Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 4Topic 9
Focusing On Vaudeville Comedy
On With
The Show!

Vaudeville Comedy
1Live theater on Broadway today is something special. It's considered high-culture. Most people dress up and make an evening of it. People sit quietly and watch, or maybe applaud politely.

But it wasn't always that. Before there were movies and TV, live theater--or vaudeville--was regular entertainment--a place people could go on any night of the week and have a good time. Audiences shouted and laughed and booed and even threw things at the actors. Family or domestic theater was among the most popular. In skits and plays, people would act out scenes from family life that they thought were funny.

To learn more about vaudeville, visit the Library of Congress website: memory.loc.gov/ammem/vshtml/vshome.html

In this activity, you will have the chance to put on your own vaudeville skit and poke a little fun at your own family life.

Writing Vaudeville Comedy
Like any comedy writer, you should begin by observing and listening and taking notes. (But don't let on what you're doing or your family will become too self-conscious of everything they do.) The best comedy is based on real situations and real people. As you watch your family, try to stand back a little. You are so familiar with your family life, you may not even notice the little funny things anymore (for example: a stupid expression your dad always makes or a silly things your mother always worries about). It's a difficult thing to do, but pretend you are seeing stuff for the first time. Keeping asking yourself, what do you think a stranger would find funny. After all, your audience probably doesn't know your family from Adam.

Once you have collected your notes and observations, it's time to start thinking of a skit. Keep it short: no more than five or ten minutes. Keep it simple: a small family incident, a silly family ritual. Keep it localized: don't use more than one set or too many props.

The trick to all good theater writing is conflict. Every skit should have a conflict at its core. In theater terms, conflict doesn't really mean a fight. You don't have to have people hitting each other or yelling. Conflict just means that two or more people want different things and each tries to get them. The clash of these different issues produces conflict and conflict makes for good theater.

Comedy can rely on several different things. It can use exaggeration such as over-the-top characters or situations; it can be based on misunderstandings; it can have slapstick or physical comedy; or, it can combine all of these things.

Staging Vaudeville Comedy
Now that you have written your skit, it is time to prepare to stage it. This involves several things: making copies of the script or play; finding a stage (your classroom or the school auditorium are two possibilities); casting the parts (fellow classmates); finding the props, make-up, and costumes (at home or through your school's theater department); and rehearsing the skit. Rehearsing involves several steps of its own. First, you should have the actors read the script together a few times. Then, have them memorize their parts. And finally, hold dress rehearsals, where the actors go on stage and perform the parts without an audience. And don't hesitate to change your script as you go. Some comedy works on paper but not when it's acted. And, listen to your actors. They may have some good suggestions for changes.

And don't forget one last thing: the audience. How are you going to get people to come? Whom do you want to get? other students, parents (uh oh, did you make fun of them?), members of the community? Think about an advertising campaign--flyers, posters, email, word-of-mouth, even an ad in the school or community newspaper.

Now that you've got an audience and you feel you and your actors are ready, it's On With the Show!

Also, remember to show your script to your classmates and teachers and see if they'd be interested in performing it with you.