Breaking down the Fourth Wall… from the Outside
Posted by: Neil Hollands
I’ve written several times here on Book Group Buzz about the value of using plays occasionally as your group’s selection. In particular, I love dividing up parts and reading all or part of a play aloud. It’s a vastly entertaining variation on the standard meeting that will give your group a new perspective on the reading experience.
Are books about theater too specialized for book groups? I don’t think so, not if you pick the right books. I’m thoroughly enjoying Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan’s book Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Ever Told. Most non-theater people don’t know the first thing about Joe Papp, but he’s the founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival and Public Theater, not-for-profit ventures that have brought landmark works like Shakespeare, Hair, A Chorus Line, and That Championship Season to the public for free or low cost. His career spanned early television, the witch-hunt of the HUAC hearings, and the tragic fallout of the early years of the AIDS epidemic. He influenced many actors, who comment about their experiences in the book, people like Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott, James Earl Jones, Charles Durning, Kevin Kline, and Meryl Streep to name just a few. It’s inspirational to see how Papp struggled against poverty, bureaucracy, an endless stream of New York City surprises and his own ego as he battled to establish and maintain organizations that brought theater directly to people who had little contact with it.
If this sounds interesting, you might also try Theodore Mann’s Journeys in the Night: Creating a New American Theatre with Circle in the Square. Mann co-founded Circle in the Square, and over the years rubbed shoulders with Jason Robards, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Thornton Wilder, Vanessa Redgrave, and many others.
Since these books are probably not easy to obtain in large quantities, you might take on the subject of theater as a theme for an upcoming group. Recent biographies of Patti Lupone, Harold Pinter, Serge Diaghilev, Arthur Laurents, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, Kander and Ebb, Florenz Ziegfeld, and Lincoln Kirstein might, for instance, make excellent selections. Even if you don’t know or care much about the work of a particular actor, playwright, director, or producer, these folks travel in fascinating circles, and have an endless stream of entertaining stories.