May 30

How to Read Plays

Digital Textbook: Reading Tools and Tips

Reading Drama

How to Read Plays

The man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and about all time.
—George Bernard Shaw


Like poetry, drama sometimes gets slighted in the literature curriculum, yet it offers a wealth of opportunities for fun and excellent learning. Because plays are written to be performed not just read, they come with built-in strategies to help students read better. The structure and elements of dramatic texts offer useful guides and the acting out of scripts forces students to work closely with the text to translate its words into the actions that make up the play. Many find favor with the “script” approach as opposed to the “scholarly” approach when teaching plays by Shakespeare; they emphasize the role that drama, through performance, can play in utilizing students imagination due to the physical, intellectual, and emotional occupation of a role in the play. They also provide opportunities for a range of talents to express themselves (e.g., artistic students can, as an option, create a series of sketches for the stage backdrops, including a written or spoken explanation of the decisions they made)

What to Do

Perform the play using any of the following techniques according to your objective:

  • Read aloud: students and the teacher read specific segments aloud so they can hear and discuss the author’s intentions and alternative ways of speaking/performing the lines.
  • Have groups of students pantomime a scene, organize themselves into a tableau, or “freeze” mid-action while the other members of the class discuss what the choices and actions of the group performing (and interpreting) the text.
  • Recast the text into modern form to make it more familiar; this could be done with language and/or costumes, but all interpretations must be anchored in the text they are reading (e.g., they should be able to always answer the question, “Where in the text do you find evidence of the fact that he is emotionally unstable? And what is the cause of this problem according to the text?”). Other approaches could include recasting the play as a musical; as a satire (e.g., Our Town) that comments on our present era by contrasting it with a previous one do different from our own.
  • Perform scenes from multiple perspectives (e.g., Brutus as sincere, vengeful, and conniving) by having different students interpret a scene from a play (and for which they must offer textual support for their interpretation).
  • Adapt soliloquies and monologues to include two performers speaking in dialogue to emphasize the internal conflicts the character feels at that moment.
  • Interrupt the performance to have them debrief what they are thinking about alternatively as the character and as themselves; include in this discussion those decisions they made (i.e., interpretations of words, choices of actions) and why they made them. Use the drama as a means of facilitating and creating
  • Use other dramatic techniques to improve student reading and enhance engagement with text:
    • Living Newspaper Theater: This was a form of community theater that became popular during the Depression. The WPA adapted stories and issues currently popular in the news to dramatic performances which allowed for discussion of the newspapers themselves (i.e., among the actors interpreting them and adapting them into scripts) and their content (among the audience).
    • Recast a non-dramatic text into a script to involve students in close reading of the text they must adapt. Examples: Constitutional Convention, interviews from magazines/newspapers; elements in a scientific process (e.g., personification of the elements to explain what they are doing, how, why). (See Reminder 99)
  • When reading a play, look at the interaction between:
    • language (arguably the primary source of energy in a play)
    • action (the physical expression of that energy which is often mirrored in or commented upon by the language)
    • character (which plays often focus on as the central concern—e.g., what does the main character want more than anything else?)
    • visual details and imagery (especially as reflected in the setting)
    • stage directions (which offer sometimes crucial details as to how a scene should be read depending on how specific the playwright was in their directions)
    • form and function: how many scenes, acts; what dictates the break between scenes and acts? For example, Shakespeare always has five acts which neatly conform to the traditional rising/falling/resolution pattern we associate with stories.
  • Decide what prior knowledge will be necessary. Will knowledge about the history of Scotland help students read Macbeth? Will a unit on Shakespeare’s era prepare them to read Romeo and Juliet? Or will a short unit on his language better meet their needs in learning how to read his plays?

The information on this page comes from Reading Reminders: Tools, Tips, and Techniques, by Jim Burke.

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