On the Verge: A Play Reading Series
On the Verge is a play reading series run by faculty in the departments of Theatre Arts and English.
It was initiated in 1993 by international student Grethe Boe (from Norway). Grethe approached me and
Jonathan Gil Harris (then teaching Shakespeare at Ithaca College) politely complaining that too few
plays by women were being read in theatre and dramatic literature classes. I am not sure exactly how we
progressed nearly immediately from a brief conversation into a reading series, though I think it had a
lot to do with Grethe’s energy. But in that semester we put together a reading of two plays by
Hroswitha, the medieval canoness (and first ever named woman playwright) who penned six plays to
emulate the writing style of ancient Roman playwright Terence. The plays were slightly staged and
featured some faculty along with several students. The reading was a success, we were delighted with
our effort, and resolved to do more similar readings. We called the series Women on the Verge and for
the most part in the early years we read plays that featured strong women characters (The Duchess
of Malfi, for example, directed by Earl McCarroll) and/or those that were written by women (for
instance Aphra Behn’s The Rover).
Claire Gleitman, our primary teacher of dramatic literature courses, joined us in 1995, and ever since
she has directed the lion’s share of the readings, while I have taken roles in many of them.
Claire’s forte is modern drama, and her first offering was The Cherry Orchard. As
the series continued, it began to serve two important ends in addition to featuring women writers and
characters. The readings became excellent aids to discussion in dramatic literature and Shakespeare
classes, and worked to improve the skills of student actors in readings of difficult texts with only
two or three rehearsals. The benefit of readings as discussion aids is obvious in such a series, but
increasing actors’ skill in ‘cold’ readings has helped our students immensely
when they hit the streets of New York looking to perform, for readings occur daily in Manhattan, and
can serve to showcase a budding actor’s talent.
Occasionally other theatre faculty (Greg Bostwick, Susannah Berryman, Krista Scott) and
occasional English faculty (Jim Swafford, Hugh Egan, Michael Twomey and very recently Dan Breen) have
read roles in the series. On two occasions Tony award winning actor Frank Wood, an old college friend
of Claire’s, graced the readings with his presence and exceptional abilities. He first read the
role he won the Tony for, the father in Side Man, with a cast of very lucky students, who
included Dustin Sullivan, Brian Silliman, Larry Lees and Heather Haney. And he returned a year later to
read Frayn’s Copenhagen with Claire and me, and also to read Friel’s Dancing
at Lughnasa with a cast of mostly students. And indeed, students provide most of the onstage
‘talent’ in the readings.
We continue to read plays by women and those featuring strong women’s roles since those early
years. We’ve read plays by Caryl Churchill, Paula Vogel and Sarah Ruhl, for example, and several
plays, Antigone, Saint Joan, and Hedda Gabler, offer strong leading roles for women. However we also
began to add relatively difficult plays of any kind used in classes, and in 1995 we dropped the
“Women” in the title of our series re-named our play readings On the Verge.
We have done at least one play a semester ever since. We have occasionally strayed from plays read in
class. Dan Prince, a student with a love for the Spanish language as well as theatre, translated a play
from the Spanish and we gave it a reading. Christina Pickard fell in love with a script she had read
while in an internship at the Vineyard Theatre in New York, and kept the Xerox copy. We read that as
well. It turned out to be Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics, which the Vineyard rejected,
but which won the Pulitzer Prize shortly after we read it! And we read a play by wheel-chair bound
student Paul McCabe wrote Get Off, a piece which dealt with disabilities. When a theatre
scholar from Tbilisi (Republic of Georgia), Tamar Bokuchava was here for three semesters, she brought
along some Georgian plays and we read excerpts from them. And students returning from London
occasionally directed plays they’d fallen in love with over there, before they were given
productions in the U.S. A recent example is Jay Cohen’s direction of Martin McDonagh’s
The Pillowman, well before it came to Broadway.
The series continues strong and popular. It is always difficult to find space, but we have always
managed to find space, read plays in the college chapel, the Handwerker Gallery and the Clark and
Klingenstein lounges as well as in the Clark Theatre and Studio 2. Recent On the Verge readings include
Hayavadana, by highly respected Indian writer/actor Girish Karnad, Tom Stoppard’s
Arcadia, and A Number, by Caryl Churchill. As of fall 2007 we have just finished our
third reading of The Duchess of Malfi, and are looking to do a play by senior BA drama student
Nick Gandiello, Churchill’s Top Girls and/or Stoppard’s Rock
‘n’ Roll for spring 2008. Stay tuned!