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.”

Characteristics

  • 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.

Analysis

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?).

Casting

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.

Voice

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.

Plot

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.

Language

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

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.

Resources

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.

Whispering.

Howling.

Booming.

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.

Overall

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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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:

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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