Their voices soared with passion, but the words were what mattered. The Shakespeare Community Reading Group, which meets monthly at McCarter Theater, is not about who reads with flourishes, although there are some beautiful ones. It’s about what is on the page.
On a recent Tuesday night in McCarter’s Lockwood lobby, a happy few, band of brothers and sisters (to paraphrase the St. Crispin’s Day speech in tonight’s play), gathered to read “Henry V,” each reader providing a window into Shakespeare’s wit and wisdom.
Classified as a history play, “Henry V” details the events before and after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 during the Hundred Years’ War – the final play in the series of “Richard II,” “Henry IV, Part 1,” and “Henry IV, Part 2,” says group coordinator Paula Alekson, McCarter’s artistic engagement manager.
But the lesson stops there. “It’s not what we do,” Alekson says. “It’s about sharing and enjoying the language and the pleasure of reading Shakespeare aloud.”
A round-robin format ensures that all read, letting fate decide parts, but in the course of the evening one may play various parts. She calls it a “democratizing experience. We do not correct one another’s iambic pentameter.”
On this night some 26 readers arrive with scripts in hand, from large hardback, illustrated volumes, to published plays from a local library. Perhaps the oldest volume is used by Fay Lachmann of Princeton. She brings a book that belonged to her father, who received it on June 24, 1914, according to the bookplate, from the London City Council as a school prize “for general diligence.”
Some use Kindles. Some read off their phones. And different editions create some challenges, as sometimes lines have been edited out or given to other characters by the volume’s editor.
Area resident Sharon Cacciabaudo downloads to her iPad so she can adjust the font. An actor and member of SAG-AFTRA, she works mostly out of New York City. Early in 2016, she says, she was recuperating from knee issues and had stepped back from auditioning and film work. She was looking for an acting class at McCarter, but “to my surprise I found the Shakespeare reading group and thought it would be an interesting way to practice and keep my skills fresh while still on the mend.
“Shortly after receiving our first reading assignment from Paula, ‘Richard II,’ I received a message from the Hudson Shakespeare Company (where she had done some work, based in Jersey City) checking my availability to start rehearsal in the spring for a summer tour of ‘Richard II.’ Serendipity! Right then I knew even before the first meeting that this was the group for me.” The group has since read other plays in which she has acted.
Although some, like Cacciabaudo, participated in a reading of “A Christmas Carol” at Princeton Public Library, or have acted in the community ensemble of McCarter’s “A Christmas Carol” and in other plays, the common ground for the diverse group of actors, scholars, and Shakespeare enthusiasts is “we discovered that all of us were in love with his words,” she says.
This is also true for Michael Parker and his wife, Ellen, of Somerville. “I really like the fact that it is only reading. You can let it flow,” says Ellen, who teaches theater as well. “Any exposure to Shakespeare is good.”
Although she and Michael know “Henry V,” they have been reintroduced to some of the passages. “You pay more attention to the words. The attraction here is hearing every single word.”
“People love and are interested in Shakespeare,” Alekson says. The group “is intended to be a casual way to engage with and explore Shakespeare in a safe and friendly environment. There is no perceived expertise. We have regulars and newcomers. We commune, we eat; folks end up going to the theater together.”
While readers come and go, the group has been meeting for five years. Alekson says she received a request from Karen Sisti, college program administrator for Princeton University’s Rockefeller College, seeking space at McCarter for the Shakespeare reading program.
Alekson says Sisti, her community partner and originator of the group, shared that after attending a summer Shakespeare program in England, she wanted to make Shakespeare a daily part of her life, and from this goal, the Shakespeare reading group was born.
“Our response was that maybe they could partner with McCarter, and we would love to use the word ‘community,’” says Alekson. McCarter took over the administration and promotion, including a spreadsheet with names of participants and notifications on the McCarter website.
“We had recently experimented with the concept of community readings with the Princeton Public Library, which encouraged us to engage in this partnership. The library even hosts our annual sonnet slam every November. One year the group read the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play on! translation of ‘Timon of Athens’ by Kenneth Cavander in tandem with Shakespeare’s text,” says Alekson.
Participant Susan Schwirck says what she loves about the Shakespeare reading group “is the material we read, the informality, the camaraderie, the joy everyone derives from reading and hearing the plays.”
She calls Alekson “the glue that keeps the group’s atmosphere convivial . . . Her energy, kindness, and intelligence encompass all who join and create a lively, fun evening.”
Alekson, a playwright, dramaturg, theater historian, and educator, is McCarter’s artistic engagement manager, overseeing artist-audience engagement and community partnership initiatives. She grew up in Southwick, a small town in western Massachusetts, the daughter of an aerospace engineer who was also a layout designer, and a gerontological social worker.
As a youth she became interested in theater by participating in the drama club as an afterschool activity in her school system. “Gratefully, my parents supported my interest in studying theater in college, and I gravitated from performance to playwriting to theater history and teaching,” she said.
Prior to joining McCarter she taught theater studies at Mount Holyoke College. She received an MFA in playwriting from Brandeis University and a Ph.D. from Tufts University. She is a contributing author to James Fisher’s “Tony Kushner: New Essays on the Art and Politics of the Plays” (McFarland 2006). Her short play “The Breakthrough” was presented at Trenton’s Passage Theatre’s 10-Minute Play Festival in 2010.
The reading group is in keeping with McCarter’s mission to “engage, educate, and entertain our audiences, and to make the arts accessible to all in our community/communities,” says Alekson. “This is, essentially, a different way to engage with McCarter; it’s an extra-performative opportunity — akin to ‘extra-curricular’ in an educational setting — to engage with McCarter and dramatic literature. Our hope is that it allows for the deepening and broadening of participation in McCarter; makes Shakespeare more accessible for any and all persons; and creates community, new friendships, and new connections.
“It can be intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually meaningful and moving to interact with a play as a reader — this is, perhaps, our highest ideal — and it can also simply be fun. We always have fun.”
Charles Leeder, an actor who had done Shakespeare professionally for a number of years, is a regular reader. “I have always had a very soft spot in my heart for Shakespeare. He is one of the few authors who basically does all the work for the actor. His dialogue is unparalleled as is his grasp of character,” says Leeder, who has been cast as Friar Lawrence in “Romeo and Juliet” for Shakespeare ‘70; in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Rutgers; in “Winter’s Tale” for Westwind; most recently as Buckingham in “Richard III” for Cage Theatre in New York; and at Hudson Shakespeare in “Henry IV Parts 1 and 2,” “Richard II,” and “Taming of the Shrew.”
The McCarter group, he says, “is a wonderful mix of interesting people who all love to read Shakespeare.”
Love of Shakespeare can last a long time. According to Tom Hunt of Stockton, “Shakespeare is inexhaustible. You see and feel different things at different stages in your life.”
Sharon Seeman, an actor and musician from the area, says she is “always looking for interesting things to do. Reading all of Shakespeare’s plays has been one of my life’s goals. If I stay long enough, I just might.”
The second part of “Henry V” will be read Tuesday, February 25. Other dates are Tuesdays, March 24, April 28, May 26, and June 23.
Shakespeare Community Reading Group, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. 609-258-2787. www.mccarter.org. For more information or monthly meetup announcements, email firstname.lastname@example.org.