WHAT IS READERS THEATRE?

[Excerpted from READERS THEATRE, WHAT IT IS, HOW TO STAGE IT by Marvin Kaye, published in 1995 by The Stage & Screen Book Club; available from Wildside Press via amazon.com]

One afternoon last August, Beverly Fite, a charter member of The Open Book, was riding the subway on her way to a rehearsal of Caroline E. Wood's play in the form of letters, The Immigrant Garden, when she noticed that one of her fellow passengers was reading the script over her shoulder and had tears in her eyes. B ("My friends call me B. Not Beverly, just B") introduced herself and discovered her travel companion was another theatre person, Bobbie Hellard, of Ramona, California. Bobbie started to apologize for peeking at B's mail, and was surprised to find out that the passage she'd read was actually part of a new playscript.

"How fortunate you are to be working on such a touching script," Ms. Hellard later wrote. "In this day where words assault and offend, your lines are like the lavender-scented breeze. It never ceases to amaze me that all of the high-tech special effects people hunger for these days cannot measure up to the power of well-chosen words."

That phrase embodies the essence of readers theatre. Critic Walter Kerr once observed in a review of a production of Bűchner's Danton's Death that, despite the milling throngs and undeniably exciting spectacle, the drama -- and by extension, all drama -- does not get under way till the crowds exit and Danton confronts Robespierre. Which is another way of saying that mise en scene is a poor substitute for the power of language. Elaborate costumes, lighting effects, settings, even mime and dance are the baggage of Hellmouth, stuff designed to keep lowbrows amused while the players hammer home the playwright's true purpose.

Bill Bonham, cofounder and president of The Open Book, defines readers theatre as "a creative, fluid art form that presents all styles of literature, focusing on the experience found in the writer's text and encouraging the active imagination and intellectual participation of the audience. It is a presentational form, suggesting rather than representing the literature's physical elements. Thus, one reader may assume multiple roles, two or more readers may play one character, and minimal settings, costumes and lighting are fleshed out in the minds of the spectators. It is often referred to as `theatre of the mind.' One member of our audience calls it `visual radio.' "

In John Gassner's Producing the Play, Mordecai Gorelik defines presentationalism as "staging which emphasizes ... a direct relationship between the performers and the audiences. Presentational staging removes that invisible `fourth wall' which remains in (representational) staging even after the curtain is lifted." In traditional theatre, presentationalism is generally associated with those asides and soliloquies commonly found in Shakespeare, Marlowe, Goldoni, Moliere, commedia dell'arte, Restoration comedy, etc. In readers theatre, however, direct eye contact is often made with audience members and actors who appear with The Open Book are told that when there is an invisible "fourth wall," it is only waist-high and must be peeped over from time to time.

Most actors admit the necessity of illuminating the author's text, but too often that only implies the motivational study of "beats" and "actions" associated with Stanislavski's method of physical objectives. In readers theatre, texts must be analyzed with a thoroughness analogous to the scrutiny a professional violinist would afford a Beethoven quartet. (By now, it should be evident that readers theatre has nothing in common with "staged readings." The word "readers" is probably responsible for the error, similar to how Physician Assistants are sometimes confused with nurses instead of being recognized as the case-managing medical professionals they actually are.)

The physical scripts sometimes seen onstage in readers theatre productions are purely symbolic. At The Open Book, performers are required to memorize their lines, and often the books are only seen at the beginning and end of a performance. (The final curtain call is always reserved for the script itself).

In America, the origin of readers theatre is generally attributed to developments in the speech and oral interpretation curriculum at Northwestern University and other schools. Directors, educators and writers like Bll Bonham, Leslie Irene Coger, Marvin Kaye, Harriet Nesbit, Shirlee Sloyer, Melvin R. White, Judy E. Yordon and many others explored techniques and forms of analysis and interpretation ..

In a broader sense, however, readers theatre shares a common heritage with traditional theatre. In an article in the June 1932 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Eugene Bahn traces the beginnings of interpretive reading (from which readers theatre derives) to that moment in the early Greek drama when the actor playing Thespis stepped forward to tell the audience a narrative myth. This is the same moment of choral delineation that theatrical scholars point to when asked to trace the rise of the modern stage.
... this common origin suggests that readers theatre is not a new art form, but an old one which speech and oral interpretation professors have rescued and refurbished.

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THE OPEN BOOK: MISSION AND HISTORY

The Open Book, New York's oldest professional readers theatre ensemble, was founded in and has been continuously operating since 1975. The company was formed to develop a streamlined alternative to America's overproduced traditional theatre. Our mission is to present the best of all worlds of literature -- prose, poetry, drama, even nonfiction -- to our culturally diverse tri-state audience, with emphasis on new under-appreciated literature of excellence that is likely to be bypassed by traditional theatre companies.

The Open Book's performing style combines recognized readers theatre methods (often called "theatre of the mind") with minimalist staging concepts variously expressed by Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, Jerzy Grotowski, Keith Johnstone and Bernard Shaw, as well as dynamic rhythmic and phrasing techniques more commonly found in chamber theatre (what our artistic director Marvin Kaye calls "the Open Book effect.") The Open Book's presentational "living room" style consciously invokes the mythic power of language, with all its sonorities and connotations, to stimulate the imagination of the audience. One of The Open Book's patrons has described our productions as "Visual Radio."

The Open Book mission encompasses three primary communities we are committed to serve: 1) new and/​​or underutilized writing talent throughout the nation; 2) a tri-state general theatre audience with substantial discounts for the elderly and for students, and 3) economically disadvantaged Manhattan schools.

For nine years, The Open Book recognized and promoted writing talent nationally through the annual theatre playwrighting competition it cosponsors with The Stage & Screen division of Doubleday Book and Music Clubs. A series of winning scripts were produced in New York by The Open Book, and published and distributed by Doubleday. A strong response was realized during the competition's first four years, with approximately 450 entries submitted by playwrights in 40 states.

The Open Book serves audiences throughout the New York/​​New Jersey/​​Connecticut region, and manifests a special responsibility to residents of New York's East Side, where our company is based, by making our growing repertoire of new and worthwhile literature available, accessible and affordable. We offer better than 50% discounts to senior citizens, students and teachers and complimentary admission to U. S. service personnel.


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T H I R T Y – F I V E Y E A R S O F U N I Q U E T H E A T R E

1975: THE OPEN BOOK -- New York's oldest readers theatre ensemble is created by a team of professional actors, educators and writers.

1976: A series of biannual performances at Lincoln Center begin with THE OPEN BOOK's "signature piece," Poetry in Motion.

1980: THE OPEN BOOK becomes a tax-free nonprofit charitable institution and begins an authors reading series, "Writers On Stage," funded by Poets & Writers, Inc. In the same year, THE OPEN BOOK performs at the Folger
Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D. C., and also at Symphony Space.

1990: THE OPEN BOOK moves to the Amsterdam Room, 171 West 85th Street, and
receives New York State Arts Council funding for "Six Women in Search of
Liberation." In the same year, the company establishes the Jean Paiva
Memorial Fund for new writers, in memory of its late PR director. The
company remains at the Amsterdam Room for eight years, producing
approximately fifty Equity showcases in that time.

1994: THE OPEN BOOK establishes a separate educational outreach division and curriculum, Growing A Story: A Theatrical Exploration of Imagination for Literacy Enrichment at P. S. 128, Manhattan, with funding from The Astor Foundation, the J&L Dreyfus Foundation, and the NYC Board of Education.

1994: THE OPEN BOOK begins an annual national playwrighting competition
cosponsored by Doubleday's Stage & Screen Book Club. The Stage & Screen
Book Club publishes the winning scripts in anthologies edited by Marvin
Kaye. THE OPEN BOOK produces the first winning scripts at the Amsterdam
Room and at The Miranda Theatre, by invitation of sponsor Mario Fratti,
playwright and owner of the Miranda. Contest judges include Carol Higgins
Clark, Prof. Louis Fantasia, John Jakes, Marvin Kaye, Rex Robbins, Mary
Stuart and Prof. Judy E. Yordon.

1996: THE OPEN BOOK begins a series of national readers theatre
workshop/​​conferences at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford,
Connecticut, with the sponsorship of George C. White, founder and
President of the O'Neill Center.

1998: THE OPEN BOOK appears for seventeen weeks at the Jan Hus Playhouse,
producing two off-Broadway shows, CHARLATAN, A Memoir of Sergei Diaghilev
written by and starring four-time Tony nominee Tony Tanner, and "The
Hoboken Chicken Emergency", an a cappella musical based on the book by
author and National Public Radio personality Daniel Pinkwater.

1999: THE OPEN BOOK produces new plays at The Producers Club and the 78th Street Theatre Lab, as well as a staged reading of a new Sherlock Holmes musical.

2001: THE OPEN BOOK continues producing national competition winners at the 78th Street Theatre Lab, and enters negotiations to produce several off-Broadway shows in 2003.

2003: THE OPEN BOOK begins a 12-year annual run of "The Last Christmas of Ebenezer Scrooge," acclaimed by "The New York Times."

2006: THE OPEN BOOK produces the critically-acclaimed drama, "Strings" by Carole Bugge', starring Keir Dullea, Mia Dillon, and Warren Kelley.

2007: THE OPEN BOOK produces two evenings of ghost stories by British actor Robert Lloyd Parry.

2008: THE OPEN BOOK produces "Mrs. Gaskell's Lover" at the 78th Street Theatre Lab.

2010: THE OPEN BOOK produces "Mister Jack," a Don Juan interactive comedy by charter member Marvin Kaye.
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