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Readers' Theatre for Educators by Diana R. Jenkins

What Is Readers' Theater, Anyway?

Readers’ theater is easier theater! Actors don’t memorize their lines—they simply read from their scripts. Because memorization isn’t an issue, more students are able to handle large roles. Also, extensive rehearsal isn’t necessary. And, unlike “regular” theater, a readers’ theater production isn’t thrown into a tailspin by memory lapses or absences.

Other aspects of readers’ theater are easy, too. Sets, costumes, props, and even movement are not needed as the plays are written to work without them. The extras can be included if desired, but readers’ theater works even if the actors just sit there and read!

How Do I Get Started?

Before you use a readers’ theater play, read it yourself and make sure that the content, theme, and vocabulary are appropriate for your students. Decide whether you need to preview any concepts or vocabulary. If you are thinking about staging the play for an audience, consider which students might fit which roles, but don’t set your cast just yet.

Once you decide on a play, make as many copies of the script as there are parts plus one for yourself. Highlight one character’s lines in each copy (except yours) to make it easier for kids to read. Covering or binding scripts will help them last through multiple readings.

After giving students time to read through their scripts silently, have them read the play aloud from their desks. You can change roles with each scene to involve more students. (This also allows you to see how different kids handle different roles. If you decide later to stage the play, you can choose your cast according to who fits which character instead of who can memorize the most lines.) This kind of read-through makes a good, one-time, supplemental activity in your classroom, but you can do much more with readers’ theater!

For example, you could have students read a particular script multiple times on different days. The repetition gives you several opportunities to teach comprehension skills like character traits, motivation, story structure, theme, and cause-and-effect. And rereading allows kids to relax about the reading itself and develop a deeper understanding of the characters and theme of the play.

Multiple readings also improve fluency and expression. You can help with these skills by sharing the presentation suggestions included in each play’s introductory material and by asking questions about the characters’ feelings and motivation. If a student has difficulty with expression, “echo reading” can help. You model his lines with good expression and have him copy you. It doesn’t usually take much of this practice to get a young actor on the right track. Allowing students to record themselves as they read their lines and listen afterwards also develops better expression.

After several readings, you might want to move students from their desks to a traditional readers’ theater set-up at the front of the room. The actors in readers’ theater usually sit on stools or chairs throughout the play, holding and reading their scripts. Sometimes the actors sit with their backs to the audience, “entering” by facing front and reading their lines and “exiting” by turning around again. The narrator might stand to one side or read from a lectern. Getting away from their desks like this can make readers’ theater more fun for your students and motivate them to further improve their performances.

What about Performing for an Audience?

You may decide to use readers’ theater only as a supplemental activity in your classroom. However, you could be tempted—or persuaded!—to actually stage a performance for a real, live audience.

How do you make the transition?

First of all, rehearse enough that actors can read with good expression and look up from their scripts occasionally. (But don’t over-rehearse! This is easier theater, remember?) Be sure to go through the whole play at least once without stopping. Set up your first “real” performance with an audience that’s not too threatening; a group of younger kids works well. Later, you can try performing for scarier audiences like peers or adults.

After some successful readers’ theater performances, your kids may naturally move towards something more like “regular” theater. They might make more facial expressions, gesture, or ask to act things out. At this point, you could abandon the traditional set-up and allow students to enter and exit and to move around the stage, holding their scripts.

Eventually, you may discover that your kids are memorizing some lines on their own. They might even ask to drop the scripts and do a “real” play. Or maybe you’ll decide to encourage that yourself and move completely into “regular” theater. That’s a great experience for your kids, but remember you don’t have to put together a big production. Feel free to stick to the simple, traditional, readers’ theater format.

The closer you get to a “regular” theater performance, the more likely it is that your kids will ask for sets, props, and costumes. This book includes suggestions about these extras in case you want to include them, but the scripts are written to make them unnecessary. If you decide to use these items, don’t rehearse with them right away as they distract kids from developing their characters and improving their performances.

To involve more students, you can put several plays together into a longer program. While you work with one group, other casts could be reading through their scripts together or making invitations, programs, sets, props, or costumes. While an absence isn’t a catastrophe in readers’ theater, it doesn’t hurt to have one cast watch another cast’s rehearsal or read another group’s play just in case.

Is It Really Worth It?

Every child can benefit from theater experiences. Of course, plays about a particular subject matter motivate kids to learn important information, but theater develops other academic skills, too. Performing a play—even just from their desks—helps kids develop language arts skills like listening, reading, and speaking. You can also use theater to improve writing skills by asking students to rewrite their lines, add new lines, or write the endings to interrupted lines. (The last one is really a must! Nothing is more awkward than an actor pausing before he’s actually interrupted. If he writes out the rest of his line, he can keep going until the next person breaks in or until the end of the line if necessary.) Kids can also write alternate endings to plays or make up their own scripts.

Theater yields nonacademic benefits, too. Putting on a performance takes skills like working hard, setting goals, meeting challenges, staying patient, and cooperating with others. (And that’s not just for the teacher!) Kids experience a real sense of accomplishment from their individual successes as well as the group’s achievements. And the self-esteem they develop in theater carries over into the rest of their lives!

About the Author
After over twenty years as a special education teacher, Diana R. Jenkins became a freelance writer. She has written more than four hundred stories, comic strips, and articles for children and teens as well as two books of readers’ theater plays and two forthcoming comic collections. Her latest book Spotlight on Saints! A Year of Funny Readers’ Theater for Today’s Catholic Kids was released in 2009.