Sunday, February 22, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Form a Play-reading Group

This idea definitely incorporates playfulness (sorry, bad pun) as well as a chance to involve other people; in fact, it really can’t be done without collaborating with at least a few others. This idea is to spend a HarvilleQuarter reading plays with a small group of other folks who have the enthusiasm, time and lack of self-consciousness to take this project on and enjoy it

My vision is that the group would first select a set of plays they would like to read out loud. Leadership for each play would be assigned at an advance planning meeting, with the leader being responsible for locating copies, assigning parts and doing some research on the play and playwright to help guide the playreading process. Participants would be expected to read the play in advance, concentrating on the assigned role(s), and be ready to throw themselves into their parts when the group reconvenes. The enjoyment of the group will be greatly reduced if even one person is stumbling over lines or has to be reminded of which characters he is playing. Ideally, plays would be selected that offer at least one meaty role for each member of the playreading group.

I would suggest reading two plays per week, which should give ample time for preparation for all concerned. Members can take turns hosting. Assuming that most plays will take at least two hours to read (although one-act plays can certainly be considered as well), this leaves time for some introductory exposition by the play’s leader to set the context and an intermission or two. After the reading, the leader can encourage discussion of the plot, characters, historical context, writing and members’ personal reactions to the play, perhaps over beer, wine or mixed drinks (the selection of beverage may be influenced by the particular play).

I’ve been thinking about the plays I would contribute to a list for my group, and I realize (sadly) how few plays I know well enough to make a recommendation. I hope that other members of my group would be more knowledgeable. At a minimum, the group should talk about a mix of plays that all would enjoy.

Is everyone enthusiastic about the classics, with heavy weighting on the works of Shakespeare, Moliere, Ibsen, Chekhov and Calderon - not to mention Aristophanes and Euripides? Or would they prefer to concentrate on 20th Century American playwrights, such as Williams, O’Neill, Miller, Wilson and Mamet?

Is there a preference for comedies vs. dramas, regardless of time period or country of origin? One-act plays? Radio or early television plays? Plays that were controversial or even banned when originally produced? The possibilities really are endless and suddenly twelve weeks seems like a pitifully short time to cover even a smattering of the truly great options.

Depending on the nature of the group and how well they know each other, they may decide to forgo some highly-regarded plays. Do they really want to take on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, just to name one? Is anyone bothered by continual swearing and “adult situations?” Will someone prefer to avoid plays so depressing the group will be making a suicide pact by the end? It’s best to find these things out in advance – and let everyone know that they won’t be viewed as over-the-hill fuddy-duddies if they’re not comfortable when every other line contains coarse language.

On the other hand, this should be an opportunity for all the readers to stretch themselves a bit and read plays that are unfamiliar and challenging. Remember, besides playfulness, one of the criteria for a HarvilleQuarter is a little riskiness. You Can’t Take it With You, The Man Who Came to Dinner and The Odd Couple can be great fun, and I wouldn’t avoid them, but also consider plays that no one in the group has read or seen.

Of course, there is one practical concern - can the leader find sufficient copies of the play (in the same edition, if that's important) for each reader to have one without spending a lot of money?

Whether or not you allow for an audience is up to the group.


  1. Bruce - I like this idea, particularly for friends who enjoy a reason to get together with a frosty beverage, perhaps. Sounds like an excellent way to spend a quarter.

  2. Multiple copies of books, including plays, are often available in used bookstores near college campuses. Lagenaria