Theatre in the Dining Room: Reading Plays an Activity Builds That Expressiveness and Community

We started with Shakespeare but it just as well could have been “Steel Magnolias.”

A half dozen of us were sitting around a table, each with a copy of the play script in front of us cloned from an anthology.

The person who got our group going had spent her adult life being a puppeteer but now one shoulder couldn’t take the stress anymore. She decided to look for other members of our small English-speaking community in Guanajuato, Mexico who share her love for theater. As dramatic ability and the lack of opportunity to express it are both common, and maybe because of her charisma, she soon found takers.

When we start a new play, our informal leader has us take turns reading the background to the play aloud. Later one person reads the stage directions aloud as we come to them. Amazing how doing that helps us all visualize. At least, I know that’s what happens for me.

With a bit of prompting, we decide who will read each part. Usually, each person reads more than one. It’s here that our leader’s familiarity with the plays (thirty some years ago, she took a master’s degree in theatre arts) comes in handy. She has a sense of which parts will not collide with each other.

You may think that the rest of us either have a dramatic flair or that , at the other extreme, we’re monotones looking for something to do. The truth is something like George Orwell’s observation: some of us are more equal than others. Of course, protraying a particularcharacter may come more naturally too, although we often switch around from one week to another.

If your earlier play reading aloud was limited to listening to high school classmates taking excruciating turns around the classroom reading “Macbeth,” you’re in for a surprise. Adults with more life experience are far more likely to grasp the nature of the characters they read and what is going on between them.

We spend a lot of time laughing when the playwright intended us to laugh. Although I haven’t cried yet in the play reading group, I won’t be surprised if I do. When I used to read novels on a radio station for the blind, twice I felt myself choke up at the death of a character.

You may wonder why are we so hooked on this activity that we plan to squeeze in one more play before several of us scatter for the summer? One woman used to put on plays with her sister and neighbor kids when she was thirteen. Sometimes they even wrote their own. Participating in theatre has been part of both their lives. In fact, her sister is bringing down the copy of “Steel Magnolias” that we will use.

Another play reader is a newcomer who does this while her daughter is at school. She took to play reading like a duck to water. A couple of the rest of us are growing more empathic every time. It’s amazing what we learn from our best reader-actors.

Why do I enjoy being part of our informal reader’s theatre? Maybe because I am a writer and like to look behind the curtain at how a play works. But it’s also that I can be anyone without worrying whether I should dye my hair or need more exercise.

Besides, Shakespeare knew what he was doing when he created plays for a bare stage.We may be amateurs, but in our enthusiastic hands, even a so-called comedy can fill a dining room with humor and sadness.

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