Reader’s Theatre

Elaine Forrestal with the cast of Year 7 students who performed the ‘Trial Scene’ from Black Jack Anderson.

Since Black Jack Anderson was produced as a play and performed during the Festival of the Wind in Esperance, I have been using the ‘Trial Scene’ from the book to stimulate discussions about some of the ethical questions inherent in the story. Questions of racial prejudice, laws and order versus chaos, and survival versus the laws of a society which bears little resemblance to the one in which some people find themselves. The notion of honour among thieves has been around for a very long time and some of the stories about Black Jack Anderson, handed down since he lived on Middle Island in the mid nineteenth century, certainly lend themselves to discussions of this topic.

Black Jack Anderson was an African American who successfully held together a disparate group of rogues, thieves, ticket-of-leave men and adventurers from all over the world for almost ten years. In order to do this the notorious pirate imposed his own rules on all who wanted to join his crew. He insisted that the proceeds of raids on passing ships be shared evenly between those, including himself, who took part in the raid. He made it clear that, having rescued the epileptic Johnno from a bare rock in the Southern Ocean, he would not allow the young man to be badly treated – in spite of his inability to work for his keep, which was another one of Anderson rules. Although he had a reputation as a violent and ruthless leader, Anderson recognised the need for rules. Everyone had to know  exactly what the rules were, and they had to obey them, otherwise no one in the group would survive.

Reader’s Theatre is very easy to produce and lots of fun for players and audience. Each character needs a copy of the ‘script’, which is simply photocopied from three or four pages of the book. You could choose to produce the ‘Fight Scene’ in the Trading Post in King George Sound, or the scene on Middle Island where James Manning accuses Anderson of stealing his money and Anderson puts James  and Jimmy Newell ashore on the Mainland. Once you have your scripts, simply ask for volunteers to read and act out the parts. Props for Reader’s Theatre need to be very simple so that the characters can quickly put them on over their normal clothes. Different hats, a scarf, a belt or any other distinguishing feature of the person being portrayed will do. Depending on the ages of your students you might highlight, in different colours, the actual words that each character will speak, to differentiate them from any action the character is being asked to perform. Over the years I have also used scenes from Graffiti on the Fence, Winning and Wild Wind as Reader’s Theatre to stimulate discussions about conflict and resolution, playground bullying and the ways in which fear can change a person’s life.

One of the best things about Reader’s Theatre is that when someone makes a mistake it just adds to the fun. No one expects this to be a polished performance so everyone can just relax and enjoy the experience. Give it a try.

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