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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A movie for our time

When a movie is well-made, one of the things you’ll notice is that time suspends, your regular “real” life is on hold, you are nowhere and everywhere, you are a part of whatever is happening, captivated right through to the credits. In fact, you have a hard time leaving the theatre. You need the credits to get your bearings, like decompressing on the way up from a deep dive. This was my experience of Zero Dark Thirty.

We talk of choices we make as artists all the time. In the hands of director Kathryn Bigelow, I got a real sense of her vision and her style of working. She imagined a movie, what she wanted to say about it, how it would look, how her ensemble would act it, what scenes her cinematographer would film and how, what the movie score would do to enhance what was happening. All choices in the service of a vision. It was a superb dance and everyone did their individual thing all to one purpose, to convey this director’s idea of this movie.

Bigelow’s choices were sure, effective, and all pervasive. The director holds a vision and in Zero Dark Thirty, we felt it, experienced it. We saw what she was doing: telling a true story from the point of view of the kind of person it would take to track down the most elusive terrorist on the planet. Like the main character in Bigelow’s  movie The Hurt Locker, Maya has given up what ordinary people take for granted and call a normal life to get resolution for the rest of us. The hint of obsession is everywhere and from everyone from the supporting cast to cinematography to the score, her choices supporting the story and the character became an almost living thing; a compleat movie; a highly skilled and stylized movie; an artistic vision carried out on film.

It goes from dark indoor scenes in a Black Ops world where captive detainees are water-boarded to extort what they know about terrorist activities, to sun-drenched vistas establishing place in the world, to colorful jumbles of cities where there is decay and so much life existing in the same space, to spaces where you sense, where you just know that pretty soon a bomb is going to explode. You know this, not because the camera zooms in on a spot to clue you that it will blow up in a moment, but because of the casualness, the ordinariness of people’s demeanor and the atmosphere the director has taken great pains to create for us.  Suicide bombs are a way of life in some parts of the world, happening among ordinary every-day occurrences. The bomb goes off and ordinary life is suddenly tense and chaotic. The peace we take for granted is evaporated and so is ordinary life.

Director’s choices. Actor’s choices. They both make this movie what it is, but even the acting choices are firmly under Kathryn Bigelow’s focused direction. She has actors working to their strengths to create what are mostly real people, but they work with each other to bring together Bigelow’s point of view that is carefully, methodically laid out so we can experience it as she sees it, one scene at a time until the scenes have accumulated and we feel the terror of a people who need 9/11 explained and stopped forever, a people who refuse to be held hostage any longer, and yet we see the terror of individuals, specific people who are not like us and yet they are, whose job it is to bring our collective anguish to some kind of close. These people who are standing in for us are not living the kind of normal lives that we are. They are cutting themselves off from our comforts and assumptions about daily life to give us a kind of global peace that will let us get back to our cherished ordinariness. These people give it all up to get even with the enemy, to bring the enemy down, to get some kind of truce in the world. We don’t know, and I believe Bigelow thinks we can’t know what motivates these individuals. To say it is patriotism is only a beginning point in the analysis. You have to bring in obsession somewhere.

The scenes. You can feel the dust. Smell the food and spices in the bazaars, but yet we aren’t allowed to forget why we are looking at these very scenes. We are sniffing the enemy out. This is no travelogue, no beautiful vistas to lull us into thinking we are all brothers under the skin. Under these pretty colors is an enemy we are beginning to see is as ordinary as ourselves. Only our purposes are different. But understanding our enemy isn’t important in this movie. We need to understand ourselves first. And we need to understand obsession.

Jessica Chastain, whom I have admired elsewhere in this blog, has done several things. She has made Maya, an inexplicable and complicated woman, understandable and has done that by giving us the best kind of master class in acting. Everything she does resonates with character and choices about how to show that character, even when that character does nothing. She uses technique easily and to moderate the pace and timing of her lines, of her movement and non-movement, of building emotions and then, even more impressively, backing down from them. It is through impeccable technique that she gives us glimpses of character that is so much more telling than big explosively emotional scenes. And she does this with technique that is so much a part of her that only an acting coach would notice. And she does this with an intelligent sense of style―hers and Bigelow’s.

Most impressive, she has picked up on and immersed herself in the style and tone the director has set for the overall production.  She plays within the confines of Bigelow’s vision and sensibilities, blending in seamlessly yet standing out to create this remarkable movie. She makes no false moves. She blends, molds, yet stands out within a perfectly realized artistic vision.

The most telling scene is the last, with Maya, mission over, with nothing, I mean nothing else in her life, takes the first seat in the cavernous troop transport plane. Chastain is a small woman and seems almost swallowed up in the bowels of this mammoth plane. She is completely alone. She can choose any seat, but can’t seem to make a decision anymore and takes the first one. The giant door closes her off from the world she has known for so long. She is asked where she wants to go. She doesn’t answer. She can’t. There is nowhere else for Maya. Tears come but they barely get out. There is no flood of emotion. No euphoria that she has succeeded. No relief. All that is left is that it is over. There isn’t any more. There doesn’t need to be and there isn’t. The credits roll over a black screen and the excellent music by Alexandre Desplat that has taken us to places we had no idea existed, puts the final touch on a completely realized film.

The movie and the movie makers will win awards or they won’t. It is beside the point. This movie and the people who made it, with Kathryn Bigelow conveying what is needed to complete her vision, stands on its own. It is a beautiful thing what Bigelow and Chastain and company have made. Art.


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