Dallas — Why would anyone go to a staged reading of a Shakespeare play? I mean, when there are several other options to see full (and often professional) productions of many of the man from Stratford’s works why bother, right? Setting aside the ubiquitous Bardolators who are bottomless gluttons for all things Shakespeare (raising my own hand here), who else would want to sit in folding chairs and listen to a group of folks holding scripts and reading behind music stands for nearly four hours?
From the outset, I have been intrigued with Shakespeare Dallas’ five-year project to present staged readings of all of Shakespeare’s works (plays and sonnets). They call this ambitious endeavor “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” and it is “complete” in another way—no cutting and editing to streamline the plays, which is what happens in the vast majority of staged productions. Audiences get to experience (many perhaps for the first and last time) the works in their entirety. Every nameless servant’s exit and entrance, each seemingly dated pun and turn of phrase, and every single extended metaphor in an already long speech are all left gloriously intact.
But again, who would subject him or herself to this exercise on a Sunday afternoon or Monday evening, however culturally edifying and quaint it may be, especially when they could see the “real” versions of the play? Apparently quite a few people, given the packed, enthusiastic, and rapt houses I have witnessed during the readings I attended.
Wanting to learn more about the readings in particular and to get an idea of Shakespeare Dallas’ direction in general, I sat down before the summer season with SD’s Executive and Artistic Director Raphael Parry, who produces and directs the overall project, and SD Board of Directors Treasurer Jennifer Green-Moneta. After discussing SD’s steady improvement over the past few years in their Shakespeare in the Park series (evident in 2014’s mostly excellent summer productions of Molière's Tartuffe and Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and his Antony and Cleopatra in the fall), I told Raphael and Jennifer that I had been having some difficulty wrapping my brain around what kind of creature their staged readings are. The performances, although they run the gamut from more than a static, music stand-assisted reading to a not quite fully costumed production with many actors nearly off book, they were still just readings, despite pre-show announcements that audiences should concentrate on the poetry and the language as Elizabethan theatergoers often came to “hear a play.”
We decided that more of an insider view might help me gain a better perspective, so we looked at the slate of staged reading plays for the project’s upcoming third season and decided on one of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragedies, Romeo and Juliet for my SD acting debut. Soon, I was notified by organized and uber-capable stage manager Korey Kent that I had been cast as Peter, Abram, and some miscellaneous servers and watchmen. These bit parts offered a perfect balance of involvement and safe remove to participate and observe how the readings come together and are executed.
With little less than a week to get ready for the performances, the preparation is breakneck. A first rehearsal on Monday is a meet-and-greet and table reading. There are four-hour rehearsals Tuesday through Thursday, an actor day off on Friday, an all-day tech/dress rehearsal on Saturday, and then the show goes up Sunday afternoon and Monday evening. There is not a lot of time for explication of the language or character motivation (about twenty hours of rehearsal). Actors must inhabit their parts, absorb blocking (more complicated than one would think for a reading), get to know each other, and facilitate actorly chemistry and synergy quickly. Parry noted in our meeting that one-third of the cast are usually SD company members, one-third are university acting students, and one-third are newcomers. Side note: all the actors I worked with were consummate pros.
During first night introductions the director (Stefan Novinski, who I admired before and now consider a master of motivation and vision; he’s also the brother of TJ critic David Novinski) disclosed that I was a critic writing a first-person piece about the staged readings from an actor’s perspective. Just about everyone seemed receptive, supportive, and quite friendly and by the end the critic/actor distinction had all but dissipated.
As familiar as I thought I was with the Bard’s oeuvre (reading and writing scholarly articles and reviews, attending countless productions, and even having acted in several Shakespeare plays in college), and especially with something as familiar as the tale of the two star-crossed lovers, I was still not prepared for the flood of new insights acting in a completely uncut version would bring. The seemingly incongruous interactions between minor characters, entrances and exits, and scene changes all now made more sense with the whole play intact.
The third season of The Complete Works ushers in a move from Hamon Hall in the Winspear Opera House to the more spacious Studio Theatre in the Wyly Theatre, but the bare stage set-up with chairs on either side for actors to occupy offstage remain the same. There is very little room for backstage recharging (sometimes an intermission or two), which means “being on” at all times. Our awareness of the audience is increased along with the feeling that the entire play is alive. There is an energy that is different than that found in a fully produced play—both onstage and sitting in the audience.
It’s long and hard work, but thoroughly rewarding. The camaraderie that one usually earns in being part of play is just as intense in its own way, although shorter and with fewer performances, the compressed timeframe galvanizes those involved and spills over onto those watching. After spending a week with a terrific cast, director, and crew (most, if not all, clearly committed and in love with the project) I feel like I have a better feel for why so many folks show up for these performances and continue to patronize SD’s offerings.
The Complete Works is a perfect complement to Shakespeare Dallas’ many educational outreach programs (under the heading of Shakespeare on the Go!) that provide mini-performances, workshops, classes, and production residencies that all get the word out about the Bard and help foster a love for his works.
These staged readings are anything but staid, so let’s hope they stay around a little bit longer. There is more than enough Shakespeare love to go around.
» The next reading in the series is The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10 and 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 11 at the Wyly Theatre in the Sixth Floor Studio.