Weekly Volcano Blogs: Walkie Talkie Blog

October 22, 2014 at 10:27am

Dramatic Voices: A reader's theater roundup

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Did you know the last name of Hyde's more civilized alter ego is pronounced "Jeek'l?" Nor did I, but that's how Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson pronounced it. That's the fun sort of fact an actor learns working on reader's theater. One also learns Stevenson possessed an intimidating vocabulary, requiring frequent trips to unabridged dictionaries for words like cupola, ebullition and troglodytic. But what is reader's theater, anyway? Is it simply a script read out loud?

It turns out no one quite agrees on that. In fact, it's hard to say whether an apostrophe should be in the term reader's theater, or if it should, exactly where it should go. Some sources prefer chamber theater or interpretive theater. (I actually prefer "theatre," but our chosen style guide disagrees.) In some venues, it means an unmemorized performance, usually in black clothes, with scripts held on music stands or in matching binders. Often nowadays, it means a somewhat-memorized performance in any level of wardrobe. Lighting varies from ordinary house bulbs to full, colorful lighting plots. Spoken words may be accompanied by sound effects and/or music, often performed live. This can make potential audience members skittish: what exactly will we be getting for our money?

The answer may be novelty and relevance of material. One of the best things about the format is its relatively low expense, which can embolden a  company to take on riskier material. Readings are often billed as "pop-up" or "second stage" efforts, perhaps bonus events for artier subscribers. Lakewood Playhouse presents The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde only two nights, Oct. 24 and 25, on a double bill with an episode of the 1930s sci-fi radio series Lights Out. For what it's worth, I've been cast in the dual title role, but radio-style performances are always carefully orchestrated team efforts. The sound effects alone are a two-person job.

Nov. 6, director Nic Olson presents a reader's theater performance of My Name Is Rachel Corrie at Tacoma Little Theatre, with Lauren Nance as Ms. Corrie. Olson's a longtime fan of dramatic readings; his company, New Muses, produced staged readings of This Is Our Youth, On the Verge, and Copenhagen at TLT and LP over the last year. He'll direct a reading of Angels in America at Olympia Little Theatre in February, and who can blame him for eschewing a memorized production? That show, which is usually split into long halves called Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, is easily six hours long. Of course, it's also a modern-day classic deserving of an audience's investment of time and attention.

The trick for spectators will be - as it always is for reader's theater - to simply lean back, close our eyes, and let sounds and dialogue wash over our minds. Actors relish these opportunities to switch vocal cadences and timbres, flicking through distinct characters right before our very ears. Of course, theater seats can be terribly comfy, so I recommend avoiding hearty, soporific meals beforehand. In a reader's theater performance space, everyone including the actors hears a sudden snore.

Filed under: Word, Theater, Tacoma, Lakewood,
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