When you are ready to put on a Readers Theatre production, one of the first and most important thing you can do is to pick your material.
Consider your audience:
- Mostly children. Pick something with action, characters kids can relate to, and something that adults would enjoy, also. After all, you (the adult) have to live with this throughout the rehearsal and performance time and it is likely the children would come to your performance with an adult.
Hint: Check on award-winning books, like the Caldecott. Also check with the children’s librarian at the local public library for suitable selections.
- A theme your audience group is interested in. Find poetry, short stories, cutting of a novel, letters, and other material that has much to portray your theme.
Hint: You may have an anti-war theme and you might want to do cuttings from the play Trojan Women, a cutting from War and Peace, and maybe a letter from a general’s wife.
- An author you and your group want to celebrate. Find representative works, known and unknown by your author. Maybe write your own transitions from one selection to the other.
Hint: James Thurber wrote some pretty funny stuff, but you also found a contemporary author who wrote in the same tone. Find selections from both that show their similarities and differences.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. There still is the question of how to choose the actual pieces you’ll use. If Readers Theatre, the Theatre of the Mind, is not a conventional stage play nor is it only voices as in a radio play, then what works? It doesn’t have to be a conventional play, though it could be. You can find something suitable from all kinds of literature.
How to select material
I’m looking at this phase from a director’s point of view. Even if you are an actor looking for literature to read, you very often are your own director.
What works well for Readers Theatre? You can chose from almost every branch of literature, but essays, though they may give us plenty to think about, usually don’t work. Why? Because you need something, well, dramatic.
- Something has to happen.
- Characters that are richly drawn.
- Something should change.
- A strong narrative (a good story).
- Vivid language.
- Strong themes and ideas that can be visualized.
- The descriptions of the surroundings should be easily pictured when read.
More guidelines to selecting material
- All kinds of literature is fair game; something that makes an impact.
- It has to do more than entertain, something with universal truths, something you can sink your teeth into. Something you can really act. Something worth the audience’s time. Hence I use the term ‘literature’ and not ‘writings.’
- It can be funny or dramatic. Funny isn’t always frivolous. James Thurber was funny but he dramatized the plight of being an extraordinary man in an ordinary world.
- Colorful and vivid language that conveys action and emotion.
- Select from all literature: novels and short stories and epic poems work very well, as do plays.
o Cut it to sharpen it. For example, a novel (like War and Peace) may be too long for the time you have. Cut it. But keep one of the narrative threads strong. Maybe cut out the subplots. Cut out the nonessentials, but make sure it isn’t all the descriptions. You need to set the stage, for something to happen. The audience needs to be able to picture the setting, the scene, and the characters.
Why I chose The Charge of the Light Brigade?
I’ve been using The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, throughout this series to provide examples and exercises that you could try.
How did I pick it for Readers Theatre?
- You are familiar with it.
- It introduces the possibility of reading poetry in a Readers Theatre production.
o It is a narrative poem: tells a story about a vivid incident in history, and I got a definite feeling about it. When I first read it, I found it terribly sad and terribly brave with a battle that was terribly pointless.
What feelings did you get?
o It has vivid language and situations.
- Without knowing the background of this poem, what kind of battle did it describe? What could you picture about it?
o The author, who wrote it when he was Poet Laureate of Great Britain, had a definite point of view. What did you see as the author’s attitude about it?
- It’s in the public domain, which means I don’t have to get permission or pay a fee to use it as an example in this publication.
What about copyright?
The Charge of the Light Brigade is in the public domain, which means I can use it without getting permission from the author or the author’s estate to perform it. Nor do I have to pay fees, like royalties.
What constitutes public domain? That isn’t easy to understand, but it has to do with material that was published before the copyright laws came into being in this country or whether the material has reached a point where the copyright laws no longer apply.
If you are working on something for classroom use, chances are your school is covered by a blanket waiver for all the arts in the school and for which the school pays an annual fee. Check with the department head or someone in administration to be sure you are covered.
This topic would take a whole class or two, probably by a copyright lawyer or someone who knows the fine points of the laws and doctrines. I bring it up here so that you check on the availability of something before you perform it. There’s lots more about public domain and copyright you have to know before performing something, so do your homework ahead of time.
Next: “9 Analysis without paralysis.”
1 “The next big thing.” How readers theatre is its own art form.
2 “What Readers Theatre is like.” How to think about readers theatre.
3 “Working with a script in Readers Theatre.” How to use the script effectively.
4 “Make your Readers Theatre production visually appealing.” How to use what the audience sees to make the production come alive.
5 “How the audience responds to focus.” How to use onstage and offstage focus effectively.
6 “Using movement.” How to use movement without blocking the piece.
7 “Using vocal techniques in Readers Theatre.” The voice plays a big part in bringing literature alive in a reading.