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The Free Readers Ensemble opens its 22nd season this Sunday with a presentation of Joe Orton's hilarious '60s British farce, What the Butler Saw. While the talented, adventuresome troupe enjoys a loyal, devoted following of audience members, there may still be some folks in this community who are unaware of their performances the third Sunday of each month at 2 p.m., free of charge, at the 19th Century Charitable Association, 178 N. Forest Avenue.
The group's history has roots in friendship and the shared joy of performing together. Actor Larry Baldacci was teaching an acting class at Village Players Theater, 1010 Madison St., in the early 1990s. When all the sessions ended, someone said, "I wish we could do this all the time." So Paulette Cary came up with the idea of forming an ensemble to perform plays in a "readers theater format" in front of an audience.
The first season began in the summer of 1993. At first the performances were mounted at Village Players on Sundays at 7, then relocated to the Oak Park Public Library on Sunday afternoons.
Next, the Free Readers Ensemble moved to a church for one season. Finally the group hooked up with the 19th Century Club which turned out to be a happy connection. Audiences have continued to enjoy this dedicated group of actors and directors ever since. Free Readers Ensemble has presented a widely diverse range of material, from Steel Magnolias to Antigone, from Susan and God to The Trip to Bountiful.
If you're unfamiliar with the theatrical term, "readers theater" means stripping away such production values as sets, props, and elaborate costuming. The ensemble essentially celebrates the pure magic of the writers' words. The joy of readers theater, in other words, is its simplicity. All they need is a troupe of talented participants and scripts on music stands.
The Free Readers Ensemble logo reads: Free of Spirit. Free of Restrictions. Free of Charge.
Actors use only vocal expression to help the audience understand the play. Such minimalist productions usually have no intricate blocking or movement. If used at all, costumes are partial or merely suggestive. There is no full memorization. Scripts are used openly in performance.
Miriam Petzke, actress and director, who last season adapted one of the plays the ensemble performed, ended up playing the lead when her lead actress was unable to perform at the last minute.
"Audiences are always excited by the productions even though there is no action or stage sets," Miriam said. "We've evolved a bit, however, adding a little more sometimes here and there, such as a few props or costumes, incorporating a bit of movement for emphasis."
Founder Paulette Cary adds, "We've been doing this for so long, it's pretty amazing. It started out as a way to enjoy ourselves and one another. But we keep going because of the challenge and the joy it provides for us and our audiences. We like to keep it fresh. We're always reflecting, especially in the summer when we meet and pull together our new season."
"I've been with the Readers Theater Ensemble 20 of the 22 years," said Barb Eulenberg. "Miriam Petzke was directing The Big Knife and asked me to play one of the roles. I loved it. We all have so much fun doing this, and I'm sure that shows in our performances. We just have one rehearsal, then we perform. In July or August we meet for a barbeque at Paulette's and brainstorm for the upcoming season. Some years we're drama heavy. This year we're a balance of comedy and drama."
All shows are performed on the first floor of the 19th Century Charitable Association, where lots of dedicated fans support the company.
"The folks at the 19th Century Club have been so supportive of us," Eulenberg said. "It's a beautiful space, too. We provide people with the opportunity to see stuff they did not get a chance to see downtown. We also serve cookies and coffee." She is directing On Golden Pond, which will be performedon May 17.
Mercita DeMonk observed that "even during sieges of bad weather, our audiences are tremendously loyal and responsive." She says it's been very fulfilling and gratifying to experience the pleasure that both actors and audience share.
Cary added, "Often everyone dresses in black but this depends on the director who has chosen the piece and brings it to the group." She is directing Freud's Last Session on Sunday, April 19.
A full schedule of the Free Readers Ensemble is available online and on Facebook. The offerings are quite diverse, including Sylvia, directed by Larry Baldacci on Dec. 21 to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, directed by David Krajecki on Jan. 18.
Suzette Sutton, a frequent audience member, testifies, "This group is so very talented and the material they choose is always top-notch."
This Sunday, October 19, the Free Readers Ensemble will present What the Butler Saw, a raucous 1969 British farce that works best performed at breakneck speed.
"It's a bawdy, naughty show," cautioned Cary. "It's mature, shall we say — which is kind of an unusual start to the season. But it's such fun, chock full of dry English humor, so we know our audience will enjoy it a lot."
Answer Book 2019
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