For most, the term “theater” connotes full productions of either full-length (two or three acts) or short (one-act) plays, whether they be dramas, comedies and musicals. Actors memorize their roles and disappear into their characters, and even the most rudimentary productions are enhanced with scenic design work, costumes and props, as well as technical support (lighting, sound, projections or visual effects).
So what about whittling a script down to its essence, with actors appearing on stage with scripts in hand?
It’s called “readers theater,” and the concept and style aren’t new.
Readers theater involves performers using only vocal expression to communicate the script’s story and characters. Physical movement and interaction between actors are fairly limited if non-existent, unless the director deems them appropriate for or essential to getting the point across.
This mode of theater has been known down through the years by various names: “theater of the mind,” “interpreter’s theater” and “story theater,” and performances are referred to as “staged readings” or “play readings.”
Nearly every theater company in Orange County (and many more in greater Southern California) has devoted time and space to staged readings, either generating programs of its own or hosting troupes dedicated to readers theater.
Is Reader’s Theater Produced in Southern California?
Few companies, if any, have made it a point to include readers theater performances as part of a regular season schedule and have such a program from year to year. Locally, that changed in 2019 when Newport Theatre Arts Center (NTAC) created a new program designed to fill the summer months and offer patrons something a little different.
NTAC, a community theater, launched its Reader’s Theatre Summer Festival as a way of showcasing scripts, whether new or existing, through staged readings. Held in 2019, the inaugural festival was a success, prompting NTAC to add it to its schedule as an annual event. With theaters dark in 2020, the slate of plays scheduled for that year was carried over to last year.
This year’s four-weekend slate features four scripts, with each receiving three staged readings per weekend. Three published plays that have been previously produced elsewhere and one new, previously unproduced play are in the spotlight.
Reader’s Theatre Summer Festival
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, July 22-Aug. 14; 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach
Tickets: Free to the public (donations are accepted and welcomed)
Contact: 949-631-0288, ntaconline.com
The 2022 Line-up
July 22-24, ‘And Then There Were None’: One of renowned mystery writer Agatha Christie’s most well-known plays and one of theater’s most famous murder mysteries. One by one, those invited to an isolated island by a mysterious host are systematically murdered. Directed by Stephen Gomer.
July 29-31, ‘Nobody Loves a Telemarketer’: Sean Engard’s 2007 comedy is the festival’s only unpublished play, an offbeat look at a pessimistic telemarketer who becomes romantically involved with a lady colleague who approaches the rejection-laden work of phone soliciting through a positive view of life. Directed by Samantha Wellengard.
Aug. 5-7, ‘The Clean House’: Directed by Kysa Cohen, Sarah Ruhl’s whimsical 2004 romantic comedy revolves around Matilde, a Brazilian who works in the U.S. as a cleaning woman but who is primed for and would rather work as a comedian. The show has had many full productions throughout Southern California.
Aug. 12-14, ‘The Sleeper’: In Catherine Butterfield’s dark comedy, a suburban “security mom” shell-shocked by the new post 9/11 reality is drawn to a handsome tutor whose political leanings differ markedly from her own, with bizarre events blowing the lid off her sheltered existence. Directed by Matt Koutroulis.
The selection is broad enough to appeal to a wide swath of the theatergoing public: a vintage play from the ’30s (“And Then There Were None”), two contemporary published plays (“The Clean House” and “The Sleeper”), and a local actor-playwright’s update of a script he wrote in 2007 (“Nobody Loves a Telemarketer”).
How Did NTAC’s Program Get Its Start?
In a nutshell, in the late 2010s, a handful of individuals who’d been involved with NTAC as actors and directors and in other capacities devised the idea of having an in-house readers theater program, pitched it to the board, got the green light, and got the ball rolling by selecting and scheduling shows and finding directors to helm each reading.
Veteran community theater director Sharyn Case relates that starting in the mid-2010s, Brian Page had brought the idea of doing readers theater to her attention, and that the duo kicked around the idea of a possible program for NTAC.
For years, NTAC used June through August to mount children’s theater productions. Veteran community theater actor Harriet Whitmyer relates that by the late 2010s, the program had gone by the wayside. NTAC’s board was open to finding something comparable to occupy the playhouse between seasons.
In spring of 2019, Whitmyer took the readers theater idea to NTAC’s board and got the green light, saying that in April she “chaired the first committee and picked the committee members” that included herself, Case, Page and five others.
Committee members read, evaluated and voted on possible plays. The consensus choices for the inaugural season were “Angel Street,” “Bleacher Bums,” “An Actor’s Nightmare” and “The Real Inspector Hound.” The staged readings were done in summer 2019.
The appeal of doing this type of production is that it is a low cost venture to produce compared to fully staged productions which require weeks of rehearsal, multiple weeks of performances, plus the cost of sets, costumes, etc.
Each play in the Readers Theater season needs only a few days of rehearsal and receives three performances over a single weekend and typically requires no major technical elements. Case said, “We were surprised at the reception, which was enthusiastic.” The program broke even, so the theater moved ahead with plans for 2020.
The purpose of NTAC’s festival, Whitmyer said, “was to do community outreach to get more people involved – to get community and audience members involved and also new actors and directors,” she said. “We also saw it as a way to give back to the community.”
A key way the NTAC’s program gives back to the community is that performances are free of charge. Donations are accepted and welcomed but entirely voluntary.
Case relates the delight of everyone involved when a patron, upon seeing the 2019 reading of “Angel Street,” made a $1,000 donation to NTAC.
Going from ‘Page’ to NTAC’s Stage
The parent of and model for NTAC’s summer readers theater festival was Readers Repertory Theatre, and that’s where Brian Page comes in. He cites Edith Schwartz as the moving force behind RRT, relating how she approached theater through her interests in human speech and the spoken word.
In the 1970s, Schwartz had begun a speech and hearing clinic at Chapman University (then Chapman College). Her dual interests in live theater and the spoken word merged with the concept of readers theater, leading her to create and run Readers Repertory Theatre in the mid-1990s.
Page is familiar to local theater audiences for work as an actor, director and sound designer stretching back several decades, but he has made a career as a voice-over artist and doing narrations and character voices and reading and recording audio books. So he took special note of RRT and took every opportunity to perform in Schwartz’s staged readings.
The company’s base of operations, Page said, was Camino Real Playhouse in San Juan Capistrano. Each new show, Page noted, would be performed four times: opening night at the playhouse, then one night each at the public libraries in Mission Viejo, Costa Mesa and Newport Beach.
Patrons were welcome to make donations to help defray the cost of each production, but that was entirely voluntary – an integral part of the program setting the model for and retained by NTAC.
‘Great Fun and Easy to Do’
Page said working with Schwartz and RRT got him hooked on doing readers theater. “I did a whole bunch of them. I do them because they’re easy and fun – just fun to do. I had just a blast. They’re easy to perform. You could have a really low investment of time, maybe three rehearsals, and then perform it.”
Sherry Domerego is, like Page, a veteran Orange County actor. Well-versed in staged readings, she echoes his enthusiasm for participating in them.
I’ve always been able to read with expression,” Domerego said. For that reason and because “there’s no stress, readers theater is one of my favorite things to do.” NTAC audiences will see her during the third weekend of the festival in its production of “The Clean House.”
Sharyn Case cites the numerous advantages readers theater holds from every quarter, for actors and directors, audience and venues. “For the actors, no memorization and a shorter rehearsal time of four or five rehearsals,” she said. For the director, “it’s a challenge to be creative with some simple staging – but that means not a lot of movement.” The director also gains “the ability to concentrate on the text and characters,” she said.
For the audience, staged readings offer “an opportunity to hear new work, often, and/or to really hear favorite plays (with) no distractions,” and for the theater company, “no production effects or expensive sets and costumes.”
A Portrait of Southern California Staged Reading Programs
Even if not consistently or prominently, staged readings have been a part of the Southern California theater scene for decades. The mainstay of Newport’s current program, and the Reader’s Repertory series it’s patterned after, is the presentation of existing, published plays.
Most others in the region exist for the purpose of promoting new, unproduced plays, giving audiences exposure to them while providing playwrights a way to test-market their newest works and theater companies an uncomplicated, economical way to introduce audiences to brand-new, unpublished plays.
Started in the 1990s, the Long Beach Playhouse New Works Festival is among the earliest and one of the longest-running programs wherein newly written plays are offered to the theatergoing public in the form of staged readings. That program inspired the creation, in 2002, of Panndora Productions’ annual “Panndora’s Box” festival of new works.
Here in O.C., Camino Real Playhouse’s Jill Forbath recognized through RRT that readers theater carried a great deal of popularity – so she launched the venue’s own program, “Six at Eight.”
The advent of RRT and Six at Eight opened the doors for the OC Playwrights Alliance (OCPA) and New Voices Playwrights Workshop, currently the two most prominent companies devoted to developing new works through staged readings. Both were founded by aspiring playwrights who had taken SCR Conservatory’s playwriting class.
OCPA grew on the strength of new plays by dozens of Orange County playwrights – one of whom, John Franceschini, is notable in that NTAC selected one of his plays for a staged reading in its festival last summer.
You can’t discuss staged readings without noting they’ve been a major component of South Coast Repertory’s annual Pacific Playwrights Festival (launched in the late ’90s), giving world premieres and new but obscure new works professional staged readings on SCR’s stage.
NTAC’s Sharyn Case cites SCR’s annual PPF staged readings each spring as surpassing all others: “I have attended Pacific Playwrights Festival regularly, and for my money, it is the best example of how to do readers theater and introduce new works.”
Newport’s Program, from Pandemic to Post-Pandemic
The Reader’s Theatre Summer Festival, as the program was called in its second year, presented Tom Dudzick’s “Greetings,” a metaphysical dramedy; “The Underpants,” Steve Martin’s satire adapted from the classic 1910 German farce “Die Hose”; and “Murder by Absolution,” a tense murder-and-revenge play by John Franceschini, one of the many local playwrights working extensively with OCPA.
This year’s committee of eight read and considered a total of 20 scripts and selected a total of four. That slate includes a vintage play from the ’30s, two contemporary published plays, and a local actor-playwright’s update of a script he wrote in 2007. “And Then There Were None” is almost universally known. Theater devotees will be familiar with “The Clean House” and, to a lesser extent, “The Sleeper.”
Actor and director Bob Fetes, a committee member helping guide this year’s series, said one of the committee’s main criteria for this year “is to introduce audiences to one classic play, one original piece by a local playwright, and newer plays that are a little out of our normal repertoire.”
“This year we also added the criteria that each play have a minimum of five characters, to ensure that we meet our overall mission to bring as many new actors and directors into the NTAC family.”
Sean Engard’s “Nobody Loves a Telemarketer” will be new to all. Engard says his brief experience working as a telemarketer at South Coast Repertory in 2007 formed the basis for the play.
Case said that for the first time, audience feedback will be gathered at each of the festival’s performances: “There will be a short survey in the program and online. Patrons can use either. The ones in the theater are collected after the performances.”
The information, she said, will be used to determine if any of the plays should be on the regular schedule, and what type of play the audience prefers. For new plays, feedback will be provided to the playwright.
As it’s a work in progress, Engard’s play, following the July 31 performance, will also have a talkback between the audience and the play’s cast, director and playwright.
Having included plays by two Orange County playwrights last year and this – Franceschini’s “Murder by Absolution” and Engard’s “Nobody Loves a Telemarketer” – NTAC’s festival can now be said to occupy a unique position in that it presents staged readings of both existing and new plays.
That formula must be working, for Case characterizes the program’s success to date based on NTAC patrons’ reactions to the seven scripts presented thus far.
“People love it. They just love it. We’ve had no problem filling it.”
Eric Marchese is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.