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.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.
Changing your voice
Try this. Read the stanza aloud and this time work on changing how your voice sounds. Decide what kind of soldier you will be. Maybe you’ll be a specific soldier, one who has a wife and child back home waiting for him. Or maybe you are a soldier who has made the army his career. Or maybe one who enlisted on a whim and now is terrified he’ll get killed.
Now, find a voice for this character. Change the pitch higher or lower, depending on your character. Then, keeping your character in mind, make the voice loud, then soft. Faster, then slower. Listen only to yourself. Determine which works best for your character. Go over the whole stanza out loud using your voice to express how your character is taking the battle.
If you’ve got others working with you, have them do this exercise, also. Practice out loud, creating your character with your voice. Each of you take turns reading stanza 3 as the character you practiced. Let the listeners tell you what they heard.
Remember, this is an exercise you don’t do right or wrong. You just follow through with how you conceive it. Let the others tell you honestly what they heard, nothing, I hope, like, “Oh! You were sooo good!” or “That was terrible!”
Comments should reflect what you did with your voice and how effective it was. “I could hear from the slowness of the pace of the lines that your character is tired.” Or “Your character sounded so brave!”
Words make sounds
A big part of vocal technique in reading literature is to let the voice pick up the sound the words make when you say them aloud. Whispering. Howling. Booming. Try it yourself. Say these words, out loud, and make them sound like what they mean.
Read stanza 3 again. This time, say the words in a way to make them sound like what they mean. For example, if a cannon is volleying and thundering, make it sound like that: maybe use a booming voice, low and slow, and maybe change pitch and volume from high to low as the thundering fades away.
When you first decide on what you will read, you analyze it to find the tone and mean the author intended. It is then your job to find ways to convey that. Often, most of what you’ll do will be with your voice.
Actors often go to great lengths to develop their voices so they can be flexible and expressive in ways that require almost athletic abilities. Think of a belle canto soprano singing up and down scales in an almost dizzying perfection. (Don’t try this at home.) My advice is to get voice training in some form.
Note: This article introduces the subject of oral interpretation of literature, something that I will pursue at a later date. Check back here.
Catch up on this Readers Theatre series:
1 “The next big thing.” How readers theatre is its own art form.
2 “What Readers Theatre is like.” How to think about readers theatre.
3 “Working with a script in Readers Theatre.” How to use the script effectively.
4 “Make your Readers Theatre production visually appealing.” How to use what the audience sees to make the production come alive.
5 “How the audience responds to focus.” How to use onstage and offstage focus effectively.
6 “Using movement.” How to use movement without blocking the piece.