“So many times – and we’ve heard it time and time again – people will say, ‘Is it just a reading?’ And our answer to that is, ‘Well, yes, and so much more.’” Christine Crawfis is co-founder of the Mohonk Mountain Stage Company, which has performed more than 400 shows in the Hudson Valley since 1995 using the Readers’ Theatre format.
Unlike a staged reading, the Readers’ Theatre format is a formal presentation style where the focus of the performance is on the script. “It’s not a cold reading,” says Crawfis. “The actors are definitely very rehearsed. But they sit on stools with their scripts in front of them on music stands, and the focus is solely on the text of the play and the interactions of the characters in the scenes. There’s no movement, no costumes, no sets – none of that.”
But rather than define Readers’ Theatre by what it’s not, Crawfis prefers to define it by what it is: an opportunity really to focus on the characters and the relationships among them. “One of the most common reactions that we get from people is that they feel like, even if they’ve seen the play onstage somewhere else before, as if they’re hearing it for the first time, or that they heard it in a different way.
“And while I’m not saying it’s better, I am saying that it is different. We all grew up being read to, and we loved that, right? We were able to create a world in our heads. This has its basis in that same sort of connection with the audience. And the images you’re going to create in your mind are going to be so much more complete than anything that you would find on a stage,” says Crawfis. “And it’s to your taste.”
The Mohonk Mountain Stage Company (MMSC) performs primarily at the nonprofit Unison Arts and Learning Center in New Paltz, where Crawfis is also executive director. The next production by MMSC at Unison will be Sons of the Prophet, written by Stephen Karam, on Friday and Saturday, October 18 and 19 at 8 p.m. each evening.
Sons of the Prophet was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and while that implies a certain seriousness of purpose, Crawfis says that the play is actually very funny, too. “You wouldn’t think that when you hear that it’s about human suffering, but it goes after the notion of: How do we get through suffering? And sometimes the best way to get through it is to recognize what’s human about it, and find some humor in it so that we can get to the other side of it.”
The story follows the lives of two young brothers of Lebanese descent living in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, who are left alone after the death of their father in a car accident. The brothers are forced to take care of themselves and also care for an aging uncle while coping with chronic pain and frustrating work. “There’s a lot in it about how we cast people in particular molds based on our perceptions of what they should be – because they’re Lebanese, or they’re young or they’re old, or whatever that may be – and try to get beyond that two-dimensional picture of someone to the core of who they really are, and how we really relate to them.”
Crawfis is director of the production, which features Michael Frohnhoefer, Rob Gagnon, Bruce Pileggi, Kit Colbourn, Elizabeth Barrows, Anna Marie Paolercio, Shane Barnett and Jeffrey Battersby.
The Mohonk Mountain Stage Company started with the inspiration of producing director Robert Miller, who, while not involved with this particular production, is still very involved in the company. Initially MMSC was developed to bring interactive theater to youngsters, but while the Theatre for Young Audiences toured extensively and was successful for a number of years, it is no longer doing productions, largely for economic reasons, says Crawfis.
MMSC has also produced a number of publications over the years, most recently publishing an anthology of ten-minute plays written by members of the Hudson Valley-based Actors & Writers company. Crawfis says that, while the troupe wouldn’t turn down an interesting publishing project that came its way, it’s not the primary focus at this time, and its members prefer to concentrate their efforts on the Readers’ Theatre productions that they began doing about three years into the creation of the company.
“We’ve developed a really strong following of people who come to most everything that we do,” says Crawfis. The emphasis on the words in the format is a powerful draw for the writers, she says. “And actors love working in the format, because they can perform roles that they might never have been cast in for a stage production. It allows us to use actors in a variety of ways that we might not if we were putting this on the stage and asking you to take into account that this person is actually portraying this particular character. It gives us a little wider latitude.”
Sons of the Prophet, Mohonk Mountain Stage Company, Friday/Saturday, October 18/19, 8 p.m., $20/$18/$16/$14, Unison Arts Center, 68 Mountain Rest Road, New Paltz; (845) 255-1559, https://www.unisonarts.org.