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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9 Analysis without paralysis for Readers Theatre

You’ve chosen your material for your Readers Theatre production.  (See “8  How to choose material for Readers Theatre.”) The next step is to go over it thoroughly, keeping in mind those things that made you choose it in the first place. You want to find things that support your first impressions and decide how you will use them to bring the piece alive for your audience. It is these elements you identify that becomes the analysis. From it, you get a better idea of the meaning, emotion, and vivid characterizations that will help you later in deciding how to create the author’s intentions in the minds of your audience.

Analysis takes place before you can begin the first rehearsal. You do the analysis after your first reading and before you even choose a cast. This is where the piece begins to take shape and from this preliminary analysis (no, analysis never ends!) you will know how to cast it, how to rehearse it, all the while firming up what your vision of it is. What will it look like? Sound like? Feel like?

What you discover in the analysis phase of the Readers Theatre production helps you know what to include and what to edit, what kind of movement, props, and costumes will make it visually appealing, and to decide on what vocal techniques will be effective. This analysis will guide you in bringing out the meaning, intention, and tone of the author’s work.

Some guidelines for analysis

How will you know what to do with your selection? You could just read it out loud. Or, you can interpret it for your audience, which is what a good director does.

Everyone will have their own method of analyzing, so I present these guidelines as something you may want to include. If it isn’t complete enough for you, find more about analysis on the internet. (See “Resources,” below.)

The first reading is key. Always be mindful of how you reacted to this  first reading.  (BTW: There is no “correct” way to feel about it as long as you deal with what is there and what clues the author provides.)

Briefly, here are some points to consider:

o   First impressions

o   Context

o   Plot

o   How do the characters develop? Do they change? How do they change?

o   What is the language like? Is the language vivid? Does it paint pictures for the audience? Can they see the scenes taking place?

o   Is it too long? Can you cut it without destroying the original meaning?

o   Too short? Are there other short pieces you can include with it? (You must have a reason for adding something else. It must help unify the whole program.)

 

First impressions

We’ve been using The Charge of the Light Brigade as an exercise. (You can read the poem online. It’s fairly short.)  Here are some of the questions I asked my students when I began this project for a workshop I held in a local theater.

HINT: There are no right or wrong answers.

  • As you read the poem, gather your first impressions.
  • How did it make you feel? Were there secondary emotions Mark the script to show where this occurred.
  • What is the author saying? What did he intend?
  • What is the tone? Satiric? Moody? Tragic? Brave? Ironic?
  • What is the author’s point of view? War is a noble enterprise? War is hell? War is a necessary evil? War brings out the brave? War only works when people are willing to follow orders?

Put it in a context

What does it mean – what is the context? The poem didn’t just happen. Something inspired the author to write it. In this case, the context was a Poet Laurette of Britten commemorating the bravery of English soldiers in a losing battle.

In our poem, the context is made up of:

  • Crimean War – 1853-1856 – Battle of Balaclava.
  • One of the last times light cavalry was used in a major war.
  • War fought over the rights of Christians and minorities in the Holy Land.
  • It also was the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, though that is not part of the poem, but it helps to know why this war was fought.
  • It was a major tactical blunder:

o   Miscommunication.

o   They were in a valley and their leader, Lord Raglan, didn’t have the right information. Charge ahead and wipe out the Russians – but they were surrounded and were sitting ducks.

o   Yet the men did what every good and brave soldier does: follows orders. Too bad the orders were wrong.

  • Russians won the battle. The 600 plus in the British light brigade were almost completely wiped out.

Plot

What happens in this poem?

o   We want to convey that:

  • they were brave,
  • they followed orders,
  • they took losses,
  • but that they acted like heroes

What is the poem about?

This poem was written by the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom about the 600 plus light cavalry soldiers who fought the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War (1854) against Russian soldiers. Because of miscommunication to their leader, Lord Cardigan, the Russians had the brigade surrounded. Almost all of the soldiers were killed in the Russian victory. The poem commemorated the bravery of these soldiers who followed orders in spite of the outcome.

Language

Studying the language the author uses, the words he or she chose, the rhythms, the imagery, the mood the words convey, is a topic of discussion that is way too long for a short article. Find works written about oral interpretation of literature for more on this subject.

Cadence

Cadence was interesting to me – cadence in this poem sounds like a horse’s canter

Horse rhythm – conveys movement, relentless movement. Reading at least some of it emphasizing this cadence will help listeners hear the cavalry.

Language and color

Color doesn’t always mean a hue or a shade or a tint, though it can. It can also mean a vivid, colorful background.

  • Cannon booming – Here, it “creates a sense of unrelenting assault, as if every cannon is a soldier meeting a bullet”
  • Cannon echoing off the walls of the valley
  • Repetition – what words and phrases are repeated? Why do you think the author repeated them? To what effect? What would you do to bring out these effects? To bring them alive?

 

There’s more

Everyone will analyze literature a little differently and the lengths you go to will depend on what you are looking for, how you were taught to analyze, and your temperament. Some people like to “wing it,” others may like to analyze everything over and over. The point is, this article touched only on an abbreviated way to do it, the idea being that some kind of intelligent going over of literature is necessary before you can stage it. Find what works best for you.

Resources

Some sources to check out to get you started and to find your own method of analyzing:

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

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

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

How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Thomas C. Foster. New York, HarperCollins. 2003 and 2014.

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8 How to choose material for Readers Theatre

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.

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7 Using vocal techniques in Readers Theatre

A most effective tool used to create Readers Theatre is the voice. Actors know that it is the voice and body that bring characters alive on stage and they learn to use these tools to their best advantage.

We’ve already addressed how the body can be used effectively, even without blocking. (See “Make your Readers Theatre production visually appealing,” and “How the audience responds to focus.”) So let’s explore how the voice can be a great aid to Readers Theatre, while keeping in mind one of the key guidelines of conventional theatre: Show, don’t tell.

How to show, not tell, using the voice

You could be sitting on a stool, script in one hand, a make-believe phone in the other. You lean over and glare out over the audience. Even without saying a line, “I’m going to hang up, now!” we know by the aggressive way you are barely sitting on that stool, that you are angry. It follows that when you do say that line, you might pitch your voice low and guttural, spitting out the words.

So really, it’s hard to separate voice and body. Even watching voice actors in a recording studio, dubbing an animation film, they are not sitting still in front of their mics. Their bodies are acting out what they are saying.

Theatre of the Mind

In Readers Theatre, you are creating something that the audience can easily picture in their minds. Sort of the way, when you read a book, the characters and places begin to have a definite look to them, which changes as the story changes. How you use your voice helps the audience with these pictures.

For example, there was an insurance commercial recently, where there are two opposite scenarios, two sets of actors, but both are saying the very same lines. But how they say those same lines creates two very different stories.

One, a young woman has apparently been given her first car. She is thrilled. “No way!” she says.

In the other, a man comes back to his car to see that it has been trashed. He also says “No, way!” but with a very different meaning. The two sets of circumstances, though they are saying the same lines, demand that how the actors say those lines must be different and must convey opposite emotions.  And these emotions have to be condensed down to only a few words.

The actors show their state of mind by bodily attitude and movement, but mostly, it is their voices that convey meaning and tone. Even without watching them, you can hear that the girl’s voice is light and high-pitched, quick delivery. She is delighted with the car. The man’s voice is low and clipped. He is angry and disgusted with what happened to his car.

Find your character’s voice

Your voice can create different characters, which means, by changing something in your voice – pitch, volume, pace, etc, you can read more than one character in a reading. Because you aren’t asking the audience to believe this is happening in front of them, as a stage play often does, it works very well in helping the audience see these characters in their minds.

We’re going back to the poem we’ve been working on in these Readers Theatre articles, The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Stanza 3:

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of hell

Rode the six hundred.

Changing your voice

Try this. Read the stanza aloud and this time work on changing how your voice sounds. Decide what kind of soldier you will be. Maybe you’ll be a specific soldier, one who has a wife and child back home waiting for him. Or maybe you are a soldier who has made the army his career. Or maybe one who enlisted on a whim and now is terrified he’ll get killed.

Now, find a voice for this character. Change the pitch higher or lower, depending on your character. Then, keeping your character in mind, make the voice loud, then soft. Faster, then slower. Listen only to yourself. Determine which works best for your character. Go over the whole stanza out loud using your voice to express how your character is taking the battle.

If you’ve got others working with you, have them do this exercise, also. Practice out loud, creating your character with your voice. Each of you take turns reading stanza 3 as the character you practiced. Let the listeners tell you what they heard.

Remember, this is an exercise you don’t do right or wrong. You just follow through with how you conceive it. Let the others tell you honestly what they heard, nothing, I hope, like, “Oh! You were sooo good!” or “That was terrible!”

Comments should reflect what you did with your voice and how effective it was. “I could hear from the slowness of the pace of the lines that your character is tired.” Or “Your character sounded so brave!”

Words make sounds

A big part of vocal technique in reading literature is to let the voice pick up the sound the words make when you say them aloud. Whispering. Howling. Booming. Try it yourself. Say these words, out loud, and make them sound like what they mean.

Whispering.

Howling.

Booming.

Read stanza 3 again. This time, say the words in a way to make them sound like what they mean.  For example, if a cannon is volleying and thundering, make it sound like that: maybe use a booming voice, low and slow, and maybe change pitch and volume from high to low as the thundering fades away.

Overall

When you first decide on what you will read, you analyze it to find the tone and mean the author intended. It is then your job to find ways to convey that. Often, most of what you’ll do will be with your voice.

Actors often go to great lengths to develop their voices so they can be flexible and expressive in ways that require almost athletic abilities. Think of a belle canto soprano singing up and down scales in an almost dizzying perfection. (Don’t try this at home.) My advice is to get voice training in some form.

Note: This article introduces the subject of oral interpretation of literature, something that I will pursue at a later date. Check back here.

Catch up on 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.

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6 Using Movement

We’re back to our workshop on Readers Theatre. We’re in The Charge of the Light Brigade, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, looking for a way to use movement without blocking it as if it were a staged play.

So we go to stanza 4:

Flashed all their sabres bare,

Flashed as they turned in air

Sabring the gunners there,

Charging an army, while

   All the world wondered.

Plunged in the battery-smoke

Right through the line they broke;

Cossack and Russian

Reeled from the sabre stroke

   Shattered and sundered.

Then they rode back, but not

   Not the six hundred.

All those sabres cutting down the enemy. What about those sabres? What about costumes? What about props? How about giving everyone a uniform and a sabre and let them chop their way out of the stanza?

What about sabres? Should we have them? Even though it is theatre of the mind, and not conventional staging, you can use a suggestion of costumes, props—as the manuscripts are used In White America. Why you use props, sets, and costumes is so that you can create movement that is integral to the production.

Here are a few thoughts about using movement in our reading of The Charge of the Light Brigade:

  • If you are given something to use—a chair, a prop, a bit of a costume, a script, you MUST use it. In our example, how about rolling up your script and with an appropriate line from the poem, use the script as a sabre? But don’t forget to follow through. When does it turn back to a script? How? Why? Practice the movement until it feels right.
  • What about facial expressions? Another form of movement. Each soldier will have a slightly different reaction—pick yours and convey it. How surprised, dismayed, terrified are you? Brave? Resigned? Show us how your soldier feels with your body and face.
  • Try using the script to ward off the bullets, use them as sabers to charge the enemy. How does that seem?
  • What about actual movement? What about some getting off the chair or stool as they get shot, and some stay sitting. In Stanza 5, bullets are flying and hitting each soldier, knocking them out of the fight, KNOCKING THEM OFF THEIR HORSES. How to do that?

Underlying all of it is this: onstage, movement is essential. To be in a place where all attention is on a few figures grouped on an elevated and lighted platform, the people watching need something to look at. Something that draws attention to what is happening and why.

Use the guidelines you already know about stage movement to help you make these critical decisions. Too many props and the piece becomes a play. Too little, and the actor has nothing to do.

Movement draws attention. Just make sure you use it effectively.

Next time: 7 “Vocal techniques. Oral interpretation of literature.”

Catch up on 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.

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Bully-Girl strikes again

I laughed out loud at Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live. I have to confess that even a mere fleeting thought about Melissa McCarthy gets me smiling. I laugh at her even in the most feeble of movies or television shows. I howl at the mere idea of Melissa McCarthy.

So that full disclosure out of the way, I was rolling in the aisles at her take-down of Sean Spicer, newly appointed White House Press Secretary. What she did was more than a satirical response to the madness let loose on our nation. It was also an embodiment of comic skills at their very best.

She also builds a character that is based on a bully-girl thing. It comes about, not from anger or hating, but from putting on a strong front for her vulnerability. Attack them before they attack you. That vulnerability always shows up and is what makes me want to laugh and be part of the mischief she is making.

Melissa McCarthy used her “bully girl” persona to push through a coded reality that many people pick up on, the sort of stuff that you read between the lines. The reality in this case is that some see Sean Spicer as a bully in his own right. He uses that “push” to get in front of the press and push them before they have a chance to do some pushing of their own, as if asking pointed questions is a form of bullying. As if they are all, to a man and woman, out to “get” the president. As if the press are spoiled children who need a time-out from abusive parents who act from whim rather than bothering with facts. They need reminding of the consequences that come from freedom of the press.

McCarthy captured the disdain Spicer and his boss have for the press by doing some pushing of her own. She is aggressively funny. Spicer is aggressively non-funny: a perfect target for McCarthy’s keen sense of bully-comedy.

Forget the politics. It is timing that is at play. Not political timing, but comic timing. Timing makes everything she says and does just plain funny. And McCarthy’s timing is exquisite. It is almost a living force. You feel the joke coming. You wait a beat and WHAM! She delivers. Sometimes the setup is so good, you don’t even care whether the joke is funny. You laugh because McCarthy won’t let you do anything else.

Take the way she handles props. She uses props like they are her playthings. But she uses them, doesn’t just give them a cursory touch. There is always a follow-through when she’s finished with them. She throws them around like they may actually be in her way, but it is a joyous thing to see her toss a paper representing the Constitution over her shoulder without a second glance (don’t get mad – this is part of the satire) and move right on to the next toss. Her timing and follow-through tips you off that this is funny.

Need a visual joke? She pulls a rope with a large knot in it across her body as she is saying something, the point of which, is the word “not.” There’s barely time to laugh because McCarthy is already out in front of the next joke.

Also amazing is what she does physically and emotionally to the words themselves. She tosses out words like she invented them and wants everyone to see how clever she is to use them.

But the best thing about McCarthy’s art comes when she is done with the bullying of comic ideas. After all the funny nonsense and push-back she indulges in, out comes this smile. A beatific smile. As if to let us know that all is right with the world after all.

Rock on, Bully-girl!

Next: Part Six of the Readers Theatre series: “6  Using Movement.”

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When acting isn’t

I saw the Golden Globes the other night, one of the many award shows this season that will have me glued to the tube. I was sitting there, spellbound, even though I never believe art ought to be a contest. Who is the best is not only impossible to decide, it is pointless. How can you say Casey Affleck had a better performance than Denzel Washington? You can’t. It is only a different performance, each affective in different ways.  The point is, I was affected by both performances, which is what they were supposed to do. Affect me.

So how does a group of people decide on the “best?” Much depends on who is doing the watching and the voting. It could have all come down to: which character and story you liked better, whose career needs a boost, what the temper of the times is, how to divide the awards among the artists so they will want to do more, and so on. In other words, there is no “best” performance. There are only performances that are noteworthy and effective.

So if you were going to assess an acting performance, what do you base it on? There lots of answers, and many of them have to do with emotional range and how technique is used to bring the character to emotional life. In other words, what did they do to bring life to the performance?

This year’s Golden Globes had many great acting performances. I could go on about all the things, the techniques, the raw emotions displayed by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, playing off each other, etc. Marvelous performances, enriched by how movement, bodily attitudes, gestures, facial expressions, etc. were used. The performances amounted to a master class in ensemble acting. Anyone could benefit seeing what these two were able to do.

Yet two other performances also stood out for me, not by what the actors did, but by what they didn’t do.

Casey Affleck, I suppose an actor whose time has come, won for the movie, Manchester by the Sea. Claire Foy won for her performance in the Netflix series, The Crown, playing a young Queen Elizabeth II.

They are marvelous, Affleck and Foy, in completely different vehicles, but their performances are hard to talk about. In both cases, we need to see and understand just how profoundly both characters, in different ways, are affected by what happens to them. In both cases, that something goes way beyond drawing on what acting classes taught. Both actors show profound emotion and thought processes without a lot of externals. Changes are happening internally and that makes it almost scary to watch. We see what these characters are made of and who they really are, not by what they do, but by what they don’t do.

Both actors internalized their characters and because there is a camera involved, an instrument that can pick up the tiniest movements. Even an eye flicker becomes a subtle way to let us know the character has just been dinged by circumstances. So Affleck can let us know by just looking away for a moment, that his character, a man already destroyed beyond any redemption, can still feel and that he can feel, puzzles him.

And Foy, by taking a deeper breath but keeping her body and eyes steady, shows us a monumental moment in which Elizabeth is no longer a proper wife and mother, but in that moment, had become queen of England.

Queen. She keeps steady, a little straightening of her shoulders, her eyes flick away for an instant in a glimmer of fear, and then eyes back and steady. This woman had changed in seconds and in ways us regular folk can only guess at. Yet we didn’t have to imagine, because Foy held us spellbound as we vividly knew, through that breath, that flicker of the eyes, just how much this young woman had changed. Just moments ago, she had to take in the loss of her dear father. He was king. And now, she must be queen. No breaking down, not for Foy’s Elizabeth. No flying out of control, no screaming about how it is not fair to ask her to give up her life. With a slightly elevated breath, her eyes open a little wider, she lets us know that henceforth, she will do her duty bravely and elegantly, and do it because this is what she was meant to do. It is no longer about Elizabeth the young woman and mother. It is about Elizabeth II, the Queen of England, and her duty to her people. There is no winning here. No grabbing at the gold ring. No Tweeting. There is only duty and breeding, qualities that manifest themselves quietly.

What Claire Foy didn’t do, in her pivotal moment, is to shudder, grab hold of her husband’s hand to steady herself, sit because she was so overwhelmed she had to keep from falling over. She didn’t reach for a handkerchief and dab her eyes to show her grief at the loss of her father or twist it to show her apprehension at suddenly being the queen of England.

What she did do, by not doing anything big, was to let us in on Elizabeth’s secret strength and her dedication to duty. We understood the woman and the queen in that, and so many other, moments of non-acting, and Claire Foy will forever be associated with this remarkable woman, Elizabeth II, Queen of England.

Yep, sometimes less is more.

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Manchester by the Sea

My friend is going to see Manchester by the Sea with her husband tomorrow and wants to know what I thought of it.

To echo Casey Affleck on Saturday Night Live recently, it is very sad. Very, very sad.

And I would add that there is no coming back from it.

What is this? A movie coming out at the holidays is supposed to entertain: and that usually means cute cartoon characters saying outrageous things to make us laugh, buildings, cities, countries, heck, whole worlds being blown up only to be saved by the superhuman hero or heroine.

So what is this movie? On the surface, it is as cold as Manchester looks in the winter shots. On the surface, it’s got nothing to feel good about, except that we get to see relationships working out the way they do in real life, without the neat tie-up of a happy ending, where the main character finds the path to true happiness. This guy Lee, played impeccably by Casey Affleck, can no longer even suspect that there is anything like happiness to be had and maybe that is how it needs to be for him.

I wondered what I would say to my friend. I know she could appreciate the artistry in this movie, but I don’t think she would appreciate that feeling good about what it is to be human, sometimes means confronting the truth about our lives, and that doesn’t feel good at all, except at an elemental level.

I also wondered when I would stop thinking about this movie. About how slow it went, about how devastating Affleck’s performance was, only to be stopped cold by a scene with Michelle Williams, who topped Lee’s devastation with her character’s own. The movie is worth seeing for that scene alone.

But would my friend and her husband like the slowness and the time it takes unfolding, detail by detail, details brought to enrich the movie by the director, Kenneth Lonergan? It looks and feels beautiful and mesmerizing and devastating. I thought about it a lot, far into the night so that I’m not sure what was dreaming and what was thinking.

Is it the best movie I’ve ever seen? Did I even like it? That seems beside the point. It is its own world, its own art. It just is and it is an experience all to itself. When I woke up for real and had a cup of coffee, still thinking about it, I realized what was happening. It was something I read about, the collective unconscious from Jung. We unconsciously share in the human experience and we inherit those experiences unconsciously. It’s why we seem to be born, not cavemen any longer, but with more refined sensibilities brought about by generations of shared experiences. There is something elemental about what we see and feel in this movie, something that goes deeper the lighthearted feel-good stuff as in It’s a Wonderful Life. There is plenty that we can feel – if not good feelings that everything will be okay, then at least the reassurance that there is a resilience to the human experience that is passed down. We get Lee because he is a refinement of past human wreckage and desolation that we all have inherited.

I’m going to tell my friend, “If you need to see the usual lighthearted, feel-good holiday movie, don’t see Manchester by the Sea. It will haunt you.”

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Oral interp and Christmas

I have several aging relatives who I want to do something more than just send them holiday cards. I know that with aging eyes, it isn’t always easy to read and sometimes they would like to something holiday-like than watch another rerun of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” So I have taken to reading Christmas and Hanukah stories they can listen to.

Here is a sample of a light-hearted story taken from William Dean Howells and written around 1900. It’s called “Christmas Every Day.” I hope you enjoy my Christmas present to them. And to you.

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Is higher education right for you? How to find the best fit

o mind here, as well as Viola Davis and many others. But don’t start writing your acceptance speech just yet. First, get the skills and practice you need, and that may mean higher education.

What is right for you here and now, based on what you’ve achieved so far, what skills you’ve mastered, and your temperament (are you outgoing or a bit of an introvert like me?) may work fine in high school, but college will most likely be a different experience. And you may need even more skills to hold your own.

How does that translate into where to get a higher education? Here are some things to keep in mind as you look for the where you belong:

  • Large or small?
  • Are you sure about what your specialty may be? If not, maybe a large performing arts department will give you the chance to dabble a bit before landing on what is right for you.
  • If you are sure about your talents and interests, do you know which of the colleges you are considering will give you the background to become your kind of professional? If you don’t know, now is the time to:
    • Research what professionals in your field actually do, and what courses they suggest you take.
    • List courses that you have to take. Then list courses you’d like to take.
    • Compare your course list to those offered at the universities, colleges, and conservatories you are considering.

Not sure whether a university, college, or conservatory is right for you? Read on.

University

You like crowds? You like being surrounded by loads of people who are either as competitive as hell or think higher education is a marking time device? Or large departments with lots of research, taught by people who have worked in the performing arts? A large and maybe prestigious theatre, film, dance, and music departments with plenty of people to compete with for the lead role? I’m sure Jessica Chastain could hold her own in that environment, but what about what you need? Is it too big, too impersonal? Too competitive?

College

College. Something smaller, with more personal attention, where it isn’t about competition but rather about picking up the skills and techniques you need. Now we are going from the large university, to something smaller and maybe more manageable: colleges within the university or stand-alone colleges.

Colleges—maybe something called the College of the Performing Arts—might be part of a large university, where you can get the university life along with personal attention. Or, as was my college, a liberal arts stand-alone college with a major in theatre.

With either a university or a college, you can earn a four-year degree, such as Bachelor of Fine Arts.

Don’t forget the two-year college, but if you want to go on to a four-year degree, be sure you know what courses will transfer and what courses are required for the degree from the four-year college you’re thinking about.

Conservatory

A conservatory is a place where excellence in the arts is at its core and it’s smaller than a university. You’ll take some general education courses, but nowhere near the requirements of the university and college degrees. A conservatory concentrates on the arts and the skills you need to achieve a career in the performing arts. Jessica Chastain and Viola Davis both went to Julliard, a conservatory. You get a degree, but your education is pretty much condensed to what you need to be a good artist. You spend more time on your art and less on academics. My niece, Sara, went to a conservatory (SCAD), and she is a bright, outgoing, talented, educated person, and has gotten the skills she needs to not only act, but to get into the profession of acting.

Liberal arts

Here comes my bias. A liberal arts college with emphasis on your art, is something any artist ought to consider.

At the heart of art, of making something that asks people to think about their lives, to feel empathy for other people’s trials, and to feel emotions in perhaps a stronger way than most people do in the course of their daily existence, an artist has to understand about the civilizations humans have created and evolved over time and why. Why do they change?

How do you make art that moves people? How do you capture someone’s soul, then recreate it for others in the way that moves them? By knowing what it is to be human. That takes education, observation, empathy, and thinking. Now we are talking about the kind of courses that takes in history, literature, music, science, psychology, philosophy, and the host of achievements and failures of human existence. A liberal arts–generalized studies–helps enormously in understanding what you are creating, why, what form it might take, how it fits in today’s civilization, and where it might be tomorrow.

If you found that last sentence out of your realm of expectations, maybe you are aiming too low. As Les Brown (motivational speaker) said, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

Get the wisdom from choices already made

Ask your coach/teachers, guidance counselors, and people who have gone ahead of you what you need for the next level. Ask them to help you see things realistically.

I follow Sara and some of her friends on Facebook, and am able to see where the twists and turns their choices take them, and it is enlightening. The point is, ask for help in deciding what comes next. Ask others about their experiences and see how that might affect your decisions.

Your decision: are you up for it?

My liberal arts bias aside, what your authentic person wants to do is personal. It is up to you. At the heart of this kind of decision making shouldn’t be: What would Jessica or Viola do? But what do you need, right now, to get to the next level? What do you want to do? What is your next level?

Keep at it. You don’t make this kind of decision overnight. Know yourself, what makes you get up in the morning, what feels right, what you need to get where you’re going, and what kind of environment you need to get there. This is not about what your friends need or even your parents or teachers. This is not a right or wrong decision. It is a decision that needs self-knowledge, self-awareness, and mindfulness to make.

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