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.
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.
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.