To get theatregoers thinking more about the shows they see
A book club that discusses works of literature related to each mainstage production
Group members began making more connections to their community and their own lives, as well as discerning more parallels between the various shows
Keeping up with the reading schedule can be tricky; members of the club tend to be middle- or upper-middle-class white women, and conversations about race and ethnicity can be challenging
Forging deeper conversations; building on the enthusiasm for the discussions through a separate program, New Play University
We book tickets; a musical’s libretto is called a book; we typically receive a program book with credits and frequently a note from someone on the creative team. But how often does the theatregoing experience involve reading actual books? For the past few seasons Dallas Theater Center has been trying out a novel idea: bookending each show in the season with a volume somehow connected to it. Coordinated by DTC director of education and community enrichment Rachel Hull, with support from the company’s artistic and education departments, the group reads each assigned text and meets twice to talk about it, once before attending the play and again after seeing it. And there’s always wine and cheese on hand to help get the conversation going. The annual fee of $300, or $250 for company benefactors or members of Friends@DTC, comes with copies of the four books (though show tickets are purchased separately).
DTC introduced the program for the 2013-14 season as part of a larger goal to foster deeper connections with the material in the plays, not necessarily with theatre itself. Artistic director Kevin Moriarty stressed that the book club “is not aesthetic based, nor is it geared toward increasing ‘theatre appreciation’ or understanding of the art form. Rather, it is aimed at discussing ideas that animate the plays we’re producing—politics, history, philosophy, literature,” then comparing the group’s notions of these concepts from the first session with those of the theatre artists, who participate in the second.
One impetus to launch the book club was that season’s particularly literary bent, with such shows as Luis Alfaro’s Sophocles-inspired Oedipus El Rey, Michael Friedman and Itamar Moses’s musical The Fortress of Solitude (based on Jonathan Lethem’s novel), Steven Dietz’s Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, and the Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil musical Les Misérables. While those shows’ obvious connection to literature inspired the inaugural year, the team “quickly found that it allowed for rich conversations with audiences; we continued the program to continue that level of conversation with members,” explained DTC artistic associate Travis Ballenger, who led the sessions in the club’s second season and has remained part of the planning committee.
The conversations have been productive, but it can be tricky to bind shows and texts. Said Hull, “Last year we struggled to have meaningful conversation connect to the book, as they weren’t as perfectly aligned.” What’s more, she admitted that it can be tricky to read the assigned texts within the time frame of the production.
That factor has been especially significant this year, in which all of the books are biographies, which can be lengthy and dense: King: A Biography (for Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop), Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (for Romeo and Juliet), The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (for Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way), and Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound (for Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen’s Dreamgirls).
The team has also found that the composition of the reading group can make it difficult to engage fully with certain subjects. Ballenger pointed out that, so far, the group has primarily consisted of middle- and upper-middle-class Caucasian women. “I think there are deeper places we can go in the conversation if we had different voices in the room,” he said. “I believe in the power of the uncomfortable conversations that diversity creates, there is a real freedom on the other side.”
As a facilitator he kept his opinions private, and he observed that the club had a hard time working through the complex racial issues in the musical Stagger Lee and the book Stagolee Shot Billy, respectively inspired by and about the early-20th-century African-American blues ballad. “We acknowledged that the only person of color in the room, me, purposefully hid his thoughts and the group worked to sort through their ideas,” Ballenger said. “It was a dynamic conversation, but I wonder how much stronger it could have been had there been a diverse group of participants.”
Despite the program’s challenges, the book club fosters strong connections—among plays and club members, their community, and the theatremakers. Though theatre appreciation in an academic sense isn’t a goal of the project, the direct interaction with theatre personnel leads to more personal investment. “I’m always surprised by how much some audience members want to see how the sausage is made,” Ballenger commented. “They formed a deep connection with the shows after those conversations and would often see the production multiple times. It was those conversations that led us to create New Play University,” a separate program, in its initial year, in which participants read drafts of, and meet with the artists behind, new plays in development in Dallas.
Couple Robin Lederer and Don Campbell, who are involved in both programs, said that they joined the book club in its first year to meet people in the community, having recently moved to Dallas. Though they’d been longtime theatre subscribers in Boston and Washington, D.C., they discovered that the Dallas reading group gave them a new and deeper understanding of theatre—much more than they’d gotten out of talkbacks they had attended. “Much of the human reality of theatre was neatly hidden, as if it were the magician’s secret,” they said. “By contrast, the book club sessions were conversations with Kevin Moriarty, Travis Ballenger, and others whose life’s work is creating theatre. Even their passing comments offered a better sense of the special way their minds work, how they engage the task of theatre, and how theatre informs their worldview. That has been the book club’s great gift.”
Lederer and Campbell aren’t alone in fostering deeper connections to their community through the group. “When we discussed Colossal and Friday Night Lights, we actually found out that we had someone in our book club who was from Odessa, the town featured in the book,” said education and community programs fellow Laura Colleluori. “We have people in our book club who have come to Dallas by way of many diverse cities, so it sparked a very interesting conversation about sports culture across the entire country.”
Also during the conversations for that production, Colleluori said, participants began making connections between Colossal and the previous play that season, Medea. “We read about what Medea had sacrificed for Jason (in Jason and the Argonauts), saw what that drove her to in the DTC production of Medea—the power that Jason had over her to bring about such a tragic response—and then saw and discussed Colossal, which in many ways is about masculinity in relation to the male body.”
As facilitator, Ballenger learned to build in time for drifting off topic, which led to another rewarding moment in the Colossal sessions. “The members spent an hour speaking about their level of alienation in relation to the intense football culture here in Texas,” Ballenger recalled. “We heard stories of laughter and pain. That was a great conversation.”
With another season of the reading program on the books, there are bound to be more of these valuable discussions in the project’s next chapter.