Shakespeare Reading Group Revels in the Bard’s Language

  • A laugh rises at the completion of Prospero's epilogue to The Tempest, read by Rosalind Finn, left, of South Strafford, at the Morrill Library in Strafford, Vt., Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018. The group completed the reading of The Tempest in two sittings and chose Twelfth Night as their next play. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Marian Zens, 15, of South Strafford, reads as the spirit Iris in Act 4 of The Tempest at the Morrill Library in Strafford, Vt., Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Chuck Sherman, of Strafford, follows the dialogue of The Tempest on his tablet during a weekly Shakespeare reading group at the Morrill Library in Strafford, Vt., Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, February 08, 2018

On the surface, the eight readers appeared to be seated around a coffee table in the Morrill Memorial and Harris Library on a cold Sunday night in January, peering at texts and tablets, some of them wearing complimentary slippers from the bin by the door.

But as far as the readers were concerned, they weren’t in the library, or even in Strafford, at all; they were on a fictional island, one riddled with magic and mystery, drunken butlers and bitter power struggles.

The third monthly gathering of the Strafford Shakespeare Reading Group was deep into the second half of The Tempest, and the magician Prospero — aka Rosalind Finn, of South Strafford — was giving an impassioned speech.

“We are such stuff /As dreams are made on, and our little life /Is rounded with a sleep,” Finn read. In the play, Prospero had just dispersed a cadre of spirits, and was reminding his daughter and her fiance that mortal life is brief.

Such passage of time was in the back of Jared Jenisch’s mind when he posted in the Strafford town listserv last October, on a whim. “A fan of the Bard? Or just of communing with others over great art?” he wrote. His two teenage daughters — who, when they were small, he taught to love Shakespeare with a tabletop stage brought to life by paper dolls — are now involved in real-life Shakespeare productions.

“I thought, ‘it isn’t fair that they get to do this, but I don’t,’ ” Jenisch joked.

He briefly considered rounding up a group of friends to meet in someone’s living room, “and that would have been really nice and consistent and reliable,” he said.

But it also would have felt exclusive, and for Jenisch, the openness of the reading group is just as important as the reading material itself. It has Strafford in its name, but the group is open to anyone who wants to attend. Gathering in a community space like the public library fosters a sense of welcoming warmth that he wants more people to associate with Shakespeare, as difficult as some of his texts may be.

In any case, he expected his query on the listserv to be met with radio silence. “I really thought it would be me, myself and I sitting in the Morrill Library, reading a play to myself.”

But the very next day, someone responded to the post with an annotated quote from the Bard. “‘What, you egg! Young fry of treachery!’ MacBeth, Act 4 Scene 2,” wrote Scott Traudt. “I’m in.”

More responses followed, enough that Jenisch realized “there was actually enough interest to make this happen,” he said. Around eight to 10 people have showed up at each gathering, “which, for a tiny village, I found astonishing.”

Jenisch — an earnest and erudite fellow with a daily tree-climbing habit and a good several post-secondary degrees — adapted a system, originally devised by the late classics scholar and amateur thespian Gareth Morgan, to divvy up the reading parts based on the number of people in the room. Even though readers will likely have two or three characters to keep track of, nobody ends up in a conversation with themselves.

This method also, Jenisch hopes, makes the meetings feel more accessible. There’s no pressure to rehearse, and in fact there’s not really a way to do so, at least in terms of running the lines of a specific character.

“No homework,” Jenisch said. “It’s sort of the opposite of a book group. Instead of having a book to read for the month, we all come in and read it together.”

Reader Danette Harris, of South Strafford, said this practice helps to foster the low-key, laid-back atmosphere of the gatherings.

“Jared has created this environment that is absolutely non-judgmental. Nobody feels like they have to use a certain voice. If they stumble over a word, nobody corrects them,” she said. “It’s comfortable and respectful.”

Members have ranged in age from 15-year-old Marian Zens, of South Strafford, to Martha Manheim, of Strafford, who is in her 90s. But for Jenisch, the most delightful variety is not in the ages of group members, but in the diversity of individual reading styles people bring to the coffee table.

“Some people read like they’re reading a book, some people read like they’re acting onstage,” said Jenisch. “I like the whole gamut.”

For example, Finn, now in her 70s, has fond memories of taking part in student productions of Shakespeare plays during her boarding school days in England. She read the part of Prospero with zest and verve, gesticulating grandly. Zens, who was attending the group for the first time that night due to previous conflicts with the performance group Revels North, read with ethereal, well-spoken eloquence the part of Ariel, a spirit who is bound to serve Prospero.

“Thy thoughts I cleave to,” read Zens, softly. “What’s your pleasure?”

The contrast between the two readers’ ages and reading styles, though entirely coincidental, rang true with their respective characters, Jenisch noted. Often, the personality clicks too.

Finn, for example, has read or been involved in enough Shakespeare plays to have a firm opinion of many of them: Merchant of Venice she likes. MacBeth she likes. A Midsummer Night’s Dream she thinks is “overdone.” Hamlet’s Ophelia she finds “rather milky.”

Henry V is her favorite. “Very stirring, those times, very stirring,” she said. “And that speech, ‘once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’! We used to shout that as we went onto the hockey field.”

As for As You Like It — a sort of romantic comedy whose life force is also named Rosalind — Finn gives it a hard pass. “It’s too frivolous. Give me something juicy,” she said, though she later acknowledged that the cross-dressing in the play was intriguing in its way. “I suppose Rosalind would probably be transgender now,” she mused.

She did, to Jenisch’s relief, enjoy The Tempest.

“It was such fun. We come from all parts of the village, and we all do such different things outside of this,” she said.

That night was not the first time the reader has happened to fit the role, but just as amusing is when the character’s personality is a far cry from the reader’s own, Jenisch said.

For example, Sharon resident Jim Rooney — a well-known musician and Grammy-winning record producer — read as Antonio, the younger brother of Prospero who usurps the magician’s title as Duke of Milan, and banishes him to the island with his daughter, Miranda. Despite being cast as a diabolical sneak, Rooney’s Nashville-inflected reading style was warm and lilting, “understated, but naturally musical,” Jenisch said.

Rooney, who surprised Jenisch and some of the other group members by becoming a regular at the meetings, has found the sessions inspiring.

“It’s so stimulating to hear and speak Shakespeare’s lines. It really refreshes your use of the English language,” he wrote in a recent email, adding, “It’s a great way to spend a winter evening in the company of others.”

The surprise of seeing her neighbors at the meetings has also been a source of delight for Harris who, before retiring two years ago, taught science and directed middle-school plays at the Newton School. Every other year, she would select a Shakespeare play for the students to perform, usually a comedy, and she missed the way it felt to revel in her favorite playwright with others.

The first time the group met — when the play was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Harris’ favorite — she remembers thinking, ” ‘How cool is this?’ Most of the people there I knew in various ways, from various places. I had no idea any of them liked Shakespeare. And now here they were, reading the part of Bottom or Oberon. What’s not to love about that?” she said.

Since then, she has regarded the reading group as a special treat for herself, something she does not out of a sense of obligation, but because it brings her joy.

“It’s nourishing me. It’s feeding me. Most of us spend all our time running around doing things for other people. … This is sheer luxury,” she said. “I feel like when we share Shakespeare with other people, it really does elevate us. We are connecting with this very old literature that’s still great, still timely, still funny, and we’re connecting with all the people who have ever acted in Shakespeare and who have ever loved it. It lifts us up to a higher place in the world.”

Perhaps to, as The Tempest’s Miranda might put it, a “brave new world” — one that “that has such people in ’t.”

The next gathering of the Strafford Shakespeare Reading Group will take place Sunday night from 6:30 to 8:30 at the Morrill Memorial and Harris Library, in Strafford.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at ejholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.