Dramatic readings

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The last (as presently envisaged) post in this section on the practicalities of reading looks at something slightly different. Sometimes you can consider a reading by more than one voice. An obvious example is dramatic reading. This can be overdone, and it’s neither to everyone’s taste, nor for every occasion. But there are times it may enrich the practice of public reading.

The most common use of dramatic reading is the tradition of reading the passion narratives, Matthew, Mark and Luke on the Palm or Passion Sunday1 of their respective years, and John on Good Friday. A number of churches have made wider use of dramatic readings, and particularly on occasions when a wide age range is present. There have even been dramatized Bibles produced filled with as much dramatic reading as possible. As far as I am aware, they are not presently in print.

On the whole, it’s more likely as a reader that you will be asked to participate in a dramatic reading, rather than be in a position to decide to read a passage with others. The key, perhaps, is to remember it’s a dramatized reading, not a play, and you are enabling people to hear the scriptures rather than making entertaining comments on them. You cannot, therefore, take any large liberties with the text. There is a place for including genuine dramatic plays in worship, but those are provided as a supplement for understanding the scriptures, not a means of proclaiming them.

In an ideal world, a dramatic reading, and perhaps especially the reading of the whole Passion, is something that is best rehearsed.2 A rehearsal not only gives people a sense of when they need to come in snappily and responsively, but also helps to work out where people need to stand for good microphone access. If the acoustics of the church, and the limitations of the sound system, means that a dramatic reading of the passion (which is often read with around ten voices) will be barely audible in your building, then it may be better either to limit the parts, or not to do it at all .

There are other possibilities apart from a full dramatic reading. Perhaps a poetic passage may benefit from two voices reading alternate verses. Or when reading a particularly long reading, there may be ways of sharing it between two or three voices that help promote attentive listening. All I want to do here is flag up the possibility that reading does not always have to mean a single voice.

While there is more that could be said about the practice of reading, the greatest aid to reading is understanding, and I am therefore (from the beginning of next week) moving on to the final, and by far the longest, section of this project. In what remains I look not at each lection, or each Sunday’s set of readings, but at each book of the Bible while keeping in mind those parts of it that are used in public worship . I hope that by grasping the overall context, you will be be better placed to locate the passage you are reading in its proper place, and understand more of what it is saying.

In this way, I want the emphasis to be on helping you understand, not simply telling you my interpretation of the reading. As you grow in understanding, so you may find you read differently in succeeding years, and help those who listen to you gain new insights because you have come to the text with your own fresh understanding.


Notes

  1. The contemporary Roman Catholic Church uses the name Passion Sunday for the Sunday that begins Holy Week, on which the Passion is read as a central part of the liturgy. Anglican (and some other) Churches maintain an older tradition also used by Roman Catholics before 1970, of calling the fifth Sunday of Lent Passion Sunday, because that was when readings, thoughts and devotions began to move away from Lenten disciplines, and more towards the Cross and Passion. The Sunday that begins Holy Week is therefore known by the name Palm Sunday, recognising Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, which shapes the start of the liturgy.
    Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday is also a day to be careful with the lectionary. Two gospel readings are provided. The Palm Gospel is read as part of the entrance rite, before what is, in many churches, a procession with palm branches and palm crosses. This narrates Jesus coming down the Mount of Olives to the city. Readings from the Old Testament (with psalm) and Epistle come in the usual place, and then, without the usual congregational responses, the Passion Gospel is read, in shorter or longer version. It is this reading that is normally read dramatically, with different readers reading the parts of the different groups and characters.
  2. Versions of the Passion Narratives are available here with additional guidance on using them. I always mark copies up with a highlighter pen for each person participating.

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