Volume VI - 2001

Reader's Theatre: An Introduction to Classroom Performance
by Gerald Lee Ratliff

Gerald Lee Ratliff, who holds the Ph.D. in dramatic literature from Bowling Green State University (Ohio), is currently serving as Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at the State University of New York, College at Potsdam. He is author of numerous textbooks on performance studies and was a Fulbright Scholar to China in 1993.

Editor's Note: Although the following article is primarily addressed to native speakers of English, the techniques described are eminently suitable for the teaching of second and foreign languages. It represents one of many types of projects that are simultaneously language-centered and contextualized so that intense exposure to the target language is maximized. Unfortunately, some aspects of current language-teaching theory seems to hold that "language" and "projects" are inherently different categories.

My characters are assembled from past and present stages of civilization…bits from books and even newspapers; scraps of humanity, ragged and tattered pieces patched together as is the human soul.
-August Strindberg, Diary

    The lights dimmed, and the murmur in the classroom hushed as the student-actors filed in, led by the narrator. All carrying books, they took their places on high stools arranged in a row in front of the blackboard. They were wearing one or two pieces of the costumes by which the character each was playing would be recognized. The narrator remained seated as he opened his book and started reading in a rather strong, even intense tone of voice. The story was "The Chrysanthemums" by John Steinbeck. The student's eyes often left the book to find the audience. When the character Elisa spoke in the story, the student playing that character delivered the words. Although her voice was animated, she did not stand up but remained on her stool. She did not look at the student playing her husband with whom she was speaking. Other actors read the lines and sometimes the thoughts of characters as they appeared on the page. Although slight variations are often made, this type of presentation-called "Reader's Theatre"-has been increasing in popularity for the past fifty years. It is a cross between silent, solitary reading and the fully staged productions with which we are all familiar. One basic difference is that Reader's Theatre usually uses short stories, whereas regular theatre uses long or short plays. The text can be in the students' first language or in one being studied at the time. The versatility and simplicity of this type of activity is one of its greatest advantages. For example, articles from newspapers and magazines can very easily be presented in this medium.

Dramatizing Literature

    One of the primary principles of Reader's Theatre, however, is to "dramatize" literature in classroom performance and to provide a visual and oral stimulus to students who are unaccustomed to using imagination to appreciate literary texts. This "theatrical mind" approach to the interpretation and subsequent performance of literary texts relies on the basic viewpoint that to see literature is as relevant to giving life and meaning as to read literature. There are a number of ways to use Reader's Theatre in the literature or language classroom. It may be used to enhance the critical study of language; to explore the author's meaning or point of view; to promote reading, writing and listening skills; and to display creative talents of student performers. For the most part, however, today's Readers Theatre is concerned with the inherent theatricality of literature-particularly the role that sights, sounds and words can play in the interpretation of a literary text.

Selected Conventions

    Although Reader's Theatre is part of traditional theatre movements that seek to "stage" the actions, attitudes and emotions of literary characters as described by an author, there are selected conventions that clearly distinguish it from more typical theatre classroom activities. For example, in Reader's Theatre, a student's vocal response and physical action are directed forward, full-front, to help that student and the audience visualize what is being described in the literature. In addition, a single performer may play a variety of roles or serve as a narrator figure who provides narration and transition for the scripted literature. Performers may either hold their scripts or place them on reading stands. They may stand in line facing the audience or sit on stools or chairs; and there may be combination of sitting and standing. Performers, who usually remain in the classroom playing space throughout the presentation, may have individual lines of dialogue or they may share lines with other performers. They may also wear suggestive costumes and make-up, or they may wear their own clothing.

The Stage

    The classroom staging of literature in Reader's Theatre may include a traditional elevated stage, or the playing space may be arranged in-the-round, in which case the audience sits on all sides of a central space that is the stage. Or the audience can sit in a semicircle or on three sides of the performers. Classroom staging may even include accessories like ramps, platforms or a backdrop depicting a painted setting. Other optional accessories can include lighting, sound, recorded music, choreographed movement, or slides and projections. There is an increasing trend in Reader's Theatre to stage literature in "found" spaces. In such a presentation, the literary text is moved to an actual locale that suggests the setting described by the author. For example, Edwin Markham's "The Man with the Hoe" is staged in an abandoned field or Wallace Stevens' "Peter Quince at the Clavier" is staged in a music recital hall.

Performance Blueprint

    The range of literature available in Readers' Theatre is limited only by the imagination needed to give novels, magazine articles, poems, short stories, song lyrics, letters or personal diaries a classroom performance. An essential ingredient in developing the "blueprint" or master plan of presentation is for student performers to read with a critical eye to grasping the subtle suggestions of character implied in the story line. Student performers should read any literary text chosen for presentation as they read novels or short stories-initially sorting out narrative descriptions or character relationships and allowing the "story" to tell itself in character actions or movements. If possible, the literary text should be read in one sitting to sense the momentum and inevitable build to a climax suggested in the arrangement of episodes. Particular attention should also be paid to the author's description of scenic elements that might help the audience visualize the locale.

    A second reading of the literary text should be more analytical than the first, and focus on clarity and comprehension. Student performers should critically evaluate a character's interaction with others and consider the onlooker's response to him or her. The more objective second reading should also be enriched with active classroom discussion and written portrait sketches that fill in the author's incomplete character outline with inventive self-expression. It may also be useful for student performers to cultivate a mental symbol that helps to clearly define a character. A mental symbol indicates (1) the character's ultimate desire and (2) what actions the character is willing to pay in pursuing that desire. In isolating a character's primary motivation, it is important to assign a specific "name" to the desire. Naming a character's desire encourages an illustrative approach to classroom performance, and student performers are better able to be active role-players armed with a stronger sense of a character's intellectual and emotional point of view.

A Meaningful Approach to Interpretation

    The need for creativity in the teaching of literature has traditionally been seen in terms of instructional approaches that seek to "read aloud" literary works of merit in small groups or to engage in critical analysis through written essay assignments. These standard approaches to the study of literature, however, frequently fail to consider the potential for a Reader's Theatre classroom performance as a meaningful approach to interpretation of the literary text. One of the primary principles of Reader's Theatre is that performers must be trained to visualize and to vocalize character actions and thoughts being described in the literature. Fictitious character development, of course, does not immediately leap from the printed page full-blown in its performance suggestion. Rather, characterization emerges in subtle and frequently disguised clues that often point the way to a particularly striking interpretation of both character and literature.

Student Discussion and Writing

    Performers should critically evaluate the primary scenes of a character's interaction with others and anticipate potential performance reactions and responses. Performers should also re-think any initial interpretation of the character gained in the first reading; and then isolate and identify those specific character actions, dialogue or movements that might help to reinforce or refine the preliminary interpretation. The more objective second reading of the literary text should also be enriched with active classroom discussion and written character sketches so that initial, perhaps preconceived, notions of role-playing can be evaluated in terms of the given circumstances provided by the author.


    By voicing the subtle nuances of meaning suggested in the literary text, student performers begin to cultivate an appreciation as well as an understanding of changing character attitudes or moods. Such voicing is based on the principle that literary texts should be read with a critical eye to grasping the creative suggestions that are implied in the dialogue and narrative, and then translating them into specific actions and movements. Particular attention should also be paid to the author's description of the setting and the scenic elements of design; as well as to other theatrical production elements like potential lighting, sound or props that might help to visualize the episodes described in the literary text. The more knowledge that student performers have about the construction of the text, the more informed and perceptive will be the subsequent interpretation of the action, dialogue and character in classroom performance.

Appendix: Classroom Exercises

    The following exercises, developed in introduction to literature classes for non-majors, should provide an excellent foundation to support further creative exploration. Each instructor should approach the exercises in a manner that is compatible with an individual style of presentation; and each instructor is encouraged to take the liberty of adapting, modifying or extending the basic techniques suggested to meet individual assignments. The exercises are framed as participatory activities to stimulate awareness of basic Reader's Theatre principles and are intended to promote an atmosphere of relaxed inquiry and risk-free role-playing.

Exercise 1
: "Vocal" Special Effects
Objective: To explore the properties of sound and the role that "vocal" special effects might play in the classroom interpretation of a literary text.
Approach: Stockpile a variety of hand-held items capable of conducting the sounds of the human voice. Examples might include cardboard tubes, garden hoses, soda cans, plastic jugs, mouth mufflers, combs, vacuum cleaner attachments, scuba masks and glass containers. Begin the exercise by having the performers present their found objects individually to the class. Each performer uses the found object as a mouth-piece to produce an interesting sound. Present each performer with a familiar line of verse, prose phrase or witty quotation to voice with the found object. Sources might include Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, book titles, song lyrics, television programs or well-known quotations from the Bible, William Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin. For example, the familiar line of verse may be William Shakespeare's "Come what may come. Time and the hour runs through the roughest day." (Macbeth, I, iii); the prose phase may be Mark Twain's humorous suggestion that "…familiarity breeds contempt, and children"; or the witty quotation may be Oscar Wilde's observation that "I can resist everything except temptation." (Lady Windemere's Fan, I, i.)
After the performers have been given individual opportunities to demonstrate a found object and to voice a familiar line of verse, prose phrase or witty quotation, repeat the exercise without the found object. Each performer is now encouraged to duplicate the sound produced by the found object with a very natural voice; and to create as many "vocal" special effects as possible. Following individual presentations, there should be active discussion and evaluation of the role that sound might play in voicing the attitude and mood of individual literary characters.
Extension: The exercise may be extended as a small group project that focuses on voicing special effects in literary texts that contain descriptive character actions and long narrative passages as well. Examples of literary texts appropriate for this part of the exercise may include Albert Camus' The Stranger, Antoine de Saint Exupery's The Little Prince, Ronald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach or Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.

Exercise 2: The Body Shop
Objective: To promote performer awareness of fluid, expressive body movement in classroom performance.
Approach: Working in ensemble groups of six or eight, begin with a series of relaxing warm-up exercises. Performers bend from the waist, trying to touch their toes and then relax the arms in front of the feet. Slowly, performers swing both the head and the arms in a pendulum-like motion that resembles limp noodles in a pot of boiling water. The swinging motion continues with the legs and chest cavity until performers collapse in a soggy heap in the middle of the playing space. In the second part of the exercise, the performers lie flat on their back and slightly elevate the knees, while keeping the feet flat on the floor. The pelvis should be tilted toward the knees, and the arms relaxed at the side flat on the floor. Performers inhale deeply for a count of thirty-five, then exhale slowly for a count of thirty-five.

    When completely relaxed, performers purr like a playful kitten and sustain the sound produced for a count of thirty-five. Keeping the pelvis tilted toward the knees, performers continue to inhale deeply and then exhale slowly for a count of thirty-five as they growl like a dog, hum like a song bird, snort like a horse, buzz like a bee, whimper like an infant, hiss like a snake, hoot like an owl and crow like a rooster. Finally, the relaxed performers stand and respond as an ensemble to the following movement patterns. First, move like the witches casting an evil spell in Ben Jonson's short poem "Witches' Chasm." Second, move like infantrymen approaching an enemy outpost in Norman Mailer's novel The Armies of the Night. Third, move like the lost travelers in Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem "The Snow Storm." Fourth, move like the aged professor delivering a tedious lecture in Eugene Ionesco's short playscript The Lesson. Fifth, move like the clowns and jugglers suggested in Thomas Wolfe's short story "Circus at Dawn."
Extension: The exercise may be extended to include taped music that promotes spontaneous movement patterns as well. If taped music is used, allow one-minute between each musical selection. There are also performance opportunities in the extended part of the exercise to distribute excerpts of literature like Alberto Rios' "Wet Camp," William Sydney Porter's (O. Henry) "The Gift of the Magi," William Shakespeare's Macbeth or Stephen Crane's "In the Desert" that lend themselves to small-group choreographed movement patterns.

. Exercise 3: You Are There
Objective: To acquaint performers with the role of historical research in role-playing.
Approach: Divide performers into small-groups of five, and distribute a brief poetry or prose selection that suggests a specific historical period. Performers are instructed to search outside the literature to learn about predominant attitudes, social mores, daily habits and dress of the selected period. The historical research should focus on examples of customs or manners that reflect another time and another place. The studies should also complement an analysis of the historical description found in the selected literature. In a study of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, for example, performers may focus on the daily routine of a feudal estate, appropriate choice of clothes to suggest a character's social status, or experiment with voicing unfamiliar phrases like "smale foweles" or "uo roos the sonne." The second part of the exercise is classroom performance of the literature that includes historical research in role-playing. Performers should integrate daily routines, dress or habits, mannerisms and historical traits that capture the spirit of the times. There should also be some attention paid to the use of historical props, set pieces or small scenic units to suggest the historical period.
Extension: The exercise may be extended to include interdisciplinary approaches to historical research as well. For example, alliances with art, music, social studies or history can result in "You Are There" projects that recreate selected historical periods in classroom performance. Participants may contribute authentic music, scenic art, case studies, informative handouts and inventive staging to complement the collaborative project. There are a number of literary texts that lend themselves to interdisciplinary projects. The epic narratives of Jonathan swift's Gulliver's Travels or James Joyce's Ulysses are familiar historical travelogues; and there are popular Arthurian legends like Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" or Mark Twain's satirical A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court that are very appealing to student performers. Some other literary texts that feature historical customs and manners ripe for classroom performance include Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and George Bernard Shaw's Androcles and the Lion. There are also good adventure narratives like Daniel DeFoe's Moll Flanders, Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and Herman Melville's Billy Budd that are likely prospects for collaborative classroom performance and interdisciplinary study.

Exercise 4: Three Characters in Search of an Alien Author
Objective: To acquaint performers with the role that critical analysis plays in classroom performance.
Approach: Begin the exercise with a critical analysis of a brief excerpt of a selected literary text featuring four characters. The analysis should be sufficiently detailed to indicate character relationships and the author's apparent point of view or theme. The literary text should also be cut or edited to a fifteen minute classroom performance.In the first part of the exercise, place several chairs, tables or desks in different areas of the classroom playing space. Prepare four written slips of paper that read "author" and the individual names of each "character" named in the selected literature. Each performer draws a folded slip of paper, moves to a table, desk or chair and sits. No performer is permitted to know the identity of any other performers at this time. Performers may move to different locations and join other characters as the exercise moves forward.

    Ask a member of the audience to choose an exciting event or incident in the literary text that may stimulate the initial discussion. Each performer then responds to the question in the "voice" of the author and characters without revealing their identity. The object of the exercise is to rely solely on the literary text, and to direct responses to the implicit or explicit evidence found in the literature. Any apparent disagreements in interpretation should be resolved with reference to a character's action, dialogue or narration.

    There may also be an impartial moderator or "narrator figure," who solicits questions from the audience to clarify the performer's interpretation of the literary text. Questions may be directed to a character's intention or motivation, author's point of view, theme, imagery or choice of locale. Questions may also directed to staging or movement patterns suggested in the literary text. It is important in the question part of the exercise that performers recognize each other's identity without any acknowledgment to the audience. It is also important that performers respond to questions within the context of what a critical analysis of the literature suggests. The first part of the exercise ends when the moderator determines that a majority of the audience clearly identifies the "author" and the "characters."
Extension: Extend the exercise with other performers in small-groups assigned different literary texts for analysis and audience questions. You may also use the responses to audience questions as an improvisation to flesh-out character relationships or to stage a classroom performance. Some good examples of literature that lends itself to analysis, audience questions and improvisational classroom performance in a limited time frame may include the "young King Arthur's education" excerpt in T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, the "tea party" episode in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and the "insurance money quarrel" scene in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (II, I).


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