Oral interpretation

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A student of Yogyakarta State University performing a dramatic reading of a short story

Oral Interpretation is a dramatic art, also commonly called "interpretive reading" and "dramatic reading", though these terms are more conservative and restrictive. In certain applications, oral interpretation is also a theatre art – as in reader's theatre, in which a work of literature is performed with manuscripts in hand or, more traditionally, using stools and music stands; and especially chamber theatre, which dispenses with manuscripts and uses what may be described as essentialist costuming and stage lighting, and suggestive scenery.

The term is succinctly defined by Paul Campbell (The Speaking and Speakers of Literature; Dickinson, 1967) as the "oralization of literature"; or more eloquently, if less intelligibly, by Charlotte Lee and Timothy Gura (Oral Interpretation; Houghton-Mifflin, 1997) as "the art of communicating to an audience a work of literary art in its intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic entirety". Historically essential to Charlotte Lee's definition of oral interpretation is the fact the performer is "reading from a manuscript". This perspective, once the majority view, has long since become the minority opinion on the question; so that whether one is or is not reading from a manuscript, the art retains the same name.

Voice and movement technique is opsis ("spectacle") while oral interpretation is, conceptually, melopoiia ("music technique").

Because oral interpretation is an essential dramatic element in all performance art (even dance, in which the oral element is most typically a silent element), all actors, singers, storytellers, etc., are interpreters – but not all interpreters are necessarily actors, or singers, or storytellers, and so on. When, for example, the writer David Sedaris reads one of his stories on stage, or when Leonard Cohen performs one of his lyric poems, they are both engaged in the art of oral interpretation. But Sedaris is no actor, and even Cohen himself would say that he is no singer.[1]

In the United States, there is a historic and purely academic argument as to whether oral interpretation and drama/theatre performance are different names for the same thing or whether they are completely different art forms. This argument is almost exclusively found at colleges and universities whose theatre programs evolved in departments historically or currently called "English and Speech", "Speech and Dramatic Arts" or "Communication and Theatre Arts". The argument is rarely heard in theatre programs that did not evolve out of English and/or Speech Communication departments, such as those associated with schools/colleges of music.

In high schools across the United States, Oral Interpretation is a very highly valued competition event, particularly in the mid-western states, such as Nebraska, Iowa, and South Dakota. Students select a work of literature, make a cutting of the literature to fit a time limit of 10 minutes, and perform it in several rounds at tournaments across their state. The piece must be from a published, worthwhile piece of literature, with the exception of Readers Theatre. The categories of said event are as follows:

  • Serious Prose—Interpretation of a work of prose literature with a serious basis. Single-person event.
  • Humorous Interp—Interpretation of any published work of comedic literature. Single-person event
  • Dramatic Interp—Interpretation of a dramatic play with a serious nature. Single-person event.
  • Poetry—Interpretation of a published work of poetry. Single-person event.
  • Non-Original Oratory—Interpretation of an oratorical speech that has been previously delivered. Single-person event.
  • Duo Interpretation—Interpretation of a piece of literature where two Interpers are involved. The pair may not look at nor touch each other, and must deliver the piece in the direction of the audience. This category has the most stringent rules.
  • Readers Theatre—A theatrical interpretation performance where 3-6 people participate. They may perform an original piece, or they may take a cutting from a work of literature. This category has the least amount of rules.


  1. ^ "1992 Video: Leonard Cohen On His Atrocious Voice, Dylan, Ice-T, Songwriting, Love & Where's The Beef". cohencentric.com. 22 June 2015.