About ten years ago, I was reading an interview with Anthony Stewart Head (Giles the librarian/watcher on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and he described what sounded to me like the most amazing experience: sitting around with a bunch of Buffy and Angel cast members in Joss Whedon’s back yard and reading Shakespeare aloud. I remember he mentioned that Joss had fairy lights in the back yard, and at the moment I read this description, all I could think was, “Oh, that I were a mosquito in that back yard, that I might listen to that play reading!”
Of course, not being a member of the Whedon stable of actors, it was highly unlikely that I would ever secure an invitation. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t steal his idea and do it myself. Over the next several years, I would from time to time dream of doing a Shakespeare play, always deciding in the end that it was too hard – they called for too many actors, the language was too difficult, blahblahexcusescakes. I desperately wanted to play Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream opposite my friend Alana as Helena. But I was so good at coming up with reasons I couldn’t do it.
Until I remembered Joss’s back yard readings, and it occurred to me: the barrier to entry to a bunch of friends sitting around reading a play aloud is much lower than the barrier to entry to a fully-staged production. So I decided to copy Joss Whedon (not the first nor last time I’ve chosen that course of action) and host my own Midsummer reading.
Here are the steps I took to make it happen:
1. Settle on a play. My and Alana’s desperation for Midsummer made it an easy choice. Also, everyone loves it and it’s hilarious.
2. Settle on a location. At the time that we were doing Midsummer, I didn’t have a back yard, so I had to find somewhere else to do it. I decided on a local park.
3. Settle on a time. Certain Shakespeare plays have an inherent suggestion of when you might do them. For example… Twelfth Night is a great choice anytime in the winter holiday season, because it’s named after January 5th, the Twelfth Night of Christmas. Midsummer works brilliantly right around June 23 (coincidentally Joss Whedon’s birthday), because that’s around the time midsummer festivals are traditionally held. I think my original plan was to do June 23 but then we ended up rescheduling, but I could be misremembering.
4. Assign roles. Alana and I already had our roles all picked out. I’m the kind of jerk who insists her husband play her love interest, so we assigned Mr. Glitter the role of Lysander. Everything else was pretty much fair game. I advertised to my friends on Facebook that I was hosting the event and they eagerly indicated their choice roles. I assisted the process with an online service similar to SignUpGenius, which allowed me to simply list roles and let people claim them as they wished. My general rule is: I’m the one planning and hosting the thing, so I get to reserve roles for anybody I want. If you don’t like that some roles are pre-assigned, then go ahead and host a different reading. I’ll gladly join you or not, as you choose.
5. Acquire scripts. You might have them sitting around from a time when you had to read Shakespeare for class, or you can get them from the library, or you can download them from Project Gutenberg. My group did all three, I think.
6. Do it already. Get everybody together, sit down, and read the play.
7. Plan the next one! After we did Midsummer, I knew I wanted to do one again. Unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out quite right, but I’ll be doing my own Much Ado About Nothing reading this summer (about a month after the Whedon version is released) for my birthday.
If you plan your own reading using these steps, please take pictures and share them with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear about others doing this very thing.
Now, what are you waiting for? Get out there and be Hamlet to your heart’s content!
Images courtesy Caitlyn and Sonja.