Learning the Basics of Oral Interpretation

Oral Interpretation is the process by which words are pulled from the page and given dimension in a reader’s voice and body. Practitioners of oral interpretation bring stories to life, serving as a vehicle for the messages of the text. Some scholars argue that readers should unlock the meanings intended by the author (the vehicle should be empty) while others believe the meanings of texts inevitably transform as they filter through a reader’s voice, body, experiences, and culture (the vehicle is full of your stuff). Both ends of this dialectic are true: 1) readers should aim to honor the integrity of a text, using logic, analysis and research to investigate the concreteness and completeness literary text, and 2) readers should embrace the creative and artistic ways they effect how texts are understood, adapted, embodied, and delivered to an audience.

This tutorial will help you more thoughtfully analyze and compellingly perform literary texts. Each interpretation type (AKA: “Event”) listed below is distinguished based on literary genre or the number of performers, but each “event” also involves a related set of skills, strategies, techniques and practices. Read each event description and click on at least one of the hyperlinks that follows to watch an exemplary demonstration of what you are aiming to accomplish in the coming months; be entertained but not intimidated as these videos are the product of hours and years of hard work.

  • Dramatic Interpretation
  • Prose Interpretation
  • Poetry Interpretation
  • Programmed Oral Interpretation
  • Duo Interpretation
  • Reader’s Theater

Dramatic Interpretation
Material may be published or unpublished but must be drawn from a play. The play selections can incorporate monologues, dialogues, narrative or a mix of the three. Realism and character depth tend to be valued.

Prose Interpretation
Basically the same rules as Drama, but with the emphasis on first person narrative (greater attention to the story in prose, as opposed to the character in drama). Selections may be from a short story, essay, or novel, either published or unpublished. Selections can incorporate monologues, dialogues, narrative or a mix of the three. Emphasis is placed on the prose aspect of the performance and not the dramatic qualities of the performance. While most performers choose a single text, most tournaments allow you to compile a script, as long as all material is prose. This is the largest event at nationals.

Poetry Interpretation
Plays and prose works are strictly prohibited. Material can be a single poem or a poetry program (collection of poetry), although because 8-minute poems are rare poetry programs are more common. The material should fit themes and work to support the argument posed in the introduction. Additionally, the chosen poetry may be focused on exploration of the realms of sight, sound, or image. The poetry selected should include some recognized poetic techniques including but not limited to metaphor, alliteration, repetition, and condensed levels of meaning. If multiple selections are used, they should be interwoven into a cohesive and carefully designed and organized whole by the linking of author(s) or of theme(s) inherent to the literature; an intellectually unified program is the desired result.

Programmed Oral Interpretation
This event is to consist of a unified presentation made up of at least two selections from different genres (i.e. prose, poetry, dramatic literature, plays). A contestant may use the works of one or more authors. The selections should develop a theme. Same as Prose, Poetry, and Drama; but a Program requires you to use at least two genres of literature spliced together in a theme, argument or style. Weaving material together (as opposed to delivering the pieces separately) tends to make for a more cohesive performance.

Dramatic Duo Interpretation
Two people perform a single selection or a program of drama, prose, or poetry. A single selection with at least 2 characters remains the norm, but there has been a recent trend toward programmed duo scripts. Drama scripts often work well because the dialogue lends realism and immediacy to the performed emotions and experiences of the characters. Frequent interaction between characters tends to be requisite to competitive success. As with prose and poetry, scripts are required. Each performer may play one or more characters, so long as the performance remains balanced. If the selection is prose or poetry and contains narration, either or both of the performers may present the narration. Focus may be direct during the introduction (the performers may look at each other) but should be primarily indirect (offstage) during the performance. This is not an acting event; thus, no costumes, props, lighting, etc., are to be used.

Interpreters’ Theater (AKA: Readers’ Theater)
Interpreters’ Theater is defined as interpretation of literature by a group of oral readers who act as a medium of expression for an audience. While Interpreters’ Theater is both oral and visual, the emphasis is on the oral interpretation of the printed word and its resultant effects on the minds, emotions and imaginations of the listeners/viewers. The audience should have the feeling of a unified whole in which each performer at all times contributes to the total effect desired. The audience must have a sense of production being interpreted from a manuscript. Director, performer, and judges should be allowed freedom to exercise artistic, interpretive judgment; however, manuscripts must be interpreted from during the presentation. Suggestions in contemporary or ensemble dress may be used. The literature should determine the nature of this suggestion, although costuming should not be a focus of this presentation. Readers may stand, sit, or both and may move from one reading stand or locale to another so long as the movement is consistent with the ideas or moods of the literature and the director’s concept. The time limitation for the performance is twenty-five (25) minutes. An additional 2 minutes shall be allowed for set-up and take-down of material.

Now that you know the events, learn how to recognize good literature.