Puzzling out the plot

PURPOSE: Familiarize the cast (and crew, if you choose) with the plot of the show.

WHEN & WHY: The exercise is envisioned as a way to intro the plot progression of the play without doing a read-through of the script. I find that with Shakespeare (especially with less-experienced actors), a read-through on day one of the script is not all that useful. No one knows where it’s going, who anyone is, and chances are they don’t know what they’re saying yet. So this will (in less time than a read-through) get everyone into — and onboard with — the story.

Note that I tried this with Cymbeline, which has a complicated plot with lots of threads (I had 64 cards). With a much simpler plot (like The Tempest, for instance), I might find a different way in.


  • A list of the plot points of the show (including back story and other important events implied but not seen). This list should be in order and is for the leader’s reference only (could possibly produce copies for everyone to take home afterwards)
  • Put each of these plot points onto an individual card (my cards were printed on card stock and cut to 2″ x 4.25″). These cards must not be numbered, but you might want to code them as suggested in the notes section below.
  • Someplace to arrange the cards … the floor works fine.


  • Explain to the cast that we won’t be doing the traditional read-thru, but doing this exercise to become familiar with the plot of our play
  • Throw the cards in the air (or shuffle them and deal them out, if you prefer)
  • Point out the space where the cards should be arranged (e.g., “over here is the back story and beginning of the play, over here is the end of the play”)
  • The cast then works together to put the events of the plot in order chronologically. While they do this, keep coaching to a minimum. See notes below about some coaching I did … but mostly, shut up and let them work it out themselves.
  • When the cards are all arranged, review them (have the cast read them out in order), and have them speak up if something seems out of place. While this is happening, you can compare with your printed list.
  • After they think they have a final order, point out anything that is out of place in a way that matters
  • Have each member of the cast take a portion of the story, and then have them tell it (we didn’t get to this portion when we tried it, so not sure exactly how this would work … but I like the idea in theory)

NOTES: The Shakespeare work group tried this on Jan. 10, 2015. A few notes about our experiences:

  • There were only three actors and 64 cards, and the exercise, with some coaching from me, took us a good 45 minutes. I think with a full cast, it would be faster, even with the extra mayhem added. Adding the “telling of the story” section, would naturally add time as well.
  • Daniel suggested that perhaps cards could be color-coded by plot thread, or by character involvement, to make things easier to find. If you have a ratio of more than 5-8 cards per person, that’s probably a good step, since it’s hard to peruse everything and find something you’re looking for.
  • Early on, I provided coaching that it might be useful to find all the cards related to a specific character (or event) and put those in order. That got them off arranging plot threads in a really useful way.
  • A couple of times, I coached for clarity, if I thought they were heading too far down a wrong road. For instance, I had a card that said “The queen dies,” and there was some confusion as to whether this was back story (the death of Imogen’s mother). I clarified that the queen in question was the one who was a character in this play, which got the card correctly to the “end of play” portion of the playing field. Also, I had a card with Posthumus in France and one with him in Rome. The group, quite understandably, assumed that he spent some time in France, so I clarified that he doesn’t meet Iachimo until he gets to Rome. In retrospect, the card for France would have been more useful if it had said “In France, on his way to Rome, Posthumus gets into an argument …”
  • The cards should not be too cryptic. Useful cross-pollinating clues (like the suggested “on his way to Rome” above) will help in the ordering of the puzzle. My cards could also have been clearer in use of names, as I sometimes had people’s disguises clearly stated and sometimes not. I had to do some side-coaching on this as well.
  • My three, because it was a small group, and because they’re awesome people, didn’t need any coaching on working together. They pursued individual lines of inquiry and also worked as a group in really good ways. With more people, it might be useful to assign subgroups to plot threads or characters. But probably better to coach that as it arises than provide too many rules around methodology before you start.
  • I also coached a bit for time, to get things wrapped up. We didn’t, for instance, do the cast-only review for errors, I worked them through this, and helped them get some of the disparate plot threads intertwined.
  • If in rehearsal in a dedicated rehearsal room with a big enough wall, it would be useful to tape that final plot outline to the wall as the basis of a show timeline. Later, other events could be added for character backstory, etc, and timings could be adjusted as your production decides on actual chronology (it takes Posthumus a while to arrive in Rome, for instance, but the play doesn’t tell us exactly how long it takes … you may want to decide, so you know how long Imogen has been holding off Cloten, etc.).

OUTCOME: Feedback was very positive. We felt it was a good way to sort out what happens, and to see the play as plot threads, and how those threads relate, rather than just as scene-scene-scene. It was also active and participatory, so much better than just being lectured with a plot synopsis.

Give it a try using the CymbelineEventsWorksheet


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