Play It as It Lays

Despite the weekend's steady rain, more than 50 people join me as I wade into the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre on a recent Sunday night. After reaching into soaked pockets and purchasing five-dollar tickets, we quickly fill up the rows of the tiny storefront playhouse. The view from our seats, however, is only of more chairs -- metal folding and stacking chairs placed on a bare set.

Not that the crowd expects anything flashy. A group of actors, working without costumes or props, makes its way to the chairs and begins to read a play, flipping photocopied pages over corner staples and tossing off glints of yellow highlighted passages that are clearly visible in the fully illuminated theater. In a finale devoid of razzle-dazzle, the "show" ends with a sedate discussion among playwright, actors, and audience, during which timid flattery evolves into perceptive criticism of the play's structure, character development, dialogue, and clarity.

The intrepid theater fans are out this evening to see Theater with Your Coffee's staged reading of The Killeen Trilogy, a group of one-act plays by Coral Gables author and aspiring playwright Paddy Richardson. The gathering is one of three similar events in South Florida this particular week, offering further evidence that play readings (most free to the public) continue to proliferate in local bookstores and theaters. In fact, an unscientific survey of my own devising shows that, during the past six months, one in five local theatrical events has been a staged reading. Two more -- The Lion in Winter and Possum Play -- take place this week.

In residence at the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre since 1995 and now armed with a mailing list of more than 700 names, Theater with Your Coffee presents the area's most established play-reading series. TWYC actress/director and spokeswoman Lisa Kennedy tries to define the company's appeal moments before taking one of the chairs to read Richardson's stage directions, which set his play in Ireland's Killeen County. "It's a nice form of entertainment for the community. Five dollars for the play, coffee, and dessert is less than it costs to go to a movie," Kennedy explains. "We have no ad budget, so we use newspaper listings and send flyers to theaters, the library, and local restaurants. We draw a crowd from Hallandale and North Miami."

It's not the coffeecake that tempts two audience members, each of whom admits that she had little idea what she was getting into. Maria Everling, who says she rarely goes to the theater and is here at the suggestion of a friend, confesses, "I expected a play to be read to us. I didn't realize you would be able to talk with the playwright." Her words are echoed by Sue Ross, in attendance with a neighbor who knows the playwright. "I wasn't expecting as much animation and gesturing," she marvels. "They gave a very nice performance. It's all just very cozy."

Of course, coziness doesn't sway cold-hearted producers, yet reading series have been added to regional theater schedules all across the nation. Gregory Bossler, director of publications for the New York City-based Dramatists Guild, a national playwrights' association, has his own theory about the burgeoning trend. "We don't have a survey or keep track," he says, "but my personal feeling is that readings are more available because they are cheaper."

Last summer Theater with Your Coffee spent $9000 to produce its first full production, a double bill of Giorgio and Chloe; the plays ran for two weeks at the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre and two weeks at Coral Gables's New Theatre. TWYC artistic director Roberto Prestigiacomo agrees there is little comparison in costs. "For a reading," he calculates, "there is rent, coffee, and cookies, so it's around $100 plus the printing of the script. Sometimes, if we have actors coming from a long distance, we reimburse the travel."

While Prestigiacomo's company uses readings primarily as an inexpensive means to allow playwrights to hear their new works read by actors, other troupes present readings of previously produced plays as an inexpensive way to remain active. Fort Lauderdale's Counterforce Actor's Studio bowed last May with a $10,000 production of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love. Although the company hasn't put on another show since then, last month artistic director Daniel Chernau initiated Counterforce's first staged reading, held in a bookshop. The play, John Patrick Shanley's Savage in Limbo, is one Chernau would like to mount as a full-scale offering once he raises $8000. "The reading cost $35, which was what the rights were," he notes. "We didn't pay the actors."

Chernau is quick to add that participants receive other forms of remuneration. "Two out of the five had film experience but had never been on-stage before," he explains. "This gave them their first full experience in front of people. [A reading] is a slightly less pressured way to get on-stage. Another fringe benefit is that the actors got cast in other shows."

Vincent Scotto is one such actor. He landed a role from a director who saw him in Chernau's reading. Now in rehearsals for the Ramsay-Hutchison Players' presentation of Noël Coward's Private Lives opening Saturday (see "Calendar," page 42), Scotto contends that he acts for free in readings because "I find they are a great way to work on the craft in between shows. You have to work deep on the character and the concentration without having a lot of the trappings."

Actor Larry Jurrist, who participated in The Killeen Trilogy, agrees that readings are a good way to maintain one's chops. A seasoned regular in full productions, he splits his stage time with his job as the head of the foreign language department at North Miami Senior High School. In fact, Jurrist likes performing in readings so much that he joined Theater with Your Coffee's board of directors. "I feel I can take on roles I otherwise wouldn't have worked on because I wouldn't have been cast," he remarks. "We make our decisions real fast, right or wrong." He also enjoys offering an actor's view to the playwright. "One [play] had fifteen scene changes," he remembers, "and I said, 'This is even too much for a movie.'"

Feedback for her work was one of the things that motivated Key Biscayne playwright Susan Westfall in 1992 to create the Playwrights' Alliance (now the Creative Alliance), a group of local writers and actors that stages readings as part of the Theatre League of South Florida. As producer of Coral Gables's City Theatre, Westfall is now helming a four-reading series of possible entries for that company's Summer Shorts festival of playlets. "Having a play reading can be informational, and it can be discouraging," Westfall says. "Things shouldn't be read too soon in public; on the other hand, with [readings of] things that are written down the line, you risk over-rewriting. Readings are good for writers because writing can be so solitary, and playwrights are writing for collaboration. Those readings are important to me to develop trust in my characters, in my play, in the actors, and in the audience -- you learn to give it up."

Like Westfall, playwright George Contini no longer experiences readings from solely the author's point of view because, as literary manager at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, he now selects and directs the works. After placing notices in the Dramatists Guild's publications and in various newsletters requesting script submissions for reading and possible production, he now receives an average of ten scripts per week. "This season I've read about 400 scripts, and 360 of those were in no way, shape, or form ready," he explains. "That cut me down to 40, and 30 of those had major problems. I see the plays, recognize them as drama, but I see the weaknesses as well. The fine line a literary manager like me walks is saying, 'I love your play and would be really interested in producing it, if you would change this scene.'"

Future production of the plays selected is an increasing consideration as the decade-old Actors' Playhouse starts its second year of play readings. And in order to achieve a clearer indication of what a full-scale presentation might look like, the theater follows actors' union guidelines (and is one of the few to do so), which dictate paying the cast and allowing a longer rehearsal period.

"Last year," recalls Actors' Playhouse artistic director David Arisco, "we tried to find plays that were new, new, new, so our subscribers could see and hear some kinds of theater we're not able to produce on a 600-seat stage because they are less commercial. The readings are a tool not only to bring new voices to our theater, but to find a new playwright who will work with us to do a little nip here and a tuck there. We're also going to have a 300-seat theater, and we're looking to find a play or two for each season." Arisco's hopes aren't unrealistic. Just up the road in Palm Beach County, the newly renamed Florida Stage -- formerly the Pope Theatre Company -- opens and closes its upcoming season with two plays that premiered as staged readings: William Mastrosimone's Benedict Arnold and Michael McKeever's The Garden of Hannah List.

It used to be that, as a show was transferred to a tonier venue and enjoyed a more lavish production, theater mavens could boast about having first seen it in a ragtag staging at some hole-in-the-wall. Soon bragging rights will belong only to those who attended early readings and can gloat, "What do you mean you saw the first production? I saw it before the first rehearsal.


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