Decades ago, Riva Berman Gotlib auditioned for Broadway plays. She was never cast then but has portrayed numerous characters in the past year.
Lois Wood in the early 1970s co-founded and worked behind the scenes at North Country Community Theater in Lebanon, New Hampshire, but she never appeared on stage until she moved to Dirigo Pines Retirement Community in Orono.
Both women take on roles every other week in a play reading group coordinated by Mark Bilyk and Tellis Coolong of True North Theatre. While many theater groups offer programming for children, the Orono-based company is the only one working regularly with people living in a retirement community.
Between four and six Dirigo Pines residents regularly participate, reading the roles of men and women.
“They prefer comedies,” Bilyk said of the group. “I’ve also found old radio plays like ‘Abbott and Costello’ that they really like.”
For May, Bilyk and Tellis Coolong chose Noel Coward’s “Private Lives,” a comedy about marriage written in 1930. Coolong made copies of the script and highlighted the dialogue for each character, as he does for each reading.
“1930? It’s older than I am,” Wood said when handed her copy.
“Nooo!” Bilyk replied.
The group usually reads half a play one week and the rest of it the following week so that the sessions last between an hour and an hour and a half.
At a recent session, long-married couple Fred and Nancy Stine took on the roles of Sibyl and Elyot, a couple on their honeymoon in France as the play opens.
“SIBYL: It’s heavenly. Look at the lights of that yacht reflected in the water. Oh dear, I’m so happy.
“ELYOT: [smiling]: Are you?
“SIBYL: Aren’t you?
“ELYOT: Of course I am. Tremendously happy.
“SIBYL: Just to think, here we are, you and I, married…
“ELYOT: Yes, things have come to a pretty pass.
“SIBYL: Don’t laugh at me, you mustn’t be blasè about honeymoons just because this is your second.”
While none of the “actors” has been on a stage in many years, if ever, they sometimes reacted as if they had.
“You’re not Victor, I am,” Wood declared when someone else said her line accidentally.
Everyone burst into laughter before continuing on with the dialogue.
The participants all agreed that reading the plays is fun but they had different reasons for taking part.
“I like the idea of being able to express myself as someone else,” Nancy Stine said.
Berman Gotlieb said that like other activities at Dirigo Pines, the play reading group “is something to do.”
“I like to be dramatic,” she said. “I’m not planning to go on the stage professionally, but if they insisted, I would.”
The program extends beyond the readings twice a year, in connection with True North’s shows.
In mid-June, the group will read Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” ahead of True North’s production of the retelling of the Greek myth. A few days before the show opens June 21 at the Cyrus Pavillion Theater at the University of Maine, the group will visit the set for a script reading and talk with the director, technical designers and actors about the show. Finally, they will attend a performance.
In addition to working at the retirement home, True North also has an outreach program for children in partnership with the Orono Public library.
“These activities are crucial to True North Theatre’s mission,” Coolong said. “We have always strived to share theatre not just through putting on shows, but through community outreach and education. Our mission statement declares that True North Theatre is a company striving to ‘entertain, educate, and inspire through high quality productions that highlight the breadth, depth, and complexity of the human experience.’
“We feel it our responsibility to take that desire to entertain, educate and inspire beyond the stage and into activities like our ongoing outreach project at Dirigo Pines or our workshops developed in cooperation with the Orono Public Library,” he said
True North Theatre will perform “Eurydice” from June 21 to 30 at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre at the University of Maine. For information, call 207-619-4833 or visit truenorththeatre.org.