What is Readers Theater? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: John Gonzales

John has 20+ years experience teaching at the college level in areas that include English and American literature, Humanities, and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Readers theater sometimes is what it sound like it should be, and sometimes a little more. It has a foothold both in the performing arts world and in education. Read your way into this lesson, however theatrically you choose, and learn more.

The Roots of Readers Theater

In a particularly memorable episode of the widely beloved (and widely mocked) 1970s sitcom, The Brady Bunch, the title family participates in a high school talent show. The Brady males perform a skit with Brady dad reading a Longfellow poem while his sons accost him with a comical series of props and not-so-special special effects. It is a version of readers theater gone very wrong.

In one sense, it could be said that readers theater is as old as the idea of reading from a text for public appreciation, and it can be traced back at least to classical Greece. Yet not much can be said beyond that when it comes to building a history. Even in its more recent American form/s, the topic of this lesson, there is no overwhelming consensus about a precise location and date for its emergence; in fact, even the definition is debated.

In general, though, we can describe readers theater as a minimal style in which actors emphasize vocal delivery through (usually) live reading, without elaborate staging, technical support, props, or costumes. Another term for this is minimalism, or being stripped down of technical and design elements. Even without insisting upon a definitive history of the form, we can identify three major types of readers theater:

--Performative: referring to public presentations for viewing audiences

--Developmental: pertaining to the process of revising scripts for production

--Educational: within the school setting as either a teaching method or learned skill

Performative

In the performing arts, readers theater ranges from absolute, bare-bones, garage band style, with actors sitting on stools and reading without mics for a sparse audience, to a more elaborate presentation in a large venue with a large attending audience.

There are numerous theater companies across the United States who perform readers theater regularly, or even exclusively. There have even been musicals done as readers theater. One current readers theater group demands that its actors memorize their lines, which might seem contradictory, but it shows that they consider their form a serious style of performance art.

Radio drama, an obvious example of readers theater that might not be so obvious anymore, persists in America despite its now way outdated media format, sometimes taking advantage of more modern media through podcast as it clings on for dear life. In Bellingham, Washington, for instance, a group called The Midnight Mystery Players does classic pieces and adaptations for recording and rebroadcast as well as for live broadcast and even live audiences. Orson Welles' infamous broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938 attests to the power of readers theater to stimulate--or even over-stimulate--an audience.

Voice acting for animated shows, films and film sequences might also be regarded as a type of readers theater in this tradition: it has all of the major elements except a live audience.

Developmental

It has become commonplace to use a staged reading--another way of saying readers theater--in the process of play development. Full-scale production is an expensive and demanding undertaking, so a staged reading allows performance companies or potential producers and opportunity to field test dramatic writing before fully committing. A staged reading with an audience can also allow a playwright to hear the language of a script brought to life during the revision process and to gauge the response of the audience. Revision or further expansion can proceed more productively based on the feedback. This can be a crucial developmental step, one that many dramatic writers find invaluable.

Staged readings can overlap with the performance discussion above even within this developmental format. Major annual theater events, such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, have incorporated staged readings into their public performance season, fulfilling the developmental objectives listed while also offering their audiences a dramatic alternative to add to their experience in attending the festival.

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