My Tips on How to Enjoy Reading Plays

Posted August 3, 2016 by Carlisa in Bookish Thoughts, Discussion / 11 Comments

how to enjoy reading plays

I’ve seen a lot of discord about the new Harry Potter play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, simply because it’s a play. And I understand the frustration. As an English major, I’ve definitely read my fair share of drama throughout high school and college. And they’re harder to get while reading—because they’re not meant to be read. They’re meant to be watched and performed. We’re meant to catch nuances in how the actors say things and in their facial expressions and body language. We’re meant to hear music that will direct our thoughts and emotions. We’re meant to be influenced by the lighting, by the anticipation that comes with intermission and curtains, by the special effects on stage.

And I’ve heard that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a phenomenal play. From what I’ve heard, they use the entire theater. Actors come in through the back, and stairs come in on the sides, and characters fly around over your heads on broomsticks. I’ve heard that you can feel the wind and that some voices fill the theater from the back. And I’ve heard the magic is wonderful and mesmerizing, leaving the audience wondering how they did it.

All of that adds to your enjoyment of the play. It adds to the narrative, to the character development, to just everything.

And, yes, when we read a script, we lose the majority of that. So it’s a lot harder for people to enjoy plays when reading instead of watching. But, but, but it’s still possible to enjoy reading plays! Though I’d much rather watch the new Harry Potter play than read it, and though I still don’t know how I feel about the new play after reading it (I finished it this morning, and I’m still processing), I would hate to see people turn away from it solely because of its format as a script of a play.

And though I’m definitely not an expert (Again I say, not an expert), I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned that have helped me understand and enjoy reading plays more so than otherwise. And these don’t only apply to the new Harry Potter, but also to Shakespeare, and Oscar Wilde (please go read The Importance of Being Earnest. I love it), and Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. What I’m trying to get at is that these tips will hopefully apply to most all play scripts. And these aren’t comprehensive because they’re pretty individual to what I’ve experienced and come to learn. But I hope they’re helpful! (Wooooo, that was a long introduction.)

Tips on How to Enjoy Reading Plays

  1. Understand what a script of a play actually entails.

    A script is a very different thing from a book. It lacks the thoughts and descriptions of a book, so you have to go about reading it in a different way. And the first part of doing so, I think, is understanding what you’re going to be seeing in a play.
    First, plays are split into acts. Acts are usually the biggest divisions found in plays (although in the new HP, there is a Part 1 and Part 2 where they literally split up the play into two shows—but that’s unusual), and they are shaped around elements like the exposition, rising action, and climax. Something will change from act to act, so as you’re reading a play, it’s good to recognize why acts were separated and what distinguishes themselves from the other acts.
    Second, acts are divided into scenes. Scenes usually just mean there’s a change of characters and setting. Watching a play, these scenes are really obvious, but take time to recognize when a scene changes and what has changed. What characters have left or entered and where they now are.
    Then there’s the location and scene direction at the beginning of the scene. This description is vital to understanding what’s going on because it places you in a setting and lets you imagine what’s happening when you’re not physically seeing it. Take time to appreciate the place this setting describes and what the characters are doing. This is most of the description you’re going to get as the rest is mostly dialogue.
    And now, dialogue. This is just what the characters are saying. Usually it’s formatted like “CHARACTER: Hello, I don’t know what to say because I’m a made up character in Carlisa’s mind.” This is probably my least favorite part of the play-reading experience, but I’ll talk about how I handle the dialogue a little later.
    Finally, there’s the action. Along with the scene direction, there is action that’s interspersed throughout the dialogue, but it’s usually far and few between. It’s frequently set off with italics.
    Like I said, I’m not an expert, so there may be elements I’m missing, but these are the common ones!

  2. Utilize the introduction.

    There’s often an Introduction at the beginning of plays, especially classic ones like Shakespeare, that are frequently overlooked or skipped by readers—but they really do offer important insight into the play itself. If there’s an Introduction, then go for it. They’re written by the experts who have read and studied and loved the play you’re about to delve into. There’s a good chance their thoughts will help your appreciation.

  3. Speak up.

    I personally really like to speak the dialogue out loud when I’m reading a play. It’s a lot easier for me to grasp the intonations and the feelings of the character when I’m saying it versus reading it. And I know doing this probably adds some of my own interpretation to it, but that’s fine! Books and plays are meant to be interpreted. But, I read a lot of this play (Harry Potter) in particular on the train, so if I burst out in British accents and wizards and magic, I’d look like a lunatic. So I only do it when I’m alone. But I’ve found it very helpful because it’s hard for me to read the dialogue and still imagine what they’re doing and thinking without that extra help that description gives us in books.

  4. Look for recurring themes and motifs.

    Themes are usually abundant with recurring themes and motifs. If you don’t know what a motif is, it’s basically an idea or concept that’s repeated throughout a work. Sometimes it’s a word or a phrase or anything. If something’s repeated, it’s important. Take note if you notice something like this, and try to think about what it could me in conjunction with the narrative or the characters or the overall theme and meaning of the play.

  5. Don’t rush yourself.

    Plays are really easy to just rush through. Because they’re mostly just dialogue, and there isn’t many words on a page compared to your average book. BUT I’d suggest that you take your time. Reading through really fast without taking time to properly imagine the scenes and the words and the feelings and the characters in your head will just make you feel like the entire story was rushed. Though we could read the three-page scene in a couple of minutes probably, the scene takes much longer than that. Whether you’re reading aloud or silently, take the time to pause when they pause (usually shown with ellipses […] or em dashes [—]). Stop at the end of a scene or an act or a part and think about what just happened and its significance. Taking those small moments make a big difference, at least for me they do.

  6. Finally, go see the play if you have the chance.

    If you have the ability to see a play or a filmed version of a play, go see it. Though there are ways to better your experience reading the play, it’ll never be the same. So just go, go, go if you have that chance. In my high school, we’d go see a Shakespeare play every year, and it was always a completely different and more enlightening and powerful experience than reading it was.

I hope these were helpful to you! And if you have any other tips for better enjoying reading plays, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear about your experiences and thoughts!

  • Chrystal M

    What a great post. I just finished reading it too and am processing my thoughts still. The only thing I noticed was that it didn’t bother me that it was written as a play. I still enjoyed it, regardless the it’s obviously so much different in format.

    These are great tips on being be to enjoy reading plays.

    • I’m glad that the play format didn’t bother you! I think I enjoyed experiencing HP in a new way completely different from the original books. Even if it wasn’t my favorite story.

  • When I would have to read Shakespeare for my English classes, I would always find and listen to an audio version of the play as I read it. Like you said, a play is an experience and I found I got more out of the text by hearing the words spoken. Especially with shakespeare where the play on words is so important!

    • Yes! Shakespeare has so many plays on words and innuendos you don’t always catch when just reading it. When I’ve seen Shakespeare performed, I always learn something new about what they were actually trying to see because it’s told by their actions rather than words.

  • Bravo! Loved this post! Personally, I’m loving reading HP right now, but I think that’s just because I’m imaging and freaking awesome play in my head. Can’t wait to see it in real life one day!

    • Have you finished HP yet??? I haven’t heard anything from you, and I’m way behind on comments, so two weeks later, you’re probably farther along, haha.

      • Yes! Though I literally just finished it last night. In the end I enjoyed it, but it certainly wasn’t the same (and towards the end I had weird issues with Harry’s character… like he acted a little differently to me than I thought he would of in a Rowling novel). I’m still processing my thoughts, though.

  • Gabi Dahlin

    I haven’t read The Cursed Child just yet- and I think i’ve been putting it off because of the format! This list is helpful, although I still can’t decide if I want to read it or wait until I can see it performed, because I would love the chance to experience the story in that format first! But ah, who knows when it’ll make its was close to me

    • I think reading it is a good idea, especially since it could be years before the play makes its way even to NYC…but I sincerely want to go to the play. When I read it, I just knew that it was meant to be performed. And I’ve heard it’s phenomenal.

      IDEA: You and I should just go to London and see it, hahaha.

      • Gabi Dahlin

        ahh I will probably give in and read it soon, I already feel so out of all the HP conversations lately!

        WOW BEST IDEA EVER. If only, hahah. I seriously wish!

  • Great post about enjoying the act of reading a play for the pure pleasure of reading. It’s not a genre my review site ( usually covers, but the other day I pulled a 1950 UK edition of “A Streetcar Named Desire” off one of my shelves and found myself absolutely lost and mesmerized for the next couple of hours. But how to review the book? Your blog post really helps. Right now I’m reading “TopDog|goDrednU” Suzan-Lori Parks’ 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning play. Can’t wait to finish it and see if my reviewer’s enthusiasm for reading a play can convince others to give it a try. Wish me luck. You’ve got a terrific site.