First, the Golden Circle
Cold Reads was inspired by the late great Nathan Frenkel who, in late 2003, encouraged me to moderate (while he facilitated) a drama group for seniors at the Jewish Community Center in Charlotte. Originally (I’d hoped and assumed) for aging actors like myself (then sixty), the group wound up being mostly raw recruits, old folks who’d always wanted to but hadn’t since their high school play.
We called ourselves The Golden Circle (having rejected GeriActors) to honor Dorothy Masterson, whose Golden Circle Drama Guild at the Mint Museum of Art brought plays of stature to Charlotte (until Ramses ruled its cozy little theatre-in-the-round off limits to drama), and for the fifty years you had to live before you could join the group.
Our first gathering was February 1, 2004, and for the next four years we got together every Sunday afternoon to explore the world of theatre. We studied its history, discussed its cultural necessity, learned how plays are put together, rehearsed scenes, read the Greeks and Shakespeare (among others), played a lot of Spolin games, performed Spoon River monologues (won awards at Senior Games), attended local productions (Nathan got us discounts), volunteered as ushers, worked backstage—even acted.
From the very start consensus mandated NO RULES. No dues, no required attendance, no committees, no pressure to participate—no commitments of any kind. Sometimes fifteen people showed up; sometimes I sat all alone (the average—and optimum—was eight). Over time new people joined (more than fifty through the years) as others moved (or passed) away (or just moved on). Some came only once or twice; others off and on (or every week) for months and years.
We lost our (free) space at the “J” in the spring of ’08 (ask me why) and approached Theater Charlotte, hoping they would sponsor us—now the Senior Theatre League of Charlotte (SLTC). After all, most of their patrons are our age, have time on their hands, too often bored and lonely, slipping (improv wards off Alzheimer’s!) With their support, we could imagine a diverse community of aging theatre buffs (stage veterans and their faithful fannies) meeting monthly for drinks and a program, forming spin-off groups, even producing plays. (I’d love to play Arthur Miller’s 30-minute “I Can’t Remember Anything” in old folks’ homes around the world.)
I laid this out to Ron Law, who seemed to listen, said he’d think about it, let us meet for a while in the lobby (when it wasn’t booked), the sofas outside the dressing rooms—on Thursday mornings, when a lot of our group couldn’t come (and we’ve met then ever since because it worked for those who could).
It was at that time that we, unable to do otherwise, decided to devote ourselves exclusively to reading plays, beginning with the Bedford Anthology (fifty plays from Aeschylus to Tony Kushner), sampling others from each period; now and then an original piece.
Then summer came, (paying) classes commandeered all space, and Ron asked us to leave. We approached other theatres; none were inclined to take us on. Why not? With everybody getting older (baby boomers, don’t you know), you’d think a theatre would leap at the chance to sponsor a geezer group. Not only would it enhance public esteem by providing a service to a growing community; it could capture a growing market! I know the premium on space, but Shirley, someone, somewhere…
Of course, the ideal place for a cold read is a living room, and if my house were fit for company, I’d read here all the time. It’s not. Once in a rare while we meet in someone else’s home, but we needed a regular room.
Happily, Bob Nulf (bless him) and Mark Woods (where are you now?) opened Story Slam and gave us (now re-monickered Cold Reads) free space for the next year and a half, where we finished the Bedford and launched into a survey of early realism (Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, Shaw—twenty by Eugene O’Neill).
My Mission from God
Early in 2009, Nathan left this world, and I had the epiphany that sparked my absolute conviction that the humanity would be well served if people read more plays, so I decided to preach that gospel truth, to gather kindred souls together in a world-wide grassroots movement.
Sadly, in December, 2010, Story Slam went bust, and we drifted up the street to Nova’s Bakery for a few weeks, where we adopted actor/liebenskuenstler Greg Paroff, our whippersnapper mascot, and opened the group to all ages.
That spring the Charlotte Art League offered space, and we read there until the Mother’s Day Massacre of 2013 (ask me). Then someone in the group suggested Julia’s Coffee and Books, and we met there for five years until David Turner joined and offered a room at his Hawthorne Lane United Methodist Church, where we’re settled as I write.
Crackerjack or Crackpot?
For a decade I’d presumed if I read somewhere every week with anyone who felt like joining, some of them might so the same with others somewhere else, and before long everybody would be doing it, like book clubs or poker. The fact that even as I write I know of only one who reads outside my group amazes and depresses me. (David Watkins, my dear friend and faithful reader for years, moved to Georgia and started a successful group on his own.)
I know the world would be a better place if people got together now and then with friends (or strangers) to read and talk about a play. That’s why I started this blog—to analyze the reasons only one in twelve Americans sees a play a year, let alone reads one (they’re meant to be seen)—and to argue in its favor, show how simple it is to do and all the ways there are to do it, spread the word, connect.
The Facebook Pool
One main issue was (has always been) providing scripts for all the readers. When it dawned on me (in May, 2014) that the scripts I scanned (or found on line) and printed out can easily be accessed by anyone with a smart phone (tablet, laptop)—and that everybody seemed to have one—I launched the Cold Reads/Charlotte Facebook group to test the market, and created this web site to serve as a digital library. Simply stated, any member of the group can invite their friends to meet somewhere, sometime, to download plays and read.
That group now boasts nearly 300 registered members—nearly a third of whom have joined me at least once over the years (see Charlotte Readers: Past & Present), very few more than once or twice. Typically we’re six or eight at any given gathering—two or three regulars, the others off and on.
I had expected more. I figured if too many came, we’d split the group into multiple reads, or schedule other times and places. I’d thought at least a few who read with me would read with others and invite me. This has never happened. Au contraire, attendance Thursday mornings dwindled down to four or five; then David left, then Duke, and we were three: Sandra, Gabrielle, and me, now and then a drop-in.
I was on the verge of giving up until I leaned about the Pulitzer Prize Centennial Celebration—too late to be in on the planning, but worth a shot.
Cold Reads International
By issuing the Pulitzer Challenge, I opened this site to readers everywhere, inviting everyone who will to give cold reads a try. How that worked out is related on the History page. What follows pertains to the Charlotte pool.
Our Pulitzer Year
Briefly, barely a score attended our Pulitzer Kickoff read (see Cold Reads/Charlotte Gets the Ball Rolling), and although everyone who came enjoyed the evening, none came back for more. The Challenge itself was ignored by the world—I was the only contestant.
With 85 scripts to read (some years no play won), once a week at Julia’s was not enough. John Xenakis offered the clubhouse at Strawberry Hills on Tuesday evenings for a while, and later Eileen Griggs did the same, at Quail Hollow, Sunday afternoons. A few months at the IHop on Mondays for supper; sometimes Starbucks, Caribou; once in a while a living room. We retreated to the mountains for six days, a play a day, and a long weekend to read five, and one Saturday near the end I read five with only Sandra and any one or two rotating random souls who dribbled in for a scene or two.
On May 16—exactly a hundred years from the night Why Marry? won the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama—we celebrated with a grand finale singalong of the latest, Hamilton, open to the public. It should have drawn a crowd. It didn’t. Maybe twenty, some new faces, all of whom were glad they came, sang out with gusto.
On the up side, counting the kickoff and the singalong, as many as seventy readers joined me for at least one play, and nearly half read several. Some read read every Thursday (or Sunday, or Tuesday) for a while, others were off and on. Never were we more than eight or ten, too often fewer, no matter how I bullied and begged.
On the whole, it was a bust. Not another soul signed up to play my game—not even those who helped me reach my goal—not even Sandra, who only missed a few. Nor to my knowledge did another soul read other plays with other people, other times and places. And by the end, even my regulars were played out.
I almost decided to call it quits. I’d been reading almost every week (at least) for a decade with a rotating handful who only read with me. No other groups sprang up; no one invited me. I fell back to Thursday mornings, two a month, one play, and abandoned CRI for nearly a year.
I’m back in the saddle. The blog’s about to go public. More to come. See posts in Category Charlotte.
On May 11, 2018, I was diagnosed with gastro-esophageal (G-E junction) cancer, and cold reads fell into my background while for more than a year I struggled to survive—which I did (or have so far; I’m still recovering). The experience was ridiculous and sublime, with critical likely fatal crises and major medical miracles, that prompted my resolve to write a book, but not until I convinced the world to cold read plays. When COVID-19 came along, I moved to ZOOM, invited friends from other places, and began to consider the international aspect of Cold Reads. In June I launched Cold Reads on Line, an open, public Facebook group conjoined with CR/I for readers everywhere.
So far we’re 67 members, roughly half from CR/Charlotte (holed up at home), others from all over, my old friends or friends of friends. For now, this is where I post my invitations. After the pandemic, I’ll host reads around a table; until then—except for Thursday mornings—they’re on their own. Hang in there, folks!
We’ll see where this goes.