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How to Do Readers' Theater

by Barbara Waugh, with Sharon Cooper, Kim Harris, Erin Nishimura, Susan Seaburg, and Liz Yager

After each Readers' Theater event I've been involved in, people in the "audience" ask many questions about this new, very powerful, low-overhead medium. This paper outlines and responds to these questions: What is it? How did you get the idea? What makes it work? How do you put one together? When are the best times to use readers' theater vs. a panel or slides? Who can I contact for more information?

What is Readers' Theater?

To the audience, Readers' Theater (RT) consists of a person or people (in my experience 2 - 14) reading out of a notebook, their own or other folks' stories about a certain topic or issue. They read in front of others who are presumably interested in hearing about the topic or issue. Typically a script lasts about 1/2 hour can be effective shorter or longer, depending on the topic.

How Did You Get the Idea?

I first saw RTs at women's festivals, over 15 years ago, during the women's movement. The group that invented the medium, to my knowledge, is Brown Bag Readers' Theater out of Sonoma County. This group used it as a way to raise consciousness about "taboo" issues like sexism, racism, homophobia, sexual harassment, etc.so that people could begin to work on them. Women from a large circle contributed their stories to the group, who then reworked the stories and presented them to audiences. The contributors remained anonymous, and the women reading did not necessarily read their own stories.

I first used the medium in HP to convey the results of the 1993 HPL Employee Survey. As personnel manager, it was my job to summarize the data on overheads for the senior management staff. I prepared slides, but I felt that the "soul" of the people was missing. Flattened out into numbers, peoples' pain, perceptions and insights were lost. So I prepared what I called the "left-lobe linear analytics'" presentation of the data in the standard slide format, and the right brain gestalt of the data, in the form of a RT. Six managers and six employees read comments from 12 different "parts." Each part represented a job function. I asked Lab Directors to read comments from admin. support and engineers to read the comments of personnel and finance staff. Was I nervous about this? You bet! But it worked out great. I remember one of the brilliant senior scientists on the management team saying, "This 'theater' is the only way these data can convey the information."

The next time in HP I used RT was at the 1995 Technical Women's Conference. Several of my friends involved in "change managers" jobs and I were getting a lot of questions from others interested in the field and wanting to know how to get into it. So I designed a questionairre of ten "most frequently asked" questions, and six of us wrote our responses. I took these written responses, cut them all up and reorganized them to create a flow and conversation between us. Each of us read our own words. You can get a copy of this script, which we published based on people's requests for it. (Just call Barb Waugh: (T)857-2273)

I got a call several weeks after the TWC presentation from Sharon Cooper and Erin Nishimura at Intercon, thanking our group for its presentation and the idea of Reader's Theater. Women from Asia Pacific IT had gone home and created their own RT about their experiences at the TWC for their managers. These managers were so moved they asked the group to present to an employee coffee talk at International site, then to the worldwide IT Managers and finally to the Asia Pacific General Managers.

Susan Seaburg at WCSO also leveraged the TWC experience to work with her site's diversity team to create their own RT, using their experiences in the division, to raise consciousness about issues and opportunities facing HP. A copy of this script is available from Susan at (T)447-6827.

I used RT again during HP Labs' Celebration of Creativity. The dilemma was this: a team of 12 had been meeting for 8 months to produce a day-long event. In that time, the group had created a lot of great ideas about HPL, HP, and the future. How to get the 800 people in the tent on Page Mill, and the 300 in a room in Bristol linked live to the tent, "up to speed" with the committee? I drafted a RT piece that "telescoped" 8 months into 1/2 hour, which the rest of the team edited. This video kicked off the day, set the tone as one of risk-taking, optimism, upbeat ideas, and "out of the box." If you'd like to see a video of this theater, call Laurie Mittelstadt at (T) 857-7733.

The most recent experience with the medium was with the Gay and Lesbian Employees' Network. Here the dilemma was this: we've talked about the issues of homophobia and reduced productivity with managers for years, and we've done many slide shows. Somehow, we don't feel like we're getting through as effectively as we could. We are scheduled to talk with 3 different top management groups, including Lew's staff. How can we have a greater impact? Working with the GLEN steering committee and other volunteers, I drafted a RT based on written stories about the effects of homophobia, and the effects of no benefits for our families. About half of the stories came from the group and people read their own stories; half came from other HP employees from around the world. This theater was very powerful and effective for connecting real HP employees with the heretofore abstract "issues" which are so easy to forget, or ignore.

What Makes RT Work?

To be honest, the best answer may be "magic." Do we have "theater" programmed into our being at the DNA level? Maybe, because this medium yields the highest return on investment of energy of any media as far as presentations go. People seem to love it.

The illusion of "theater" allows the listeners more freedom and privacy than 1-on-1 meetings, where they may miss half of what's said as they try to prepare sensitive or brilliant responses to be launched as soon as the speaker stops talking. Listeners are more engaged than when they see slides, because before them are real people speaking from the head and the heart about their experiences of issues, not just the issues themselves.

Speakers are able to prepare what they will say ahead of time, and edit out anything that feels inappropriate or too risky. They can then give their all to what they have decided to say. And because they're reading, they aren't going to forget to make their point. Further, they can be as vulnerable as in a 1-on-1 but with an audience of hundreds. In addition, anonymity is possible as people can read others' stories, and NOT their own, if that is safer.

How Do You Put an RT Together?

There are more ways than I know. Here's how I've done it. Someone, I believe, has to be the "project lead" on the script. Aproject lead gathers completed questionairres and stories, and then writes a draft of the script. The group can decide the questions to be asked of everyone and the themes the stories should encompass. The script can just string together the individual stories, or the writer can cluster similar ideas, creating imaginary dialogue to connect similar pieces of stories or to transition between dissimilar pieces and to connect readers with each other. (You can see this technique in the TWC Change Managers' Script.) Reader's can then edit the script together. It is especially important for each reader to edit his/her own part so that s/he feels comfortable with the words and rhythms of the sentances.

The writer has to use his or her imagination to fabricate connecting dialogue, but doing so is a lot easier than it might seem. All you really have to do is remember the conversation on the topic around coffee pots over the years. You can also read a book or do a literature search to stimulate your thinking.

As for software, I've used AmiPro and the tab function to write the script. Anything fancier got me into trouble-sometimes big trouble-with lines swallowed and unfixable, crazy margins.

When are the best times to use RT vs. a panel or slides?

I like to use RT when EMOTION is part of the critical information that has to be communicated. I would not use it for a financial report-- unless I felt emotional about it and believed the emotion was part of the message that people needed to hear. As many times as I've used RT in and outside of HP, I can say that each presentation feels like it's going to bomb this time for sure. I never feel comfortable the day before a RT. But every time it's worked out great.

It's best to follow a RT with a Q/A session with the listeners or allow for written feedback and questions, if there is not enough time immediately following the presentation to answer the volume of response. Listeners are often very moved. They want to talk about the issues and discuss what to do next.

How Do Readers Prepare?

See How to Win an Oscar

Who can I contact for more information?

Everybody mentioned in this document (and then some!):

Barbara Waugh (T)857-2273 barbara_waugh@hp.com
Susan Seaburg (T)447-6827 susan_seaburg@hp.com
Erin Nishimura (T)694-2229 erin_nishimura@hp.com
Sharon Cooper (T)691-5618 sharon_cooper@hp.com
Kim Harris (T)857-7771 kim_harris@hp.com

Please see also:


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