How do you do that? How do you make a production, one that is being read from scripts, visually appealing?
In Readers Theatre, we are reading literature with the aim of vividly recreating everything, not on stage, but in the audience’s minds. Why not put the actors in a line spanning the stage? Or sit them in a semi-circle? Or why not all stand at a lectern and when it is your turn, read your character’s lines? So what if your head is always bobbing up and down? So what if when you all turn the page at the same time, there is a snicker from someone in the audience who is trying to stifle an outright laugh?
Here’s the thing. Readers Theatre is much more than reading from a script. It is an art form unto itself, Theatre of the Mind, and needs to be created as any art form would, with its own conventions and characteristics.
How things look to an audience matters. You want to help the audience recreate what you’re reading in their minds, but they are looking at the stage where people are doing something interesting. That’s the nature of an audience. They can’t help but look at the actors/readers. Our goal, then, would be to help the audience use what they see to visualize what we are reading. We don’t want to get in the way. All that head bobbing is soooo annoying, as my niece would say. We do want to help paint word pictures by voice, facial expression, movement, gestures, even suggestions of sets and costumes. How we look adds to the artistic form or it distracts.
Let’s start with making it visually appealing and more, making the visuals suggestive. Like groupings that make sense of what you’re reading as well as convey relationships.
Why not change your surroundings?
What you may not want to do is to recreate a complete set, with props and set pieces. You may not want to block it as you would a play. But how, then, can you make a bunch of readers with scripts in their hands, visually appealing?
You can use your physical surroundings, and that includes the script, to make interesting stage pictures and through those pictures, to create relationships between the characters. Plan ahead where the actors are going to be on the stage.
First and foremost, make good use of some artistic principals:
- Three is a more pleasing number than two. Think about putting people in triangles, rather than in straight lines.
- Straight lines are ineffective. They don’t convey anything about the performance piece or what the characters are to each other. They are dull to look at.
- Break people, suggestions of sets, those stools, whatever you are using into groups and height to help suggest the setting, who the characters are to each other, who the narrator is if you have one, and even some outrageous groupings if the material calls for it.
Make relationships by where and how you group people
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
I was recently working with The Charge of the Light Brigade and wanted to show that one man led the charge. I tried this:
- Put two chairs next to each other and sit with your scripts. Read the first stanza (above) of Brigade. What is the relationship?
With both people next to each other and looking at each other, the audience has to rely on the words to know that one person gives the command, the other obeys it.
- What if you take one chair away? Put that character a little upstage and to the left of the sitting character. Now what is the relationship?
When the standing person reads, “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!” it is easier to see that the person standing could be giving the fatal command and the one sitting could be the narrator.
What about levels?
What can you use to make things visually appealing?
- Use levels, platforms, stairs, even ladders.
- Use different levels of stools or chairs.
- Levels are appealing and suggest hierarchy and relationships.
- You can stand or sit or move to another part of the stage to form different or evolving relationships.
Put it together
Try this with what you are working on, or use The Charge of the Light Brigade as I did:
- Form three groups, each group suggesting being in a valley almost surrounded by the enemy.
- Put the three groups, one upstage center on a platform, another downstage right, and the third group downstage left.
- The readers in each group might be in straight lines, suggesting a battle formation, but in a way that each face can be seen. The straight lines work because they are staggered and the groups form a triangle.
The idea is to place everyone in a way that suggests the orderliness of a cavalry brigade about to charge, but it is also key that everyone is seen by all of the audience.
Where are we? In a valley. How do we convey the suggestion that the soldiers are in a valley, surrounded, but that they don’t know they are surrounded at first?
We’re not finished. To form stronger relationships and to help the audience picture what we are reading, we next need to consider the uses of focus.