Mar 05

Critically Reading Plays

While most people can agree that seeing plays performed live is a wonderful experience, not everyone is as fond of reading them. Whether for class or for fun, reading plays can be wonderful and entertaining- or, conversely, it can be awful. At some point in every student’s academic career, some play reading will probably occur. Here are some tips for making it more entertaining, organized, and an overall better experience:

Mentally Re-Frame!
When reading plays, most people approach the scenario as though they were reading a book. I find that this isn’t the best way to go about reading them, and find it necessary to tweak my thought process and remind myself that the text is written to be performed. With that in mind, I go about it a little differently. It can be helpful to read the dialogue in different character voices, get some friends to read out loud with you, or take a second to visualize the characters. Remember, this is not just a book- the narrative comes from dialogue and stage direction, not omniscient narration, so it can often be even more gripping and exciting than a novel!

Cast it in your head.
I like to come up with a “dream cast” for the characters in a play as I read it. Maybe I’m just a theatre nerd, but I find that assigning a more tangible image to each character makes the play a lot more accessible to me. This gives me a more concrete image to visualize as I’m reading, and makes the play more engaging. This can also help you remember the key tenet that this is not a book!

Highlight, highlight, highlight.
Whenever I’m critically reading anything, I highlight extensively. I like to make note of anything that feels important as I’m reading, as well as keeping a running list of symbols and underlying themes in the back of the text. I also like to make a list of the characters in the front and then highlight any quotes that pertain specifically to these traits. I also find it helpful to color code all of my little highlights and annotations for quick reference. If this seems too labor intensive (which, in fairness, it probably is), try just sticking to one color and highlighting what feels right. Annotate stuff you think is important. The best way to get better at highlighting text is practice, and though it seems tedious, it can be extraordinarily helpful.

Besides the obvious Shakespeare (which is an entire category of its own), some older plays may be written in iterations of English that, for whatever reason, are harder to read. Many older works are written more formally, and can be a little hard to understand if read too quickly. Thus, I find it helpful to stop and “translate” every so often, recalling what’s been said and re-phrasing it into my own words. This makes it more accessible and engaging. I also find it helpful to remember that many plays were written for common audiences of the time- with just a little patience, these texts can be incredibly accessible and fun to read.

Do you have any helpful tips for critical play reading? Let us know in the comments!

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