Skip to main content

Reading group puts people in touch with Shakespeare

December 14, 2006

“Please, please give me a small part,” I begged.

I, who just might be the only person ever to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in English and literature without a Shakespeare class, had agreed to participate in Bradley D. Ryner's Renaissance play-reading group for at least one night.

We were to meet at Ryner's Tempe apartment and read Shakespeare's “King Richard II.”

Ryner, a visiting assistant professor of English, would assign us parts. We'd simply get together, read half the play aloud, break for refreshments, finish the play, and go home.

Ryner loaned me a copy of “The Norton Shakespeare,” and I got busy reading an introduction to the play, and then the play itself.

“Performance” night came. I was to read “Servingman,” “ Salisbury,” “Surry,” “Gardener's man 1” and “first man with Exton.” Sure enough, they were all tiny parts, with lines such as, “My lord, your son was gone before I came.”

As the evening wore on, I became mesmerized by the great bard's words – and by the magic of hearing the lines spoken. As the story unfolded, I found myself being transported back to 1399 and the struggle between Mowbray and Bolingbroke, and Bolingbroke's return to England from exile and ascension of the throne.

Ryner, who just finished his doctoral degree at the University of Delaware , decided to start a play-reading group at ASU because he had enjoyed one in Delware.

“My dissertation director at Delaware, Lois Potter, had them all the time,” he says. “That group read a lot of Shakespeare, and lesser-known playwrights such as Richard Broome, Thomas Dekker and Nathan Field.”

Reading a play aloud, as opposed to reading it alone and in silence, “allows you to see the text in a more lively way,” Ryner says. “It keeps your nose out of the footnotes and stops it from becoming a scholarly project. You feel the excitement as a performer.”

Ryner says he prefers reading the less-well-known Shakespeare plays.

“People have less set notions about how the characters should act,” he says. “The plays that are well known can become a burden upon you.”

When he was in college, Ryner “did a little college theater. It was fun. It gave me a way to think about Shakespeare that I've kept ever since.”

After he decides which play to read next, Ryner assigns the parts. He suggests that the “actors” adhere to Shakespearean tradition and read only their delegated parts before the reading.

“Readers normally find it most enjoyable if they don't read the entire play ahead of time but just look over their own parts,” Ryner says.

The reading of “Richard II,” Ryner's second play for the year, attracted a diverse group of participants.

Lowell Duckert, a graduate student in English literature with a Renaissance concentration, was a convincing Henry II.

He attended Ryner's first reading, which was “Pericles,” drawn by “the novelty of it and the chance to read Shakespeare outside of a purely academic environment.

“Going to ‘hear' a play rather than simply reading it allows for a more natural flow to the dialogue,” Duckert says. “As a result, I feel that one can better sympathize and empathize with these characters, because you can actually identify the voice on the page with a human, emotional, voice.”

Heather Peterson, an undergraduate student at ASU's West campus and a Study Abroad student at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth, had attended play readings as a homeschooled student in llinois.

“It was a way for the teens in the area to get to know each other without the ‘dating scene,' ” she says.

Ayanna Thompson, an assistant professor of English who read “Antiochus's Daughter,” “Fisherman 3” and “Knight 1,” says she has attended Shakespeare readings before, but Ryner's are different because they incorporate faculty, graduate students and undergraduates.

“It is exciting to have a mix of people with various backgrounds present,” she says. “I think it brings the texts to life in new ways to have people reading who are not specialists. That is what is most exciting for someone like me who is a specialist.”

Janet O'Meara, an undergraduate English major, initially was drawn by the lure of extra credit for one of her classes, but she decided to attend to see “how something like this is put together – sort of the logistics of the whole thing and how people responded to it.”

“I have never attended a play reading of any kind before,” says O'Meara, who read the parts of “Sir Exton,” “Harry Percy,” “Scrope” and “Bushy.” “In fact, I had only been to a few very informal poetry readings at the West campus, so this was an entirely new experience for me.”

Natalie Hyde, a junior studying history and English literature, says she had never been to a Shakespeare reading, and she wanted to see how a group of Shakespeare enthusiasts of a wide variety of age and education levels interact with a play.

“It was very interesting to see Shakespeare professors read aloud the plays they know so well, and to incorporate undergraduates and graduate students into the experience,” she says. “It also felt very authentic, despite our lack of props, to be reading these plays without the flash of the sets or costumes. I understood the play at a deeper level, and through it furthered my interest in Shakespeare.”

Besides the lure of reading Shakespeare, the evening offered participants a chance to escape from the role of students and teachers for a few hours.

“It was a fun environment in which to better know fellow students and professors,” Duckert says.

For more information, contact Ryner via e-mail at (