The Nature of Oral Interpretation of Literature
In this course, you will learn a less conventional sort of “public speaking.” Communicating messages through the oral interpretation of literature (also known as “oral interp) is an effective means to share important information. In fact, as Todd Lewis notes in Communicating Literature, alternative sorts of messages can lend themselves to better understanding, empathy, and attitude/behavioral change than other modes/contexts of communication (Lewis, 2019, p. 33). In oral interp, instead of stating messages directly and defending ideas through traditional organizational patterns and delivery styles (i.e. a speech), you use arrangement and performance of literature to communicate important ideas to your audience.
Through various forms of “play,” this course will teach you how to analyze literature and bring it to life for others through your voice and body language. To do this, you will be analyzing various forms of literature, pulling out meaningful themes and making them relevant for your audience. You will arrange literature in ways that highlight the messages you wish to convey, and you will use vocal elements and body language to express the feelings and emotions that accompany, compliment, and amplify the messages in literature that you choose to perform. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
Whether this course is part of your major course of study or whether it is one you chose to compliment your general education, please remember that any communicative act we choose to present or perform in front of others has an impact. Performer, audience, and literature work together in a beautiful transactional synergy (more on this later). You will discover that oral interpretation of literature can be a highly effective and rewarding way to find your “voice.”
Although the term oral interpretation may be new to you, the experience of interpreting literature is part of everyday life. Lawyers read evidence to a jury. Pastors read prayers. Parents and teachers read to their children. This course will impress upon you the value of bringing more expression and meaning to reading the written word.
Additionally, you will find you often engage in vocal and bodily “performance” daily in every role we play – employee, student, family member, friend, parent. If you’ve ever had to smile at work to customers even though you have a migraine, or if you’ve had to ensure you appear confident in front of a pushy salesperson while negotiating a price on that a car, you know about the value of performance in our everyday lives. Using our voice and body more expressively can help ensure our messages are received more accurately.
When you complete this course, you will be able to:
- Analyze literary merit and meanings of various forms of literature.
- Create and present literature performances appropriately adapted for an audience.
- Demonstrate emotion and characterization through controlled vocal and nonverbal behaviors.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of oral interpretation performances through constructive critique.
If you commit to this course and the work and play within it, you will experience many benefits. To excel, you will need the following tools every day that you come to class:
Something On Which to Write
While this course may not be as lecture heavy as others in which you might enroll, you will take notes. Additionally, when you are engaged in various individual or group activities involving creative thought, movement, and play, you will often need to jot ideas down and use them during the activity. Therefore, using a notebook or paper (rather than a laptop) is best for this course.
Something With Which to Write
In addition to taking notes on lectures and using paper during class activities, you will often be writing on literature samples and scripts passed out in class. You should always have a pen or pencil to do this sort of work.
While this item is optional, you will find that using a small and/or thin, three-ring binder will be a helpful way to organize and keep your scripts for performance. Most oral interpers use these binders when they perform to prevent having to hold multiple, cumbersome books or floppy pieces of stapled paper.
In her essay “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life,” from her collection of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett lists forgiveness as being one of the essential skills necessary to write successfully. We can apply the same philosophy to literature performance:
Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.
Patchett’s advice is simple yet insightful. Even more, she is totally right. Artists experience the feeling of failure frequently. The key is learning how to embrace our mistakes as we create art and grow from those errors.
While I have a master’s degree in Communication Studies and have been doing oral interp since the age of six, the creative process has not gotten any easier for me over the years. Of course, mechanics have gotten easier (confidence in front of others, elimination of stutters and stumbles, etc.). I have found ways to organize myself and develop habits—some good, some bad—that can advance (or hinder) my creative processes. The more one creates and performs and watches others create and perform, the more aware one becomes of different ways to create and perform. We must all learn from the moments where we weren’t quite able to perform to the best of our abilities.
But there are some struggles that never go away. These struggles can be different for each person. For me, I tend to procrastinate after I have collected various pieces of literature that I would like to compile into an interp program. I become paralyzed at the thought of having to organize it all, finding beginning and ending spots, and it’s hard for me to focus and begin the work. But, if I commit myself to the mode of creating, lighten my inherent self-criticism, and permit myself to find “flow,” it becomes pleasurable.
Not only is forgiveness a necessary part of the creative process in the sense that we cannot translate exactly to an audience what we see and hear in a piece of literature, but also in the sense that good oral interp performances often deal with sensitive, difficult-to-approach subjects. Being creative in the face of these subjects often takes much mental and emotional effort, and I therefore find forgiving myself for past actions, thoughts, and desires—for feeling the way I do—necessary to create a performance that deals with these sorts of topics. You may decide to perform works that expose some of your personal memories and feelings, and some of these may be a bit uncomfortable to consider. You may decide to perform literature that reveals insight into how you truly feel about a parent or sibling or friend. Or, a certain poem or story you wish to perform may force you realize how you may have hurt someone in your past or neglected someone you love. We all make mistakes, and mistakes sometimes make good subject matter for performance. So, start forgiving yourself and move onward.
The mindset of forgiveness that Patchett describes is similar to what William Stafford writes in his little essay “A Way of Writing” when he recommends that a writer must “be willing to fail” in order to be successful. The same is true of learning to “perform,” using your voice and body on stage in more expressive ways than one has done in the past. One cannot expect any performance to be perfect. The creative process relies upon trust—you must trust that what you are doing will go somewhere.
This course requires that you be receptive to feedback. You will be learning how to evaluate oral interp performances in this course, and we will employ these evaluative techniques sometimes even on days where we are “playing” and engaging in creative activities. Be ready to not only give positive and helpful, constructive feedback to your peers, but be ready to also receive it. If you are fully receptive to critique, you will improve your skills.
You may find that when you give yourself a willingness to receive criticism, a wonderful freedom emerges. If a creative idea for a character occurs while you are playing in class, or if you see a unique theme in a piece of literature, it becomes all right to run with it. You learn to follow your impulses and see where they lead. You give yourself permission to be “careless of failure” (Stafford) as you play and learn.
Additionally, you should stay receptive to new ideas. Abandoning preconceived notions of popular literary works can help you see new possibilities for using a piece of literature in performance. Staying open to various ways a character can be performed from a literary work that may have been turned into a movie or show you have seen can give your performance uniqueness, as opposed to simply being viewed as an imitation of someone else’s work. As Morpheus told Neo in the movie, The Matrix, you should allow this course to “free your mind.”
I have always told my students that in order to break through confidence barriers you may have about this course, you will need to “leave your egos at the door.” You will need a free mind to examine literary works in new ways and/or portray a character that has voice and movement different from your own. If you are continually worried about looking goofy when you raise your vocal inflection or change your body posture to imitate a five-year-old child, it is very difficult to fully commit to being creative.
Why prescribe silliness? For possibility. For new ways of thinking and writing. For fun. If you’re worried that you may not have it in you, don’t. The fact that you are even taking an “arts” course like this on creative oral expression of literature means that this quality, this playfulness, is already inherent in you.
As mentioned in a previous section, this course will give you a new and exciting way to find your “voice” as a public communicator. With this gift of voice comes great power, and as Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker in the Spider-Man movies, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
All communication has ethical implications. Communication ethics deal with the process of negotiating and reflecting on our actions and communication regarding what we believe to be right and wrong. Aristotle said, “In the arena of human life, the honors and rewards fall to those who show their good qualities in action” (Pearson et al., 2006). Aristotle focuses on actions, which is an important part of communication ethics. While ethics has been studied as a part of philosophy since the time of Aristotle, only more recently has it become applied. In communication ethics, we are more concerned with the decisions people make about what is right and wrong than the systems, philosophies, or religions that inform those decisions. Much of ethics is gray area. Although we talk about making decisions in terms of what is right and what is wrong, the choice is rarely that simple. Aristotle goes on to say that we should act “to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way.” This quote connects to communication competence, which focuses on communicating effectively and appropriately.
Communication has broad ethical implications. But, when dealing with communication ethics, it’s difficult to state that something is 100 percent ethical or unethical. We make choices daily that are more ethical or less ethical, and we may confidently decide only later to learn that it wasn’t be most ethical option. In this course, you will learn to analyze your audience. You will strive to learn their general attitudes, values, beliefs, and preferences, and you will use this information as you choose and analyze the literature you perform as well as the messages you choose to emphasize within it. You will even use this information as you organize your performance programs, compose your performance introductions, and create mannerisms and characters for the various personae you perform.
Sometimes, the literature you choose, the messages you send, or the themes you highlight in a text may touch upon a topic that is uncomfortable for your audience. Perhaps the subject matter is sensitive or the topic is controversial and opposite of most of your audience members’ views. These sorts of topics deserve careful consideration as you craft the performance that includes them, taking care to present the ideas with respect and always keeping your audience in mind. We should not necessarily shy away from difficult topics in oral interp but rather learn to present and perform them in a way that inspires our audience to listen willingly and engage in the material as it is performed. As communicators, we want people to receive the messages we send, so we must craft our messages in ways that invoke in them a desire to listen.
Since many of the choices we make when it comes to ethics are situational, contextual, and personal, various professional fields have developed codes of ethics to help guide members through areas that might otherwise be gray or uncertain. You may find it useful to consider guidance from the National Communication Association (NCA), the professional organization that represents communication scholars and practitioners in the United States, when you craft your messages and performances in this course. The NCA’s “Credo for Ethical Communication” reminds us that communication ethics are relevant across contexts and apply to every channel of communication, including media (National Communication Association, 2012). The credo goes on to say that human worth and dignity are fostered through ethical communication practices such as truthfulness, fairness, integrity, and respect for self and others. The emphasis in the credo and in the study of communication ethics is on practices and actions rather than thoughts and philosophies. Many people claim high ethical standards but do not live up to them in practice. While the credo advocates for, endorses, and promotes certain ideals, it is up to each one of us to put them into practice. The following are some of the principles stated in the credo:
- We endorse freedom of expression, diversity of perspective, and tolerance of dissent to achieve the informed and responsible decision making fundamental to a civil society.
- We condemn communication that degrades individuals and humanity through the expression of intolerance and hatred.
- We are committed to the courageous expression of personal convictions in pursuit of fairness and justice.
- We accept responsibility for the short- and long-term consequences of our own communication and expect the same of others.
The beauty of oral interpretation literature performance exists in its synergy of three elements: analysis, message, and performance. In a sense, this course involves skills that are explored in three other courses with which you may be familiar: English Literature, Public Speaking, and Drama/Theatre. You do not need to have experience in these courses to be successful in this one. This course simply gives you the opportunity to see how disciplines can complement one another.
In an English Literature class, you read essays and novels with an eye for finding and analyzing relevant themes and ideas in the texts. Students examine plot, characterization, writing style, and more to discern what message the author may have intended in the work and perhaps how the literature’s existence has impacted society.
The first step in creating an oral interpretation performance is to analyze the literature you choose for performance. Like an English Literature student, you will examine all aspects of your chosen text, diving into denotative and connotative meaning, studying the relationships between characters, finding common themes and ideas, etc. This examination will lead to the next stage of the interpretation performance process.
In a Public Speaking course, you construct an oral presentation using research and organization to support and informative or persuasive thesis statement. You learn that the first step in speech construction is not selecting a topic but rather analyzing your audience so as to choose a topic and approach that will be valuable and significant to your audience. This process of considering one’s audience and choosing a message or theme also occurs as one develops an oral interpretation performance.
Through your literary analysis, you will be searching for universal themes, morals, lessons, and thesis statements you can use to connect to your audience. Rather than simply performing literature for performance’s sake, your presentations will include original introductions (you will write them) that highlight these themes for your audience. These messages will provide focus for your audience on the meaning of the literature, giving them something that can apply to their lives in a significant manner and inspire them to pay attention to the performance.
In a theatre or drama course, students learn to use their voice and body to bring a script to life for an audience. They study their assigned role or character, make choices in how that character would look, talk, walk, and respond to stimuli and others around him/her, and embody that character fully in body language and vocal characteristics as they work with others in a scene or play on stage.
To bring our chosen literature to life for our audience, we will also use the various elements of voice and body language to transmit not only the content of our literature but the feelings and emotions inherent with it to our audience. With our voices, we can use changes in rate, tone, articulation, resonance, volume, and more. With our bodies, we can use variations in posture, facial expressions, eye gazes (focal points), hand gestures, etc. It is through the use of variations in these elements that we can bring our literature to life in front of our audience.
Differences Between Theatre and Oral Interpretation
At this point, it will be helpful to understand that while acting in a play or movie and oral interpretation have similarities, there are some distinctions.
In theatre acting (stage plays, musicals, television, movies), emphasis is placed largely on spectacle (costumes, props, scenery, lighting). Actors typically memorize scripts and play only one character (exceptions to this latter characteristic being in large musicals). Actors maintain what is called an on-stage focus; as they interact, they look directly at one another in conversations (on-stage focus). Actors in these contexts typically perform only one work of literature at a time.
In contrast, in oral Interpretation, there is no spectacle. Interpers do not wear costumes, no props (or very few) are used, and there are no special scenery or lighting effects. Performers will often hold their literature/script(s), and rather than memorizing, aim for a sense of familiarity that allows them to lift their eyes from the page to gaze at the audience or focal points. Performers will often play multiple characters in oral interp and maintain a mostly off-stage or audience gaze with their focal points (see chapter 4 for more on eye contact and focal points). Many times, oral interpretation performers will present programs that contain more than one work of literature.