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Arts & Life

Readers' Theater Is Performance At Its Most Basic: An Actor And A Script

Stacy Nick
Phil Baugh and Don Kraus rehearse 'The Sunshine Boys' for Bas Bleu Theatre Company's Readers' Theatre production of 'The Sunshine Boys.'

There's a lot of drama that goes into putting on a play – costumes, sets, choreography - but what if there wasn't?

At Fort Collins' Bas Bleu Theatre Company, the Readers' Theatre series takes shows directly from the page to the stage, and leaves a lot of those other elements behind.

"Readers' Theatre gives the opportunity to the audience - for the audience to use their own imagination," Loveland actor Don Kraus said.

It is exactly what it sounds like. Actors read from scripts with maximum vocal expression, keeping everything else to a minimum.

The 'set' at a recent rehearsal of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys consists of four chairs and a couple of music stands. Actors sit for most of the show; there are almost no costumes or props. It's definitely not the norm. But that's kind of the point, said Jonathan Farwell.

"What I like to call Readers' Theatre, to make it clear to people what it is – the quick way is to say it is it's a radio drama with close-ups," Farwell said.

It was in 2005 that Farwell and his frequent acting partner/wife, Deb Note-Farwell, introduced Bas Bleu Theatre audiences to the concept of Readers' Theatre. It was something Farwell had experience with in New York, during his more than 50 years of acting.

"It probably evolved from the fact that when actors got together to rehearse a play that they were going to perform – suddenly somebody sat there watching a rehearsal and they weren't moving around yet because they were still reading the script and said, 'hey, this is exciting just hearing it. Uh, maybe we should try that,'" Farwell said.

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Sets are minimal for Readers' Theatre. The backdrop at the Bas Bleu Theatre is actually for another play, 'A Tuna Christmas.'

This type of theater doesn't work for every show. Things like slapstick and farce just don't translate. But when it does work...

"There are those in the audience who come to us and say, 'you know, actually, we enjoy the Readers' Theatre maybe sometimes more than the fully staged productions,'" Farwell said. "Because they create the reality of what they're seeing in their minds."

Even with a script in hand, there's still pressure for the actors to get it right. The Sunshine Boys is the first Readers' Theatre production for 26-year-old actor Phil Baugh.

"There's a lot more grace as an actor because you're reading lines and they know you're reading lines," Baugh said. "But at the same time, like, you kinda feel like you can't screw up, because you have the lines in front of you so you don't have an excuse anymore if something goes wrong."

It does beg the question, though. If you have the script, why rehearse?

"Because we're actors, we can't remember anything," joked Don Kraus. "No, we have to rehearse it because there's still timing issues, the gags have to be set up perfectly, the characterizations have to be really, really clear. There can be no stumbling."

Which is where Director Jim McCauley comes in.

"Well, my feeling is that the director is the company's first audience," McCauley said, and as that first audience, he encourages the cast to get into character – costumes or not.

"The actors have to do the same thing the audience does," he said. "The actors have to imagine that they are in costume, that they are in makeup, that they have characteristic walks, that they have characteristic expressions."

Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC
Don Kraus and Heather McClain rehearse. For 'The Sunshine Boys,' some props and movement are used, although typically Readers' Theatre eschews both.

In the end, Don Kraus said Readers' Theatre puts the audience more in control of the theater experience. If they do their job right.

"They could literally close their eyes and picture somebody else in the role or get a different concept of that person regardless of how it's being played onstage," Kraus said. "They're not burdened by blocking, sets, costumes. Readers' Theatre erases that for them and allows them to focus strictly on the characters and the story."

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