"Readers Theater" is a way for a group to dramatize a Bible story from a seated position.
Most often associated with use in worship, Readers Theater can be a good option for doing a drama or reading scripture in a Sunday School classroom where space and time may be limited, or you want to focus on a script and characters but not movement, props, or scenery.
This picture shows a group of high schoolers in a very active Readers setup.
Readers Theater performances typically use a Bible passage that's been expanded into a story script by the teacher, and often also by the students during class as part of their preparation.
There are numerous "drama scripts" here in the rotation.org Drama Workshop lesson forums that can be easily adapted into a readers theater script. Though originally written to be performed by actors moving around on a stage with scripts in hand, they sometimes work even better in a readers theater setup. You can also find Bible drama scripts online from various resources.
Conveniently, there is a translation of scripture that has been formatted for drama and readers theater. It is called The Voice. As you can see below in the graphic example, scripture is laid out like a script -with parts clearly separated.
Screenshot from a page of The Voice version of the Bible, free at biblegateway.com.
You can copy the text of The Voice from an online source like biblegateway.com, then paste it into a Word doc and add your own embellishments to create your own readers script. However, leave extra space on the page because typically this script is further enhanced by the teacher and students as part of their classroom Bible study and performance preparation time.
How do you turn a passage into a readers theater script?
Some passages lend themselves to this technique, others do not. Often the difference is your imagination. A story like the Good Samaritan is easy to turn into a script because it has lots of people populating the story, and each can be given things to say and react to. A passage like Psalm 23 might not seem right for readers theater scripting because it appears to have one voice, but then you can imagine what the sheep are fearfully saying and thinking in-between each line. Obviously, not all scripture can be turned into a script. "Jesus wept" for example. But then again, in a readers script, you could simply repeat that line over and over again, interjecting one-liners about what makes Jesus weep.
Readers can read scripture, or be reacting to it.
Tip: Assign the same story to two different groups and see how each presents the script.
The typical setup and rules of Readers Theater go like this:
- Parts of a Bible reading are assigned to "readers" who each take a seat up front facing the audience.
- The readers cannot leave their chairs, but they can move, pose, react, move their arms, and use facial expressions when reading their own part or in response to other parts.
- There is no walking around or props (though with some stories, masks are appropriate).
- There is usually a part for a "narrator."
- Scripts based on Bible stories are usually your best bet. These scripts are largely a retelling of story with embellishments (like "oy vey" and "grumble grumble").
- This type of performance works best with a story that has a variety of well-defined characters and where people in the story have something to say (or you can add things for them to say).
- This technique is most appropriate for third grade and older -- that is, confident readers.
- Costumes are usually minimal - just a hat or scarf or nametags to identify the character, but with kids they can dress up if it helps them get into their part.
- Any action that takes place is done symbolically. For example, sleep may be suggested with the reader's head lowered, resting on his chest. The man walking from Jericho to Jerusalem may be presented by moving his feet while staying seated.
- At the beginning of the reading, the narrator introduces the characters.
- Readers focus their attention on the audience, not on the other readers. This helps the audience focus on the text rather than the performers.
- You can do different versions of any script/scripture. For example, the first version can be one where people are really angry or say everything in an "over the top" fashion, or they have to sing every line. Or one where Moses thinks outloud what he really WANTS to say before saying what he supposed to say according to scripture. The reading style would depend on the story you are reading. You wouldn't want to shout from the cross, for example.
- Video the performance using your cellphone because THEY WILL want to see themselves! And it's a good opportunity to discuss things.
Can non-readers do "Readers Theater"??
Yes, if they are prompted. And they can also sit up front to provide the sound effects and ECHO responses and key lines.
- Disciples on a boat need waves, wind, and thunder.
- Crowd during feeding of the 5000 can say "we're hungry," "can I have some of that?"
- "Give us Barrabas!" "Let Him Go!" "Hosanna!"
Typically it's best if the non-reader is working with a reader/volunteer.
(This article is based on Readers Theater notes from Amy Crane and Neil MacQueen.)