Online Readers Theatre Lessons Learned – Tips and Tricks

Update 5/7/2020

First of all, let’s be honest, was it perfect? Not even close! Was it a blast to do and did it give us a similar feel as performing? Absolutely! Most importantly, this was EASY. We did a Zoom recording of ‘Hamlet for Kids Reader’s Theatre – the Teachers Edition‘, based on the play: Hamlet for Kids. We knew it was going to be fun but didn’t realize how engaging it would be, nor how much we would really get to know each other. (most of us had never met before)

You can also watch our How-to presentation here on YouTube.

OUR PURPOSE

We came together as a group of teachers wanting to show how easy and accessible this is for other drama and theatre teachers to do. We really came away from this with confidence around this process. Easy and simple. And we want more teachers to engage their kids this way, so I am going to discuss the nuts and bolts and our lessons learned from our brief but amazing experience together.

Since we launched this video, we have had MANY people reach out and want to know more about what we did, what worked, and any other ideas we had. So, read on my friends! (also, if you want to be part of a Q&A, send us a message below!)

The Tools We Used

  • An Internet connection
  • A computer with a camera built in
  • Zoom. Zoom is free. (learn more below)
  • Script (we used Playing With Plays scripts)
  • Costumes (created from whatever we had at home – see more below)
  • Props (see below… and yes, we used soup spoons as swords and a chicken for Yorick!)

A shorter play works better as a free account in Zoom gives you 40 minutes of hosting time. I’m sure there are ways to use Google Hangouts or Skype, and many other video conferencing programs, but Zoom was easy, everyone had it, FREE, and it gave us the Brady Bunch layout we were looking for.

As for Google Hangouts, their native program does NOT do a grid format, HOWEVER, there is an extension that you can get for free that DOES allows you to do the grid or gallery view!

Bonus: Teachers get free upgrades in Zoom right now, which allows you unlimited hosting time, as well as recording privileges. Speaking of recording, super easy, anyone can record it, as long as the host gives it to you. It compiles at the end of your session and makes a nice compact file that is placed on your computer.

The Process

The process we used was short and quick. Granted, I was working with theater teachers, so they already had in their mind what they wanted to do. But this was new for all of us. So our first day was a simple read through, and understanding our “stage” (the screen and our rooms, and in my case, a pink travel trailer we call Molly!) The second day was a “dress rehearsal“ and the third day was our final show and recording. If I was to do this with a group of kids, I would make this a minimum of a 5 day, 1-hour a day session. I would emphasize memorizing lines, as the reactions and emotions will be more appropriate. However, we didn’t and it still worked fine. But, as theatre teachers know, the better you know your lines, the better you can react to the situation.

This is the daily (or weekly depending on your class) outline I would use with a class:

  • Day 1 – Auditions – or, if you have already cast them, introductions and a read-through.
  • Day 2 – Read-through again with blocking. (read more about blocking below)
  • Day 3 – We are in dress and props are being used
  • Day 4 – We are off-book (or on, if you are not memorizing lines) and doing a complete dress rehearsal
  • Day 5 – Performance (either a quick run-through before show, or just straight into show.

This outline can easily be stretched into 8 or 12 weeks by having more rehearsals and different class projects surrounding the subject matter. Different homework projects could be:

  • Identify and create your costumes
  • Find props and figure out ways to make them funny
  • Research character’s backstory

TIP: Turn off notifications before you go online. On a Mac, it’s easy. Go to the upper right-hand corner, click on the 3 lines, and, at the top, select “Do Not Disturb”. This keeps extra noises and banners off during online time.

On-book or Off-book?

First off, yes, for a short 25 minutes or less play, kids CAN learn their lines within 4 days (cast Monday night, perform Friday). I’ve done it in summer camp many, many times. The advantage of being off-book – a truer feeling of being in an actual show. One note to this, in one week, bigger parts are more challenging to memorize (Hamlet, Prospero, Oliver, etc. If the play is named after them, PROBABLY a big part, sans Caesar… poor dude). I’ll take these parts and split it over 2 kids.

As for being on-book – this works well, but I would emphasize the kids really reading and re-reading their parts so they get the true feel of the character… we don’t want this to look or feel like a cold reading. So, that’s where rehearsals come from. If things look off, rehearse the scene again… but hey, you already know this.

Performance

When we did our performance, we ran straight through. We did not stop once. Can you stop? Yes. Should you? It’s up to you. But, we wanted to create a real experience, and if you watch our video, you can tell we made mistakes. And that’s part of life, mistakes! That is how we learn! With that being said, we already knew if one of our Internet connections were to drop, or one of our kids was to break into the room in the middle of a performance, we would have redone that scene. (the beauty of camera!) For three days and about three hours in total online, we only had two people drop out due to a poor Internet connection. And they were only gone for about a minute. So, overall, it worked pretty well. Sometimes the video would get a bit laggy, sometimes a voice would be a little behind. But that’s OK, it didn’t change the fun or the experience we had.

Equipment Check

An equipment check should be done before the first session. As well as the first thing during the first session. You need to validate the following:

  • Video working
  • Audio working
    • Headsets can add clarity
    • Coming closer to the screen
  • Face Orientation
    • Make sure face is oriented correctly to the screen
    • Can help with audio

Costumes

Hamlet and Yorick!

We just worked with what we had, some of us made stuff out of paper, some of us raided our costume closet at home, and some of us didn’t have anything except a basic shirt we flipped inside out. We did the best with what we had. This is where improvising and creativity come into play. As you can see by our swords, (they are soup spoons and wooden ladles) or Yorick’s skull, we had to be creative with what we had. We thought it added to the humor and was appropriate for our show. Remember, this is easy, overthinking things like props and costumes can really hinder the process. So, keep it simple! (and yes, the king WAS wearing a duct-tape crown!)

Swordfight!

Background

You can go as big or as little as you want. But try to get a solid background if you can. However, as you can see from our performance, it didn’t matter too much. As well, this shouldn’t be the emphasis of the show, so we were not too worried about it. We just took down some posters, maybe hung a sheet up, and went for it!

But, if you want to get snazzy… well, you can create different backgrounds within Zoom (see below for Macbeth and the witches). Just find what image you want, import it into Zoom, and set it as your background. Easy-peasy (well, at least that’s what the kids told me!) Here are some more details about how to do it.

Copyright

As with any show, and anytime you use somebody else’s work, give credit. We used bumper music and gave credit to the creator. Be sure that is in your show at someplace if you record it.

Casting

If you want, you can hold auditions on the first day and cast it that night and do your read through the following day. Your auditions can be simple standard additions, or they could be crazy, zany auditions like mine are… people give their best melodramatic death, best villain laugh, best melodramatic sob… and so on! I knew this group fairly well, so I just cast how I felt it would look. As well, they didn’t care what part they had. Halfway through our first read, we realized I doubled up on somebody who was on stage twice. So we had to change on the fly. It happens, so we adjusted and moved on. It’s the nice part about a reader’s theater, is you can read multiple parts as long as you can make the character’s voices, sounds, and costumes unique. This allows the audience to distinguish characters when looking at the same screen.

Speaking of crazy auditions, Roy R. Rodriguez’s group of Kids did an online “Best Melodramatic Death Auditions”. Just to give you a feel for how fun it can be! Check it out here:

Character Identification

One piece that we tried to figure out was how to identify which characters were who. As several people read two or three parts. And to keep in the audience in an unconfused state is important. So we used names at the bottom of each box to identify. I created a transparent PNG file and then overlay it in the post-production process (more about how to do this below). You can also have them wear name tags, and other creative ways to identify characters. Or even modify language in the script to clearly identify who is who. This can be done in a creative and funny way. Especially with smaller characters. “What’s your name again?” “Oh, I’m just “the sailor” “Ohhhh… carry on…” and then keep going with the performance.

Zoom Gallery Screen Orientation

Ok, I’ve learned of another trick, so really, there’s 2 ways to do this (I prefer option 2 myself – and would have done that for our Hamlet, IF I knew it existed… but hey, we are learning as we go, right?!) :

1) It’s Brady Bunch gallery view the entire time. To do that, here’s the trick to get the screens in gallery view on zoom to do what you want.

  • Step 1: Turn everyone’s video off
  • Step 2: Have them turn them on IN THE ORDER you want them to appear on the screen. Essentially, when they turn off their video, they go to the bottom of the cue, which reorientates everyone. To eliminate this, they have to cover their cameras.
  • NOTE: When cameras are covered, the backdrops are still visible.

2) The second option, and a really cool game-changer, in my opinion, is to “hide non-video participants”. Under “video settings” (in the lower-left part of your zoom screen – a little up-arrow). You will go to settings and video settings. In there, all you do is select “Hide non-video participants”. THAT puts ONLY the characters who are on the stage, onstage… and then allows you to have a virtual backstage where all the actors can hear, but not be seen. JUST LIKE A REAL SHOW! (“Quiet on the set!”)

Here’s a short video describing how to do it. (Thanks Roy!) Oh, and NOTE: Not only should the host do this for recording purposes but also the actors. It allows them to see first-hand what the stage looks like. Our Romeo & Juliet getting married was great! We had the Fryer positioned right below them. Awesome!

Scene changes

We really had two different choices:

  1. Verbally read stage directions
  2. Transitions between scenes done in post-production (easy)
  3. A third choice that was brought up later is to have the kids write the scenes changes and put them up against the camera… adds to their creativity and makes them more of the show. This can easily be given to a kid with a smaller part.

In the beginning, I was simply going to just read stage directions and introduce each act and scene verbally. However, one of our teammates suggested we set it up like a silent movie, and just have transitions between scenes. It is pretty simple to do, so I went that way.

Editing – Post-Production

This is optional. With Zoom, they already give you the recorded file in an mp4 format (this is what you upload to YouTube). So, you can simply take your file and upload it, done! However, if you want to be creative, and have some fun with you and your kids, do some post-editing.

So, let’s get one thing clear, I’m no pro at this… HOWEVER, I had a lot of fun and it was REALLY easy. I’m only going to be talking about iMovie, as that’s my experience. It’s free software that is already on your Mac, and it is very easy to use. You simply drag your file into the program, split clips and drop in transitions, and then save it as a file. Bingo, bango, done! I am sure there is a similar free product for PCs as well, but I cannot speak to it. The best part about post-editing production is this is another great learning experience for your kids. There are some kids that do not want to be on stage but would rather be behind the camera or the curtain. Engage them to have fun and be creative. I did slow-motion effects, Star Wars scrolling, sped up gaps that had too much time between them, dropped in canned laughter, overlaid photos, etc. It was all pretty easy to learn and a lot of fun to see the final product. Honestly, you can make this as simple or complex as you want.

Overlaying Images

To add names or images over your movie, it’s as simple as dropping in a transparent PNG file that you create. Ok, it may not sound simple, but it’s not that hard to learn. I use Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop, with an artboard the same size as a widescreen (16″ x 9″ or 1280 x 720 pixels) and EXPORT as a PNG file (make sure you mark it as “transparent”). The transparency is the trick, as what you write will show, but the background will be clear.

HOWEVER, if that sounded like Greek to you… here’s an easy route… create the piece you want to overlay in PowerPoint and EXPORT as a PNG… BUT, it will not be transparent… then, go to this website, and it will change your PNG file to a transparent file. MUCH EASIER…

Oh, TIP… when you drop the image into iMovie, be sure to change the style to “Crop to fill”. It defaults to the “Ken Burns”, but, that doesn’t give you the effect of keeping the words static. (see photo below)

Ideas

Have a class of 30 kids? Then break them up into three groups and do three shorter plays. It allows the kids to critique each other, and learn from each other. But be sure to assign a director for that group if you will not be in there. Otherwise, they will possibly get lost.

This is also a great venue for kids to write and perform their own plays. Nothing like writing and directing to really get a great experience!

Audience vs. camera

Anyone that has worked both camera and stage can tell you this, how you perform for a camera and on stage is fairly different. In both cases, you really need to be aware of your body position and where the audience is. With the camera, the audience is the lens. So, when you do these performances, you need to talk to your kids about playing for the camera, as it is a different skill set.

Voice and Facial Expressions

Since your voice and face are the main pieces in this type of production it is a great time to work on making both clear and distinguished from character to character. A great advantage of being double cast in a show, is that you have to create 2 different characters. And, in this format, you distinguish each character with your voice and facial expressions. You get to play with new voices, different accents, and a multitude of different faces. This is a great opportunity to work on a new skill set and polishing that skill set.

Lastly

Have a blast, be creative, and be sure to share as we would love to learn and see more about what other teachers are doing!

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About brendan kelso

Brendan is the main creative source and author behind Playing With Plays and the infamous Shakespeare for Kids series. You can typically find him inventing by day, playing with his family by night, and writing by very late night.

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