Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Reading, Stage Guild-style

Every theatre in town (and probably in the country) does staged readings these days, and I've done more than my share. Sometimes they are fairly extravagant; in particular, some of the musical Readings I have done were almost full productions (One Touch of Venus at American Century Theatre, 1776 at the Smithsonian, etc.). But usually, staged readings are exactly what they sound like: a bunch of actors sitting on a stage with the script in front of them, reading the play aloud to whomever shows up.
When Washington Stage Guild started doing this kind of thing, there was an attempt to physicalize the reading a bit; we made entrances and exits, and moved about the space with script in hand. Personally, I like that approach, as it adds a bit of visual interest to what is, let's face it, a pretty static endeavor. (I myself would fall asleep almost immediately if I were in an audience, just listening to people read aloud. It's the reason I don't listen to books on tape in the car.) But after a while, the Guilders found that their very specialized audience, one which is accustomed to listening to the elaborately phrased spoken word, didn't care much about such things, so all subsequent readings have been presented with the actors seated, reading from the script.

WSG has been presenting these public readings for a year and a half. I've just checked my programs (yes, I save programs. I'm that guy), and I have appeared in a whopping 16 of these readings for the Stage Guild. I confess that most of them run together in my mind, as we read them only once or twice, then moved on. But my programs remind me that I've done some Synge, some Priestley, and of course, some Shaw, the Guild's signature playwright. (I vote that his Captain Brassbound's Conversion receive a full production one of these days. Yes, its cast is too big, but if anybody can tackle it, it's WSG.) I did two readings of plays by J.M.Barrie, whose big hit was Peter Pan but who contributed these other juicy theatrical tidbits as well, and I was introduced to an early female Irish playwright, Lady Gregory.

We even did a few new plays (or rather, new adaptations), something for which there are other theatres in town better known. There was a science fiction story, translated from the Czech, called War With the Newts, in which I played a lizard with a speech impediment, and we presented a wonderful adaptation of an Oscar Wilde short story at the Kennedy Center's Page-to-Stage Festival last year (that adaptation, by WSG's Artistic Director Bill Largess, is a real keeper; it should definitely be produced).

Just last week, my buddy Steve Carpenter directed us in an hilarious, Soviet-era allegory called The Dragon, a play with such huge technical challenges that it is unlikely to be produced these days. And that's one of the reasons the Stage Guild has been reading these many, many plays; they are often pieces which could not be realized onstage, but deserve to be heard.

Well, there's another reason WSG has spent 18 months or more presenting these readings. Along with all other theatres, they have been hit hard by the recession; philanthropic donations have slowed to a trickle, and the economic collapse caught the Stage Guild at a particularly vulnerable moment. The founding artistic director, John MacDonald, about whom I wrote a bit, died very unexpectedly a year ago, amidst a Capital Funding Campaign that was already experiencing roadblocks. With fundraising difficult at best, WSG has been presenting these readings as a way to keep their unique brand of literate theatre in the public eye. Their brand is so well-known, in fact, that the International Shaw Society is holding a conference in DC in October, partly due to the Washington Stage Guild's presence here.

WSG will be producing an evening of Shaw one-acts on the Catholic University campus to coincide with the conference, and word is, a spring season of full productions is also being planned. I applaud WSG's decision to begin producing again; they fill an important niche in the DC theatre community, presenting Shaw and other language-heavy, literate plays which are often overlooked. I am proud to have appeared in their production of Opus two years ago, which remains their last fully produced show to date.

I am not on the inside, so I don't know what this spring season might entail, or where it will be presented, or anything. Perhaps the staged reading I did on Sunday for the Guild will be my last participation with the group for a while, though I hope not. Regardless, I find it commendable that the company is picking itself up and dusting itself off, and leaping again into the difficult waters of producing shows for the theatre.