Readers are arranged in a row or semicircle, sitting on high stools or standing.
Scripts are often set on music stands.
Readers look straight out toward the audience or at an angle, rather than looking at each other.
The group I performed with, though, employed a style quite different, designed to appeal to young audiences. Chamber Readers is a nonprofit reader’s theater company in Humboldt County, California, promoting reading and literature since 1975. Two teams, each with four readers, are directed by Jean Wagner, one of the founding members. Chamber Readers performs each year in nearly every public school in the county and is considered a local institution.
Like traditional reader’s theater, the Chamber Readers style is based on script reading and the suggestive power of language. But it adds a good deal of mime and movement as well. That’s a bit more work, but it can be more fun too!
Briefly, the distinctive features of the Chamber Readers approach are:
Characters move around the stage much as in a play, acting out or suggesting the movements described in the story, often by simple mime devices like walking in place.
Though narrators look at the audience, characters most often look at each other.
Scripts in sturdy binders are held in one hand, leaving the other hand free for gesturing.
A set of low stools and a single high stool serve as versatile stage scenery/props.
The following tips on staging are based on the Chamber Reader style. But remember, these are suggestions only. I hope you’ll feel free to use or develop whatever style will be most enjoyable to you and your readers. (For more details on the traditional approach, see Caroline Feller Bauer’s Presenting Reader’s Theater, H. W. Wilson, 1987.)
The word stage here means “stage area”—which could be the front of a classroom. An actual stage isn’t needed.
For reader’s theater, you really need nothing but scripts. But a little basic equipment can add a lot. Here are some suggestions:
Script binders. Sturdy ring binders are best. Whatever you use, make sure the pages turn easily. On stage, the binder may also become a prop, representing a book, a notepad, the surface of a table.
Smocks. These give the readers a team look, yet are also neutral—so readers can easily change character in the minds of the audience. The smock can be a simple rectangle of cloth with a headhole, fastened together at the sides.
Chair-height stools. These are your most useful props. For some stories, you won’t need any; for others, you may need one for each reader on stage. They must be solid enough to stand on!
High stools. One or two should be enough. These too should be solid enough for standing.
Portable screens. These are strictly optional, but they’re fun to use if they’re handy. They provide an alternative for entrances and exits and for some special effects.
Small props. These can sometimes add nice touches—as when a Pied Piper has a tin whistle to play.
The trick with scripts is to handle them so they can be referred to easily but don’t seriously restrict movement or distract the audience. The script is held by one hand only, leaving the other hand free for acting. For a relaxed grip, the binder spine can simply lie in the palm. If readers are moving around a lot, they can instead grip the binder’s top edge. Part of the binder rests against the upturned forearm.
Right-handers hold a script with their left hand, left-handers with their right. But sometimes a reader may have to switch hands, if a particular hand is needed for stage action, or if looking at the script turns the reader too far from the audience.
Though readers don’t need to memorize, they should know their lines and cues well enough so they can look up from their scripts about half the time. When they do look down, it’s only with the eyes, keeping the head straight up.
You will have to be flexible about script handling. A character who has to look upward for much of a scene may have to memorize part of the script. A narrator who has a long speech may have to run a free hand along the edge to keep the place. A reader who will have no free hand when a page must be turned can place that page backward in the binder to get two pages facing.
You don’t construct sets for reader’s theater—but you can suggest them. The narrator’s descriptions are brought to life by the readers’ movements and mime. If a reader opens a door, we see it. If readers hang ornaments on a Christmas tree, we know right where it is.
Stools are among your chief aids for suggesting sets, as well as being practical props. Three short stools in a semicircle can be a dining room. Two short stools close by each other can be a bench in a park, or a roof ridge atop a house. A single high stool can be a throne room. A high stool with a short stool next to it can be a tree to climb, or a mountain. An area with no stools can be anything at all!
As in theater, you start designing your “set” by figuring out what locations your script calls for. Then you position those locations on your stage in whatever arrangement works and looks best. Look for ease of reader movement, stage balance, and openness to the audience.
Readers can move to different stage areas for different scenes. Or they can stay in the same area and you can “change the set.” Or the set can move to them! For instance, a reader could move from room to room in a house just by walking in place, climbing some stairs, and opening some doors—all without moving an inch.
After designing your “set,” decide where your readers will start and where they will go. Don’t forget the narrators.
Drawing a series of movement diagrams can help you spot problems, save time during rehearsal, and jog your memory the next time you use the script. In one simple diagram system, circles are low stools, double circles are high stools, crosses are readers, and arrows show movement.
Sample movement diagrams (PDF, 1 page)
To go “offstage,” a reader doesn’t need to actually leave the area but can instead go BTA—“back to audience.” This indicates to the audience that the reader is out of the picture. If sitting on a stool, the reader can usually just turn around on it. If standing, the reader should also get out of the way by moving toward the back of the stage. Narrators seldom go BTA, even if they’re not reading for a while.
In regular theater, the curtain or the lights coming down indicates a “scene change”—a jump in time and/or place. In reader’s theater, this change is shown by some kind of break in movement. For instance, the readers can all “freeze” in place like statues. Or they can turn BTA, freeze, then come back in. Or they can freeze, then cross the stage for the next scene. If one scene in the story flows smoothly into the next, without a jump, you may not need a break at all.
Mime and Sound Effects
Whatever action is described in the script, readers should try either to do it or else to suggest it through mime. If someone is eating, we should see the fork carried to the mouth. If someone is hanging in the air, we should see the arm pulled tight by the floating balloon. If someone is racing a horse, we should see the galloping hooves.
The key word here is “suggest,” because the movements are often far from realistic. For instance, it’s hard to take off a coat realistically when one hand holds a script. Readers quickly learn to sleep sitting up, with their heads bent to the side. And walking in place is a reader’s favorite mode of travel.
Though formal mime techniques aren’t required, they do add polish to a performance. It’s always good to draw on proven tricks for walking in place, climbing up or down stairs or ropes or ladders, lifting or pulling heavy objects, flying, falling, and so on. Look for library books on mime, or invite a local mime to conduct a workshop.
Part of successful group mime is being aware of the invisible. If a stool is meant to be a chair at a table, make sure no one walks through the table! Even a door that’s invisible shouldn’t shift position as different people pass through it. If two characters look at a picture on the wall, they will hopefully agree where it is!
Sounds in the story too should be added where possible—explosions, wind, bees, roosters, whatever. To help the illusion, this is usually handled by readers who are BTA.
Focus refers to where the readers are looking. Most of the time, it’s simple: Narrators use audience focus—they look straight at the audience. Characters use on-stage focus—they look at whoever they’re talking to, just as in plays or real life.
But sometimes you may want characters to use off-stage focus. The readers imagine a screen facing them, as wide as the stage, set up at the front edge of the audience. On this screen they imagine a mirror image of all the readers. Then instead of talking straight to each other, they talk to each other’s image. If you prefer, you can “move” the screen farther from the readers.
The most important use of off-stage focus is to help create illusions of distance or height. Two characters on the same stage but using off-stage focus can shout and wave at each other as if a mile apart. If one looks upward and one looks downward, you have a midget talking to a giant, or a woman in a window talking to a man in the street.
Characters can at times also use audience focus, addressing comments directly to the audience. They might also use this focus if the audience is drawn into the story—as might happen, for instance, if the audience suddenly becomes a hill completely covered with cats.
Beginnings and Endings
One reader should introduce the story with at least the title and the author. Beyond that, something can be said about the story, about the author, or about the performance. Just don’t give away the plot!
After the introduction, the readers wait to begin until they’re all in place and frozen and the audience is quiet.
At the end, the last words are spoken slowly and with rhythm, so the audience knows the story is over. Everyone recognizes the ending “hap-pily ev-er af-ter.” But the same effect can be achieved with almost any words by reading them in a “slow three.”
When the story is finished, the readers freeze for a long moment to break the action. Then they close their scripts, face the audience, and bow all together. You may want to assign one reader to lead this closing sequence.
Beginnings and endings should be rehearsed along with the story so they’ll go smoothly.
Once young people have a general idea of how reader’s theater works, they can take over much of the staging themselves. In fact, they often beat adults at developing mime. After all, pretending is part of their profession.