Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible has been a staple of nearly every high school American literature class for years. My American Lit students have read and studied the play for the past decade, but a few years ago, I decided that having them learn about Miller’s connection to the HUAC and completing the 4-Act study guide, wasn’t enough. I wanted them to experience the play as a play – with my students as the actors in the starring roles. Thus was born the whole-class acting activity, “Bringing Act II (of The Crucible) to Life!” While it takes some preparation to pull it off successfully, it’s not a difficult task , and once you have all of the materials on hand and a plan to follow, repeating the activity year after year is a breeze. You’ll love it, and your students will too!
GOOD NEWS: THEY’RE NOT REALLY ACTING
While I use words related to acting like “stage”, “costumes”, and “script” throughout this activity, I emphasize to my students that they don’t need to act at all – unless they want to – but that what they will be doing is more like reader’s theater with costumes, props, and some movement thrown in. While some students may initially grumble about being in front of the class, almost all of them end up enjoying it. The excitement of the students who are really into it bubbles over and even those who are reticent end up participating willingly. (To differentiate – or show compassion – for students who are very introverted and absolutely don’t want to act, I’ve devised the off-stage role of Scene Assistant, which allows everyone to happily participate.)
HOW TO PREP AND WHAT TO PURCHASE
Allot time in your schedule as follows:
- Day 1: 20 minutes to introduce the idea of acting out The Crucible as opposed to reading or listening to the play
- Day 2: 45 minutes for students to prep and practice their parts
- Day 3: 85 minutes to perform Act II with 10 minutes to set up and 5 minutes between each scene.
If you teach in 45 minute class periods, you’ll need 3.5 days. If you teach in blocks of varying lengths, like I do, you’ll need 2.25 days – provided that you can time the acting day to fall on a day with an 85 minute block. If you need to, you can spread either or both the prep time and/or the acting time over two days, and it will work just fine. See the Teaching Plan below for more details
Fortunately, Act II of The Crucible can be neatly divided into 4 scenes. You’ll need to make enough copies of each scene so that your actors and scene assistants each have their own “script.” (Suggestion: Make a few more copies than you think you’ll need. Inevitably, someone will take the script home, spill water on it, highlight the wrong part, etc.)
The Four Scenes
There are four scenes in Act II and when one ends, the next one begins immediately after it. I’ve titled each scene to help students keep track of what happens when.
- Scene 1 – John and Elizabeth ‘s Awkward Conversation: This scene starts at the beginning of the Act and ends with Proctor’s words: “Oh, Elizabeth, your justice would freeze beer!” (Copy 5+ scripts: 2 for actors, 3 for potential assistants.)
- Scene 2 – It’s Mary Warren’s Poppet: Begins when Mary Warren enters and ends with the Elizabeth’s words: “She has an arrow in your yet, John Proctor, and you know it well!” (Copy 6+ scripts: 3 for actors, 3 for potential assistants.)
- Scene 3 – Reverend Hale’s Pop Quiz: Begins when Rev. Hale appears out of nowhere, and ends with the Hale’s words “God keep you both; ….I think–”. (Copy 9+ scripts: 6 for actors, 3 for potential assistants.)
- Scene 4 – Elizabeth is Blindsided: Begins when Giles Corey arrives, and ends at the end of the Act. (Copy 9+ scripts: 6 for actors, 3 for potential assistants.)
3. Costumes and Props
While you certainly can have students Bring Act II to Life without costumes or props, using them makes the experience much more memorable. Students can create their own costumes or bring them in from home, but I prefer to have a variety of items on hand for my students to use. September and October–Halloween costume and decorating season–are ideal months to hit up dollar, Goodwill, and Halloween stores as you search for inexpensive costume items and props. To save money, consider sending home a list to parents asking if they have any items they’d like to donate. To keep everything organized and clean from year to year, I store my collection along with the scripts in a large plastic tub labeled The Crucible. Here’s my inventory, but you can, of course, make revisions to the list to best suit your needs.
For the boys
- Men’s hats – 3
- Plaid Shirts – 3, large and X-large
- Graduation gown – This is the gown I wore when I graduated from college! I’m tall, so it fits most of my male students. I love that it’s having a second life as Reverend Hale’s costume!
- Sheriff’s Badge
- Ties – 2 (I know, I know, the Puritans didn’t wear ties. Maybe I should replace these with suspenders?)
- John Proctor’s and Cheever’s “guns” – taped empty wrapping paper tubes (These do not fit in the tub!)
For the girls
- Woman’s hat – 1
- Floral headband – 1
- Aprons – 2
- Scarves/shawls – 3
- Pink chef’s hat
- Skirts – 2 – large or X-large. Can be “altered” with binder clips.
- Fabric – 3 large pieces of fabric that can become scarves, shawls, skirts, etc.
- Silk flowers
- Plastic chains for Elizabeth – found in Dollar Tree’s Halloween aisle!
- Fabric doll – The one I have is bigger than I’d like it to be, but it was .99 at Goodwill, and it works!
- Potholder mitts – I’m not sure why I have these, but someone always “wears” them!
- Black plastic kettle. I just found these at CVS today!
- Stuffed bunny
- Salt shaker
- Hint: Have a few 1” and 3” binder clips handy for students to use to adjust the fit of their costumes.
Day 1 (20 minutes): Introduce the Activity
Tub of props and costumes, scripts for students (if they don’t have a copy of the play in its entirety.)
Casting Call – One copy for you CLICK HERE
The Casting Call is a list of the actors and assistants needed for each scene. Every student should play a role in the success of one of the scene, so each of them needs something relevant to do.
Say and Do
- Introduce the activity: Explain that the class will be brining Act II to life by interacting with the text. Tell them that even though you will be using acting words like “actor”, “stage”, “scripts” and “props”, they won’t really be acting at all. Tell them that they’ll be reading and moving a bit, and it will be a fun way to make it through the Act. Emphasize how cool this activity is, and that there is nothing to worry about. Say whatever you have to get them on board, and do your best to encourage them and not scare them off. Sell it!
- Review the time frame: Today, select parts. Tomorrow (Day 2) they will be prepping and practicing and the next day, they will be day Bringing Act II to Life!
- Show costumes and props. I make a big to do about taking the costumes and props out of the tub. I carefully unfold the graduation gown and hang it above my board, and make piles of costumes on student desks and on the table at the front of the room. Sometimes my students cannot wait to try on a hat or want to hold the stuffed bunny, so I let them, of course!
- Sign up for parts: Ask students to take out their textbooks so they can see how long the parts are and ask students to sign up for the parts that interest them. Boys can read girls parts and girls can read boys parts – sometimes, due to the makeup of a class this is a must – and it can add to the enjoyment of the activity as a whole. Just emphasize that they’ve got to be able to deliver the part, even if it’s for a character that is of another gender than their own.
Assistants: There are always students for whom the thought of acting is terrifying. I understand this fear and allow those students to be assistants, if at all possible. You’ll have to decide how to handle those students who absolutely don’t want to or simply cannot participate in the same way that the others do. One year, a student of mine played two parts in two different scenes allowing another student to make a playbill for the class as her way of participating. That was the best she could do, and it worked out perfectly for the other student who had been hoping to do some more acting.
Assistants have these responsibilities:
- Costumes: Lay costumes out in logical groups (ie. hats, shirts, skirts, etc.) fold when actors remove them, and organize costumes in the tub when finished; ensure that each actor is wearing at least one costume item. If an actor refuses, please let me know.
- Props: Ensure that at least three props are used in each scene. Create props if necessary. (The warrant is a prop that needs to be created each year. There is no “needle” for the poppet, so that could be made by the assistants.)
- Scenery: Since the scene takes place in the Proctor’s home and a fireplace and dining table is central to the first scene, scene assistants can create these by making a backdrop, drawing on the board, moving chairs and desks, etc.
- Scripts: Distribute, collect, organize/binder clip; distribute/collect highlighters
- Stand-in: If someone is absent, the assistants may possibly take their place. Be prepared for this possibility.
The Ground Rules: Share these important non-negotiable requirements with your students:
- Wear at least one costume item, two if possible. While I will provide many costumes and props, I encourage you to bring in your own if you’d like to (and I always accept donations!)
- Face the rest of the class not the other people in the scene. When you do your second read through, stand up, and face one direction – towards where your audience will be on acting day.
- Modulate your voices. Whisper, yell, sob–anything! Reading in a monotone is a scene killer!
- Enter and exit as the script indicates, but don’t leave the actual classroom. I want you to see and hear the rest of the scene and not be out in the hallway missing any of it (or potentially disturbing other classes.) The assistants will move a few desks or chairs near the stage (or to the side of the classroom) for the off-stage performers.
- Move – for the love of all that is holy – MOVE! Sit down. Stand up. Raise your arm or rest your head on another character’s shoulder. Walk across the stage, if at all possible. Please. Movement adds so much!
- Limit falsetto, British and other foreign accents; refrain from any other sort of goofiness. It may seem like fun, but it’s extremely distracting and no one – not even the students who are reading the parts themselves – will be able to remember what the scene is about.
Day 2 (45 minutes): Prep and Practice
Completed Casting Call, Scripts, costumes and props; access to scissors, paper, markers for assistants for prop creation. (Note: If you only have one scene assistant in the class, then limited prop creation. It just isn’t necessary and there are too many other things that he or she should be doing. In large classes, you may end up with many scene assistants. In that case, assign them to specific scenes. Have them sit with the actors as they practice, and encourage them to create something to support the scene.)
Say and Do
- Setting: “This act takes place in the Proctor’s house, starting off with John Proctor and Elizabeth, his wife. As Act II progresses, more and more people come over and before it ends, they have a house full of company. While it sounds like they might be having some sort of drop-in party, this is 1692 Salem, so there is no frivolity, as you will see. There is only a pervasive sense of gloom and doom, that grows as the act progresses.”
- Goals for students: “Read through your scene two times – once sitting down in a group and once standing up. When standing, practice facing the class/audience, raising and lowering your voice, and moving. Avoid abject silliness, falsetto, British accents, or Donald Duck voice.”
- Assistants: “Assistants: you will provide highlighters for the scripts, help with pronunciation, decide on props to make, and provide any other support that you can. Your role is as important as the people who have speaking parts, so make sure you are equally involved!”
- Important Scene Info: “Once you get into your scene groups, I’ll come around with some important info for each scene.”
- First and Second Reads: Students get into groups by scenes and sit close to each other for the first read. Remember – Scene 4 will have many students. Scene 1 will have 2 – 4 at the most. For the second read when students are standing, I allow them to go out in the hallway because we are located by a long corridor with no classrooms that is ideal for rehearsing. If there is only one group who can go out into the hallway, I always make sure it’s the scene 4 group because they are acting out what happens at the end of the scene, and I want to keep it hidden from their classmates. After a complete second read, students may try on costumes and props. Prepare for goofiness and selfies.
- Important Scene Info: As the students begin their first read through, I jump from scene to scene and offer a few small bits of helpful information. Here’s what I say:
- Scene 1: John and Elizabeth ‘s Awkward Conversation: “Remember what was revealed in Act 1 about Abigail and John’s affair? Elizabeth, as a result is so incredibly hurt, and John is trying to make it right, but fails miserably. Their conversation can best be described as “awkward.” Play Elizabeth as someone who is crippled by the hurt and distrust she feels and Proctor as a guy who feels defeated, guilty, and desperate to earn back his wife’s trust and affection.”
- Scene 2: It’s Mary Warren’s Poppet: “Mary Warren, the Proctor’s servant girl, is one of the girls who is now spending her days in Salem Village at court, and because of her new-found importance, she has developed quite a saucy attitude on the one hand. On the other hand, she’s a mess. Play her as smart-mouthed, fearful, bold, and weepy – all at the same time. Try a little head and shoulder action. You’ll need the doll for this scene for the poppet she brings home from court.
- Scene 3: Reverend Hale’s Pop Quiz: “Have you ever been arguing with someone when someone else unexpectedly shows up? Well, this happens to John and Elizabeth when Reverend Hale surprises the Proctors. Remember his books weighted with authority? Rev. Hale is a researcher, and he is conducting a field study by going from house to house, assessing the Christian nature of many Salem Village households. He is not an official of the court, but he does question both Elizabeth and Proctor. You’ll find out if they get good scores or not.”
A Head’s Up! Shortly after Rev. Hale arrives and during a conversation with John and Elizabeth, John says a very bad word: “But it’s hard to think so pious a woman be secretly a Devil’s b**ch after seventy year of such good prayer.” You’ll need to decide how to handle what your students say. I allow whomever is playing Proctor to make the call, telling the student that there is no expectation whatsoever to say anything they don’t want to. Some students prefer to substitute “servant” or “beep”, but the student playing Proctor should feel no pressure either way. Of course, if you have other constraints to work with in your classroom or school, you will be the one to make that decision. Thankfully, there are easy substitutions.
- Scene 4: Elizabeth is Blindsided: This group is the largest, and that means that all of the characters who are going to arrive at the Proctor’s house will have done so by the end of the scene. This scene is the most emotional and the most illogical of all of them; please do your best to portray the build up of emotions and chaos as you read. Also, you’re going to find out how everything turns out, so please read softly. Don’t give anything away to your classmates. NO SPOILERS! Don’t tell anyone between now and acting day about what happens!
Day 3 (85 minutes): Bringing Act II to Life!
Two days a week – Monday and Friday – I have an 85 minute block, so I aim for a Friday for the Day 3 acting day and hope and pray that there’s no fire drill! 85 minutes will give you enough time to get through the entire Act, but if you have shorter class periods, you can start on one day and finish on the next. If you finish scene two and have less than 15 minutes of class time left, I wouldn’t start on scene three, but I’d recommend having an “intermission” until the next day. You may want to have a quick writing or vocab activity on hand just in case. While it’s perhaps not an ideal situation, it will work. What I don’t like is splitting the acting over a weekend, so I avoid this at all costs. (I’ve done it before, and the momentum seems to disappear making the second day anticlimactic instead of super cool.)
Students need textbooks or complete copies of Act II, study guide, scripts, costumes and props, a student desk for me at the back of the room so I can observe and take photos, but let my students concentrate on their performance without interference from me.
Say and Do
- Remind students of appropriate audience and actor behavior. My students complete a study guide while their classmates are presenting. Doing so helps to keep them from staring or making faces (or other assorted teenage weirdness), but I still remind my students to be on their best behavior and that they are not allowed to interact with the actors in any way at all–and I can’t remember the last time there was a problem.
Before each scene, I share some information and/or definitions:
- Scene 1: We begin by reading the blurb beneath the image in the textbook. I read while John Proctor does what I’m narrating. If you don’t use a textbook that has such an intro, I’d suggest that you use this one: “This entire act takes place in the living room of John and Elizabeth Proctor, a long, dark room that encompasses the entire downstairs of their home. A fireplace, that is also their cooking stove, takes up an entire wall at one end of the room. When John Proctor enters the room, he finds that it is empty, but he can hear Elizabeth upstairs singing the children to sleep. Proctor walks over to the fireplace, sets down his gun, tastes the stew that’s cooking over the fire, and, with a grimace on his face, adds some salt to it. After a few minutes, Elizabeth enters the room.
- Scene 2: You’ll want to gather the numbers a few days in advance to make this comment effective and accurate: Tell students: “39 of Salem’s residents are now in jail, and while that doesn’t seem like too many, it is, indeed, a significant number and significant percentage of the total population. There are approximately 600 residents of Salem Village so if you divide 39 by 600, you end up with 6.5% of the population in jail. The combined population here at our high school of students, faculty, and staff is approximately 1800, so 6.5% of that total means that 117 of your high school classmates, friends, faculty, and staff would be in jail. According to census.gov, the 2015 population of the town in which our high school is located was 8420 people, so using the same calculations, we would end up with 547 of your neighbors, friends, or perhaps even your own family members in jail. While 39 doesn’t seem like a lot of people, it is, in fact, a surprisingly large number considering the population of Salem Village and Salem Town at that time.”
- Take a look at this note that shows what I share with my students.
- Scene 3: Share with students: “Listen carefully for what Mary Warren says and what Reverend Hale confirms regarding those who have been charged with witchcraft confessing to the crime and the consequences of that confession. You may be surprised by what you hear and question the logic behind it.”
- Scene 4: Pronounce (since Proctor says it) Pontius Pilate and explain that he was a Roman Governor who held court over Christ’s trial and sentencing. In an attempt to distance himself from the condemnation of Christ, he washed his hands in a bowl of water, symbolically making the statement that he was in no way responsible for what the court decided; Define Lechery (n): lustfulness; excessive sexual activity; Familiar Spirit (n): akin to “spectral evidence”, a familiar spirit is an assistant and companion to a witch that takes a shape, usually of a small animal – a black cat, rat, dog, frog, rabbit, bird – and is sent out to do the witch’s evil work.
Allow 5 minutes (and only 5 minutes) between each scene for students to change out of/into costume. The remaining students will complete the study guide, but don’t review it until the end of the Act, not in between each scene as it will take too long. (You’ll have better control of time if you wait until the end and you won’t interrupt the flow of acting by stopping to discuss questions and answers.)
One last piece of advice: after all of the preparations you’ll take to pull this off, be sure to have fun, take pictures, and create some Crucible memories with your students! Despite the giggling and some stumbles over mispronounced words, most students take the activity seriously and appear to retain what they are hearing and seeing – at least according to the results of the post-act class discussions I’ve had. This is one activity that your students and you will remember for a long time after the curtain goes down!