Woog’s World / As Play With Your Food continues to grow a book blossoms
During her 15 years as artistic director of Play With Your Food, Carole Schweid learned a thing or two about staged readings.
Where do you find plays? How do you pick ones that work? How do you cast them?
There are 7,000 community theaters in the United States, Schweid says — and 1 million actors. That’s a lot of venues, and plenty of people, available to entertain audiences.
Staged readings are a special genre. A bunch of actors sit on chairs. Scripts in hand, they make works come alive, without sets or costumes. It’s unique entertainment, successfully produced by (among others) the Westport Country Playhouse.
More than a decade ago, Schweid took the concept a step further. She and Nancy Diamond created Play With Your Food. The idea is to present first-rate, one-act staged readings by professional actors to local audiences, along with fresh lunches catered by popular restaurants. Afterward, there’s a talk-back with the cast and director. It all takes place during lunchtime, a perfect break during a busy day.
Schweid’s understanding of her Fairfield County audiences has helped Play With Your Food sell out since its first show at Toquet Hall.
Now she’s gathered all her knowledge together in a book. “Staged Reading Magic” is a practical how-to manual that will help directors around the country — including those who have never staged a staged reading — bring memorable events to their venues.
Schweid’s roots in theater are deep. She started on Broadway, in the original cast of “A Chorus Line.” (She was a dancer who is cut after the first 10 minutes.) “It was amazing to be in the room where all that happened, working with Michael Bennett and Marvin Hamlisch,” she said. She later worked with Bob Fosse.
In 1993, she moved to Westport. Her kids were 8 and 5; she heard this was a community of artists, actors and theater people, with good food and good schools. Schweid joined the Cultural Arts Committee, which among other things brought Alvin Ailey here to work with students. She was also part of the Theater Artists Workshop.
Sixteen years ago, she and Diamond filled a daytime void by creating Play With Your Food. It caught on quickly.
Schweid found “wonderful writing, amazing actors, and high-end, high-quality productions.” Soon, there were two shows a month.
All along, Schweid took notes on what she was learning. Staged readings are nothing like full plays. For Play With Your Food, Schweid said, “all you have is writing, acting and your own ingenuity. The actors have had just a handful of read-throughs. The question is: How do you bring it to life?”
Selecting a play for a staged reading is not easy. The writing must be very good, not abstract or hard to understand. Characters must be relatable.
Casting is important. Actors who can read well — and grasp a play’s essence after only a couple of hours of preparation — are more important than those who move with ease around a stage.
Even lighting is key. Actors sit together for nearly an hour, so the audience better be able to see them well.
Schweid also learned readings don’t have to be in actual theaters, or even run by established companies. They can be used by civic groups and libraries (they’re excellent fundraisers too). “There’s a lot of great writing out there, and a huge audience. This is an inexpensive way to put on something memorable. You just have to figure out how to do it,” she said.
Her book includes plenty of local examples. It starts with background about Westport. “This is a place where something like this can really grow,” Schweid said. She offers input from Weston actors Patricia Kalember and Daniel Gerroll on their approach to staged readings.
But it’s Schweid’s voice that rings throughout “Staged Reading Magic.” “I’ve been in Broadway shows that ran for years, and out-of-town previews that closed in the middle of the first act,” she said.
“Too many theater people think they have to create elaborate productions, sets and venues for a successful season. First-rate writing and fabulous acting is what makes memorable theater. If you keep your eye on audience experience and expectations, you can create a magical lunchtime, or evening or holiday event.”
As for Play With Your Food, it continues to flourish. The mix of comedic, innovative and thought-provoking plays has expanded to the Fairfield Theater Company, Greenwich Arts Council and Rye Arts Center. The 16th season begins Jan. 9 to 11 at Toquet Hall.
Schweid is also working on “Short Cuts,” two evenings of award-winning short films. They’ll be screened Oct. 12 and Nov. 16 at Garden Cinemas in Norwalk.
Who knows? Putting on a film festival may be her next book. It could be called “Play With Your Popcorn.”
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.com