Everyday aesthics: part 1

I have an advanced degree in theatre history and criticism, and getting that involved discovering how to think about art. How others, like Aristotle, thought about art. The purpose of all those discussions of what makes something beautiful and artistic, was to help us students to know how we could develop a set or system by which we could see and discuss what sorts of things are beautiful in art, why we think that, and maybe create our own art from that. Aesthetics, in other words.

You are yawning already. Nobody cares about beauty in art, you say. For so many of us, artists and audiences, it is beauty if it sells and caters to the masses. Anyone who dares to go around this, is declared irrelevant. If you develop your own aesthetics or agree with Aristotle’s you have a system by which you can see and feel what art does for us humans. Being irrelevant is no longer a thing.

We are storytellers, all of us. We make up things all the time and then demand the rest of us not only see and feel what we see in feel. We demand that our view is the only reality. Storytellers, all of us.

I have brought up the notion of developing aesthetics in these articles a long while ago, but I called it developing taste (See:  How to develop artistic taste and Why I won’t watch Fashion Police anymore). I was afraid that a discussion of aesthetics would turn people away, but I have since refined that idea. I think you are perfectly capable of joining in this kind of discussion and refined thinking, and may want to, even though you are not part of a college course that you can’t wait will end. I think you already know that aesthetics have much to do with even our everyday lives.

Here’s my drastic example. Recently, someone I love and care about very much sent me some scenes from a play she is writing. Yes, I knew it didn’t have structure yet, but what turned me off and tuned me out was that the language and images, strong, even smoothly developed, were shocking to me. I know this person well enough to know there would be good reasons for this shock and awe, that there were issues developing that would be worthwhile to think about. It would say something beyond the words and images that would give me and others plenty to think about.

But I couldn’t get past those words and images and didn’t want them rattling around in my head.

I also felt assaulted by the blatant sexuality and vicious violence, like the blood of an animal the characters were cleaning on stage, spraying all over everything. I read on, but I did not like having those images in my head. I am old enough to have seen many things like that on the stage, in television series (Dexter and Vikings), movies, and in books, and I still don’t like how they make me feel. No, I don’t have to be able to live vicariously through that kind of violence to know that it actually comes from real, human life. Humanity is capable of indescribably horrors. War, for instance.

But I won’t have it in my life, in my head. I strive for peace and an elevated way of living, which knows those things and worse happen, but think the way to end war and aggression and hate is not to do it myself and not to deliberately bring it into my life. Having those things in my head is a way of normalizing war and aggression and hate. So I said, no, I would not get involved in shaping that play. I can’t have it in my everyday life. It goes against the grain of the aesthetics I have been developing and, as Heather Land would say, “I ain’t doin’ it!”

The point, so far, is not to define aesthetics or even bring to bear what my aesthetics concerning art is, but to bring up to you just how aesthetics affect our daily life. We so often let things wash over us, knowing it is not only the positive feelings and experiences that define us, but the unpleasant, negative things as well.

But we have a choice. We can tell our own stories and if some things make you way over-the-top uncomfortable, don’t do it. Tell a different and equally true story. You don’t have to stick with the purely negative. I won’t. It goes against my still developing aesthetics.

I want to explore aesthetics in these blogs, as it bears on our development as artists. I use development, because no matter how far we go with our art, there is always more to experience. And I promise, these discussions will have more to do with why I recently gave up watching Vikings, a truly great series, because I don’t want to normalize all those brutal and gory scenarios in my everyday life. You’ll note that I am not calling anything “immoral,” or calling for the end to them. I’m not calling them good or bad, right or wrong. They have every right to see the light of day and for people to like them. It’s more about aligning things to how I see life and my view of mankind, and about how it makes me feel about art, down where I really live.

Try this. The next time something gives you an emotional punch, let yourself experience it. Identify what you are feeling, and where in your body you feel it. Then let it go.

I used to think that how I viewed art was my own business. When back in the 60s or 70s, some guy was making religious icons out of feces, I said that’s not anything I ever want to see. I get that he was making us view religion a little differently, but those images were his business. As for my business, “I ain’t doin’ it.”

But this time, I have someone I care about making her art with her own aesthetics and I might have driven a wedge between me and someone who has trusted me and cared for me. I can’t help her develop this kind of art and that feels pretty lousy, but not as awful if I had to carry those images and language around in my head every day, normalizing them, pretending that all is okay with me.

I still think aesthetics is personal and maybe a driving force in the everyday life of an artist. But it also defines how we live our daily lives.

It’s all art.

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Life, art, and hurricanes

For the second year in a row, almost to the very date, I was headed to Georgia to escape the tidal waves likely to flood our house, a gorgeous old Florida home only a block and a half from the Atlantic Ocean. Living so near the beach has had its romantic appeal and something I dreamed about as a teenager, but the romance gets old when forced to flee the havoc of large, destructive storms. Hurricanes.

So for the second year in a row, I evacuated with my two animals (one cat, one bunny) and my two friends from upstairs and their herd of cats, our three cars, their camper, and their boat. And for the second year in a row, my downstairs apartment was flooded and pretty much destroyed. We rebuilt last year. We rebuilt this year. More rain and more flooding. Not gonna rebuild again.

My friends put their house up for sale. I have to move.

All of this upheaval shoved two questions into my head, neither one having to do with which campgrounds in Georgia would be far enough away from wind and water. No. Nothing that practical. Instead, I thought: 1) How does one live a life in art, when life is happening and distracting you from creating anything? 2) What is the nature of a life in art?

Of course, as any teacher would tell you, the second question must be answered first, before you can define the details of that answer. If that first question can even be defined.

I came to find out that when life is happening, it’s damned hard to be philosophical, so I’ll save all that for 2018 blogs.

I’m all packed up again, ready for an impending move away from the coast in North Carolina.

Oh, and I acquired another cat. He was a happy wanderer in our sparsely populated neighborhood, who would drop by upstairs, timing his visits with when my friends fed their herd of five cats. (No, they’re not hoarders but the victims of kindheartedness toward animals. When a former happy wanderer showed up one day, who stayed just long enough to drop her litter of five on their doorstep, they couldn’t refuse the gift.)

So Spike, the latest feline nomad, got rounded up and came with us on the mandatory evacuation from this barrier island. He came with us last year, too, during Hurricane Matthew. But both times, it was clear he wasn’t fitting in with the Herd the way my cat did, so he spent the time in the back of a truck and we spent a lot of time there to keep him company and to assure him his outdoor ways would have to stay on hold until we got back.

When we got back home this time, the neighborhood was awash with spilled over ocean water (yes, my apartment was flooded again) and it wasn’t safe to let Spike wander around. Since the Herd kept him hiding under things and in general made him feel unwelcome, he came to live with me and my cat Sandy Kingston. Yes, after furious mutual grooming, which breaks into fights, with Sandy going for Spike’s throat to show him who’s boss, I now have two cats, who, more or less, get along just fine. It helps that Sandy is a big, elegant Russian Blue, and is a natural dominator (he’s on the left, Spike has white markings), so both cats know who’s who and what their roles are, though Spike forgets a lot.

So things have settled down into moving mode and I am almost all packed and ready to go. I have been thinking how all this fits into a life in art. All I know at this point is that it does. More soon.

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Part 2: Leadership, softball, and the theatre

Another thing I get from watching softball, (see “What can the arts learn from softball?”) is how all these egos can work toward one main goal: to play well and win the game. Yes, there are egos involved that may take a person to private goals such as striving for personal best statistics, but I think it is important to have a well-developed but realistic ego so you know what you are good at and where you need work. Yes, these sportswomen know they are excellent at this sport and part of their mission in life is to impart this fact to the rest of us in the world. Ego is a good thing, as long as you don’t get caught up in your own or anyone else’s drama that ego often generates. The ego is not you. It is only an indication of how you think of yourself.

What emerges from those whose ego takes them to something larger than how they played the last game, is to have some notion of keeping the game going. Not the individual game, but the whole notion of the game. In softball, it is important to win and to be the national champions and all that hoopla, but what is larger is that those watching are entertained enough to want to watch another game and then to watch next season and then to look forward to softball at the 2020 Olympics. Somebody, back in the day, thought more about football than college rivalries and so little by little, the NFL now hosts a huge audience and seeks to keep it as the all-American sport. Which, by the way, used to be baseball.

So our idea is to keep the theatre going. It has come this far, from back when cavemen might have enacted the day’s hunt, but there have always been times when some loudmouth declares “Theatre is dead!” It isn’t. It is still here because besides winning Tonys, the theatre people often see what they do as part of the larger picture: to keep the game of theatre going on. Tony awards, then, do more than give a person a statuette, it also celebrates the excellence in this conglomeration of arts and keeps moving it the bar upward and theatre, despite the terrifying ticket prices, is alive and well and thriving.

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What can the arts learn from softball?

I’m watching softball—the Women’s College World Series—and have watched almost every game that led up to the Championship. Even the one that went 17 innings. I’m a fan.

I like softball for many reasons, mostly because I get it, more than I get baseball. I can see what the pitcher is doing. People get more hits. When the ball leaves the infield, I can follow it right out of the park, because everything is closer in softball and the softball is big.

Best, though, are the backstories about coaching and players, why they play, what they hope to gain, and underneath it all, what leadership means in a way that really counts.

How do you keep a squad of people, each with their own reasons for playing, focused on a larger goal? Each has personal goals—an extension of their career in the pros, coaching a team of their own, going into sports management, or into a career in politics or medicine or whatever they can bring all they learned about working together to bear on changing the country and maybe the world.

There is talk by the announcers of “leadership” in the team. A pitcher usually has it. You’ll often hear a winning pitcher credit her teammates, that she was successful only because they “have her back.” They talk of loving the game.

A regular player often emerges as a leader, just by igniting the team’s enthusiasm for playing the game. Kaitlin Lee, Ole Miss’s ace pitcher, does this. Just watch her in the circle, smiling, even dancing, acknowledging everyone on the field, making everyone feel like they are really contributing, and they are, maybe even surprising themselves as to how far they came in the run up to the World Series.

The coaches, of course, are cited as leaders. Larger goals, those beyond winning the next game, may come from the head coach. Besides instilling good sportsmanship and developing innate skills, the coach needs to do it to enhance the reputation of the college for its commitment to sports as a way to develop students, and to keep money flowing in to support those efforts.

Some coaches, the really great ones, do it for something even higher: to keep the game going. If you win this season, loads of people will be watching next season to see how your team does, and then may look to the Pros to watch softball at an even higher level. The game gets its own webcasting channel you can watch almost every game on. Softball gets stronger and more popular. Even better players are then developed by even better coaches and the audience for the game grows. It is even going to be part of the Olympics in 2020.

So the performing arts? Keeping it going? Of course, every hit show on Broadway makes that the theatre capital in the USA. Every time there is a good production of a significant play or musical, it makes the theatre popular and thus, stronger. It doesn’t happen just in New York. Just as community theatre is a local place to see those same shows put on by your neighborhood talent, regional theatre boosts the non-Broadway appetite for theatrical excellence.

Everyone, pro or not, who pays attention to details that make the production memorable, keeps the game going. The theatre will be stronger in the community, in the region, on Broadway, in London or Delhi or Beijing, because of the care of the theatre coach who keeps everyone inspired and working to their potential by seeing how each individual contribution makes the whole better. The leader lets each person bring out their unique and individual talent for the good of the whole production.

And the leader can come from anywhere. It isn’t always the person being paid to lead. You could be a leader by doing your job well and communicating your intentions to make this the best show you have ever done. It happens when you set an example by listening and seeing and understanding what those around you are doing, cheering them on by picking up where they leave off. You know it isn’t all about you, but what talent you bring to the production makes the whole better, especially if everyone else “has your back,” which they will when they see you have theirs.

The game of theatre goes on, way past an individual ambition to be a Broadway star. It becomes timeless because of the efforts of those who see beyond.

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What are you doing this summer?

Something to do with theatre, I hope. What? You haven’t a clue about how to include the performing arts with all that hanging out and chilling you plan to do?

Check out these four short but pithy (and inexpensive) handbooks for performing arts students (and their teachers) that have suggestions and ways of looking at ordinary summer things with your real goals in mind. These are things you might be doing anyway, so why not turn them into a learning experience that won’t feel like you are still in school. Like how hanging out with your friends can be an acting exercise. Like how arranging your sock drawer can be an exercise to develop your talent.

Here’s what you should do

Get a jump on summer right now. Even if it isn’t summer, there is plenty of information and inspiration to get going with your performing arts career right now. Go to Kindle and buy all four handbooks. Buy the handbooks and get your brain synapses firing before too much leisure time gets you stupefied.

Need to know more?

Here are the handbooks and their descriptions. There are also audio clips of me reading a short sample. Click “Listen to a sample . . . .” Click the title link or the “buy now” link to go directly to the handbook on Kindle.

Coming soon: MP3 audio versions of the four handbooks.

  1. Making your Summer Count

The structure of school breaks down in the summer, and many of us are left adrift. Here are ten practical things you can do to bring some of that structure back and to put focus on your art. Turn your summer reading into insight and inspiration and what you do outside of theatre into artistic exercises.

Listen to a sample . . .                                                                                 . . . buy now on Kindle

  1. Turning the Corner this Summer

So here you are. Another summer. And you are facing crossroads. You may already know you’d like to move on in the performing arts. You’re the person who shows up at auditions, volunteers on Saturdays to build and paint sets, or you help to hang and focus lighting instruments. You even bring costumes home to sew (or foist off on your poor mother to sew), or maybe even direct scenes for your actor-classmates. But how to prepare for what’s next for you?

Think about turning all those fuzzy ambitions into something focused. How will you choose which path to take? If you know where you are going, you’ll know which corner to turn to get there.

What can having focus do for you? It is knowing what you want to do with your life and having realistic goals for getting there.  It is planning. It is developing healthy habits. It is recognizing your strengths and building on them.

In this handbook, you’ll find some easy things you can do in your free time, this summer, or whenever you have a block of time, to help you focus on moving toward a career in the performing arts. Things like setting goals, making lists, setting up a portfolio or résumé, developing artistic taste, and other activities that will point you in the right direction and get you out of the crossroads and on to the path that leads to your right destiny.

Listen to a sample . . .                                                                                 . . . buy now on Kindle

  1. Zen and the Art of Summer

Summer is more than working and relaxing for the up-and-coming artist, and I want to give students a different perspective, one from a higher plane. Sort of as Yoda in Star Wars said: “There is no try. Only do.” Very Zen.

The idea behind the short handbook, Zen and the Art of Summer, is to give young artists a way to see what they are doing on a more mindful level. No, it isn’t a lesson about Zen or eastern philosophy, but it does clue you in that what you do today matters for a future career. That you can chill with your friends, but if you do it mindfully, you may all be contributing to each other’s artistic well-being.

Listen to a sample . . .                                                                                 . . . buy now on Kindle

  1. Using Summer to Get Ready for Fall

Fall, for the performing arts student, opens whole new possibilities. There might be the fall musical to try out for or work backstage on, to help choreograph or design. Maybe this is your last year of high school or college and you are seriously facing that Big Transition into the world of finding your place in it, perhaps making a living while you search for work in your field. Or you may already be in the Big Transition.

This can be daunting, or it can be part of your Grand Plan. I guarantee it will be daunting, especially if you don’t bother making a Grand Plan.

There is no one answer or one way that fits everyone, but this handbook will give you ways to prepare for the next step. From help with planning for tryouts, how to plan for being on your own, or how to find the right college, you’ll get some serious tips in the fall handbook, the last in the summer series.

Listen to a sample . . .                                                                                 . . . buy now on Kindle


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Even your agent rejected you? That could mean you’re on your way

OK, so here’s the thing about rejection. We all get rejected and some rejections are worse than others. We get picked last for the volleyball team in phys. ed. Big deal, since we could care less about sports, but we feel the sting anyway.

We don’t get picked for the lead in the school play. Bigger deal, but we understand that there were other kids with more experience.

A boy or girl you like asks someone else to the Prom. Bigger deal still, since you had dated and you had every reason to think it was working out.

You are the experienced kid who everyone thought was a shoe-in for the lead in the high school play, but you ended up in the chorus. You are devastated. Bigger and bigger is this deal, and more painful the sting.

The love of your life leaves you. Biggest deal yet. You are heartbroken. Recovery time is gonna be long and painful. It is way past a mere sting.

Your agent no longer wants to represent you. Devastating, like falling off a cliff. And while you are in free-fall, you here those damned voices again, your Furies forcing you to agonize over all sorts of awful things. What did I do wrong? What is it about me? Am I not talented at all? Will I never have a career in theatre? Will I really have to get a full time job in some stuffy office where I’ll never be able to laugh or cry or be at all real?

Well, yeah. Sometimes life sucks. But here’s the thing I promised that could make it easier: WE ALL DEAL WITH REJECTION. If we didn’t experience rejection, we wouldn’t know the joy of being picked.

The other thing is: Don’t look around for something or someone to blame. Blame has nothing to do with it. Blame only keeps the downward spiral going and you and those damned Furies hounding you into the bowels of Hell!

So what do you do now?

You hurt. You experience the hurt, but without blaming yourself or your agent. Your agent needs to make a living and you, by not landing any audition he sent you to, are not helping his career.

The other side of that is, you need to make a living and by not landing any audition he sent you to, you got to see that maybe he isn’t the right agent for you.

So what do you do now?

Allow yourself to feel as bad as you can. That’s right. Scrunch up your eyes, make fists, and bring up all those bad feelings. Got it? How long can you keep your focus on that bad black hole? Not long.

It is too hard to keep that level of intensity going. All you can keep going is to make up stuff, letting your Furies think all sorts of made-up thoughts about the incident. These Furies would like to keep you thinking all sorts of things–true and not true–about the rejection, anything to keep it going, and sure enough, you can conjure up even more terrible feelings just by thinking more terrible thoughts.


  1. Take a deep breath. Take another. Dismiss the very next Furies thought and clear your mind of everything.
  2. Next, take this rejection and see what you can do with it. Look at it to understand how it wasn’t working.

You can only move on when you recognize this is a crossroads, and that there is no going back to business as usual. You need to do some things differently. Your job is to find out what you can tweak or change outright. For instance, if you were going on auditions for cute-young-thing parts and you were showing up with torn tee-shirts or bad makeup, try dressing for the part you are trying out for.

Maybe the material you are working with (scripts, monologues, special acting/workshop appearances) isn’t right for you. See if someone you trust can give you an honest assessment and change the material.

Maybe if you get who you are and what you are going for, you will realize the agent you had was not right for your goals. Find one who is. Do your research. Ask around.

Maybe this rejection is telling you what you have already glimpsed about yourself, deep down away from the blinding light of reason. Now is the time to bring it up. Should you be working in regional theatre instead of trying for a Broadway role? Do you need more acting classes?

Maybe you should consider that acting isn’t right for you and that you could, with a little more experience and education, be a stage manager and then aim for directing? Maybe your talent and interest really lay in design?

This is your golden opportunity to find other ways of breaking in. Talk to people who have done it. Read Martha Beck’s Finding your own North Star. Get a new direction to go in.

Oh, yeah. And wipe those tears. They are clouding your vision.

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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.”


  • 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.


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?).


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


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.




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.


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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