A quarter-century has transpired since a group of local thespians — some professional, some hobbyists — decided they liked what they were doing so much in their Scene Study Workshop, they wanted to continue. Now, one show shy of 200, five of the original group remain, along with six others. The Free Readers Ensemble puts on eight shows per season in Oak Park.
"We were all part of Village Players," explained Paulette Cary, Free Readers Ensemble founding member. "We worked well together in the workshop and loved it so much and wished we could do it more. I had read about a readers theater in New York, so we tried it."
That first season took place during the summer at Village Players, now Madison Street Theatre, and new shows were put on weekly. Each is performed once with only one rehearsal day. The group felt the performances should be free so audiences could see something they wouldn't normally, said Cary, who, at 77, has a second career as a model and on-screen and voice-over talent. Previously she was a TV and radio advertising producer.
While the format hasn't changed, the Free Reader Ensemble season shifted after that first year to September through May. Each summer, the group, which always is made up of 11 people and still includes original members Larry Baldacci, Mercita DeMuynck, Randall Hoole and Miriam Petzke, meets once in Cary's Oak Park home to decide which shows they will perform in the coming season.
"Everyone brings a few things and we choose them to make a balanced season — comedy, drama," she said. "We don't always succeed. Sometimes we get enthralled with material and one season was dark."
The 25th season consists of the group's — and audiences' — favorite productions. Shows range from adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories in October to last month's All About Eve, in which Cary played Eve ("She's such a snake!" she said) to this weekend's Swordplay and Neil Simon's Rumors in February, which Cary is directing.
Jerry Bloom, who directs the Jan. 14 Swordplay, created the work 30 years ago, adapting three plays with similar situations and characters by the late-16th/early-17th century prolific Spanish author and playwright Lope De Vega.
Although not an original member of the ensemble, Bloom, from Galewood, joined as a guest member during the 1996/97 season and became a company member in 2007. He is a Chicago stage actor, opening in The Madwoman of Chaillot at the Athenaeum Theatre with the Promethean Theatre Ensemble on Feb. 9. He will also be performing with Oak Park Festival Theatre this summer in You Can't Take it with You.
Rehearsals for the Free Readers Ensemble shows typically take four hours. These often take place at Cary's house, which is centrally located for members who reside in Chicago, Oak Park, and the western suburbs. The original 11 all lived in Oak Park.
"I like that we allow [only] one rehearsal," Bloom said. "It's possible to over-rehearse and this allows for spontaneity."
Swordplay, originally presented 10 years ago, has a humorous twist. Instead of a narrator reading stage direction, like most other productions, the actors themselves read the stage direction in character.
"It's not a deep play," Bloom said. "When we did this before, the audience was delighted and tickled."
The audience is a faithful group that has followed the Free Readers Ensemble as they moved locations — both the old and new Oak Park main libraries, Cornerstone Church, and their current home since 2012, the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association.
"We have a wonderful audience connection," Cary said. "One woman [Donna Oswald] brings homemade cookies to every show. She even sent cookies when she had an operation and couldn't be there."
Selling coffee and cookies helps pay for the plays' licensing costs. The Nineteenth Century Club donates the space. And the actors donate their time.
But according to Cary, it's about more than putting on a monthly show.
"We are a family," she said. "And a wonderful group that loves each other."
See "Swordplay," at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 14 at The Nineteenth Century Charitable Association, 178 Forest Ave., Oak Park. More: freereaders.com.
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