ArtsEmerson’s Audience Development Manager Akiba Abaka was in a taxi over a decade ago when she had a revelation about the theatre. The driver asked her if she had read the most recent Oprah Winfrey book-club selection. She was not used to receiving book recommendations from strangers, but Oprah had somehow cracked the code, sending over fifty books straight to the best-seller list and inspiring people of all backgrounds to be mavens for the authors. “It dawned on me that a huge part of building audiences for the theatre was that people needed to know the playwright,” Abaka recalled. She couldn’t help but wonder, “What if you had book clubs that read plays instead of books?”
Over the past four years at ArtsEmerson, Abaka’s idea has become a reality. On Monday July 9th, ArtsEmerson was proud to present “Play Reading Book Club Colloquium – A 4 Year Review” at the Emerson Paramount Center. The ArtsEmerson’s Play Reading Book Club (PRBC) is a dynamic theatre literacy and community education program that provides unique and radical access to scripts, artists, and conversations within the theatre. It offers participants pre and post show opportunities to deepen and expand their experience as audience members through stimulating conversations about the literary, artistic and technical attributes of a play, while meeting new people and broadening their cultural network. Abaka sums up the program, in short, like this, “A Book Club meets Show of the Month Club meets a Table Read.”
When Abaka pitched the PRBC idea to Artistic Director David Dower, he was at first skeptical that audience members would make such a significant commitment—each installment spans six weeks—but four years later the numbers suggest otherwise: 217 participants, 15 plays, each one taking place in a different neighborhood; so far, the PRBC has appeared in Roxbury, Newton, Cambridge, South End, Mattapan, Downtown Crossing, Allston, Mission Hill, Hyde Park, Charlestown, and Scituate.
For our upcoming 18/19 season, ArtsEmerson’s Play Reading Book Club will expand to six plays this season: The Peculiar Patriot, Measure for Measure, WET: A DACAmented Journey, An Inspector Calls, American Moor and /peh-LO-tah/. Registration for these installments of the PRBC will be available by the end of the summer.
Several participants of the PRBC spoke about the power of the program to close out the event.
“What I was looking for was a group of people who really wanted to talk about plays.”
“What was totally thrilling about the Roxbury PRBC group was the diversity of experiences and perspective. I just keep coming back!”
“The way that individuals were sharing knowledge and speaking to each other…shows that the PRBC was achieving all of its goals. It encourages people to explore art as a community.”
Other reported how the PRBC had introduced them to productions that they loved but might have never selected to see on their own.
“I saw plays that I would probably otherwise looking at the flyer and putting it in the recycling it,” a club member told the audience.
“The PRBC made me expand my horizons, that’s so important. And my PRBC group have become my friends, we hang out, it’s so nice.”
In this way, the PRBC helps develop audiences that also function as activists in helping ArtsEmerson transform the culture of the City of Boston.