10 To sum up Readers Theatre: Theatre of the Mind

Readers Theatre creates pictures, scenes, and action in the mind of the audience. Here are some of the characteristics I already discussed in the previous articles.

There are many reasons theatre people call Readers Theatre the Theatre of the Mind.

Margaret Nielsen wrote this definition for a Secondary School Conference back in 1962 that helps describe what Theatre of the Mind is:

Readers Theatre “involves oral interpretation of a carefully cut script, usually by three to five readers, without memorization, special costume, lighting, props, or sound effects, portraying their roles by means of vocal and facial expression alone, a narrator possibly providing transitional expository lines for clarification.”

“…well-planned, well-directed performances of carefully chosen material.”

“…it calls upon the listeners to imagine for themselves the set, the characters, the situation, the conflict. It calls upon the readers to paint pictures upon the minds of their audience by vivid interpretation of lines and characters.”

Characteristics

  • Scenery and costumes are not used extensively as in a staged play, but suggestions of a part of a costume or prop can work very well.

For example, a reader can wear a large loud tie over a tee-shirt to suggest he or she (gender doesn’t matter) a dad in a children’s story. Another actor could wear a small bow tie with the same pattern to suggest the son. The ties then help the audience picture who is speaking.

  • Suggest, rather than block out, action or physical movement so that the audience can see the actual movement in their minds. Movement and especially facial expressions are absolutely needed.
  • Use lighting and sound.
  • Use a narrator, who will speak directly to the audience to establish basic situations and themes; the narrator then continues to link the segments of the reading together.
  • A physical script is carried or is evident somewhere.
  • Establish a more personal relationship with the audience by using offstage focus out over the audience rather than the traditional onstage focus.
  • Put the emphasis on the language. The words themselves carry meaning and imagery, which is what the audience needs to see the scenes playing out in their minds.

o   What we hear and how it sounds is a large part of making Readers Theatre successful for your audiences.

o   A colorful, nuanced reading brings striking images and interesting, changing characters alive in the audience’s minds.

What material works well for Readers Theatre?

Choosing material usually starts with something you like, but it also needs to include certain elements to make it truly theatre of the mind. Here are some guidelines:

  • The material ought to be theatrical (something should happen or change) but it doesn’t have to be a play. Select from all literature.
  • Choose something compelling: narrative, good discussions, and good characterizations.
  • Plays dependent upon visual appeal to be effective or ones with large casts, are not good choices.
  • The material should do more than entertain. It should contain universal truths and themes.
  • If the material is too long, cut it to sharpen and shape it.
  • Select from all literature, not only plays.

Analysis

Analyze the material for hints on how to perform it.

  • Get the author’s ideas to the audience.
  • Get the author’s tone and point of view to the audience (funny? sad? terrifying?).

Casting

Because it is the voice that carries the part – much like radio plays – each part doesn’t have to be cast with exact age or even gender. What you’re looking for are readers who can create characters and atmosphere with their voices as well as suggestions of movement and bodily attitude.

It may be effective to leave the main characters to individuals, but the minor characters can certainly be doubled, as long as they can change how they read to show distinctive parts. An actor can take more than one part, but he or she has to be able to create something different to distinguish the characters, including vocal changes, pace changes, tone of voice, finding a different (and consistent) focal point, and others you will discover for yourself.

The narrator would benefit from a strong reader. The narrator usually carries the production.

Voice

The voice is a tool that helps create what the author intended:

  • Read it for meaning, not to get to the end of a sentence. In other words, you shouldn’t sound like you are reading something.
  • Decide where and what to emphasize.
  • Form the pictures in your head as you read descriptions out loud.
  • Use voices to create sound pictures: many words sound like what they mean. For example: “Thundering” can be read to sound like an actual thunderclap.
  • Vocal distinctiveness and flexibility can create characters along with facial expressions.

Visual appeal

  • Use levels, such as different sizes of platforms or stairs. Even a ladder works well. For example, you could have two actors read the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet with Juliet at the top of a ladder and Romeo on the bottom.
  • Use different levels of stools, chairs, and platforms.
  • Use interesting groupings. For example, a grouping of three is more dynamic than straight lines or even groups of twos.

Focal point

In a staged play, the actors will mostly look at each other when speaking or reacting. This is onstage focus. In Readers Theatre, very often the actors pick a point out over the audiences’ heads when they read. This is offstage focus.

Instead of having the readers look at each other in scenes, have them pick an off-stage focal point, over the audience’s heads.

More definitions

  1. “Readers Theatre . . . embraces the group reading of material involving delineated characters, with or without the presence of a narrator, in such a manner as to establish the focus of the piece not onstage with the readers but in the imagination of the audience. The reading of expository prose by a group of readers would not, therefore, be included in our definition. . . . But the reading of Browning’s “Pied Piper of Hamelin,” with the readers taking the parts of the Mayor, the Piper, and the Little Lame Boy, would be, provided that the locus was offstage. And clearly a reading of King Lear by a group of readers would be—again provided that the locus was not onstage.”

Wallace Bacon, The Art of Interpretation, Northwestern University.

  1. “. . . is a presentational art form where two or more oral interpreters employ vocal and physical suggestions to make all kinds of literature live vividly in the audience’s imagination rather than literally on the stage.”

Fran Averett Tanner, Readers Theatre Fundamentals.

  1. “. . . the purpose of the [Readers Theatre] production is to clarify, illuminate, extend, or provide insight into the particular literary text being presented.”

Joanna Hawkins Maclay, Readers Theatre: Toward a Grammar of Practice.

Books consulted

Coger, Leslie Irene and Melvin R. White. Readers Theatre Handbook. New York: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1967. Print.

Maclay, Joanna Hawkins. Readers Theatre: Toward a Grammar of Practice.  New York: Random House, 1971. Print.

Tanner, Fran Averett.  Readers Theatre Fundamentals. Logan, Iowa: Perfection Learning Corporation, 2002. Second edition. Print.

Examples of Readers Theatre groups

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uwHp4IrbxA – The Chamber Readers — The Legend of Lightning Larry, by Aaron Shepard

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyAmQXp7vqM – high school group

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4sE0O5EL3O0 – Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mxILfeNaNE  – Young Minds Jacksonville library

Other articles in the series

Other articles in this Readers Theatre series:

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.

8       “How to choose material for Readers Theatre.” You can do any dynamic piece or collections from almost all literature.

9        “Analysis without paralysis for Readers Theatre.” To get the most dynamic readings, spend time analyzing for the author’s intentions and what he or she used to bring this out.

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