My introduction to reader’s theater came as a happy accident. Though I was living in a remote area, it happened to be the home of one of the most accomplished and innovative of all reader’s theater troupes—a professional, nonprofit group called the Chamber Readers.
The locale was Humboldt County, California, where the Chamber Readers have been promoting reading and literature since 1975. For most of its first two decades—including my own five years with the group—it was directed by Jean Wagner, a founding member. Considered a local institution, the Chamber Readers have performed yearly in almost every public school in the county. (For more info, visit www.chamberreaders.org.)
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In its most basic form, reader’s theater is visually somewhat staid, with readers arranged statically in a row or semicircle. A step beyond that, the readers might move into or out of positions between scenes. But in striving to appeal to young audiences, the Chamber Readers developed a style that is much more dynamic. Though still based on the visible use of scripts and the suggestive power of language, it adds a good deal of movement as well. This style is much more demanding, but it can also be more involving for both readers and audience.
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Briefly, the distinctive features of the Chamber Readers style are:
Characters portray the action described in the story. Where possible, the portrayal is literal, with characters moving around the stage much as in a play. Where necessary, it’s suggestive, as with simple mime devices like walking in place.
Though narrators look mostly at the audience, characters look mostly at each other.
Scripts in sturdy binders are held in one hand, leaving the other hand free for acting.
A set of low stools and perhaps one or more high stools serve as versatile stage scenery or props.
I’ve written in detail about the Chamber Readers style in my book Readers on Stage. Still, it’s admittedly hard to “get it” at first without seeing it in action. To that end, I commissioned the Chamber Readers in 2006 to perform and record three stories of my own. Those are the three recordings linked from this page. As far as I know, they are the first videos of the Chamber Readers to be widely available!
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There are no right or wrong ways to do reader’s theater. Even in its simplest form, reader’s theater is powerful and effective. But if you have the time and resources to experiment with the Chamber Readers style, I’m sure you’ll find it rewarding, as well as great fun.
Dec. 15, 2010
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Readers on Stage