anne Bogart, Greg Allen, Christopher Shinn, Adrienne Kennedy, Howard Shalwitz, and the late Judith Malina, among others, offer diverse perspectives on the subject.

While there are no easy answers, It is necessary to balance the scales. Try and introduce young people to theatre that's being written/ created now, and the artists who are making these works, as well as the classics. A wide range of examples creates a fuller understanding of the art. And the more we can educate our future audiences, the more likely they are to see theatre after they receive their final grades.

One problem with plays written in the last 50 years is they often have adult language or adult content that high schools like to avoid. I think newer plays aren't being added to the curriculum because of this. They stick with tried-and-true 1950s classics that used to address contemporary issues but for kids today seem as old as Shakespeare.

A big thing you didn't address is what plays are being put on by high school theatre departments - which I think will have more influence on kids and theatre than what plays they read in English class. Very often it's just a musical version of a popular movie - usually a Disney movie - or they again revert to 1950s era classics. My local high school did a night of one acts, and nearly every one of them was at least 50 years old.

So kids are taught that theatre is either showtuny musicals, or incomprehensible Shakespeare, which is exactly what I thought theatre was when I went to get my theatre degree 30 years ago, and why the first play I wrote was me trying to be Shakespeare.

I could not agree more. Even my daughter, who went to college for theater performance based on her experience in high school musicals, did not begin to appreciate plays until she got there. In her high school, the ONLY drama taught is Shakespeare, and she still doesn't love it (and assuming that most subscribers of Howlround or any majority of theater practitioners love Shakespeare is just as exclusive an attitude as only teaching it in school; Shakespeare snobbery is Shakespeare snobbery no matter how its served).

But her twin sister, a senior in college who likes theater okay and has been to tons, is taking Intro to Drama this year, and it's the same thing. Classics all. I have friends who teach in college and mandate their students see a show a year; they come back saying "I never knew..." Your essay is brilliant, but it would take such a grass roots effort to get schools to rethink their curricula. The number of schools who won't consider doing contemporary work for their school productions is also a problem, because students see their friends in productions.

I've had the same issue with the Shaw Festival for years. You have grownups visiting a place where theater is just what you do, whether you do theater or not. And yet the only offerings for far too long were Shaw and Shaw-like plays that are likely to turn off newcomers to theater. I am thrilled for next season under the new AD, as it contains fresh work that should turn the tide. Unfortunately, there isn't one AD who supervises all the schools. If only...

Excellent essay!! I agree passionately with it. In fact, I think I am living proof of its central thesis: For even though none of my freinds from growing up has virtually ever set foot in a theater -- we're all the sterotypical Star-Trek (The Original Series) nerds who were best at math and science -- I've seen hundreds of plays as an adult (and eventually started writing them).

Why? I recently realized it is probably primarily because my junior high school (7th and 8th grade) English teachers were a bit unconventional and decided that the class was going to forgo what I thought of as "real work" for a couple/few weeks and rehearse a play... to ultimately be performed in front of the entire school (during an assembly) in the big lunchroom/theater (with costumes and lights and everything).

The 7th-grade play was a piece of fluff comedy called (if memory serves correctly) "The Arabian Knight" -- but it was FUN! I played a sultan, the handsome guy in the class played a boy scout from the U.S. who (for reasons I don't recall) was there to rescue the harem (and of course falls in love with one of them and ends up at the end marrying her). But the 8th-grade play was far more profound -- "12 Angry Men" -- and I got to play number 8!

Alas, by high school my feelings of insecurity (due to small stature and thick glasses and so forth) were "maturing" and I never got the courage to audition. The drama teacher, knowing who I was (from the junior high school teachers) asked me to do a bit part in "Up the Down Staircase" (which, again, was fun) and -- perhaps most important of all -- let me tag along when "the cool kids" were going to see Leonard Nimoy in "Sherlock Homes" at the Shubert Theater (about 30 miles away in downtown Chicago). I'd never been to a real theater before, so obviously it was quite an experience!

I was set to play Radar in "MASH" the following fall (my sophomore year), but there was some kind of scandal involving the drama teacher (I like to think sexual but that may just be me fantasizing about her and/or the many hot teachers I had [English, German]) and by the fall she was no longer around. And between my insecurities and how far I lived from the high school (it was a fairly rural area) without the use of a car (had to take the school bus home right after school each day) I was never in another play.

But a few years later, when I was in the working world and the first production of "Evita" came to town, I realized that it was at the same theater I had seen "Sherlock Holmes" in and somehow that gave me the confidence to go see it (after being captivated by the bits of the songs I heard on the TV commercials from the Broadway production). And I loved it! I became a regular theater-goer, eventually finding out about Steppenwolf and Chicago Dramatists, which lead to me becoming a playwright as well.

Perhaps all because I (unlike any of my high school friends, who have never gone to to theater in their life) was exposed -- in a very fun way -- to theater in junior high. (Yes, over the years I've developed some appreciation of Shakespeare... but to be honest I'm still not that much of a fan.)

BS I was introduced to Lambs Tales From Shakespeare when I was 6. hearing and reading plays as stories before I met the plays which made a world of difference when I did read Shakespeare. Theatre is only tedious when you have to parse every syllable. Live theatre that goes into schools and engages students works. My students mostly strongly dislike the disconnect of digital theatre discussions and prefer to talk about plays in person. Not only the story but how the characters interact. Stop trying to put so much onto a play and let it have its own voice. Right now we are turning more students off in the name of culture and relevancy and forgetting that plays are stories. Some they will identify with, some not and that is the conversation we should be having. What about that character or play do you identify with. What is a turn off and why? What choices would you have made if you were that character and would it have changed the outcome?Also you need to change the culture of Parents and School Boards. Many choices are made because they are SAFE. Nobody wants to get sued or fired and believe me that is more and more a consideration in this day and age.

K - really good points, thank you. I vaguely remember reading Shakespeare in high school and while thinking it was beautiful language really didn't have the slightest idea of what the f... they were talking about. A lot of worthwhile thoughts and ideas on the subject of this article. I think a lot of what needs to change and how to support that change in what drama is offered students to read and engage with depends a lot on the specific mind set of the teachers. A friend of mine is a high school drama teacher and we have had occasional conversations about his dedicated interest in broadening students awareness of theatre with the choice of the 'straight' play offered, and one student generated project, as well as the main event which is of course 'the musical'. It's a challenge but also rewarding. He has gotten approval for outings to the theatre for students, and occasional professionals coming to the school for presentations. But this is the drama dept. I can only imagine how challenging this must be for students not participating in drama at their high school and basically receiving their input to plays via an English class.