WHAT IS READERS THEATRE?
[Excerpted from READERS THEATRE, WHAT IT IS, HOW TO STAGE IT by Marvin Kaye, published in 1995 by The Stage & Screen Book Club; available from Wildside Press via amazon.com]
One afternoon last August, Beverly Fite, a charter member of The Open Book, was riding the subway on her way to a rehearsal of Caroline E. Wood's play in the form of letters, The Immigrant Garden, when she noticed that one of her fellow passengers was reading the script over her shoulder and had tears in her eyes. B ("My friends call me B. Not Beverly, just B") introduced herself and discovered her travel companion was another theatre person, Bobbie Hellard, of Ramona, California. Bobbie started to apologize for peeking at B's mail, and was surprised to find out that the passage she'd read was actually part of a new playscript.
"How fortunate you are to be working on such a touching script," Ms. Hellard later wrote. "In this day where words assault and offend, your lines are like the lavender-scented breeze. It never ceases to amaze me that all of the high-tech special effects people hunger for these days cannot measure up to the power of well-chosen words."
That phrase embodies the essence of readers theatre. Critic Walter Kerr once observed in a review of a production of Bűchner's Danton's Death that, despite the milling throngs and undeniably exciting spectacle, the drama — and by extension, all drama — does not get under way till the crowds exit and Danton confronts Robespierre. Which is another way of saying that mise en scene is a poor substitute for the power of language. Elaborate costumes, lighting effects, settings, even mime and dance are the baggage of Hellmouth, stuff designed to keep lowbrows amused while the players hammer home the playwright's true purpose.
Bill Bonham, cofounder and president of The Open Book, defines readers theatre as "a creative, fluid art form that presents all styles of literature, focusing on the experience found in the writer's text and encouraging the active imagination and intellectual participation of the audience. It is a presentational form, suggesting rather than representing the literature's physical elements. Thus, one reader may assume multiple roles, two or more readers may play one character, and minimal settings, costumes and lighting are fleshed out in the minds of the spectators. It is often referred to as `theatre of the mind.' One member of our audience calls it `visual radio.' "
In John Gassner's Producing the Play, Mordecai Gorelik defines presentationalism as "staging which emphasizes … a direct relationship between the performers and the audiences. Presentational staging removes that invisible `fourth wall' which remains in (representational) staging even after the curtain is lifted." In traditional theatre, presentationalism is generally associated with those asides and soliloquies commonly found in Shakespeare, Marlowe, Goldoni, Moliere, commedia dell'arte, Restoration comedy, etc. In readers theatre, however, direct eye contact is often made with audience members and actors who appear with The Open Book are told that when there is an invisible "fourth wall," it is only waist-high and must be peeped over from time to time.
Most actors admit the necessity of illuminating the author's text, but too often that only implies the motivational study of "beats" and "actions" associated with Stanislavski's method of physical objectives. In readers theatre, texts must be analyzed with a thoroughness analogous to the scrutiny a professional violinist would afford a Beethoven quartet. (By now, it should be evident that readers theatre has nothing in common with "staged readings." The word "readers" is probably responsible for the error, similar to how Physician Assistants are sometimes confused with nurses instead of being recognized as the case-managing medical professionals they actually are.)
... readers theatre is not a new art form, but an old one ... rescued and refurbished.
The physical scripts sometimes seen onstage in readers theatre productions are purely symbolic. At The Open Book, performers are required to memorize their lines, and often the books are only seen at the beginning and end of a performance. (The final curtain call is always reserved for the script itself).
In America, the origin of readers theatre is generally attributed to developments in the speech and oral interpretation curriculum at Northwestern University and other schools. Directors, educators and writers like Bll Bonham, Leslie Irene Coger, Marvin Kaye, Harriet Nesbit, Shirlee Sloyer, Melvin R. White, Judy E. Yordon and many others explored techniques and forms of analysis and interpretation .
In a broader sense, however, readers theatre shares a common heritage with traditional theatre. In an article in the June 1932 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Eugene Bahn traces the beginnings of interpretive reading (from which readers theatre derives) to that moment in the early Greek drama when the actor playing Thespis stepped forward to tell the audience a narrative myth. This is the same moment of choral delineation that theatrical scholars point to when asked to trace the rise of the modern stage.
… this common origin suggests that readers theatre is not a new art form, but an old one which speech and oral interpretation professors have rescued and refurbished.