Go Beyond the Performance with Forward Theater’s Play Club
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Karen Moeller, Jake Penner and Elizabeth Cassarino performing a scene in a Play Club from last spring's production "Learning to Stay."
As audience members, we typically only get to see a production after all final decisions have been made—from how an actor will deliver a specific line to the size of the set.
However, Forward Theater set out to change this norm with the launch of Play Club, a book club-style discussion that precedes each of Forward’s main stage productions.
“Sometimes people see a play and forget about the fact that someone actually wrote it,” said Karen Moeller, artistic associate at Forward. “It’s not just people up there improvising. Play Club allows participants to see how a playwright’s script makes the journey from the page to the stage.”
The performing arts and literary worlds join forces in Play Club thanks to Forward’s unique partnership with the Dane County Library Service. Artistic Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray and Company Manager Celia Klehr initially hosted Play Club at Forward Theater, but due to limited space could never accommodate everyone interested.
“We were trying to figure out how to expand Play Club and libraries seemed to be a no brainer,” said Tracy Herold, director of Dane County Library Service. “It is kind of a riff on something patrons are already used to in terms of book club, but challenges them differently in that they are required to read a play instead of a book, creating a different kind of experience with the narrative.”
The upcoming Play Club series will discuss I and You, which kicks off Forward’s 2017-2018 season and opens Nov. 2. I and You by Lauren Gunderson tells the intimate story of two teenagers wrestling with serious life issues and wondering what the future holds for them in their individual lives. One of Forward’s founders, Michael Herold, will be facilitating the discussion. He will be joined by actors Rachael Zientek and Sherrick Robinson, who will read scenes from the play.
“At almost every one of our talkbacks someone in the audience will say, ‘did the script say the set was suppose to look like that?,’ or ‘did you guys come up with what this character did on your own?,’” Moeller shared. “When people read the script they can see all the ways in which the playwright does or doesn’t determine what you see on the stage.”
I and You falls under Forward’s 2017-2018 theme of “What’s Next?” Forward creatively selected three plays that present this question in a smart progression. The second play Exit Strategy, which opens Jan. 18, follows a closing school in a crumbling neighborhood and shares the effect it has on the surrounding community. The season’s final play Marjorie Prime, which opens April 5, tells the story of 85-year-old Marjorie and her handsome new companion who is programmed to feed the story of her life back to her.
Moeller enjoys how Play Club allows participants to feel like they are truly a part of the production process. When reading the script before seeing the play, participants get the chance to imagine in their heads what the play might be like. Discussion leaders will often bring set drawings or costume renderings to explain how Forward came to these final decisions based off the script.
“It’s been really cool to see the light bulbs in people’s heads go off,” Moeller said. “For a lot of them it’s their first time ever reading a script. That’s something I take for granted being an actor myself.”
Grant funding from Beyond the Page, Madison Community Foundation, Dane Arts, and National Endowment for the Humanities helped to make Play Club possible. This is the second year of the three-year program at Dane County Library Service and is a part of the From Page to Stage program.
Play Clubs for I and You will be held at Stoughton Public Library Oct. 26 at 6 p.m. and Monroe Street Branch of Madison Public Library Oct. 30 at 7 p.m.If you would like your branch of the public library to host a Play Club, Forward encourages you to ask them to start one.