By Jane Tombes (Photo by Tim Hanger)

“Readers' what?” This is the response that I often get when I talk about a class called “Readers' Theater.” Is it a play? Is it in a theater? Are there actors on a stage? Does it cost anything? Do you have to buy tickets?

Well, the answer to these questions is mostly “No.” So what is it?

I didn’t know the answers myself several years ago when I signed up for a course in Readers’ Theater (better known as “RT”) at George Mason University’s Osher Institute. Having produced, directed and acted in numerous shows over the years, I thought that I could fit into this class fairly easily. Also, I had been avoiding acting because I had discovered that my memory skills were weakening. There’s nothing worse than starting to respond to another actor onstage and realizing that you have totally forgotten your lines. Fortunately, during those years, a prompter would stand with script in hand in the wings, and the actor would have the security of assistance if needed. Now professional actors are taught to improvise to keep the action moving.

With RT, there was no need to memorize anything—and that was good news for me. So I took my first RT class and loved it, continued with it for several years until we moved to Richmond last year, and now I am helping to coordinate the UR Osher RT class with Linda Ventura, a veteran Thespian.

To prepare for the class, Linda and I look at scripts from which we choose 2-3 pages containing 2 or 3 characters. In class we distribute the scenes to students, give them a few minutes to look over their lines, and then call on them to read a part in front of the class behind a music stand. These are essentially “cold” readings with no formal rehearsals. No props, costumes or stage directions are needed. We read funny, light scenes or try some from well-known plays with more “meat.” Sometimes a few of us will recall having seen the entire play on the stage somewhere or perhaps we remember the film version. However, the content is not really as important as the experience of communicating with a fellow actor as well as with our audience of actors.

The primary reason that we choose short plays or scenes is that we want everyone in the class to have a chance to participate, if possible, each time we meet. We particularly welcome men even if they have no acting experience. My husband, a biology professor and researcher for his entire career, had never tried RT until the first day of class this past June when he helped me set up the music stands and I asked him to stay and then handed him a script. He was a natural (though I am prejudiced).  

We had ten participants in the fall course, and we are offering it again in the spring. So we will look forward to seeing you there if you are interested. Remember—no experience is necessary, just the desire to interact with your fellow Osher members in a challenging and different way. Finally, according to several recent class members, it is really great fun as well!