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Spoken English

Performing play scripts and poetry

Performing play scripts and poetry

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Performing play scripts and poetry

In a nutshell

Performing on stage or doing a poetic reading can be daunting tasks. Consider each of the tips in this summary and your performance will be one to remember.

Performing scripts

Before you perform a play script, you will be given a role. Performing part of a play involves acting, so it is about more than the content of the lines themselves.

Context (and costumes!)

Think firstly about the type of play you are reading. A Shakespearean tragedy is very different from a modern-day comedy. Establish the setting and the historical context if applicable (this informs the set design and costumes in a real show). 


Think about the role you have been assigned. Think about the character's motivation for doing and saying what they do. Are they angry because of something that happened in a previous scene? Are they daydreaming because they're wistful about something that hasn't yet come? Try to act out these motivations in your words and actions as you set the tone for that character's role in the scene.


Delivery refers to the way you utter your lines. Use contrast to make your performance engaging. For example, vary your volume: soft, intimate or sensitive scenes should be spoken in the correct way, as should explosive action-packed scenes. Likewise, use silence as a canvas from which the action unfolds.

​​Stage directions

Stage directions tell you how things should look visually on stage. They are often in brackets in-line with the performed text. Just like for the delivery of your lines, when you act out stage directions, use contrastive devices to maintain interest. Contrast vigorous, energetic movements with stillness, and think about the pace you are setting for the other characters on stage. Even when you are not talking, continue to act and react to others in the scene.

Reading poems

Poems are meant to be read aloud. Think of them as being more like lyrics to a song than paragraphs of prose fiction.


Think about the context that the poem is supposed to be read in. Is it a folk ballad written to make people laugh? Or perhaps it's gritty modern-day political poetry? Both will have very different approaches to their delivery. A poem by Robert Burns, for example, just doesn't sound the same unless it's in a thick Scots accent!

Intonation and volume

Intonation is the variation in the pitch of the voice. Volume is how loud and quiet it is. Make your poetry reading more engaging by contrasting quiet and unstressed moments with loud and stressed ones.

Rhythm, rhyme and metre

In order to ensure you are reading the poem in the correct rhythm, you can use clues from its rhyme scheme. For example, if alternate lines of a poem rhyme, you'll want to make sure you read the poem in a way that makes this obvious. Additionally, use metre as a means of setting the pulse of your reading. This refers to the number of syllables and the pattern of emphasis on those syllables. Iambic pentametre is a famous Shakespearean metre, where 5 pairs of weak-STRONG (duh-DUH) type intonation is used.

Pace and turning points

Think about the pace at which you are reading the poem. You never want to rush or mumble, but some poems might suit a faster delivery than others. Furthermore, many poems contain a turning point, also called a volta. This is some kind of defined break in the text where the tone changes. Take a look at the example below:

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad;
Mad in pursuit and in possession so,
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme;
A bliss in proof and proved, a very woe;
Before, a joy proposed; behind, a dream.
All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

William Shakespeare – Sonnet 129 
← Here, you might want 
to perform the first part 
of the poem in a vigorous 
and energetic manner, 
turning to a quieter, 
slower and more intimate 
reading as you reach the 

DOs and DON'Ts


  • Vary your intonation. 
  • Use the punctuation of the written word to inform your delivery.
  • Project your voice. Imagine that somebody in the very back row of the theatre needs to hear you!
  • Continue to act when you are not speaking.


  • Read the lines in the same voice throughout.
  • Rush or mumble your delivery of the lines.
  • Overact lines that require sensitivity or intimacy.

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FAQs - Frequently Asked Questions

What should you not do on stage?

What makes a good performance of poetry?

How do you prepare for a play performance?


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