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1.9: Cutting and Organizing Literature for Performance

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    Sometimes, you will find a work of literature that is suitable for performance that fits nicely within time requirements you have been given for the presentation. This is not always the case, however. Many times, particularly with prose or drama, a piece you desire to use is too long for performance and requires you to make what is called a “cutting” to perform it.

    A cutting of literature is a chunk or segment of the larger work or multiple segments of the work strung together. When cutting literature, a performer should consider several factors in addition to the general expectations of the performance such as the message/theme of the performance, audience interest and expectations, the number of characters that must be performed in the work, and whether the performer will need to provide background information in the introduction to give context and aid understanding.

    When cutting a single work of literature, the cut piece should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. You may find it helpful to find your desired ending point and cut the rest of the work that you feel leads nicely up to that point. Your cutting should also demonstrate part of the conflict of the piece, though not necessarily resolution. It simply helps the interest, feel, and momentum of the performance when something happens in the literature to move the cutting forward.

    While you are cutting, consider the basic elements of dramatic structure. The term "dramatic structure" refers to the parts into which a short story, a novel, a play, a screenplay, or a narrative poem can be divided.

    Aristotle divided drama into three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Perhaps equally influential to writers and literary critics alike has been Gustav Freytag’s analysis of dramatic structure (figure 4). Although Freytag’s work is based on the structure of ancient Greek and Shakespearean five-act plays, it can be applied to works of prose (and longer works of poetry) as well. Freytag posited that plots are divided into five parts or acts:

    1. Exposition - introduction of characters, setting, etc.
      • In the exposition, the background information that is needed to understand the story properly is provided. Such information includes the protagonist, the antagonist, the basic conflict, the setting, and so forth.
      • The exposition ends with the inciting moment, which is the single incident in the story's action without which there would be no story. The inciting moment sets the remainder of the story in motion beginning with the second act, the rising action.
    2. Conflict and rising action - the issue is discovered, and problems arise due to the conflict.
      • During the rising action, the basic conflict is complicated by the introduction of related secondary conflicts, including various obstacles that frustrate the protagonist's attempt to reach his or her goal. Secondary conflicts can include adversaries of lesser importance than the story's antagonist, who may work with the antagonist or separately, by and for themselves.
    3. Climax (turning point) - the height of conflict and highest tension; everything is unleashed.
      • In the climax, or turning point, there marks a change, for the better or the worse, in the protagonist's affairs. If the story is a comedy, things will have gone badly for the protagonist up to this point; now, the tide, so to speak, will turn, and things will begin to go well for him or her. If the story is a tragedy, the opposite situation will ensue, with things going from good to bad for the protagonist.
    4. Falling action - events settle down and a solution is sought.
      • During the falling action, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist. The falling action may contain a moment of final suspense, during which the outcome of the conflict is in doubt.
    5. Dénouement or catastrophe (depending upon whether the literature is a comedy or a tragedy) - the resolution/conclusion; things come to an end happily (or not).
      • The comedy ends with a denouement in which the protagonist is better off than he or she was at the story's outset. The tragedy ends with a catastrophe in which the protagonist is worse off than he or she was at the beginning of the narrative.
    Figure 4: The five parts of Freytag's pyramid

    Organizing your cutting around the spirit of Freytag’s five elements will help move the plot along in your performance and keep the audience involved. If your author tells the story in a non-linear fashion (e.g. through flashbacks or in reverse) try your best to craft a cutting that mirrors the structure they have created.

    You will see the elements above in many works of prose and drama and sometimes in poetry, mostly within pieces that tell a story. However, works that do not include these elements should not necessarily be discounted. But, since the plot structure elements add interest and variety to an oral interp performance, you should find ways to create the spirit of these elements in whatever pieces you choose.

    Should you find a piece that seems lacking in one of more of the plot structure elements, you can sometimes find ways to use your voice and body to create the same sorts of feelings that accompany some of the elements. For example, [here I will provide an example of a poem from OER material and walk through how voice/body can be used to create build even when the poem does not tell a story.

    One method you might find helpful in cutting a literature selection is the Cha Cha Cha Method:

    1. CHUNK it. Find the various selections of your piece that give brief plot synopsis of the work, then name each section (one to two words only).
    2. CHUCK it. Throw out sections that you don’t like. Don’t worry about sections which may be important to the plot at this point. You may realize that you don’t like the piece as much as you thought you did and opt to choose something different.
    3. CHOOSE it. These are the most vital moments of your piece:
      1. This section will be the first part of the literature that you present to us. You can place it right before your self-authored introduction or right afterward. It should get the audience’s attention to set the mood. It may likely also introduce us to the main character(s).
      2. Choose the section that includes the building of intensity, perhaps the moment where the reader/audience is breathless as the events take place.
      3. It is likely that the message of your piece will appear (directly or indirectly) in this section. This is the ending that should have an impact on the audience somehow (e.g. provides hope, foreshadows dark times, resolves in tragedy, etc.). Your last line should be memorable and let the audience feel the emotion of the program.
    4. CHUM it. This section is the rising action which builds to the conflict. It should lead into the climax smoothly, so be aware of its “shape.” This section will likely make the udience like or identify with the main character/narrator. It is helpful when each pi\ce of rising action is at a different emotional level and creates engagement with variety.
    5. CHIP it. These are “trimming cuts” or the cutting of specific lines and words. This step should help to maintain the balance of each section. It can be the most difficult and painful step, and you should do it soon in the cutting process before you get too attached to the material.
    6. CHECK it. Time your performance. It is better to be short than long, as you can always add segments back into the cutting. Use time to determine the “shape” of your cutting – find a balance.
    7. CHEAT it. Sometimes, in order to make two segments “fit” back-to-back in your performance or to add context or clarity, you might need to add very brief lines. These lines can help your cutting make sense or flow better. This should be done very sparingly and with absolute caution, however, to preserve author intent and to honor the spirit of the piece.

    If you are having difficulties (e.g. the work is still too long), rethink your cutting. Is there any segment you left in the piece that has no real reason for being there? Is it necessary? If the audience does not need to know it, then cut that bit. Cuttings are organic and changing. You can always adjust them.

    You may occasionally find that a piece of literature is too short to fill performance time, and if that is the case, you can often arrange multiple pieces of literature together around a similar theme.



    Oral interpretation of literature presents a performer with marvelous potential. Because the art of oral interp is not typically tied to costumes, props, scenery, and lighting (as would be the case in a play or movie), there is room for much flexibility in the sorts of literature the performer can present to an audience. A performer need not only perform one piece of literature. In fact, it is common for an oral interpretation program to include multiple pieces that all center around a particular theme, concept, message, lesson, or thesis. One can use the cutting advice from the previous section of this chapter to take segments from various works of literature to create a performance program.

    Of course, this sort of interpretation program may put further demand on the performer in voice and body to ensure the works of literature and personae within them are distinct. But, when the performer fully understands the theme of the program, has analyzed and fully understands each work included, and gives careful thought and practice to vocal and body language delivery choices, the effect can be rewarding for audience and performer.

    Selecting one longer text for performance and having to “cut it” appropriately for performance can seem daunting enough. If you add more pieces of literature to the mix, it can seem overwhelmingly impossible.

    Building Dramatic Action

    There is no “proper” way to organize or arrange multiple pieces for performance. In fact, you may find it is most effective for your performance purposes to present an introduction, then literature work A, then work B, then work C for the ending. However, this linear progression is not the only method. You may find that a bit more “hopping around” from piece to piece throughout the performance may create a more appealing performance and do more to amplify the communicative message you desire to convey.

    You may find you can create a performance program by organizing various segments of each piece into a compiled arrangement. You might, for example, begin with a little of piece A before presenting an introduction. Then, after the intro, perhaps piece B is the next segment before getting into a little of piece A again. Then, you may decide to present a bit of piece C before going back to a different segment of piece A before finally ending on piece D. You may liken this style to a classical music symphony where several different musical segments ebb and flow, appear and reappear, throughout the several-minutes long composition.

    When using multiple pieces of literature, try to abandon the idea of telling a story. Instead, focus on the goal of imparting a theme, message, or persuasive thesis to your audience through the interpretation of your chosen literature. However, remember that you still want to create a “build” of sorts with your program and the progression of the literature, regardless of how it is arranged (see Freytag’s elements of dramatic structure in chapter 9). As mentioned previously, you will find it helpful if you know the exact segment with which you want to end the performance. You can find ways to organize the other literature pieces that build to that moment, making your total performance take on qualities like a symphony – ebbs and flows of emotion and ideas, culminating in the final thought/mood on which you choose to end.

    Students, Adam Nunez and Storm McNerney, in an emotional performance moment, Clovis Community College, 2016


    I put together a Programmed Oral Interpretation (POI, or “mixed genre”) performance for the competitive collegiate forensics circuit in the late 1990’s that honored women serving in wars. I find it helpful to share how I put this program together with my students as they learn to combine and organize multiple pieces for a performance. This is not the only way to create a performance of this type, but you may find the process inspiring as you work with literature you want to place in a program.

    In the year I created this performance, I was taking a Vietnam Literature class for my English degree. The professor had us read a book about the experiences of a woman who served as a nurse in the Vietnam War, Home Before Morning, by Lynda Van Devanter. As soon as I had read the first page, I knew it would be a great POI for competition. As I read, I bookmarked and sectioned out many different segments and paragraphs that I wanted to include in my performance. Coincidentally, the next book he had us read was a collection of poems written by women who had served in various conflicts, and I found a few that I also considered including in my program. A program honoring women veterans had started to sprout.

    At that point, I had about 30 minutes of material that I needed to whittle down to less than 10. I knew that I wanted the Van Devanter piece to be how I started and ended my program. So, I decided one particularly heart wrenching moment would be my ending. It’s a moment where the main character is completely broken because of what she saw in Vietnam. Once I had that decided, I realized I wanted the naivete the character shows in the beginning of the book to be my opening. I was starting to picture a slow deterioration of her character throughout the performance as I moved through various experiences she endured.

    Next, I had to decide how and where to include the two poems I had found and which other segments of Van Devanter’s story would make the cut. I decided to take three other moments that highlighted the slow degradation of her hope and courage: her altruistic tendencies as a child, the moment she got off the plane in Vietnam, when she saw soldiers on both sides committing horrific human acts, and a moment when her father is recording a taped message to her chronicling the ridiculous “drama” he’s experiencing at home in America. I saw the entire performance building up to the most dramatic moment in the book that I had decided would be the program’s end.

    So, I placed the two poems in places where they matched the emotion Van Devanter had just experienced in the previous segment. After her child memories of playing nurse, I included a somewhat hopeful and sweet poem about a bond a nurse shared with a Vietnamese child she had met while serving (Vo Ti Truong, by Lady Borton), highlighting the rare positive experiences one might get from serving others and one’s country. The other poem, a sarcastic take on how some American family members felt about their loved ones serving in the war (Letters From Home, by Dana Schuster), I placed right after Van Devanter’s father’s monologue to further amplify the view that so many Americans had no idea what troops and medical staff were dealing with in Vietnam.

    Lastly, I wrote my introduction to include the message I wanted to highlight, and I was left to practice and perform.

    Over the years, this program has morphed several times. As a performing artist and creator, I find that my work has the most impact when it grows with me. Changes to this performance include things like changing the way I would portray a particular character, rewording my introduction, and even swapping out one of the poems for a dialogue piece as I changed assignment requirements in my classes.

    You will find a recording of one of the iterations of this program here:

    You can see another example of a performance that uses multiple pieces of arranged literature here:

    This page titled 1.9: Cutting and Organizing Literature for Performance is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anna Martinez.

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