Reader's theatre

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Reader's theatre or Reader's theater is a style of theater in which the actors do not memorize their lines. Actors use only vocal expression to help the audience understand the story rather than visual storytelling such as sets, costumes, intricate blocking, and movement. This style of performance of literature was initially lauded because it emphasized hearing a written text as a new way to understand literature.


Reader's Theatre is also known as Chamber Theatre or Interpretive Theatre. Reader's Theatre became popular during and following the Second World War, when resources to produce plays were scarce. There are four different types of Readers Theatre, each an evolution of the former and each with different attributes: Readers Theatre, Free Readers Theatre, Chamber Theatre, and Contemporary Readers Theatre. Each of these styles and manifestations of Readers Theatre are still performed today.

The original Readers Theatre was presented using only scripts and stools or chairs. The material performed was plays, poems, narrative fiction, and non-dramatic literature. The performers' focus was offstage and limited costuming was sometimes used (often the readers wore all black to strip away character and allow for more focus on vocal interpretation of the piece). While the readers may have interpreted the scenes or poems cold, in most cases the scripts were memorized and rehearsals were conducted with even more intensity than those conducted for a regular play. There was little to no interaction between performers or movement. This style of performance also helped performers deal with performance anxiety.[1]

Free Readers Theater was a little more free than traditional Readers Theater. The materials performed were all the same except plays were no longer performed. The performers were now able to look at and interact with each a little more and the presence of scripts was optional. Blocking began to appear which suggested psychological relationships between characters and pictorial compositions (for example, if two characters hated each other, they might be at opposite ends of the stage, and as the tension rises, they might move toward each other). The performers still wore black, but some wore additional costume pieces to help suggest character (such as a hat or shawl).[2]

Chamber Theater focused on narrative fiction only (no other type of material was performed). Scripts were almost always memorized (a narrator might carry a script to make their authoritative voice). The movement became more elaborate and could be associated with more traditional theater practices; it was used in such a way to reveal the character's role and relationships in the story. Costuming evolved into suggested or full costumes.[3]

Contemporary Readers Theatre is commonly practiced today. It is less bound by convention and uses techniques from all of the above traditions of Readers Theatre. It is influenced by performance art techniques which is to say there is an increasing emphasis on creating a critical performance that interrogates the text instead of being faithful to it and doing a good representation to share the meaning with the audience. Contemporary Readers Theatre is influenced by Augusto Boal who emphasized creating interactive improvisational performances where the emphasis is on the performers and audiences' reaction to the central theme of the performance.[4]

Theatre in Education[edit]

According to some drama teachers,[who?] plays have built-in strategies to help students improve their reading skills. The acting out of dialogue causes readers to work more closely with the text to project and interpret meaning into the reading experience. Consequently, students gain improvement in vocabulary, comprehension and retention. Reading in a small group provides reading role models which is also proven to improve reading skills in students. Research has shown that Readers Theatre can improve reading fluency, word choice and comprehension.[5][6][7]

One of the foremost authors on Readers Theatre was Dr. Leslie Irene Coger. Dr. Coger wrote the book Readers Theatre Handbook: A Dramatic Approach to Literature.


Another leading author on the subject was Fran A. Tanner who wrote the book "Readers Theatre Fundamentals." Her other book "Basic Drama Projects" is a staple in educational theatre. [9]

Dr. Leslie Irene Coger[edit]

Dr. Coger, mentioned above as one of the foremost authors on Readers Theatre, began studying expression at the age of nine with a local instructor, Gladys Anderson. In the 1930s, she attended the Curry School of Expression in Boston. She received her Ph.D. in 1952 and spent much of her career as a professor at Southwest Missouri State University. Her retirement was followed by Missouri governor Kit Bond naming July 11, 1981 "Leslie Irene Coger Day," and in 1982, Southwest Missouri State University named its new theatre after her. In 1989, she was inducted into the College of Fellows of the American Theatre. In 1994, she received the Distinguished Service Award from the Performance Studies division of the National Communication Association (NCA).

Dr. Coger tracks the rise of Reader's Theatre as part of the larger shifts in her field, beginning with "expression" in the 1930s, to "oral interpretation" in the late 1940s, to simply "interpretation" in the late 1950s and 1960s. In the wake of New Criticism, the "interpretation" era focused on works of fiction and analysis of literature, and the study of persona, narrators, and the implied author. This turn gave the discipline room for group performances alongside solo performance of interpretations, including styles such as Chamber Theatre, Theatre of the Mind, and, as Dr. Coger writes in her handbook, Readers Theatre.

Finally, Dr. Coger tracks the shift in the 1990s from "interpretation" to "performance studies" the field as we know it today.[10]


  1. ^ Walker, Rebecca. "Readers Theatre Presentation." Performance History. Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 14 April 2014. Lecture.
  2. ^ Walker, Rebecca. "Readers Theatre Presentation." Performance History. Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 14 April 2014. Lecture.
  3. ^ Walker, Rebecca. "Readers Theatre Presentation." Performance History. Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 14 April 2014. Lecture.
  4. ^ Walker, Rebecca. "Readers Theatre Presentation." Performance History. Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 14 April 2014. Lecture.
  5. ^ The Power of Readers Theater
  6. ^ Archived: Improving Fluency - Research-Based Instruction in Reading
  7. ^ (pages 24-29)
  8. ^ Readers Theatre Handbook: A Dramatic Approach to Literature. Revised Edition
  9. ^ Tanner, Fran. "Readers Theatre Fundamentals." Clark Pub Co; 2nd edition (June 1, 1993)
  10. ^ Coger, Leslie Irene. "From Elocution to Performance Studies: A Personal History." Future of Performance Studies: Visions and Revisions. Ed. Sheron Dailey. Annadale, VA: National Communication Association, 1998. 110 - 113. Print.

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