On the evening of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church held a staged reading in their brightly lit chapel. Patrons had soup in the adjoining dining room, and then filed into the pews to hear five top Twin Cities actors read Heidi Schrek’s 2014 Grand Concourse, set in a New York homeless shelter. The performance was held as an awareness raiser for Our Saviour’s Housing; after the reading two case managers answered questions about the shelter and urged interested folks to volunteer (information can be found on their website).

Many traditional theatrical elements were absent from this Grand Concourse reading: stage lighting, raked audience seating, programs. They were not missed. The event’s purpose—made clear via the director’s preshow announcement and realized via the post-reading talkback—was to pique interest in the volunteering systems on which homeless shelters rely. A tasteful set and a month-long rehearsal period would not have helped the performance better achieve its goal. What set would be more adequate than a church a block away from Our Saviour’s Housing, the focus of the evening?

The reading did not concern itself with being capital-“T” Theater. It simply stated its purpose and set out to achieve it.

Stretching the conventions beyond conventional

Readings such as this one demonstrate that performances with clearly established purposes can succeed even when they present themselves in unusual ways. There is no doubt that normative performance conventions—ways of doing theatre that have become explicitly and implicitly standardized in contemporary theatrical practice—offer an effective way of telling dramatic stories. Recognizable conventions clearly indicate events as performances, lessening audience confusion and offering a prebuilt, shared language for artist and audience to communicate. But does stretching beyond the theatrically “normal” in one or several areas result in immediate alienation or a loss of clarity?

Attending a variety of literary and dramatic readings over the past few months, my experience has been that despite significant variation in terms of content, presentation, and purpose, I rarely felt lost or confused. Clarity had little to do with these performances’ adherence to the theatrically normal and lots to do with their ability to clearly communicate expectations to the audience. The results were performances that consistently succeeded on their own terms.

These lessons in clarity of purpose transfer to theater proper: theater-makers willing to treat what is normal as irrelevant and operate with purpose in mind have more options in terms of how they approach their chosen subject matter and more precision in terms of how they focus theatrical elements on it.

If there is a primary lesson to be learned from emulating staged readings it is that nothing can be clearer than directly telling your audience what they are doing in the room. Each staged reading in the Playwrights’ Center’s Ruth Easton Series is prefaced by a preshow speech; the Artistic Director introduces the series, praises the play and playwright, and explains that the coming reading is best viewed, given that the script is a work-in-progress and that the cast has only worked together for a few days, as a glimpse into the rehearsal room rather than as a polished production.

This disclaimer communicates a specific expectation to the audience: they ought to watch the play as though it were theater—it is theater!—but they must remember that it’s not finished yet. It’s the sort of careful navigation that’s necessary for readings that are so, so close to being theater but experienced as just slightly distinct. Because the reading is different, the audience must be retrained in how to view the piece.

“Retraining” sounds like a mountainous endeavor, and the surprising lesson of readings is how easy it is. A short preshow that effectively says, “Pay attention to the voice and text but don’t mind the lighting” is really all that is needed. And this clarity comes as a direct result of the purpose: the Playwrights’ Center orients its readings as “almost-theater” as a service to its playwrights. They can work their near-finished script with skilled actors in a “real” stage space without needing to measure up to the standards of polish and technical coherency expected of ticketed theater. It is, in other words, a distinction of purpose turned into a distinction of doing.

What is essential?

Because audience members expect to encounter only necessary elements, the elements that are used function to great effect. The Ruth Easton series reading of Rachel Jendrzejewski’s Encyclopedia used live musicians and projections, and because other elements were not drawing focus, they became absolutely necessary companions to the text of the script. This feeling that the experience could not have been the same without these elements, that they were necessities, is a feeling sometimes missing at theaters accustomed to doing things a certain way. If there is not a sense that elements can be used or not used, they risk becoming “automatically included” rather than employed as tools for accomplishing artistic goals.

Importantly, necessity doesn’t need to be a minimalist aesthetic; Encyclopedia was anything but minimalist, existing as an intricate tapestry of soundscape, actor movement, and text. And it’s not quite true that these Playwrights’ Center readings are totally “essentials only”: compared to the Center’s more informal midday workshop readings, the evening Ruth Easton Series readings are presented with stagier lighting, preshow concessions, and programs. These flourishes only serve to emphasize how little effect these elements have on the readings themselves, how dispensable they are. After all, the clarity and artistic potency of these readings comes not from their preshow wine and cheese but from their commitment to the simple, professional act of explaining themselves. 

Author readings vs. stage readings

Public readings from the literary arts community resemble staged readings but differ vastly in purpose. These performances won’t go on to become other, more-rehearsed performances; they will become published novels and poetry collections. Consequently, literary readings deemphasize delivery in favor of authenticity of voice, communicating this shift in emphasis through the practice of authors reading their own works.

Presumably an actor could read in place of the author if the author so desired, but from the literary arts perspective this choice would be missing the point: the authenticity would be lost. From this perspective, a work is communicating most clearly when it is at its most authentic.

The result is that a wide range of presentation styles is valued and encouraged. At the Loft Literary Center’s Mentor Series reading featuring Sherry Quan Lee, two chosen program participants read very different works in very different ways. Isela Xitlali Gómez read a creative nonfiction piece focused around her childhood in Los Angeles. She performed dialogues between her childhood friends with voices and gestures, communicating the emotional content through her reading voice. Lynda McDonnell read from her fiction work about young girls raising chickens in a soothing, measured voice that bespoke her former career as a journalist; she made no attempt to act her characters, letting them speak for themselves. Both Gómez and McDonnell read as they were. That Gómez was more theatrical in her presentation was only relevant insofar as it was an authentic expression of how she communicates as an author.

If staged readings were striking in their ability to quickly redefine the elements audiences used to understand a play, literary readings are even more radical—essentially asking audience members to not judge a presentation by its presentation. And again I was startled by these readings’ ability to establish a new value set by which I, as audience member, would go on to judge the work. For those with theatrical mindsets, this transition can be jarring: at the Mentor Series reading I sat with confusion and horror as the host asked us to clap twice for each reader, first as soon as the author finished reading and then again ten seconds later.

Why waste this time? Did these writer folk not think I meant it the first time I clapped?

What I initially found infuriating I now see as a perfect metaphor for the values literary readings operate by. The first clap is for the reader—the applause one gives any performer or presenter—and the second clap is for the author—the writing they did to make that reading possible. The clapping was different because the values were different. By privileging authenticity of voice over technical performance ability, the literary reading was not just encouraging a different way of experiencing performance, it was gently challenging the preconceptions baked into theatrical conventions, even conventions as unobtrusive as clapping.

Taking a step outside normal practice is the first step toward expanding the values by which audiences understand and consume performance. It’s a jolt out of unthinking habit—one minute I was watching a reading, and the next I was asking myself, “Why am I clapping?”

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Folks interested in attending public readings may wish to explore the recurring opportunities Minneapolis offers: the Playwrights’ Center Ruth Easton series, the Loft Mentor Reading Series, the Queer Voices Series, and the Greenhouse Project.

Additionally, there are a number of online calendars that track readings in the Twin Cities: