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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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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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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What’s happening this summer?

It is already June, and I am soooo behind. My goal for this summer was to publish four handbooks, charging very little for them, so you could have a kind of road map to how a more productive and active summer than might be usual for those of you who just want to chill out for a few months.

Handbooks for the summer on Kindle

So how am I doing? I do have two handbooks finished and published in the Kindle bookstore. Two more scheduled now for late summer, but I take heart that maybe they won’t be so late after all because one of them is about what you can do to prepare for fall, whether you are in school still or not.

In case there is still time for performing arts career direction, even though you might already be immersed in summer activities, here they are:

You can check them out by following the links to my Kindle bookshelf.

Online Theatre Repertory

What is it that has made these handbooks so late? Yes, I do live within walking distance of the beach, but at my age, sun is not my friend. No, I have been indoors, at this computer, writing original dialogue for what I call podcasts, but which are audio versions of theatre repertory. The dialogue ties together pieces and cuttings from novels and short stories, poems, plays, and essays around a theme. This next podcast is about the Summer Olympics in Rio. George wants to go to Rio. Martha, his wife, just laughs at him, knowing he expects the Girl from Ipanema will materialize on the beaches there.

I bet none of you know who the heck that is. Ask someone older.

So the podcast involves finding a theme, then finding and cutting pieces we can use (without infringing on copyright), rehearsing with me directing and acting, and teaching what I know about the techniques of oral interpretation of literature. Then we record it all and edit the recordings,

We’ve done three so far. You can catch the latest on www.theatrefollies.com.

I am also preparing a workshop for my community theatre on how to do Readers Theatre, a form of theatre I really enjoy because it makes good use of the voice.  It will be ready this fall and I plan to make it available online. You teachers out there may want to check it out on www.theatreowl.com.

If this issue sounds like a pitch to sell, or as the Car Talk brothers call it, “shameless commerce,” it is. Lots have gone into these projects and I would like to know that maybe some of it is useful or instructive, or merely entertaining for you.

All of this is going on in what are the hottest and most humid days and nights of the Florida seasons. But no sweat! I’m doing theatre!

What are you doing?

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Podcasts for everyone

There is this not-so-diverse group, all with some interest and experience in theatre, that meets once every two months to put together a program of pieces centered roughly around a theme. We perform it, radio style. Oral interpretation of literature, we used to call it. This time, we found poetry and prose around spring and the garden as a metaphor for our lives. Some of it is serious, such as a few short poems and a cutting from a garden diary. Otherwise, we lighten it up with things like Mark Twain’s Diary of Adam and Eve and snippy snippets from Dorothy Parker.

The thing is, I like theatre. That means plays. No plays in this spring podcast edition.

I have never liked working with people, with groups. Team sports wouldn’t have been for me. I am a tennis type. Even better, just let me play solitaire and I’d be happy. Hence, I don’t mind writing. Writing is usually a solitary endeavor. Until, however, you get other people involved for, say, reading the play you just wrote. The dilemma is, then, how in the world did I get involved in theatre? Theatre always involves… people.

So my latest strategy is not to argue for plays. Someone in my four-person group wants poems? Great. Someone else wants an essay or a short story? Have at it! I want a play! Too bad for me.

But I am subtly getting a play in anyway. I am writing it. I devised a married couple, George and Martha, (not THAT married couple!) who tie the literature and pieces together through a brief look at their own lives. Theatre! (I hope.)

I am going to continue this idea. I am going to keep developing these two, until the podcasts become web series with these two and a few more characters at the heart of it.

Stay tuned! Meanwhile, check out “Growing Pains,” the podcast.

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Theatre Follies Radio Repertory

My friends and I want to create new theatre based on traditional theatre. How do we do that? Obvious answer is to form a kind of community theatre, maybe find a barn to convert and hold performances there.

No, Mickey and Judy, we don’t want to get into bricks and mortar and all the shenanigans that go with that. We want to concentrate on content and performing. Why not use the latest technology? Supposedly we can all be artists and content providers on the Internet. Why not podcasts?

What kind of theatre?

I especially admire theatre repertory, where an ensemble of performers and performing artists work together to produce a season of work. Back in the day, I worked at Center Stage in Baltimore. They hired actors for the season, not just one play, and granted the so-called stars always had the lead, you could also see them in a supporting role. Everyone learned from each other and the acting was always outstanding.

The SAG awards have a category, not of Best Picture, but Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama/Comedy Series for television and Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Some independent movie companies also tend to use the same actors in different movies. Christopher Guest does this and we came to expect to see old favorites in different roles. This is the closest movies get to repertory.

Television is beginning to try on the repertory concept. ABC’s American Crime takes ensemble performance one step closer to repertory. Leading actors in one season become different characters in a new story line in the next season.

Repertory online is what I and my merry band of players admire and aspire to. And so on to Theatre Follies Radio Repertory, a way to produce theatre, oral interpretation of literature, readers theatre, and other theatrical forms in a digital way without having to maintain a building and to be able to play all sorts of parts, some the lead, most not. I call it a podcast, but it is more like radio productions than live interviews and entertainments. We’ve beefed up the whole experience with an accompanying website that gives background about the material we use, why we picked it, and why we think you’d like to hear it.

What’s next?

I see this as just a beginning. The plan is to do something more, better, whatever, with each podcast we do. To get better, more innovative, more relevant. That’s the goal.

For you theatre people, let this be something you and your friends can do. Maybe video is more your speed. Whatever the form, try making your own troupe of performers, you retired people or you high schools or college students. Try it and let us know how your company is progressing.

Here’s the link to Theatre Follies Radio Repertory. Let us know what you think. Use the comments box on this site (here), or on our Facebook page.

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Podcasting for the arts

We all know what it’s like to want to talk about your current passion with someone who shares the same, or nearly the same likes and points of view. Naturally, you won’t always be able to find that perfect audience. And so it is with me. I know you’re out there, those of you who love the theatre and want some kind of in depth discussions and not necessarily the same old stuff about “How to Act” or “How to be a Stage Manager.” Maybe you want some kind of variety. I know I want to talk about all sorts of things having to do with the performing arts and thought of podcasting.

So here I am, looking for someone to talk to, and guess what? It’s going to be you. This reading may be the start of future podcasts about the technique and pure joy of reading aloud. Oral interpretation of literature, it’s called more formally.

First on the oral interpretation list, is a reading of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales, read by an accomplished reader, Pauline Rodick, and me, Mary Turner. We tried to come up with a good, educational reason why we decided to record it, but in the end, it boiled down to:

  1. We both like the piece very much.
  2. We like how the words flow when read aloud.
  3. This is the sort of thing we want to hear during the Holidays.Childstree1

See what you think.

Happy Holidays!

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