Reader’s theater, in which actors do not go off book, allows audience members to become engrossed in the story without some of the distractions of a traditional play, according to one actor. It also offers a challenge to thespians unlike any other.
In 2006, Deborah Shaw helped form Off the MAP, the staged reading program of the Milford Area Players. These staged or dramatic readings would be of plays that either were far too complex to stage or wouldn’t have been hits to a wide audience but were well-written. The dramatic readings are often put on after only two or three rehearsals, which keeps them fresh for the actors. While some readings include performances, a few props and costumes, others simply have actors sitting and reading from the scripts, according to Shaw.
“Part of the challenge is getting the audience to forget you have the script,” Shaw said.
Off the Map’s most successful dramatic reading is Animal Farm, which they will perform for free on Sunday, Jan. 30, at 7 p.m. The performance is a tune-up for the American Association of Community Theatre regional festival in March. Animal Farm is one of two performances representing New Hampshire in the festival, which is held in Concord. The show came in second in the New Hampshire Community Theatre Association festival in late 2010.
“If you haven’t seen a staged reading before — most people don’t get it,” Shaw said. “But through them we can really bring stories to life. People lose themselves in the story as opposed to watching who is doing what on stage.”
Shaw said performing a staged reading is challenging for an actor because it is a special type of craft.
“Many people say you can’t create a character until the script is out of hand,” Shaw said. “Well, we don’t believe that.”
The actors can’t use their full bodies, can’t take a breather and are on stage the entire show — and they must listen to each other carefully so they know they’re telling the same story. Many actors also play multiple characters and so they must shift vocal quality.
“One line you may be the narrator and the very next line you’re a pony speaking with a child’s voice and then immediately you’re an old goat,” Shaw said.
While there isn’t a lot of physical movement in Animal Farm, Shaw said there are lots of light changes, sound effects and even some singing.
“I’ve had people come up to me and say they saw the play and totally understood the essence of Animal Farm,” Shaw said. “They read it in high school but it wasn’t until our show that they got it.”
While a staged reading can be the dramatic conclusion of a script, it can also help at the beginning. For example, a free staged reading of Baby Shoes will be performed on Sunday, Jan. 30, at 2 p.m. These readings will be of four new works from local playwrights Dana Biscotti Myskowski, John Sefel, Donald Tongue and Lowell Williams. These works are based on Ernest Hemingway’s six-word short story, “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”
This will be the second staged reading of the works, according to Matthew Cahoon, president of theatre KAPOW.
The difference between these staged readings and Animal Farm is that these works will ultimately be produced as a traditional play. But, as they are new, Cahoon said staged readings allow the scripts an introduction to the audience. They also allow the writers to see what works and what falls flat so they’re able to make changes.
“Audience members seem to really like the ownership of being involved with a play from the beginning,” Cahoon said.