Creating Community During Social Distancing: Villanova Theatre’s Friday Night Play Readings
By Sarah Wingo
On March 16, all of Villanova’s classes went online, and all faculty and staff who were able to were asked to begin working from home. At this time, we were told that the earliest we could expect to come back to campus would be after Easter Break.
We now know we will not be returning this semester—there will be no spring musical, no March Madness, no end of term celebrations, and no in-person commencement ceremonies.
The week before we all went home tension on campus was palpable. You’d pass dozens of students speaking in hushed and anxious tones on the phone to their parents. Faculty friends of mine spoke of seniors breaking into tears in class knowing that their final semester at Villanova would be nothing like they could have ever imagined.
Everyone was anxious and worried.
I personally handle crisis best when I have something to do, some way I can help, something I can plan. So I started thinking it was clear people needed something to look forward to, something to take their minds off the current state of the world, something that could bring us together and create a community that could support each other through this.
When I was in graduate school earning my masters in English (Shakespeare Studies specifically), one of the professors at my school organized Thursday night play readings. These readings were designed to expose us to the plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, but they were also a social gathering. People brought wine and baked goods, and the events were fun and silly. This, I thought, could work.
So I contacted two of my friends who are faculty in the theatre department, Dr. Chelsea Phillips, and Dr. Bess Rowen, and proposed my idea: virtual play readings via Zoom with the theatre graduate students. They were in.
The next day, I sent out the following email and asked everyone interested to respond to a poll asking when would be the best time for us to all meet.
Hello, Lovely Theatre People!
I have a proposal for you. Chelsea, Bess, and I have been trying to think of ways to facilitate socializing while social distancing, and we’ve got an idea, but we’ll need your help for it to work.
What I’m Proposing:
- Renaissance play readings, no Shakespeare allowed.
- We meet once a week via Skype or Zoom (TBA) and together read one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries.
- We read cold, no preparation, mistakes and mispronunciations welcome.
- Sign up to be assigned a role or just pop in to listen.
- BYO wine/beer/cocktail. [our theatre department is all graduate students]
- We take an intermission to chat and refill.
- Anyone who wants to join is welcome roles to be assigned on a first come first served basis.
We did this when I was in grad school in England studying Shakespeare in his hometown, granted it was in person. It was such a fun way to get to know other playwrights from Shakespeare’s time and in turn put him in context. Also the plays are readily available through public domain so we don’t have to worry about how to access them. Drinking was not compulsory, but it certainly made the whole thing more fun, and it is meant to be silly and fun, with just a smidge of education thrown in.
This is the tricky part, finding a day/time, I know many of you have family responsibilities and this may not be possible. Let’s take a poll and see what would work best for everyone.
We had an enthusiastic response, and the following Friday at 7 p.m., a librarian, two theatre professors, and about 12 Villanova theatre students met via Zoom to read A Knight of The Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont, a very silly and fun play wherein a couple of “audience” members storm the stage of a play and take over inserting themselves and their young man servant into the action. The reading lasted for a little over 3 hours and was an absolute delight; it was silly and joyous, and for just a little while the weight of the world lifted, and we were all just sitting in our homes hanging out with friends.
The first reading was a resounding success, and we’re planning to keep them going every Friday for as long as this whole thing lasts. So far we have read Knight of The Burning Pestle, The Maid’s Tragedy, The Shoemaker’s Holiday, The Spanish Tragedy, and John Lyly’s Gallathea .
So how does it work:
- Each week, at the end of the our reading, we announce the following week’s play.
- I find us a good copy of the text to use for the reading
- I create a Zoom meeting
- I write an email including the Zoom link, the text of the play we’ll be using, and a link to that weeks signup sheet in google docs
- I go through the play text and create a casting chart so that we can assign parts and doubling where necessary (early modern plays have a LOT of characters)
- On Friday or Thursday, Dr. Phillips, Dr. Rowen, and I have a Zoom meeting to divvy up roles
- On Friday, night we all gather
I’ve been a librarian at Villanova for what will be seven years this coming August, and one of the things I have come to value the most about Villanova is its focus on community. In these times of uncertainty and isolation, community is more important than ever, and that is exactly what these play readings are providing for our theatre students, for myself, and for our alumni and faculty who join in.
We get to start out the week knowing there is something to look forward to and to plan for, and on Friday night we get to see each other’s smiling faces and spend a few hours in each other’s company laughing and reading a play.
Sarah Wingo, MA, MSI, is the Liaison Librarian for English Lit, Theatre, and Romance Languages at Falvey Memorial Library.
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