KATIE WATTS / Petaluma Towns Correspondent
“Who doesn’t like to listen to a good story?” asks Jennifer March, 52, founder of Petaluma Readers Theatre.
This weekend March will be joined by Leslie Scatchard, 55, John Ton, 55, and Maureen Studer, 52, to present the group’s annual holiday reading, “Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory.”
“Imagine a morning in late November,” it begins. “A coming of winter morning more than 20 years ago. … A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. … She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. ‘Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’”
With those opening words, the listener is welcomed aboard a magic carpet ride to another era — 1930s rural south. Although staging is simple, just scripts on music stands, the words open the doors to the complex theater of the mind.
“A Readers Theatre production,” writes William J. Adams of the Institute for Readers Theatre, “does not surrender performance power because it is less ‘realistic’ than conventional theatre. Since the ‘real’ events take place in the audience’s minds, each beholder can create idealized characters, scenery and textual perceptions … more believable than … director or scene designer can materialize.”
March discovered readers theater in high school and attended a six-week workshop at the Institute. Years later, a chance meeting with Linda Postenreider of Pelican Art Gallery gave the two women a chance to merge dreams, March’s readers theater with Postenreider’s wish to use her large downtown gallery as a home for many art forms.
The group gave its first performance there in December 2008, and stayed until the gallery closed last year. Now they’re working primarily out of Murray Rockowitz’s photography studio.
It’s their dream to have a permanent space, “never have to set up chairs again,” Studer says with a smile. But Ton points to the fun they’ve had in alternate spaces. Among them are Petaluma American Little League’s baseball diamond, where the theater group did a baseball-themed evening including Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?,” Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat” and selections from William Kinsella’s “Shoeless Joe” on which the movie “Field of Dreams” was based.
Petaluma Readers Theatre did five shows this year and hopes to continue, even surpass that. Stories are not only from well-known authors but locals, often memoir writers. Sometimes, Scatchard says, authors attend performances, delighting the performers.
“’Oh my gosh,’ we say, ‘she’s here, the person who went through this.’”
And from the author’s point of view, it offers a different way of interpreting the story.
The biggest misconception, Studer says, “is that readers theater is just reading. That’s a disservice to the style. It’s about animating the story so it engages the listeners’ imagination. You’re not a passive mental participant … the audience becomes engaged, they’re not just watching and listening.”
She says while dialogue is fine, “it’s not as engaging as narration and exposition. The more engaged you are as a listener, the more you retain.”
She likens their work to a kaleidoscope, while March adds that the cast “paints with the words. You take the words and interpret them, and they come to life.”
As an example, in one show a 60-year-old man played a 4-year-old girl, “and it was believable.”
Readers theater offers complete freedom, Studer says, “to break down genders, nationalities, ages, religions.” Talking afterward with audience members, she has learned that “each person identifies in a different way; they meet the story with their own life.”
Petaluma Readers Theater is eager for larger audiences. “People need to try us,” Studer says. “We have a following, people who come every time, but we have yet to really tap into our audience.”
Ton believes that as more people experience the pleasure, they’ll bring friends.
Often people come reluctantly, “dragged,” March says, “but sometimes the one who was dragged liked it more than the person who brought him.”
The group recently received nonprofit status, and March is going to try her hand at grant writing. “Hopefully I’ll get a $100,000 grant and we can all stop and do Readers Theatre full-time.”
It’s also a dream to take the show into schools – Studard and Scatchard are teachers – and to hold workshops to spread the gospel of this type of theater.
To experience the rest of Capote’s warm and tender holiday tale, join Petaluma Readers Theatre Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. at Murray Rockowitz Photography Studio, 128 Petaluma Blvd. North. Tickets are $12, $5 kids, at petalumareaderstheatre.com. For more information, visit them on Facebook.