'The Book Club Play' opens at Geva Tuesday

05:00 AM, Feb 17, 2013

The cast of 'The Book Club Play,' opening at Geva Theatre this week, is full of surprises. (Chris Holden)/

Written By Catherine Roberts Lead Local Editor/Living

If you go

What: The Book Club Play, a comedy by playwright Karen Zacarias.
When: Tuesday through March 17.
Where: Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Blvd.
Cost: Tickets start at $25.
For tickets: (585) 232-4382 or gevatheatre.org.

DIG DEEPER ON DIGITALRead blogs by Cohort Group members Catherine Roberts and Diana Louise Carter at WhatsUpRoc.com/Arts.

The gathering seems ideal as The Book Club Play opens. Yet the audience soon learns that politics, hidden relationships and characters’ quirks can bring plenty of plot twists to a seemingly friendly club.

To add another stressor, an unseen documentary filmmaker is watching every move through a black box recorder on the wall. There’s no way to turn the recorder off — once it’s on for the book club meeting, it’s on for the night. And nothing is off the record.

As you might imagine, there’s some hand-waving at the camera when someone forgets it’s there and says or does something they probably shouldn’t have.

The comedy, which opens this week, is actually beginning its second run. That means the cast has the chance to fine-tune the play with the playwright, Karen Zacarias. She has already been to Rochester, meeting with director Sean Daniels and others and even attending a long-time book club here. She’ll be back for previews, making sure the small rewrites and reworkings achieve what she wanted.

It’s like going to the Preakness and then getting read for the (Kentucky) Derby,” she said from her home in the Washington, D.C., area. “We’ll use the previews to refine and change and sculpt each moment as much as possible.”

Then rehearsals start in Cincinnati as the regional run of the show begins.

Daniels and the actors have been talking about the freedom Zacarias’ script has given them to create a comedy that has slapstick moments but also gives the characters’ relationships layers and nuances.

It’s a farce masquerading as a play,” Daniels says. “There’s a lot of people walking into and falling over things … but it also tries to have those (heartfelt) moments and have the emotional payoff as well.”

This book club is like many real ones out there: It’s a place for members to connect to others — and the world.

The play grew out of Zacarias’ own experience with a book club. Although the characters and their situations are not based on her club, she was inspired to write the comedy after a new member nearly derailed the long-running group. “All these machinations — some leaving or trying to keep alive by not inviting this one person” made the politics something to build a story around.

Take Will: He’s one of the founding members of the book club in the play. Actor John Gregario says his character is fairly complicated. He hasn’t quite figured out his social life, so he fills it with things to do, including the book club.

That keeps him from thinking about interpersonal relationships,” says Gregario, founding member of Dad’s Garage Theatre Company in Atlanta and Nuclear Family in New York City. “He needs this socially, and he needs this human comfort.”

So you can imagine what his reaction will be if someone challenges his comfort level.

The idea of filmmakers watching the book club has Geva trying some new concepts with The Book Club Play. It created the Cohorts Group, made up of about a dozen people, including this reporter, season ticket holders, donors and representatives from other nonprofits in town. This group has been given complete access to the production process, from a copy of the script and an invitation to the first read to watching rehearsals and seeing the backstage work involved.

The program comes out of a commitment to change the theater, undertaken after becoming a participant in the EmcArts’ Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts, underwritten by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Under the program, Geva receives funding for 12 months of intensive training as well as money to experiment with new ways to engage audiences. The ultimate goal is to diversify and increase both the audience and donor base.

Geva explains it as an artist- and patron-centered organization. With the grant money, Daniels, a well-respected regional theater director, was hired as director of artistic engagement and artist-at-large.

The Cohorts Group could be a first in regional theater — Daniels says he and others have not found anything similar.

The production also introduces another first for Geva: Seating some of the audience on the stage during shows.

To experiment with both the seating and the Cohorts Group makes sense with this production, Daniels says, because the characters’ every moves are being recorded and watched.

Zacarias finds the experiments exciting. “It’s about building community, the theater making connections and bridges. This has never been done,” she says. “In this era of people being on Facebook, you can get stories a lot of places. It’s the same argument I use for theater — it’s really nice to be alive in a room with people who care about the same things you do, the reason to be part of a community.”

The on-stage audience seating also has the potential to change the production night to night. Both Zacarias and Daniels note that positive energy in the on-stage audience, as well as the cast, has the potential to excite an audience. Likewise, if the on-stage audience doesn’t like a joke (or the play), people could drain energy from the audience in traditional seats.

It will be contagious, whatever feeling they have,” Daniels says.