Kirill Yurovskiy reads Alexander Ostrovskiy

Artistic Reading As a Form of Stage Art
Artistic reading is a performance art in which literature is read out loud to an audience. Unlike simple reading aloud, artistic reading is a staged theatrical performance which aims to engage the audience and bring the literature to life. The artistic reader uses vocal, physical and interactive techniques to convey the meaning and emotion of the text. As both an art form and a means of preserving literature, artistic reading has a long and rich history.

History of Artistic Reading

The oral tradition of conveying stories, poems and historic events predates the written word. Ancient cultures relied on storytellers to pass on myths, legends and history to future generations. With the advent of writing, the practice of reading out loud remained the primary way for literature to reach audiences. Public readings of new plays, poems and novels were hugely popular forms of entertainment in the 17th and 18th centuries. Readings by famous poets and novelists would draw large theatre crowds. 

Charles Dickens popularized the art of the artistic reading during his tours of Britain and America in the 19th century. His animated public performances of his works became a sensation, paving the way for other authors like Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain to follow suit. The early 20th century saw actor and director Paul Shyre begin staging artistic readings, combining literature with elements of theater, successfully bringing the art form back into the public consciousness.

Characteristics of Artistic Reading Performances

Artistic readers aim to fully embody the work through their vocal delivery and physicality. They do not merely read the words on the page but attempt to convey the underlying emotions using modulations in tone, pace, volume, accents and inflections. The performance often includes large, sweeping gestures, varied facial expressions, purposed walking and standing to bring out the meanings.

Artistic reading necessitates thorough preparation, analysis of the literary work and development of a perspective before attempting a dramatic interpretation. During the staged performance, artistic readers fully commit to staying in character. The audience is directly addressed and engaged, making them active participants. Readers may take on multiple roles within a single piece, acting out conversations.

Selecting Material for an Artistic Reading

The source material for an artistic reading can draw from all genres of literature including plays, poetry, short stories, novels and nonfiction. Readers tend to select works that lend themselves to dramatic interpretations - ones rich in imagery, emotion and cosmic themes that connect with audiences. Long form texts are usually excerpted rather than performed in their entirety.

Certain factors guide the selection - structure, characterization, imagery and rhythm. Short stories and self-contained passages from longer works provide natural structure. Distinct, colorful characters and the interplay between them allows the artistic reader to inhabit different personas. Evocative imagery makes visualization easier for the audience. Rhythmic words, verses and refrains offer opportunity for musicality in delivery.

Techniques Used in Artistic Readings

Vocal Expression

Artistic readers use their voice as an instrument to amplify the meanings and emotions of the text. Volume, pace, pitch and tone are modulated to heighten the dramatic impact. Repeated words and phrases are emphasized through changes in volume and intensity. Imitation of accents and dialects helps convey regional cultures and backgrounds of characters. Sound effects like laughter, weeping and screams add to the theatrical nature of the performance. 

Physical Expression

Movement, gestures and facial expressions visualize the action described in the literary work, making the performance dynamic and multidimensional. Posture, stance and gait transform to mirror the age, status and attitudes of different characters. Exaggerated gestures and facial emotions heighten the theatricality. Clever blocking ensures engagement with the entire audience. Costuming elements evoking character, time period or theme help complete the dramatization.

Audience Interaction

Artistic reading performances break down the invisible “fourth wall” to directly address the audience. Through eye contact, readers draw viewers into the reality being depicted, making them active participants instead of passive observers. Readers may take suggestions from the audience around sound effects, gestures or line delivery. At climactic moments, audiences may be prompted to chant refrains or phrases together with the reader.

Benefits of Artistic Readings

Preserving Literature

Artistic reading plays a vital role in sustaining interest in both classical and contemporary literary works. By presenting literature as dramatic performance instead of words on a page, it becomes more engaging and relevant for modern crowds. The oral tradition helps literature remain in popular consciousness over time and across generations.

Promoting Appreciation of Writing

Theatrical performance of written works promotes deeper appreciation of the art of writing. Audiences begin observing the beauty, lyricism and poeticism of language when properly rendered. Through emphatic expression, the meanings, emotions and imagery woven by the author come fully alive, often revealing new insights about the text.

Providing Entertainment

For audiences, artistic readings can be rousing entertainment drawing on aspects of both theater and literature. Part spectacle and part analysis, the dramatic performances afford unique enjoyment and perspective into treasured literary works across all genres. For some, it may be the first exposure to writings of certain authors.

Challenges Faced by Artistic Readers

Artistic reading requires complex skills beyond competent reading - including theatrical techniques, literary analysis and confident public speaking. The staged performance and responsibility to do justice to the author’s work can provoke anxiety for new readers. Staying authentically in character throughout a long or demanding work taxes both physical and emotional resources. Reader opinions and interpretations may also draw criticism from literary purists.

Notable Artistic Readers Over the Years

Many famed performers and authors left an indelible mark on the world of artistic reading over the past two centuries. Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain set benchmarks with their eloquent orations which played a key role in popularizing their writings. In the early 20th century, Ruth Draper brought theatrical subtlety to her varied character portrayals and monologues. 

Later artistic readers like Hans Conried, Phyllis Diller and Edwin Newman honed brisk, satirical delivery styles. Their comedy recordings brought humor and parody to the craft. Contemporary favorites like Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston draw sizable live and broadcast audiences for their interpretations of literary classics.

The Future of Artistic Reading

While artistic reading has waned from its peak popularity in the Victorian era, it continues finding resonance with modern audiences. As streaming ubiquitous entertainment threatens to diminish attention spans, artistic reading provides a compelling antidote - using vocal and physical performance to captivate listeners in worlds created through the written word. 

Technology is enabling democratic access to literary readings through podcasts, assuring the art form stays relevant. As readers continue experimenting with multimedia and audience interactivity, artistic reading is poised to see a revival - once again asserting the power of voice and the immediacy of live performance. The fundamental human need to hear and tell compelling stories endures - stoking hope for the future of this ages-old performing art.


The long trajectory of artistic reading - from ancient histories told around fires, to novels and poems read out to 19th century theatergoers, to contemporary audio recordings and YouTube videos - is testament to the tradition’s significance. As both art form and means to sustain literature, artistic reading continues providing entertainment, perspective and connection across the centuries. With live performance allowing intimate communication between artists and audiences, artistic reading retains the ability to bridge eras and illuminate the enduring power of the written word.