Theater Feature: The Robust Art of Staged Readings in The Berkshires
Staged readings are a win-win situation for everyone concerned.
by Helen Epstein
To the cornucopia of Berkshire cultural offerings this summer, let me add readings.
There are celebrity-studded one nighters to raise money and less glamorous but often more interesting readings of work in progress. Those are the ones I’m writing about here and most of the Berkshire stages offer them.
Readings are a win-win situation for everyone concerned. For the host theater, they are a way to test prospective actors, playwrights and productions while rewarding their subscribers with an inside look at process and generating buzz. For actors and directors, readings are a chance to show their stuff to serious audiences and gauge response. For the playwright, they are a way to hear their work performed in its entirety and to have a shot at garnering a full production. And for the theatergoer, readings are a wonderful and inexpensive (sometimes free; sometimes a suggested donation) way of hearing new work by playwrights they often don’t know, performed by actors who speak their lines oratorio-style behind music stands, free of the demands of stage business.
I sometimes prefer staged readings to performances because I like to know exactly what’s in the script. At readings, you get to hear every word the playwright wrote and be undistracted by music, costumes, props or lights. You get to see what the actors look like dressed like civilians, hear what their voices sound like unamplified, and hear the playwright’s stage directions read out loud. You get to see the actors smile, frown and react to the script as they feel their way into the character they are playing. If you’re in luck, the playwright and director are on hand for conversation afterwards. And, an added bonus for those who dislike getting home late, these readings often are held in the afternoons.
Last month, the Chester Theatre Company held a one-shot free reading of Daniel Elihu Kramer’s Jane Eyre: A Memory, a Fever, a Dream, an adaptation of the novel. It was held on the same small stage of the Chester Town Hall where Kramer’s smart adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (titled Pride@Prejudice) was produced last summer. Both plays were commissioned by and premiered at the Available Light Theater in Columbus, Ohio. Kramer, who teaches at Smith College, is Associate Artistic Director at CTC, and wanted to tweak the script.
“It’s an important stage in my process,” he explained. “One of the treats for me is the chance to work with actors, to see what they find, what questions they ask, what gets them excited, what’s hard for them to find. I will probably take a little time away from the script, then come at it again. If Byam Stevens, our Artistic Director, is interested in producing it next year at CTC, I’ll work closely with him on the next round of revisions.”
One of the treats for me was seeing Allison McLemore as Jane Eyre, supported by an intriguing cast. I hope they all return next summer!
The Williamstown Theatre Festival runs a series of weekly play readings called Fridays @3 with two more to come before the end of the season. I saw Paradise Blue, the second play in a planned trilogy set in Detroit during various decades. Playwright Dominique Morisseau has worked on various stages of the project in Seattle, Dartmouth, Princeton, and New York. Paradise Blue, which takes place in a Detroit jazz club in 1949, won this year’s L. Arnold Weissberger New Play Award, administered by the WTF. The reading went along with the $10,000 prize.
Whether Fridays@3 has become increasingly popular — or word-of-mouth on this reading was particularly good — Paradise Blue was moved to the Nikos Stage where every seat was taken and theatergoers got to see a play that surely we will be hearing more about.
August 7 at 7:30 p.m., Staged Reading: The Handyman by Richard Dresser at Berkshire Playwrights Lab, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Great Barrington, MA.
August 9 at 3 p.m., Staged Reading: Cousin Bette, adapted by Jeffrrey Hatcher from Balzac’s novel. Directed by Jeanie Hackett at Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA.
September 1 at 7 p.m., Staged Reading: Dancing Lessons by Mark St. Germain. Directed by Julianne Boyd at Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA.