THE COLLECTIVE WILL
Randy on the Shakespeare group’s origin
When my daughter, Sophie, was in sixth grade, her class read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in seventh grade, Romeo and Juliet; but in eighth grade, no Shakespeare, to her dismay and mine. And so we invited her friends to the apartment to read Macbeth aloud. It is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy and abounds in witches, blood, death, treachery: the things kids love. Curtain-rod swords and bedsheet robes were encouraged. Parents were welcome, but only kids could read. They had a fine time; we were jealous. Soon after, I groused to Matt that the kids had had all the fun while we hapless adults just sat around. Matt pointed out what I’d managed to overlook: we could do something like that.
It may be bad luck (not to mention something of a cliché) to invoke Proust in an article about Shakespeare, but as I listened to Randy’s envious account of Sophie’s Macbeth, I had my own madeleine moment. During my middle-school years, spent in budget-starved public schools in California, the reading aloud of Shakespeare plays was the centerpiece of the English curriculum (public-domain Penguin classics in paperback: such a bargain!). Plays like King Lear, Romeo and Juliet and Othello were my first introduction to the classical canon. The galloping rhythm of iambic pentameter buried itself somewhere in my limbic system and sent me scuttling to the library for the Complete Works; I may have been the only 13-year-old in the state of California to have read Cymbeline and Henry VIII under anything other than duress. And reading—and more important, acting out—parts big and small in class helped me overcome my squirmy adolescent awkwardness in the service of my inner ham. Ms. Logan’s language arts class was the gateway drug that led to high school and college-level theater, decades of bumming around in rock bands, and other such happy dissipation. But that whole origin story about the group had grown obscure in my memory, until Randy’s lament brought it to life. “We could do something like that,” indeed. And we did.
Randy on meeting no. 1
On Sunday afternoon, August 8, 2000, we joined with friends in Hudson River Park in lower Manhattan to read Twelfth Night aloud. It was so much fun that we met again. And again. This June we’ll gather for the 120th time, to complete our third cycle of the plays with Hamlet.
Jami Floyd (current member, journalist and sometime public radio talk-show host)
I joined the group two or three years ago, so am relatively new. I was initially a guest of David Feige (then a public defender, now a Hollywood writer). I was very nervous the first time around, but I learned later that I’d gained points because it was raining cats and dogs that day and I’d traveled downtown anyway, determined to read and with a smile on my face.
The play, my first day, involved a dog. That’s all I remember. And while I can’t now remember which of the plays involves a dog (anyone?), I do remember this one detail because our host for the day called her dog to participate whenever the scene specified the presence of said dog.
After several more visits as a guest, I was invited to officially join the group. I have to admit that it felt rather like a marriage proposal. I’m sure I’m the only one who felt that way—after years of reading Shakespeare aloud, at home, alone, to myself, I longed for someone with whom to read. I said, “Yes, yes. A thousand times yes!”
Randy on the method
One reason the group endures, aside from the obvious delights of reading Shakespeare aloud, is our no-muss, no-fuss method of assigning roles: we don’t. We leave it to chance, proceeding Passover seder-like: the host for that month (more later on this function) takes the first part on the page; the person to his or her left takes the next part, and so on, moving clockwise. Everyone sticks with his or her character until the end of the scene. For scene two, we recast: the next person in the circle takes the first part, and so on.
It took a bit of trial and error for us to hit upon this formula. At the first couple of meetings, people simply volunteered for the parts they wanted to read in each scene, and a perhaps predictable pattern emerged: the biggest extroverts were doing all the juicy bits. Unless I’m misremembering this. The regulated-by-chance system is something my parents do in their (non-Shakespeare) book club, and if memory serves, that’s what inspired us to try it.
I’ve no recollection of this. Or much that happened prior to last month. Okay, prior to last week.
Origins aside, our method forestalls time-consuming and friendship-threatening wrangles over who plays which part. More benignly, it ensures that the best speeches are distributed, if not evenly, at least randomly. When the group reads, say, Othello, by day’s end, nearly everyone has had a chance to be Iago. Casting is gender-neutral. And it’s fun to see various approaches to a role.
This approach also exposes the varying degrees of familiarity with Elizabethan English among the readers, which itself can enrich and open up the work—sometimes a 21st-century misreading of a passage can be just as rewarding as a “correct” one.
If a scene sticks someone with an egregiously brief part—”Second Messenger: Behold, the king!”—he or she may invoke the one-line rule and take an extra turn, reading the first part on the page in the next scene. This rule is not universally embraced; some of us believe it is abused and that we’d do better simply to leave it all to chance, figuring that over the year, if not over any one play, it will all even out.
I never invoke.
Randy on why and where we thrive
There are two big reasons why, 12 years on, the group continues to flourish even as our various book groups and Marxist study groups and workout regimens have deliquesced:
1. No homework. Unlike book clubs that demand pre-meeting reading, we need merely to show up with a copy of the play (and some snacks to share).
2. No vacuuming. We generally meet in parks in warm weather and in bars—Shakespeare and liquor: natural companions—when it’s cold or wet; thus nobody, unless they volunteer to host at home, has to clean his or her apartment before or after we gather, or have an apartment grand enough to host a dozen people—or, for that matter, even live indoors.
On the whole, the less populated a venue, the more conducive it is to letting your natural thespian hang out and loudly interrupting one another—so our bars have tended to be on the basic side, frequented by incurious locals. Actually, during our first few years, we often met at the literature-saturated White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street in the West Village—famous for being Dylan Thomas’s last port of call before his death in 1953—but it was becoming too popular and touristy. Later we were regulars at the much-missed All State Café on West 72nd Street, before its sad demise. For the last few years one of our go-to spots has been the grungy and chair-crowded back room at the Dublin House on West 79th; those few solitary customers who drink there on a Sunday afternoon are too gloomy to make a distracting racket.
Our outdoor venues must have two salient features: access to restrooms and also to yet more snacks. We’ve often met in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and by Turtle Pond in Central Park. We’ve ventured out to Governors Island, and we once read Romeo and Juliet beside a tomb in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. We like Robert Wagner Park down by the Battery, with its view of the Statue of Liberty and its convenient position midway between Brooklyn and the Upper West Side.
Tamara Glenny (member and wwword co-founder)
A very important reason for the success of Shakespeare (apart from his being a genius and all that): first, there are enough of the plays (36-plus) to ensure that nobody can get sick of them (since it takes at least three years to get through the full cycle), and, thanks to that three years, by the time a play comes around again, we’ve forgotten an awful lot about it so it all seems blissfully fresh again.
In our efforts to meet in the trackless outdoors, we’ve benefited greatly from that extremely non-Shakespearean innovation, the cellphone.
Our gatherings have given me the warm glow of geographic superiority. When a friend in Los Angeles expressed envy of our group, I told her how easily she could start her own. Oh, no, she said, L.A. is too spread out. Nobody would make a long monthly drive to read Shakespeare.
David Feige (member, writer and lawyer)
Being exiled to L.A. has a number of drawbacks but among them is the number of plays I miss. During the first two seasons of my TV show [based on his own career as a young public defender], I often timed my weekends in NYC to coincide with our meetings, frequently finishing the play and heading straight to JFK. Now that I’m back in California, I’m actually going to try to get a West Coast splinter group off the ground.
Randy on public park perils
One afternoon in Hudson River Park in lower Manhattan, a Parks Department policeman nailed us for public drinking. He was a rookie, apparently, and unable to fill out the ticket properly until one of the several lawyers in our group showed him how. Matt stepped up and took the fall.
I’m fairly certain I’m the one who actually got caught, with a full plastic tumbler of red wine clutched in one paw.
If memory serves, which it doesn’t, it was white. We all tossed cash on the blanket to share the fine. People sitting in the sunshine sipping wine and reading Shakespeare: you want to crack down on that. It’s complicated, though. The law is obviously ludicrous. Ban public drunkenness, which disturbs other people—but not public drinking, a joy of life and something done legally at countless sidewalk cafés. It’s permitted—encouraged, in fact—when the Metropolitan Opera performs in a park. But if tickets are given to poor folks having a beer on their stoop on 123rd and Adam Clayton Powell, why should we chardonnay-swilling Shakespeare buffs be exempt? The pains of liberalism.
Randy on who thrives
We’re none of us actors or Shakespeare scholars, just civilians. Writers, editors and lawyers are perhaps overrepresented.
Over the years, we’ve had actors pass in and out of the group—my wife is one of them. But frankly, it’s not as much fun for them—after all, they have to interpret dialogue for a living, and they find it hard to relax when called on to do it with no time to rehearse.
Randy on who thrives
We range in age from early thirties to late sixties, and at any given time we have a core group of about a dozen. Were it larger, we’d have to wait too long for a turn to read. If it were much smaller, scenes with many characters would require not only doubling but tripling, often with a reader talking to himself—funny for a while, but not ideal.
We have an expansive guest policy. If the host determines that our numbers are likely to be low that month, the regulars are encouraged to bring a friend. It’s a good way to—not exactly audition—let’s say spend time with folks we eventually might want to invite to be regulars. We don’t allow spectators because we are not performers and don’t wish to feel self-conscious.
Over time, some regulars have drifted away to have children or start demanding jobs. (Three former regulars currently write for Comedy Central’s Daily Show. Hmm. What does this say about us?) At one point, we recruited replacements among former regulars of Slate.com‘s late-lamented News Quiz. One of the continuing pleasures of the group has been going through the plays with substantially the same people, watching all become stronger and more insightful readers, engaging in ongoing discussions of the plays.
I don’t work for Comedy Central.
Randy on those discussions
People often have questions or comments about what we’re reading, and that’s part of the fun of the thing. We encourage, not always successfully, people to hold those thoughts until a scene break. One thing that provokes discussion is textual variation among the various editions people bring. We do not attempt to standardize.
Daniel Radosh (former member)
I seem to recall that whenever we hit a song, we endeavored to sing it to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. In a broader sense, I always liked how the texts were respected but never treated as sacred. We laughed at (and with) the plays and ourselves. I think that’s essential for anyone at all nervous about getting started.
I do wish we could return to the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Whenever we get to a song these days, we tend to sing unabashedly to some nondescript, ill-defined melody. I’d much prefer The Brady Bunch, M*A*S*H, Gilligan—anything is preferable to nothing. Some guidance is most assuredly called for in this area!
Not everyone leaves the group for life-changing reasons such as children or jobs in far-distant places. My boyfriend, the writer Michael Thomas, came assiduously to our group in the first year after we met and read with talent and enthusiasm. I discovered some months later that this was just one aspect of his wooing technique; once he had me down as captive and no longer had to worry about finding my approval in every area, his Shakespeare interest suddenly waned and I was back on my own. For a while when the group would inquire solicitously as to when he might be coming again, I’d fudge up some excuse about other commitments; luckily enough time has elapsed that that seems rather pointless and I can admit that he’d rather be spending his Sunday afternoons watching golf tournaments (or, to be fair, writing his own novels).
Matt on the group
We had just celebrated our first anniversary as a reading club when the September 11 attacks took place. We were scheduled to read Henry V in Central Park the following weekend; our initial, anxious response to the news (should we cancel?) was followed by one of greater resolve (hell, no!). This was a time when New Yorkers were more eager than ever for connection and fellowship, so we got a phenomenal turnout that day. And although few of us had grown especially close with each other at that point, I remember there being a palpable sense of relief and safety in numbers as we gathered. I think many of us shared a premonition that our culture would be changed, and not for the better, by the terrorist attacks; reading Henry V, with its odd mix of jingoism and insight into human nature, only underscored that feeling. But for a few escapist hours, we had a cloudless Indian-summer day, and a muse of fire.
Randy on picking a play
When we began, we didn’t expect this to be an ongoing event, and so we didn’t establish an order for reading the plays. At the end of the afternoon, we’d chat about what to do next, tending to follow a tragedy with a comedy with a history play. When we realized this was becoming a monthly thing, we were mindful to distribute the most famous plays across the cycle. And if an interesting production of a play was mounted in town, we might then schedule a reading of it to coincide. We made the decision to save Hamlet for the last play of the whole cycle and to go away for the weekend to read it, the longest and greatest of the plays, commemorating our completing all 36. Now that we’ve made it to the third time around, we’ve been reading the plays in the order they were written—insofar as that’s knowable—except for the Wars of the Roses history plays, which we scattered through the years, in the order of the events depicted: Richard II first, followed by the Henry IVs (1 and 2), Henry V, the Henry VIs (1, 2 and 3), and finally Richard III. For the upcoming fourth cycle, we’ve talked about including plays now being attributed (at least in part) to Shakespeare: Double Falsehood, Edward III, Sir Thomas More.
Matt on picking a play
Two Noble Kinsmen, another of the co-authored plays, joined the repertoire during the second cycle. A classic it isn’t, but it does include one of the canon’s first memorable instances of trash-talking.
Actually, we did Two Noble Kinsmen in the first cycle, at our 33rd gathering. Lacking a reliable memory, I keep records. And cats. Okay, no cats.
I’d trust Randy’s memory over mine because, unlike me (or any of the other members), he’s been to all 120 of these readings. He used to keep cats, but we ate them after a particularly heated rendition of Antony and Cleopatra during that same first cycle. Or maybe we didn’t—I wasn’t there.
Early on, we thought we’d alternate between a Shakespeare play and something more modern. We tried George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner, but it didn’t work. Given our method of assigning parts, we need a play with many characters and many scene breaks. We also do better with verse: it gives non-actors like us useful clues to reading a line. And Shakespeare’s writing is strong enough to withstand the rough handling of us amateurs. We have digressed from time to time—reading Shakespeare’s sonnets, Marlowe’s Jew of Malta (following The Merchant of Venice), Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, and Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed. (This sequel to The Taming of the Shrew picks up the story ten years later: Petruchio is dead, Kate’s about to remarry, and this time she’ll take no crap.) We spent an amiable afternoon reading three books of the Iliad.
Just this year we started what I think will become a long-standing tradition: the Bard’s Baptismal Bash. On April 26 (the anniversary of Shakespeare’s baptism), we will gather, each with a short—I emphasize short, for any members of our group who may be reading this—monologue. We will pop a little bubbly, eat a little birthday cake and take turns reading (and yes, performing, a wee bit) our chosen pieces. And we will share precisely why we chose the monologues we chose. This is the best part, because it constitutes a marriage of Freud with Shakespeare. Now, who wouldn’t enjoy that?
Randy on after the play is over
After each reading, we find a date for next month convenient for the greatest number of people. We usually meet on a Sunday, now and then a Saturday. (We don’t have a regular schedule, e.g., the third Sunday of every month—it seems too inflexible.) We generally meet at one o’clock in the afternoon, and we now try to begin reading promptly—well, semi-promptly—at 1:30, lest the kick-off gradually drift later and later and, anticipating this fell trend, people gradually arrive later still. We announce next month’s play, either seeking consensus or, lately, consulting our predetermined order (the chronological one, with variations). Someone volunteers to host the next time: the duties are simple. The host picks a place for next month’s gathering. Within a day or two, he or she sends the group a save-the-date email, and then a week before that gathering, a reminder email, including a rough idea of our anticipated attendance and, based on that, encourages people to bring guests (or not).
This July we’ll begin our fourth cycle, and I see no reason not to anticipate a fifth. It’s not as if when you read Lear every three years, you’ll grow bored. Especially not if Matt does Cordelia in his cockney accent.