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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5 How the audience responds to focus

The audience sits. Waits. Lights come up on a group of actors, some sitting on stools, some standing on platforms of varying heights. All have scripts in their hands. The audience leans forward in anticipation. Let the scene begin! It does. The audience leans back. The characters aren’t looking at each other. There is a narrator. What is this?  they think. Yet another version of Our Town?

The scene progresses. The readers aren’t really reading but it isn’t like a play where they look at each other and speak memorized lines. Instead, they glance briefly at the script and look up over the audience’s heads. Not at each other. What is going on? Why aren’t the characters looking at each other the way they’re supposed to?

What is going on is that in Readers Theatre, most often, the actors use an offstage focus to better let the audience know that this is not a staged play but a reading and that the text is what matters and is what they are recreating for them. It is a genuine tool of this art form that what the author wrote, the context, the ideas, the themes, the vivid characters, setting descriptions, all must be recreated in the minds of the audience.

Onstage focus, the kind where character talks to character by looking at each other, lets the audience know that the action is happening on the stage.

In Readers Theatre, we want what is happening to be pictured, not reenacted. Theatre of the Mind. Offstage focus.

Presentational theatre

In many plays we’ve seen, the audience needs to believe what is happening on stage is really happening. Call it realism. Or naturalism. Suspend all disbelief for a few hours. You came in through a lobby, down an aisle, maybe music playing to get you into the right frame of mind. You sit. You wait. You are in some halfway house, being prepped to accept what is coming. The house lights go down and the stage lights come up. You already know what your roll is. You paid good money to be lulled into another world, one that is unraveling right in front of you. You believe that you are peering into someone’s life and that you get to see and feel and hear what they are seeing and feeling and hearing, and that you believe, for the length of the play and until the house lights come up again, that it is happening right here, right now. In front of you.

Representational theatre

In a conventional play, in presentational theatre, you know the audience’s role. But what if, just as you get into the scene, one of the actors bursts into a cowboy song? Now the game has changed. We were just in someone’s living room, but the walls fade away and one of the characters, a woman, puts on a cowboy hat and sings a lullaby to the other character, also a woman. But she is looking out over the audience, not at the other character. We know who she’s singing to by facial expression, movement, and how the other character is reacting, even though both are looking out over the audience in the same spot, visualizing the scene in their heads and from their character’s point of view.

Realism is gone with representational theatre. Presenting an actual, naturalistic scene is no longer desirable in representational theatre. Here, the audience is forced to come out of its conventional complacency and to actively take part in what is happening. To make sense of it. They are reminded that this is just a play, but one, apparently, that wants to shake them up. To make sense of what they are seeing, they have to participate.

Readers Theatre as a representational art form

Readers Theatre wants to recreate a literary work in the minds of the audience. It does not ask the audience to believe what is happening on stage is really happening, that a fourth wall has been removed so that the audience feels like it is eavesdropping on a reality show.

In Readers Theatre, we don’t ask the audience to believe that what they are seeing is really happening. Instead, we want them to see what is happeningꟷthe scenes, the plot, the charactersꟷis all happening in their minds. We don’t want them to look in on it. We want them to participate in what we, the actors/readers see in our minds and are recreating for them.

How does focus work?

Pick a logical spot out over the audience, where each scene is going to be played. When characters interact or the narrator comments, it is done looking at that particular place. Every time the scene changes, so does the focal point. Here are simple pictures of onstage and offstage focus:


Let’s try it. I’m still working with The Charge of the Light Brigade and I have three groups of actors who are the soldiers. Group 1 is sitting downstage right. Group 2 is on a platform upstage center. Group 3 is sitting downstage left. All three groups are looking straight ahead, focusing over the audience.

No one sees the whole valley and what is to come, yet, except Lord Raglan, off by himself. The soldiers are about to realize they are surrounded. They don’t even realize they are in a valley yet.

I am going to help the audience picture just when the soldiers do see they are in a valley and that they are surrounded. I’ll do it through focus.

When the poem gets to the third stanza each group reacts by changing the offstage focus:

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

Volleyed and thundered;

Now Group 1 looks off over the audience left and they look up and down at the valley walls and react to the bursts of cannon coming from that place. Group 3 looks off right, and Group 2 stays with the center focus. The actors/readers show fear and confusion through facial expressions and body attitudes and we begin to see the walls of the valley betraying the soldiers.

The audience is now able to picture the valley and can see in their minds the soldiers are surrounded. This, without the actors having to move from their stools.

We are asking the audience to picture what we are reading in their minds, not on the stage.

There’s more to staging Readers Theatre, of course. Next time: More about movement.

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4 Make your Readers Theatre production visually appealing

How do you do that? How do you make a production, one that is being read from scripts, visually appealing?

In Readers Theatre, we are reading literature with the aim of vividly recreating everything, not on stage, but in the audience’s minds. Why not put the actors in a line spanning the stage? Or sit them in a semi-circle? Or why not all stand at a lectern and when it is your turn, read your character’s lines? So what if your head is always bobbing up and down? So what if when you all turn the page at the same time, there is a snicker from someone in the audience who is trying to stifle an outright laugh?

Here’s the thing. Readers Theatre is much more than reading from a script. It is an art form unto itself, Theatre of the Mind, and needs to be created as any art form would, with its own conventions and characteristics.

How things look to an audience matters. You want to help the audience recreate what you’re reading in their minds, but they are looking at the stage where people are doing something interesting. That’s the nature of an audience. They can’t help but look at the actors/readers. Our goal, then, would be to help the audience use what they see to visualize what we are reading. We don’t want to get in the way. All that head bobbing is soooo annoying, as my niece would say. We do want to help paint word pictures by voice, facial expression, movement, gestures, even suggestions of sets and costumes. How we look adds to the artistic form or it distracts.

Let’s start with making it visually appealing and more, making the visuals suggestive. Like groupings that make sense of what you’re reading as well as convey relationships.

Why not change your surroundings?

What you may not want to do is to recreate a complete set, with props and set pieces. You may not want to block it as you would a play. But how, then, can you make a bunch of readers with scripts in their hands, visually appealing?

You can use your physical surroundings, and that includes the script, to make interesting stage pictures and through those pictures, to create relationships between the characters. Plan ahead where the actors are going to be on the stage.

First and foremost, make good use of some artistic principals:

  • Three is a more pleasing number than two. Think about putting people in triangles, rather than in straight lines.
  • Straight lines are ineffective. They don’t convey anything about the performance piece or what the characters are to each other. They are dull to look at.
  • Break people, suggestions of sets, those stools, whatever you are using into groups and height to help suggest the setting, who the characters are to each other, who the narrator is if you have one, and even some outrageous groupings if the material calls for it.

Make relationships by where and how you group people

Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

“Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!” he said.

Into the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.

I was recently working with The Charge of the Light Brigade and wanted to show that one man led the charge.  I tried this:

  1. Put two chairs next to each other and sit with your scripts. Read the first stanza (above) of Brigade. What is the relationship?

With both people next to each other and looking at each other, the audience has to rely on the words to know that one person gives the command, the other obeys it.

  1. What if you take one chair away? Put that character a little upstage and to the left of the sitting character. Now what is the relationship?

When the standing person reads, “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!” it is easier to see that the person standing could be giving the fatal command and the one sitting could be the narrator.

What about levels?

What can you use to make things visually appealing?

  • Use levels, platforms, stairs, even ladders.
  • Use different levels of stools or chairs.
  • Levels are appealing and suggest hierarchy and relationships.
  • You can stand or sit or move to another part of the stage to form different or evolving relationships.

Put it together

Try this with what you are working on, or use The Charge of the Light Brigade as I did:

  • Form three groups, each group suggesting being in a valley almost surrounded by the enemy.
  • Put the three groups, one upstage center on a platform, another downstage right, and the third group downstage left.
  • The readers in each group might be in straight lines, suggesting a battle formation, but in a way that each face can be seen. The straight lines work because they are staggered and the groups form a triangle.

The idea is to place everyone in a way that suggests the orderliness of a cavalry brigade about to charge, but it is also key that everyone is seen by all of the audience.

Where are we? In a valley. How do we convey the suggestion that the soldiers are in a valley, surrounded, but that they don’t know they are surrounded at first?

We’re not finished. To form stronger relationships and to help the audience picture what we are reading, we next need to consider the uses of focus.

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3 Working with a script in Readers Theatre

One of the attractions of our Readers Theatre group is that you get to perform on stage, but you don’t have to memorize your lines. Instead, you carry and read from a script during the performance. Hoo-ha! No memorizing!

My group has embraced carrying a script and we love that we don’t have to learn lines. But before you heave that sigh of relief, know that to be effective, a Readers Theatre production is memorized. There is nothing more deadly on stage than to never see the actor’s face. So the convention is to carry a script but to memorize it so you can use your voice, face, and movement to good effect.

Yes, you get to carry a script, glance at it occasionally, but to be effective, you must memorize a lot of the script. You do this for several reasons:  1) so your face isn’t always turned down while you read, 2) you don’t sound like you are reading, and 3) you use the script as part of the performance.

Definitions of RT points to the script

Carrying the script in Readers Theatre represents the fact that we are reading and the text we are reading is what we want the audience to focus on.

There are many aspects to the definition of Readers Theatre and none so telling, script-wise, than it all boils down to performing text from literature in a way that recreates the author’s intention in the minds of the audience. And the script in hand cues the audience that there is a text involved, and it is literature we are recreating for them. Besides the psychology, the script can also be used as an artistic part of that recreation.

So how do you use scripts in RT?

In one of the most helpful books I found on Readers Theatre, Fran Averett Tanner’s Readers Theatre Fundamentals, Tanner talks about using scripts. I am going to share with you some of her pointers as well some examples of my own.

  • Readers Theatre features the text, so you carry a script as a reminder of that.
  • You don’t need to hold the script all the time.

“  . . its presence is a constant visual reminder that literature is being shared. You can lay them down for a scene with a lot of movement and pick them up later.”

EXAMPLE: In a production I saw of the documentary play, In White America, scripts took the form of documents, books, papers, journals, and diaries, and were piled on a table down center as the play began. Actors crossed to the table, picked up an appropriate document, and read from it as the character the document referred to or was written by.  The actor put the script back on the table when they were finished.

  • Use the script as a prop. It can become the symbol of what a character might be doing.

EXAMPLE: In a reading of The Charge of the Light Brigade, the scripts could become symbolic sabers as they are flashed during battle.

  • The reader, even if the script is memorized, ought to look down and read from it occasionally. If you don’t glance down at it and turn pages, the audience begins to worry that you lost your place.

EXAMPLE: It’s the same principal that says if an actor has a prop, he or she needs to use it.

  • No shiny, light-catching binders to draw attention.
  • Bind the script. To make it easy to hold, try a small size such as 5 1/2¨ x 8 1/2¨. But bind them in a uniform size.
  • Don’t all turn the page at the same time – this can seem funny.
  • Keep scripts high enough so that heads aren’t bobbing. Again, bobbing heads can seem funny. Bring the script up rather than bring the head down.

Scripts are the most obvious signal to the audience that they are listening to literature, and the performers need to use those symbols artfully and as carefully as they would any prop.

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2 What Readers Theatre is like. And what it can be.

My community theatre’s Readers Theatre group has made a good start.

Our group has so far had good results with recruiting people who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to perform on the main stage. We have a strong core group who keep coming back and some others who come when they can. Still a few others have dropped out for one reason or another. (“Politics,” the kind that usually runs in the background of most organizations, rears its ugly head even in arts organizations.) And we have plans for a second stage for our productions.

We have rehearsed and performed two plays, one in full costume reading from scripts at lecterns, all of us standing in a line when we were in the scene and sitting behind the lecterns when we weren’t. We also have read a few skits aloud.

We have performed scenes from a comedy with a hint of a set with two chairs and a phone forming a sitting area and used make-believe doors. No costumes. There was some blocking. And some miming (opening those pretend doors.) Because of the blocking, it was awkward in places when the actors had to perform some bit of business with a script in their hands.

We even performed a Christmas program at two assisted living places. We were a big hit.

But there is so much room for growth.

Growth is a good thing

I’d like to see our Readers Theatre group recruit more experienced performers as well as those new to acting. I’d like to see us delve into producing this very unique art form, not as reading a play from a script, but to bring all forms of literature alive on stage by developing the vocal skills, body movement, and staging skills and techniques to do it effectively.

Growth could start with the text. The material we select. We have done only plays and skits. Our group has pretty much ignored non-play literature and that, I believe, is because most of us don’t know you can do all kinds of literature in a Readers Theatre format.

Really? You can read short stories, novels, poetry, and even diaries?

Readers Theatre is also called Theatre of the Mind. If the piece you select has something to sink your teeth into and is compelling in some way, and the language is evocative, the characters sharply drawn, the action described vividly, the discussions have the intensity of a volley in a championship tennis match, the Readers Theatre art form is a good vehicle to use.

An art form all to itself

I used Readers Theatre successfully when I was teaching high school and we had drama classes but little money to mount major productions. For my budding actors, Readers Theatre was a godsend. Lots of kids got to put the acting skills and techniques they were learning in worthwhile projects. They also learned how to read literature aloud (oral interpretation) and their presentations were enthusiastically received by parents, teachers, and friends. I had a real opportunity to use staging techniques unique to Readers Theatre that I had learned back when I took a college class in it. Great learning experience all around.

What’s next?

I would like our group to expand what we do into a more encompassing Readers Theatre art form. That means we need to get away from blocking or sitting in straight lines (the least interesting stage grouping,) and into something dynamic, something that will bring out the vocal and acting techniques and skills, something that will bring all kinds of literature, not only plays, alive. And something that will give us all pleasure that comes from using our skills and our minds and creativity toward a theatrical performance.

What gets in the way?

We all say we want to do good theatre, but so often in community theatre, the tried and true prevails. So we pick material that we think will entertain. Tried and true comedies. Dramas that we recognize. Familiar plays. Plays and musicals, especially, that have had successful Broadway runs. We are reluctant to do anything that will rock the boat, or offend a small segment of the community. Or make the audience dig deeper.

But what has been received successfully, gets in the way of doing something new and even innovative. There is a reluctance to go beyond the old excuse that we need to survive financially and that translates into having to bring in audiences by giving them what they know and like.

I’d like to see that boat rocked. But no boat gets rocked unless we do things differently and that means doing away with most of the bland, so-called “realistic,” middle-of-the-road scripts. Further, I would suggest, for Readers Theatre, chucking the good old standbys, the plays we usually haul out when we don’t know what else to do, and search through all of literature for material that is fun, or dramatic, or compelling, or funny, or just a darned good story. Something that will make a big splash artistically and creatively.

And bring ourselves and our productions to life along the way. There are audiences for innovation, too.

Next: What to do with those darned scripts?

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1 The next big thing: Readers Theatre

Readers Theatre is on the resurgence. Time was, it was a big deal in theatre producing communities and not only in high school and college. There were professional productions, such as Don Juan in Hell (third act of Shaw’s Man and Superman) in 1951 and John Brown’s Body directed by Charles Laughton in 1952.

So, all right, that was a long time ago, but today, in my part of the world, there are Readers Theatre groups sprouting up everywhere. I’m finding out that it is not only my local theatre doing Readers Theatre. Theatres up and down the Florida coast have started groups. Community theatres in this area have jumped on the Readers Theatre bandwagon. Someone new came to our first meeting of this season saying, “Oh, yeah, we did Readers Theatre where I come from.”

There is a group associated with the Jacksonville Library system, which sounds to me like a match made in heaven. Every library would benefit from a group providing lively interpretation of all kinds of literature.

Why does Readers Theatre appeal to community theatres?

Readers Theatre is appealing to community theatre in at least two ways: You get people who want to perform without the extensive commitment of being in a main stage production.

The other appeal is to be able to work in and develop another kind of theatrical art form.

Outreach and audience development

Let’s face it. The promotional hook of Readers Theatre is often that you perform with a script in your hands. The trouble with that idea is in an effective presentation, you do learn lines and the script is a kind of a visual cue that this isn’t going to be a stage production.

For the theatre organization, performing with a script becomes a way to tap into a larger group of volunteers that can include seniors who no longer want to, or maybe are not able, to learn lines. It also gives a real chance to people who want to try acting and would not likely get cast in a main stage production.

The outreach also extends to audience development. Readers Theatre is can be portable.  You can easily and inexpensively take it to libraries, assisted living, schools, community centers, and anywhere suitable.

You get your theatre out there, out where it is a visible part of the community.

Readers Theatre is an art form

It is the second reason that interests me most and why, when I learned the theatre was recruiting people for a Readers Theatre group, I couldn’t wait for the first meeting. I want to create theatre art, do something innovative, and keep the art form alive and vigorous.

Most theatres don’t do any experimenting because you also have to keep the theatre going financially and that means doing plays and musicals that subscribers know and love. Wouldn’t they love Readers Theatre? They would, I believe, if you do it well and do some audience education.

This is what I’d like to explore for a few more posts: the idea of Readers Theatre as its own art form and what you can do to bring it alive as well as give actors a chance to develop their skills and techniques in a meaningful way.

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