Classroom Resources

Play recommendation: “Down and Out” by John Patrick Shanley

  • Length 10 min or less
  • Characters 3-5
  • Age recommendation 9+

“Down and Out” is a short one act by John Patrick Shanley. His play, which is three pages long in my script from Dramatists Play Service, Inc., is part of a compilation by Shanley called “Welcome to the Moon and Other Plays.” There are two main characters in “Down and Out” — Love and Poet — and two other speaking roles — Figure and Postman. If you are working with minimal or no costume changes, it’s possible to have one actor play both the Figure and the Postman. On the other hand, if you are working with a large group of actors and you need to find as many opportunities as possible for speaking roles, then I suggest that you have one student play the Postman and divide the Figure into two parts.

The Figure makes two entrances in the play. In general, the Figure is trying to break the Poet’s spirit, but each time the Figure appears, he has a new intention. In his first entrance, he is trying to persuade the Poet to hand over his library card. In his second appearance, he tires to buy the Poet’s soul. You could definitely have some fun assigning two actors to this role.

This play can also work well in an English class because it utilizes the literary device of personification in the character Love. There are also a lot of interesting language and vocabulary choices that are worth discussing in an academic context.

Shanley is a very eclectic and prolific playwright having written successful plays and screenplays — one of which went on to win an Academy Award. He is a wonderful example of an artist who has achieved mainstream success (Academy Award winning movies) while maintaining a commitment to his unique voice as an artist.

I have students as young as 9 (4th graders) who are comfortable with this material. I also believe that middle school, high school and adult actors would appreciate “Down and Out.” Of course, your finished product will reflect the age levels and life experience of the actors who are participating. For example, the lamenting and hopelessness of the Poet will be interpreted very differently by a nine year old whose only experience of hopeless might be getting sent to bed without desert, versus a college student who might relate to hopelessness and poverty in a much more complicated way. This elasticity is one of the many charms of “Down and Out.” In three pages, Shanley gives actors, teachers and directors a lot to do and a lot to think about and discuss.

In the Author’s Note for his play “The Dreamer Examines His Pillow,” Shanley offered the following personal perspective:

“I am not a courageous person by nature. I have simply discovered that, at certain key moments in this life, you must find courage in yourself, in order to move forward and live. It is like a muscle and it must be exercised, first a little, and then more and more. All the really exciting things possible during the course of a lifetime require a little more courage than we currently have. A deep breath and a leap.”

Despite that his comments were made in reference to another of his plays, I believe the sentiment is also consistent with the themes and character objectives in “Down and Out.”

Please feel free to comment below if you have any thoughts about “Down and Out” or if you would like to provide any feedback about your experiences using this resource in your classroom!

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