Church: Theater of the Imagination
Little did I know in my senior year of college that we were having fun participating in a centuries-old form of theater. My friends and I simply thought we had created a unique style of entertainment.
It began when the six of us crowded around on a couch and read from A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, each of us taking on a different character or part. Jeannie read in our best Winnie-the-Pooh voice. Linda, Debbie and Sybil chimed in at appropriate places as Christopher Robin, Kanga and Roo. I was the narrator. The one who stole the show, though, was Seth. No one could read the part of grumpy old Eeyore like him.
The performances were mostly for our benefit, but sometimes we played before small audiences, such as my parents and brothers. But no matter where or when we read, we did so with great expression and drama — and had fun. Imaginations took flight. We almost felt like we were right there with Pooh in his little corner of the world.
The long-forgotten memory resurfaced this past spring when I was invited to participate in a dramatic reading for our church’s Easter celebration. Here, for the first time, I was introduced to the term “Readers Theater.” Although the tone of the Easter script was far removed from a children’s story, the experience reminded me of the value of expressive oral reading. Performing in this way draws both reader and listener into the time, place, and emotion of a story—and leaves a lasting impression. It’s a good way to bring to life Bible stories and their meaning for special worship occasions in church.
Our team performed “He Is Risen,” a Readers Theater script written by Pastor Rick Shallenberger of Christ Fellowship Church, Cincinnati. Characters included Mary the mother of Jesus, the apostle John, Mary Magdalene, Peter and Saul. We readers entered the sanctuary and, on cue, stood at music stands with our scripts before us. Having practiced together, we were familiar with such fundamental elements as the tone of the piece, need for inflection and feeling, and difficult word pronunciations. We learned how to express the emotions of our characters and how to trail off our part as the next reader picked up theirs. In this manner the story could flow smoothly.
While familiar to the audience, the story line of “He Is Risen” soon touched listeners in a personal — and powerful — way. Scene One explored the overwhelming emotions felt by key individuals present at Jesus’ crucifixion. Scene Two built to a climactic expression of exhilaration experienced by the same people when they learned of Jesus’ resurrection. In turn, a degree of this exhilaration was transferred to all in the room at the glorious reminder that “He is risen indeed!”
In this way, a familiar story was retold in a meaningful and moving way. The experience reinforced how effective a Readers Theater format can be in teaching and inspiring the audience.
In its simplest terms, Readers Theater is merely the reading of a story in parts, with each character represented by a different person. The story is communicated through reading aloud with expression and feeling. A narrator “sets the stage” with necessary explanations and transitions. Script memorization is not necessary, and neither are costumes, sets or stage props.
Why is this format effective? One Readers Theater enthusiast explained it this way: Readers Theater is “the theater of the imagination… [This is because] the audience shares the job with the performers of making the story come alive in the theater of the mind.”1 And we know what a powerful tool the imagination can be!
Readers Theater comes from a long tradition of using stories to illustrate a lesson. Some say the tradition can be traced back to ancient Greece. The first known female playwright, Hrosvitha of Gandersheim (c. 935-1001), produced her plays as staged readings for the nuns of her abbey.2 In more modern times Readers Theater follows the old-time tradition of radio drama. Readers Theater is a highly effective medium for any size church congregation.
Without the need for visual backdrops, Readers Theater simplifies the stage setup and focuses on the message. Because the format is so simple, there is less preparation time required than what would be needed for memorizing a script in a major production. These are significant pluses for incorporating Readers Theater. Also by adopting Readers Theater scripts, opportunities open up for a variety of people to participate. The program could involve men and women, a mix of older and younger, and also those with physical disabilities that would normally preclude them from a more active drama. At the same time, Readers Theater is of value to those in the audience who are visually impaired, since the story is in the reading and not in stage action.
Another plus for Readers Theater is location. All that is needed is space for the readers and the stands that hold their scripts. And Readers Theater productions can expand beyond church settings to other places, such as nursing homes and classrooms. Today Readers Theater is popular in schools, where it not only involves students in presenting stories but also helps develop and foster better reading skills.
Readers Theater scripts can be adapted from a variety of sources, including Bible stories, parables, poems and other books and forms of stories. Many people write their own scripts. A number of resources can be found at Christianbook.com and Amazon.com especially for Advent, Christmas, and children’s scripts.
By using imagination to stir imaginations, Readers Theater is a wonderfully valuable method of communicating lessons and stories. Churches can incorporate Readers Theater in their worship services, classrooms and potentially in outreach opportunities. Simple and easy to present, Readers Theater opens up a world of possibilities for sharing messages about God’s awesome love and all-encompassing grace. And Readers Theater certainly provides creative ways to take readers and listeners far beyond Pooh Corner!
2 Fr. Matthew Powell, “Of Parables, Church and RT,” Readers Theatre Digest, Issue 13, Summer 2006. http://www.readerstheatredigest.com/archives/x13powell.htm.
- Readers Theater—Its Methods and Techniques, by Marion Fairman, PhD. Contemporary Drama Service, Box 7710, Colorado Springs, CO 80933.
- Readers Theatre Handbook: A Dramatic Approach to Literature, by Leslie Irene Coger and Melvin R. White. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman and Company, 1967, 1973, 1982.
- RT: A Readers Theater Ministry, by Todd V. Lewis. Kansas City, MO: Lillenas Publishing Company, 1988.
- Readers Theater Fundamentals, by Fran Averett Tanner. Topeka, KS.: Clark Publishing, 1987, 1993.
- Experimental Theater: Creating and Staging Texts, by Judy E. Yordon. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc. 1997.
- List compiled from: www.readerstheatredigest.com
- Sunday Morning Readers’ Theater, by Pamela Urfer.
- Performing Parables: Religious Folk Tales, Legends, and Fables for Readers Theater, by Matthew Powell.
- Christian Reader’s Theater (2-5): 12 Bible Story Plays, by Thomas Ewald.
- The Old Testament: Ten Plays for Readers Theater, by Josephine Davidson.
- Readers Theater Bible Based Dramas New Testament, by Instructional Fair.
- Voices of Christmas: Readers’ Theater for Advent, by Jerry Nordstrom.
- Speaking of Christmas: Christmas Plays for Readers’ Theater, by Matthew Powell.
- At the Manger: Drama and Worship for Christmas Eve, by Dennis M. Mauer.
- Gabriel’s Horn: Readers’ Theater for Advent, by Frank Ramirez.
- Readers Theater Digest — http://readerstheatredigest.com
- Institute for Readers Theatre — http://www.readerstheatreinstitute.com
- Aaron Shepherd’s Stories, Scripts and More — http://www.aaronshep.com
- “Readers Theater” — www.webenglishteacher.com/rt.html
- “Readers Theater” —www.mrjeffrey.com/Reading%20Responses/Readers%20Theater.doc
Author: Kenda Tuner