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A Primer on Readers Theater Productions
by Doug Bechtel

The Actors Theater of Orcas Island

What is a Readers Theater?

Like anything else associated with the theater, there are as many different types of Readers Theater as there are directors of Readers Theater productions. In short, in a Readers Theater the lines are not memorized but read from a script. Beyond that, there is a wide range of styles. At one end of the spectrum are staged readings complete with sets, blocking and costume changes. The other end of the spectrum has the actors sitting or standing while reading from their scripts. Sometimes a stage manager is used to read important stage directions from the script.

Why do a Readers Theater?

Variety. Readers Theaters are easy to do. In general 6 or 8 rehearsals are sufficient, no one has to learn lines, productions require very little in the way of sets, they can be moved easily from night to night and they are very inexpensive to do. Since they do not take the tremendous time commitment that full productions do, it is an easy way for new actors to gain some familiarity with doing plays. We constantly use new actors and we have a list of many who would like to try. Since actors are not focused on learning lines, more time can be spent on character and theme development. This works particularly well for new actors. Most of the new actors in our community got their start in Readers Theater. Like anywhere else it is hard to get cast without experience. In Readers Theater, not only do new people get experience, they also are seen by other directors during the performance.

Where do we find scripts for Readers Theater?

Same place you find scripts for other plays. You read scripts, you ask contemporaries, you look at what other theaters are doing and you look in the catalogs. Some catalogs (Samuel French comes to mind) have a section that lists plays suitable for Readers Theater. Almost any play can be material for a readers theater. In general, keep away from plays that depend on complex sets, scenery or costumes. Farces or plays with physical comedy usually will not work. Look for plays that are character, theme or dialog driven. Plays that convey their message without a lot of movement work well. Think about where you are likely to perform the play. How big a cast can you accommodate? Smaller is better when it comes to cast. A cast of six is bigger than you think and a cast of two or three works well in a Readers Theater production. After fighting line load problems in full productions of two and three character plays, I swore off them. These small cast plays do work very well in a Readers Theaters format. After you find a play that you think will make a good Readers Theater, read it again and look at all of the blocking instructions. As you read the play assume (for now) that the actors will just stand there and read the words. How important is blocking in communicating the message of the play? How will you communicate important actions to the audience? How will you tell the audience about the scale and the intensity of a fight in the play? How will the actors communicate all of the emotions which are normally expressed through movement? If you can find answers to these types of questions, you have a good Readers Theater play.

Ok, we have found a play that will work. What now?

The first thing is to decide is how many performances you want to do. The predecessor to our group did one performance of each play but both the actors and directors felt they put too much effort into it for just one performance. We started out with three performances and have recently moved to four as our audiences have improved. During our busy summer season (we live in a summer recreation area) we do our shows during the week (too much competition on the weekends) and during the off season we do them on weekends - usually four days in a row (Wednesday through Saturday).

Where should we do our shows?

Readers Theater plays have many advantages that full productions do not: No scenery, no (or minimal) sets, few props and simple or no costumes. We have done Readers Theater productions on stage but the small production makes the play seem swamped by the stage. They do very well as weekend events when the stage is being used to rehearse a full production. If your stage has any thrust at all, close the curtain and you are in business.

We were handed the Readers Theater program by our "big" theater as not bringing in enough money for the effort in the late spring of 1999. I was in rehearsals for my first full production on a traveling basis. I had three places to do the show - two resorts and the back room at one restaurant. All three places gave me the space for nothing to see if it would work for them and for us. The restaurant was the place where the Readers Theater productions had always been done. Since it was a back room it did not interfere with their normal operations. Both of us advertised the shows as dinner theater and they got a few reservations. If they had enough reservations, they put on an additional server otherwise they just assigned it to an existing server.

After we took over the Readers Theater program, I went to these three places and cut a deal with them to do a show the same day of every week of the summer (mid June to Labor Day). Our plan was to target tourists and run the full productions (I had scheduled another full production later in the summer) for two weeks and Readers Theaters for one week. I rounded up a bunch of directors and came up with ten weeks worth of material. Our plan worked but it was a killer pace. We finally ended our season two weeks early when two directors fizzled out on me and I couldn't find replacements.

After that crazy summer we have had a lot of other stuff going on so our Readers Theater productions have gone on an occasional basis - to fill in when we were not working on a big project.

We have used four other restaurants since that summer and have three more on our list for the future. They like the shot in the arm during the off season but they only get one seating when we do a show. All but one of the other restaurants we have used since do not have a back room so we have to use the entire restaurant. People around here do not make reservations so there have been a few time where the restaurant gets nervous about how many people they will get. We always let them accept reservations for non show diners two days before the show. We have never had a restaurant that was unhappy with the final result. We have also had good luck picking "off" days at restaurants - they are often closed on Mondays but we have done successful programs on Tuesdays during our busy season.

During the busy season, restaurants can turn a table over two or three times during the night so we aim more towards conference and meeting rooms in resorts and local halls such as the Grange, Odd Fellows, community clubs, senior centers and so on. When we started, our audiences were small - sometimes single digits and we had trouble breaking even so low cost/no cost venues were important. The resorts are glad to have an activity for their guests (even during the off season) and the restaurants like the business.

I've got my play, I know where and when we are going to perform it and I have a cast. What next?

The Director has to decide how to communicate those items in the play that are the result of movement. As I said before, there are as many ways of doing it as there are directors. Let me give you some specific examples:

THE GIN GAME. (Cast of 2) The smallest venue was an 8 by 8 foot corner in a restaurant but we were still able to do most of the blocking called for in the script. The actors carried their scripts with them as they moved. Most of the activity took place at a table while they played gin.

A SONG AT TWILIGHT. (Cast of 4). The three main actors were seated on stools with their scripts on music stands. When they were not in the scene they either turned away on their stool (if their absence was short) or sat in a chair against the wall behind them. The fourth character (the waiter) sat against the wall and approached the others to read his lines.

THREE VIEWINGS. (Cast of 3). Three Viewings is a series of three monologues. The other actors waited at the back of the room. Two actors stood while they read their parts and one sat on a stool. All read from a music stand.

OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS. (Cast of 6). The actors sat on five stools in a shallow "V" (so they could see each other without leaning forward). When the sixth actor entered, a sixth stool was set by the actors on stage as a way of making the actor who entered comfortable. The actors sat against the wall when not on stage. In this play, the actors would walk two steps towards the audience to deliver specific lines directly to the audience. We did a couple of scenes off to the side away from the stools.

If it is not clear in the program, the director will introduce the play and describe the location, time period and any other information the audience needs to know.

What does it cost to do a Readers Theater production?

We started small and did a lot of public domain stuff and some unpublished scripts. For the unpublished scripts we paid 8% of our gross ticket sales as royalties. Some of our directors wrote their own material. As our audiences grew we started to use popular material where the royalties were in the $50 to $60 range. Unfortunately, none of the royalty houses we have worked with gave us any discount for Readers Theater performances or the small size of our audiences.

Out theater group does not have a permanent home. Except for when we are invited to do a show at the "big" theater, we move our shows (both Readers Theater and full productions) to a different venue each night. We are the original road show. All of our productions are designed to move easily. For the most part, we do not pay for venues. We charge $5.00 per person and whatever is fair for children. No one is ever turned away because they can't pay. At the resorts we collect at the door - no advance sales - and the restaurants include the $5.00 in the cost of the meal. We don't give any comps but we have a one ticket rule - pay once and see the show as many times as you want (for families of those who are involved with the show).

Of the two dozen or more Readers Theater productions we have done, only one lost money. It was a wonderful show so we reprised it last fall and it was the most financially successful Readers Theater play we have done - partly because we did four performances where our previous productions had been three performances (and partly because I told 500 people I expected to see them at the show).

Here is out standard budget:


(4 X $60)



(6 X $6)








Audience to break even (at $5)

60 (15 per performance)


We have volunteers who do posters, sandwich boards and so on. We get enough coverage from the newspaper at no cost and we have a newsletter that goes to local people involved in the theater and people who have attended past performances.

We rent spaces more now than we used to because our audiences exceed the rooms we got to use for free. We limit ourselves to one rental per production (it takes 10 people to pay for a $50 rental!!!). Without a stage or raised acting area we need to limit ourselves to three rows of seats - more than that, the people in the back can't see. We have found many venues for $10 an hour (we end up taking three hours including set up and take down) and others at $50 for the night. We have found the community clubs are good venues because the performances there are supported by the community members and we have found that they bring in a totally new group of people in the audience - people who have never been to a play before but who attend because their friends are going!!!

What about directing?

Since there is no focus on blocking, you get into character, theme and plot development immediately. Since we use a lot of first time actors, we spend a lot of time on the basics of acting. We work on inter-character relationships. We work on communicating while sitting or standing but without movement. I usually schedule 8 rehearsals with room for two more at the end if I need them (2 read throughs/character exploration rehearsals, 4 development rehearsals, 1 tech rehearsal and 1 dress rehearsal). I know directors who routinely use 4 rehearsals and I know one who does a dozen or more rehearsals. We had the chance to have a professional director do a show during a short visit. He auditioned and cast on Saturday night, rehearsed Sunday and Monday, had Tech on Tuesday and Dress on Wednesday and opened Thursday. It was a good show but he desperately wanted one more rehearsal (who doesn't?).

With 8 or 10 rehearsals, actors will be about 50% off book by show time - the script becomes a security blanket for them. I am not afraid to have actors memorize short passages with particular impact for the play.

What about production values?

We have gotten fancier as time goes on. I am not sure that all the equipment we have accumulated is necessary but it does add to the production values. We have a series of flats 7' 9" high (to fit an 8 foot ceiling) in 2, 3 and 4 foot widths. They are self supporting. Mostly, if we need an off stage area for some reason we use a folding room separator. We have a table that will seat two or three and is rugged enough to travel. We borrow stools and music stands if we need them.

Most of the venues we perform in do not have adequate lighting - most conference rooms have down lighting and restaurants are into mood lighting. When our group first got started we purchased some portable lighting equipment - an NSI 8 channel, two scene dimmer board, two dimmer packs (that plug into standard 20 amp outlets) and 6 PAR 38, 250 watt halogen lights. We made two light holders - 2 inch pipes 7 feet 6 inches high with 12 inch square steel bases. Altogether it came to about $1,800. If you use lighting, take plenty of extension cords, find out where the circuit breaker panel is and never forget the little three prong to two prong adaptors.

You don't really need a lot of fancy lighting. I have been at productions which use PAR lamps in coffee cans and clamp on work lights. My very first lighting consisted of clamp on work lights (with gels taped on) and a sliding lamp dimmer I bought at the hardware store. It was very adequate - and we could put the clamp on lights almost anywhere. I still use them from time to time as back lighting or down lighting. Don't get too much light in the actors' faces because it makes it very hard to read from the scripts. When we use music stands we use music stand lights and if they are just reading from the script, we make sure there is enough back light or down light so they can see the script.

In the beginning we used boom boxes for sound when we needed it. A couple of years later, we got a portable sound system that we continue to use but the sound is not as important as the lighting. The audience needs to see the actors.

We don't make or wear costumes - for the most part our actors wear something appropriate from their own wardrobe. Occasionally, someone will hit Value Village to find something but it is at their own expense.

In addition to the actors, we use one or two other people to help set up, take down, do tech (light and sound) and take money. In a pinch, the director can do tech and you can grab a friend to collect money.

A note about actors in Readers Theater productions:

Each actor has their own idiosyncracies when it comes to scripts for Readers Theater. Some want them in notebooks, some in little diaries, some want them larger to be easier to read, some cut the pages out of the script and glue them to 8 ½ by 11 pages and so on. I have given up trying to force the actors to use the printed script. I make sure that we buy the appropriate number of scripts (one for each actor, one for the director and one for the Stage manager and/or Tech person as needed) then let each actor decide what they want to do with it.

In closing:

Like anything else in theater, quality counts when it comes to Readers Theater productions. We stress quality over and over. Since Readers Theaters are so easy to do, we get a lot of requests from inexperienced directors and some directors who haven't a clue. Where a theater may do 3 to 6 full productions a year, it would be easy to do a dozen or more Readers Theater productions. Don't let a desire for quantity out weigh the need for quality. Theaters work hard to provide a balanced season for their full productions and you need to take the same care selecting your Readers Theater season. We have found over the years that, no matter how hard we try to expand our audience, the vast majority of the people who see our productions are local people and their friends and visitors. We have learned what our audience likes and that is what we present to them (with a few exceptions). In two years we have built our audiences from single digits and low teens to 30 to 50 at some performances. The single most often heard comment is about the consistent quality of our shows; the quality of the script, the quality of the acting and the quality of the experience. Even more important, we have a list of new actors waiting to be cast. Readers Theater presentations should be part of every community theater's season.

As always, I am willing to help out any way I can. You can contact me:

Doug Bechtel, President
The Actors Theater of Orcas Island


Other Readers Theater plays we have done recently:

Woman in Black
The Valley Song
The Wild Party
Spoon River Anthology
The Deer and the Antelope Play
The Cemetery Club



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