Vanessa Buldo, Communication Studies Instructor, Reedley College
Hannah Winiger, Communication Studies Instructor, Clovis Community College
You have started an exciting journey into a course I consider “the best kept secret on campus.” Welcome to the wonderful world of oral interpretation of literature!
What will you be doing? You will be learning how to perform literature in this course through analysis, finding relevant and significant messages, and using your voice and body to bring the literature to life for your audience. This course is unlike any other you have taken before.
You may be coming into this course with previous experience in public speaking or maybe high school debate. Or, perhaps you have been in theatre or plays but have never tried this type of performance. Or, maybe you have no experience at all in speeches or theatre but were intrigued by the “literature” aspect of the title. Or, perhaps you selected this course because a friend told you it was fun or because it was the only one that fit your schedule. Regardless of motive, I believe you will find value in the skills you learn from this class.
One of my former students called this his “dessert class.” It was the part of his education “meal” that semester to which he looked the most forward. It gave him a chance to exercise a different part of his brain than was required of him in math, history, or even his English courses. I think you will find that while this course certainly involves “work,” the sort of work you will do is of a much more creative sort. If you put forth the effort, you will enjoy the process and the fruits of your labor if you allow yourself to play.
Note: You may occasionally see reference in this text to you, the performer, as an “interper.” This is a term of endearment from me to you, the student of oral interpretation of literature, as you navigate this fun and challenging world.
The Nature of Play
When the poet William Stafford was asked when he first realized that he wanted to be a poet, he responded: My question is “When did other people give up the idea of being a poet?” You know, when we are kids we make up things, we write, and for me the puzzle is not that some people are still writing, the real question is why did the other people stop?
Other artists have asked similar questions and made similar assertions. “Every child is an artist,” said the dramatist and poet Percy Mackaye, “with imagination and the artistic instinct. Life stamps these out—and in only a few cases, those we call geniuses, do they rise, and become sculptors, artists, poets—great creators.”
What both Stafford and Mackaye observe is the fact that we all naturally possess the ability to be expressive, to give free rein to our imaginations, to invent, to bring into the world something new. As Stafford notes, as children we naturally enjoy “making up things.” We delight in imagining, in creating, in playing with colors, shapes, with words—so why then do many of us stop playing, or stop being, as Mackaye says, “an artist?”
It is quite useful for us to answer this question as we become oral interpreters of literature. If we can understand the barriers to “performance” in front of others, then we can move past stagnant periods of creativity by finding ways to avoid the barriers or bring them down. One of the obstacles to being creative, whether through painting or performing literature, is our tendency to be critical and judgmental of ourselves and our art—especially while in the process of creating it. If we are in the middle of writing a poem and begin to doubt ourselves or tell ourselves that what we are writing is silly or just not good, then we are standing in the way of our creative act of play and our growth as a writer. If we are practicing our prose performance and begin to think we can’t possibly measure up to other performers we have seen on stage or online, we become our own obstacle.
Think about what it means to play. The Merriam-Webster dictionary provides the following definition of “play:”
a: recreational activity; especially: the spontaneous activity of children
c: the act or an instance of playing on words or speech sounds
When we play, we are spontaneous. When we play, we do not aim to harm ourselves—physically or with harsh criticism that stops us from playing. And when we play, we pay attention to words and sounds. Imagine children playing. See two girls in a pink bedroom sitting at a tea table surrounded by stuffed animals. One of them wears a tiara. The other has wrapped a scarf around her head pretending to be a unicorn. The princess sips her tea and speaks of how warm the sun is on her shoulders, how the warmth turns everything blue into diamonds. The unicorn responds, “This scarf isn’t working. I don’t look enough like a unicorn.”
In this example, the girl with the scarf has broken the spell of imagination necessary for play. It is no different than when we criticize our own creative works while in a state of creating—of playing—only in this case we are saying, “This literature isn’t working” or “My body language and voice aren’t good enough for this.” To perform literature, we must be willing to indulge the creative state, to forgive ourselves as we create, to enjoy and appreciate what we have in front of us and how it develops under our creative flow—especially in the early stages of creating an interpretive performance.
In oral interpretation, there is always the opportunity to revise. An interpretive performance has its own life, and for some interpers, it may never be finished. And this is okay. The creative process can be expressed in an endless variety of ways. For as many people as there are living on this planet, there are as many, if not more, ways of expressing creative impulses. It is my hope that in your journey through this course, this text will act as a guide to nurturing your own natural creativity.