Interpretation of literature is not something you can only do solo. There are many forms of group oral interpretation. Group performances can be amazingly creative and, in some ways, more entertaining than a stage play since the performers are freed from the burden of using costumes, set pieces, makeup, and backdrops. Group interpretive performances also often involve more than script literature. Just like solo interpretation, groups can perform essays, poetry, speeches, and more.
There are a few forms of group performance. You may be familiar with one of them if your primary school teacher(s) ever had you perform a poem with others in front of your class or school. Known as choral reading, this type of interpretation emphasizes performers reciting lines together, typically with highly rehearsed and synchronized vocal tone and body language.
This chapter, however, will explore one form of group interpretation in more depth. Readers Theatre is a particular form of group interp where two or more performers emphasize a particular theme or message through the performance of one or more texts. Just like solo interp performance, participants do not use costumes, props, set pieces, lighting, or makeup, so the group must be creative in the way participants use their bodies and voices to communicate things like setting and context (if needed). Like most oral interpretation performances for adult audiences, the emphasis is less on telling a story and more on highlighting a particular communicative message, thesis, or idea. Due to this, performing groups are less bound to typical storytelling parameters like having an exposition, plot, or resolution.
Similar to solo interpretative performances, Readers Theatre performances also typically involve:
- No (or very limited) costumes, props, set pieces, and other typical stage play resources.
- One or more pieces of literature.
- An introduction highlighting the title(s)/author(s) of pieces and performance thesis, message, or significance to the audience.
- Performers holding their scripts and sometimes even using them as props.
- Use of off-stage focal points (except for the introduction).
- Performers portraying more than one persona throughout the program.
Since Readers Theatre involves more than one person, this spawns interesting opportunities for performers to employ creative group performance techniques such as:
- Performing a one-voice piece using multiple voices/participants.
- Performers becoming backgrounds, sound effects, animation, and inanimate objects.
- Performing certain lines in a choral fashion with multiple participants speaking at once.
- Performers playing more than just one persona in a program.
- Some performers creating frozen or slow-moving background tableaus while others perform the words of a piece.
- Creating the visual appearance of a synchronized team.
- Readers Theatre participants traditionally wear black to remain versatile enough to play multiple personas, but groups will often dress in attire appropriate to the theme of their program.
- Physical scripts are all identical and performers synchronize page turning during performance.
The words “group work” often conjure a slew of curse words in people who have had horrible experiences. However, group work offers a host of advantages that can make the final product better than if only one person had worked on the project. With multiple brains thinking, imagining, and pouring energy into a project, amazing ideas spring up. Analyzing a script alone, for example, you may have never thought about performing the main character with an accent or assigning certain participants to pose as trees during a forest scene.
When participants in a group commit to a project, it can result in less pressure and stress about the whole project. More hands on deck can feel like less of a workload on all involved. Additionally, as humans are social creatures, the time participants spend in analysis, rehearsal, and performance together increases the fun factor significantly, particularly when group members are a bit nervous when performing solo. Plus, when people perform with others, there is a certain energy that sizzles among participants and often results in performers “kicking it up a notch” a bit more than they would in performance by themselves.
Challenges and Advice
Group work can, at times, be frustrating. These are busy times, and participants are often balancing jobs, family life, etc. Different personalities with different work habits might sometimes result in conflict. However, if you approach a group project with a positive outlook and begin work early with your group, you will often be more pleased with the final product than you ever would have been if you had worked alone.
Follow this advice during your time working on a group performance project:
- Always stay in touch with your group members as you prepare the performance. No excuses. Tell them with your words and show them with your behavior that you are in it to win it and that you want to complete your share of the work. If you are not planning to complete the project, be honest and up front so your group can move on without you. You will avoid hard feelings this way if you do it in a timely manner.
- As you begin your work together, if you have truly tried to get in touch with group members and they don't seem ready to begin, you should start working. Find some pieces you might be able to do, come up with a theme, write an introduction. When you do finally get a hold of some members, you can tell them what you have already done and divide up duties on what still needs to happen. Sometimes, members just need to see that a little something has been done to kick start their motivation to begin.
- Listen to one another. Be sure to include brainstorming sessions to generate ideas, allowing all members to voice their thoughts without judgment (refer to chapter 12 for the subject of listening).
- Talk to your instructor/coach if you are having repeated issues with a member. But, this should be done only after all other means of communication with the member have been exhausted.
Group work, as frustrating as it can be, does not go away, ever, even once you begin a career or start a family. However, it can be highly rewarding and productive. You must, however, remain patient, persistent, and sometimes be willing to begin the project if others are slow in getting started.
You should begin your Readers Theatre journey by getting to know your group mates. You will be collaborating with them for a couple of weeks at the very least, and in most cases, even longer. If possible, engage in some creative, team-building exercises with them (hopefully your instructor will guide you through some of these if you are in a course).
Then, your group can begin to look for literature you might want to perform or decide on a theme/message/thesis you may want to impart to your audience. If you have a piece of literature in mind, discuss messages or themes in that literature with your group and what other texts you might add to the program (if needed). The other pieces of literature you might add should have something to add to the theme/message/thesis you see highlighted in that first “base” piece you examined. Or, if you have a theme you want to explore, your group should start brainstorming and finding various literature pieces that would fit well together in your Readers Theatre program.
As you consider adding and arranging the texts into your program, keep variety in mind. Your pieces should all have something a little different to “say” about the message you are sharing with your audience. Consider the advice from the previous chapter on arranging literature for a performance and building dramatic action. Create a “symphony” of mood, emotion, and/or tone with the various pieces in your program.
Even while you are in the collecting, organizing, and sorting process, begin preliminary performance work right away. Read the lines aloud with one another to make some early casting assignments, play with body language and staging, and discuss what might be happening visually in each segment. It is easy for a group to start to feel too comfortable sitting around and chatting about the project and getting up and performing with your peers nearby can be a bit nerve-wracking. Start it early so that you have more time feeling comfortable taking chances with one another and your performance choices.
Once you’ve organized your literature and perhaps even written your introduction, the physical rehearsal stage can begin. You can make final casting choices, assigning particular lines/paragraphs/words to members. You can also stage the movement in the program, also known as “blocking.” It is in this stage where the creativity of multiple brains can really make a program special. Often, those doing group interpretation for the first time cannot help but feel they require elements such as furniture, costumes, a “backstage” area, etc. because those are the types of performances they are used to seeing. But, they soon realize that those things are not necessary and can actually restrict their creative abilities. In oral interpretation, performers are limited only by their imaginations. Consider some of these Readers Theatre techniques that are often used to take the place of some typical staged play or movie scene elements:
- Entrances/Exits: Since there is no backstage area, performers who are not in a segment or who are entering/exiting a scene can simply bow their heads, turn around, move behind other performers, or sit when necessary.
- Transitions: In plays or movies, lights dim or there is a change in physical location when moving from one scene to another. So, when transitioning out of one text to another in a Readers Theatre program, performers can turn around, move positions, do slight head bows, etc. The group could even chant a line each time a new piece is about to begin. Be creative and clear in your choices, and audiences will know when you have moved into a new piece of literature or a new scene.
- Time: Makeup, lighting, set design, and more can help indicate when time has passed or characters have aged in movies and plays. In interp, group members can move in slow motion, speed up significantly, or even freeze completely to indicate time elements.
- Haptics and touch: We are accustomed to seeing actors interacting in natural space in plays or movies, hugging one another, shaking hands, etc. Since interpretation uses off-stage focal points, groups must be creative in how they communicate these sorts of actions in performance. For example, two performers whose characters shake hands must watch one another peripherally and synchronize their hand movement with excellent timing to communicate that mutual gesture.
- Scenery: Since interp does not employ backdrops or elaborate furniture pieces as environment cues for the audience, Readers Theatre performers can become these items. Consider, for example, having two performers with raised arms forming an arch around another performer to communicate the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet. Or, perhaps multiple performers can stand behind Santiago and sway to become the ocean as he fishes in his boat in an excerpt from Old Man and the Sea.
The possibilities are endless. And, what is so freeing about this style of performance is that since groups are not using bulky set pieces and costumes, performers can move quickly in and out of these positions and situations to be ready for the next segment.
For a great example of many of these techniques from this chapter in action, look at this example Readers Theatre: https://youtu.be/XRApnrsZ9UQ.
Keys to a Successful Group Performance
The keys with Readers Theatre and group interpretation performance are creativity and flexibility. Think outside of the usual boxes. If you are performing a text that you have once seen as a movie, do not reduce your performance to being a simple imitation of what you have seen. Examine the words as they exist on the page and consider the myriad ways you can present these words to the audience to highlight your chosen message. If something you try with your group does not seem to be working, be flexible enough to adjust. Work as a team and enjoy the final product when you perform it together for your audience.